Polspeak or poltruth?

Money in politics questions
split candidates for senator

COMMISSION ON Elections (Comelec) head Sixto S. Brillantes Jr. almost quit in frustration after the Supreme Court recently issued a temporary restraining order against the Comelec’s resolutions that essentially imposed stricter time limits on political ads. But perhaps he may have been less disheartened if he knew there are senatorial candidates who seem to think the way he does.

At least that’s how it appeared when PCIJ caught up with 19 of the 33 senatorial candidates two weeks before the official national campaign period started. Each candidate was asked the same questions on issues regarding money and politics.

Majority of the candidates interviewed share similar stands on most money matters except one: the use of pork-barrel funds. As for campaign finance, only a few divulged specific information on how much they will spend for the campaign or donors who have already made promises to support them. Notably, though, almost all the candidate-interviewees agree to reforms initiated by the Comelec, particularly on airtime limits.

The lone naysayer, Greco Antonious Beda B. Belgica of the Democratic Party of the Philippines of the Democratic Party of the Philippines (DPP), in fact said that in general, “limiting budget spending is good especially for candidates like us who do not have government money to spend.”

Still, the airtime limits initially imposed by Comelec — 120 minutes total for all broadcast networks and 180 minutes for all radio stations per national candidate — apparently do not sit quite well with Belgica. “How (else) will voters know us?” he asked. “You’re a candidate, that’s what you need. Voters meanwhile need to know whom they will vote for.”

How trust strangers?

In Belgica’s view, voters are electing people whom they “barely know,” particularly at the national level. “How can you trust someone you barely know?” Belgica said.

Last April 16, though, justices of the Supreme Court voted 9-6 in favor of issuing a temporary restraining order against the Commission’s Resolution No. 9615 and Resolution No. 9631, thus stopping Comelec from imposing the “aggregate time limit” rule. Resolution No. 9615 also included materials published on the Internet as political advertising as long as these do not fall within the scope of personal opinion.

With the Court’s TRO, the previous rules apply, allowing senatorial candidates 120 minutes of TV ads per network and 180 minutes of radio ads per station “pending resolution of the consolidated cases by the Court.”

Save for Belgica, it may well be that the candidates interviewed by PCIJ last January 25 ended up commiserating with Brillantes.

After all, Belgica’s own partymate Bal Falcone even said of the Comelec reforms, “That’s good, that’s good… we cannot even afford one TV advertisement, which costs P200,000 per 30 seconds like Hanep Buhay (an ad for Team PNoy senatorial candidate Cynthia Villar) or something like that.”

Poor, can’t afford

Rizalito David of Ang Kapatiran Party also said, “For us poor candidates, it doesn’t really matter. I know it would not sit well (with) many of the networks but I think the political ad ban should be restored.”

“What can you say in 30 seconds?” he also asked. “That is not being true to the people who will be electing you — that they voted for you because your 30-seconder ad got stuck in their minds. That’s not right, that is unjust.”

Interestingly, even the likes of Senator Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero, who is running for a second term in the Upper House, said that the reforms were “okay” since it was unlike that “we would be able to use up all the airtime allowed because it’s so expensive.”

“In fact,” he said, “you can count on the five fingers of one hand the candidates who can afford to spend that much money. The question we have, however, is, on the Internet, it looks like available technology may deter Comelec from being able to fully monitor the use of the Internet (for campaigning) and to limit this.”

Teodoro “Teddy’ A. Casiño, for his part, said Comelec should really be tightening rules to level the playing field. But, he said enforcement of and compliance with these rules is another story.

The former party-list representative suggested that in lieu of advertising limits, Comelec should fill up the vacuum and provide information for voter education. Casiño then proposed that Comelec buy more airtime and devise a way to distribute this equitably to all candidates.

Unfulfilled pledges

Incumbent lawmakers, however, notably provided more specific information on how much they think is needed to win the senatorial race, which donors have made promises to contribute, and how they would manage contributors who ask for favors.

Senator Escudero, for example, estimated that for the upcoming polls, he would spend more or less the same as he did in 2007. Escudero received P64.8 million in donations and spent P64.9 million for his 2007 election bid. At that time, he had the second highest number of votes among senatorial bets.

Asked if anyone had already made promises to contribute to his campaign, Escudero replied, “I am not counting promises. As long as you don’t have it, don’t count on it. Many promises go unfulfilled especially when it has to do with money.”

In 2007, Escudero’s top individual donor was businessman Ramon S. Ang who donated P9 million. Kim S. Jacinto-Henares, who is now Commissioner of Bureau of Internal Revenue, also donated P1 million to his campaign.

Hubby, kids, friends

Former Las Piñas City Representative Cynthia A. Villar, meanwhile, said she expects financial support from her husband, outgoing Senator Manuel B. Villar Jr., and her children. If ever, this would be the first time for Villar to receive campaign contributions. She did not receive any donation in her three previous runs as member of the House of Representatives. Villar spent her own money for her campaigns, as did her husband, when he ran for president in 2010.

Senator Aquilino Martin ‘Koko’ L. Pimentel III said he will raise funds the same way he did in 2007 — from long-time friends who have supported him “through thick or thin.” In the 2007 elections, Pimentel spent P29.96 million on his campaign; P23.74 million of that amount came from various donors while the remaining P6.22 million came from his own pocket.

Pimentel said that he is cautious of “new faces that are all of a sudden so generous to me.” He explained, “If a new face all of a sudden offers P10 million, well, we have to step back a bit there. And of course, let’s say, rumored gambling lord, rumored drug lord — even it’s only rumor, you’re better off not accepting donations from them.”

Asked how he would turn down a donor’s request, Pimentel replied by saying that he was “lucky” and “blessed” that he did not have any “big-time donor” when he ran in 2007. The contributions he received came from his fellow Rotarians and Jaycees whom he says “knows him so they don’t even attempt (to ask for favors).”

“It’s pointless to make an illegal or unusual or immoral request just because you contributed to me,” Pimentel said. “But if it is a legitimate request for a passage of a law, there’s nothing bad about that.”

Betting on bets

In the meantime, first-time senatorial candidate Paolo Benigno ‘Bam’ A. Aquino IV said donors could be said to be “putting their bets on you,” which he said was “humbling” on his part because “people believe in you, enough to share with you their hard-earned resources, ’no?”

Aquino — first cousin of President Benigno Aquino III — also expressed confidence that people who may be involved in illegal activities will not dare and ask favors from him because he is running under the ‘tuwid na daan’ banner of the President.

He asserted, “People helping me are also the same people who are helping PNoy and who believe in the ‘straight path.’ Lawbreakers would probably not help us in our campaign.”

Other candidates who are neither part of the two major political parties (Team PNoy and United Nationalist Alliance) said they would finance their campaign using donations from family and friends and through various fund-raising activities.

Casiño of the Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan, for instance, said his party will conduct fund-raising dinners. But he said he may also receive donations from “individuals who feel that I represent the things that they also believe in.”

Marwil Llasos said that his party, Ang Kapatiran, is banking on “networking, social media, and sectors that we can tap to help us in this campaign.” He said Ang Kapatiran candidates, which include him, David, and former presidential candidate John Carlos de los Reyes, do not personally solicit funds or accept contributions to avoid any possible conflict of interest. Contributions are coursed through the party and not the candidate, according to Llasos.

Won’t be a hypocrite

But it was another of President Aquino’s relatives, Margarita ‘Tingting’ R. Cojuangco, who had some of the most interesting comments on campaign finance. Cojuangco, who is running under UNA, estimated that her bid for a Senate seat could at least cost some P70 million. She said it would be “well and good” if Comelec set limits on campaign spending “so all the voters will understand that we aren’t banks, you know, whatever budget is set would be the same for all of us.”

“You know, me being a housewife, I like to budget my money, ‘di ba?” said Cojuangco, who is the wife of the President’s uncle, multimillionaire businessman-politician Jose ‘Peping’ Cojuangco. “You know, it doesn’t make a difference whether you sell in the market or you’re a teacher, everybody has to live on that budget.And you know if I spend too much I don’t know how I will get it back, so it’s really basically very unfair to me and my family…. I want to spend less because I’m here to serve.”

She also said she was “not gonna be a hypocrite” when asked about her opinion on pork-barrel funds. Remarked Cojuangco: “There is nothing wrong with the pork barrel as long as it’s used the way it’s intended to be. In fact, expectations are so great, it’s not only constructing of the bridge or the road, it’s even the money for people, for constituents who come and say, ‘We don’t have money to go home,’ ‘We don’t have any money for the doctor,’ ‘We don’t have any money for the education of our children.’ As long as it’s used wisely, it’s audited properly, then I think it’s necessary.”

Pork-barrel funds or the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) are lump-sum amounts assigned to members of Congress annually: P200 million for each senator, and P70 million for every district and party-list representative.

Cojuangco was among the 11 candidates — including four who have not used the PDAF or have not been elected in Congress — who told PCIJ that they are not categorically against the use of pork because it is “already there,” and for as long as its use would be “transparent” and “proper.” Aside from Cojuangco, the others were Samson S. Alcantara, Aquino, David, Escudero, Gregorio ‘Gringo’ B. Honasan II, Pimentel, Grace Poe-Llamanzares, Christian M. Señeres, Villar, and Juan Miguel ‘Migz’ F. Zubiri.

Senator Pimentel noted that the pork barrel is a double-edged sword that can be “used for good” and “abused for bad.” Which is why, he said, he assigned his PDAF for medical assistance programs and scholarships.

Pimentel used up P100 million of his PDAF from June 2011 to June 2012. One in three projects funded by his pork consists of financial assistance to indigent patients (P29.8 million). He also allotted P20.4 million to purchase vehicles, P12.8 million to fund scholarships, and the rest, for various projects such as purchase of medicines and medical equipment, as well as road repair.

Pimentel said that if the pork barrel were removed, that means it would only be the executive who can decide on how that allotment would be spent. “Mabuti na rin siguro ‘yung kinalap na natin so kanya-kanyang priorities sa mga senador at mga congressmen (It’s probably better to have it considering the varied priorities of the senators and congressmen),” he said, “because definitely some of them — I hope almost all of them — will put pork barrel to good use.”

Bad pork, good pork

Aquino, meanwhile, said that he is “fine” with any removal of the pork barrel. But should it be maintained, he said, then it should be maximized and put to good use. “Everything that’s bad in government is with the manner of [how funds] are being used,” he commented. “So if one uses pork barrel for the bad, then that’s really bad.”

Eight of the 19 candidates interviewed, however, called for the abolition of the PDAF primarily because they believe it breeds graft and corruption and patronage politics. The non-pork barrel lovers were composed mainly of party-list and independent candidates, among them Ang Kapatiran’s Llasos.

To Llasos, the reasoning behind the pork-barrel system is inapplicable because a senator’s or a congressman’s main function is legislative, not executive.

“If they want to meddle with government projects then they should apply as DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) secretary, not as senator or congressman,” he said. “Senators and congressmen perform three functions: legislation, investigation, and education. The law does not say anything about being a contractor.” — With interviews by Rowena Caronan, Kia Obang, and Romina Tapire, PCIJ, April 2013