By Yvonne T. Chua, VERA Files
The Commission on Elections filed last year a case against a candidate in a small town for overspending in the 2010 elections, said to be a first in the annals of the poll body.
The case, though, was not the product of Comelec's rigorous scrutiny of the statement of campaign expenditures the politico had filed, but of its sheer luck. The candidate had declared expenses that breached spending limits set by law, said Elections Commissioner Christian Robert Lim.
Despite strict provisions of the Omnibus Election Code regulating campaign spending, elections in the country come and go without cases being filed against being violators, some of whom "overspent by 5,000 to 10,000 percent," said Vincent Lazatin, executive director of the nongovernmental Transparency and Accountability Network.
The consortium of good governance advocacy groups monitored campaign finance in the 2007 and 2010 elections.
Underreporting of campaign expenses, which is prevalent among candidates, easily got past the Comelec because, Lim said, the commission had limited itself over the decades to just receiving reports. The job fell to the poll body's Law Department.
The underreporting is best demonstrated by the P200 million the Bureau of Internal Revenue collected from the tax on campaign contributions in the 2010 elections.
This means candidates from all positions, from the presidency to the town council, received only a measly P2 billion in contributions when it is widely known that presidential races in the country are billion-peso affairs.
"In terms of enforcement, there's really no enforcement (of regulations on campaign finance)," Lim told a forum organized by the Ateneo School of Government on Thursday.
But the Comelec and civil society organizations are hoping things would change starting with next year's midterm elections.
In July, the Comelec approved Resolution 9476 that created a Campaign Finance Unit to go beyond receiving and keep reports filed by candidates, political parties, contributors and election contractors and advertising contracts of media entities.
The unit is also supposed to audit and publish these reports and, even earlier in the electoral game, monitor fund raising and spending activities.
Lim heads the Comelec's Campaign Finance Unit.
This time as well, the Comelec has deputized 14 agencies to help it chase parties and candidates who violate the rules and regulations on campaign finance and disclosure.
The agencies include the Anti-Money Laundering Council, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Office of the Ombudsman, National Bureau of Investigation, Commission on Audit, Department of Interior and Local Government and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
The Department of Trade and Industry, Department of Finance, Bureau of Customs, Department of Transportation and Commissions, Department of Justice, Department of Budget and Management and the Department of Public Works and Highways have also been deputized.
Acknowledging Comelec's lack of resources, Lim called Campaign Finance Unit and steps being taken by his agency a "startup" that would lead to a "bigger project in 2016" when presidential elections will be held.
CSO initiatives, both existing and new ones, are needed to put campaign finance reforms in place, said Lim and those who attended the ASoG forum.
Overspending and underreporting are just one of the myriad violations of the law on campaign finance. Participants in the forum identified the following problems that they said are all tied to fund raising and spending for elections:
Dynastic and patronage politics
Vote buying and selling
No limit on campaign contributions
Unrealistic spending limits
No limits on spending for counsel and printing sample ballots
Lack of regulations on online campaigning
Increased State spending as elections near, especially on public works
Failure to file statements of campaign expenditures
Need for disclosure of campaign expenses
No post-audit of declarations
Need to include violations of the Election Code in the Anti-Money Laundering Act, similar to graft and corruption
Quid pro quo resulting from campaign contributions, in the form of policy favorable to donors
Failure to prosecute violators
The weak political party system and personality-based politics were also pinpointed as problematic areas related to campaign finance.
Forum participants agreed that one of the solutions is to amend the Marcosian Omnibus Election Code.
But they acknowledged the uphill battle ahead: Politicians, they said, would be the last people to agree to measures that would hurt their chances of winning elections.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")