MANILA - One would think that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) should be happy that the number of candidates who went over the prescribed campaign spending limits in last year’s elections plunged drastically from the 2013 figure. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, with the poll body’s Campaign Finance Office (CFO), saying it is still 54 too many.
In the 2013 midterm polls, 936 out of 44,449 candidates went beyond the spending caps. That number dropped dramatically to 54 out of 44,603 total candidates in the 2016 national elections, or a whopping percentage decrease of 94.
(The Comelec website’s election statistics page lists a total of 44,872 candidates but Comelec documents obtained by PCIJ on the total number, by regional breakdown, enrolls only 44,603 candidates.)
In 2016, a total of 18,083 positions went up for grabs, compared with 18,054 in 2013 — for a similar average of two to three candidates contesting a position.
Last year’s overspenders even include two who went over their lawful spending limit by just P10 — Pata Mayor Anton J. Burahan of Sulu and Kapatagan Councilor Medalia T. Bansil of Lanao del Sur — but CFO Acting Head Efraim Bag-id says that the CFO identified the overspenders regardless how much they exceeded the allowable amount. The law, he adds, does not qualify the amounts in which cases may be prosecuted.
“The Campaign Finance (Office) — the Comelec — is really serious to prosecute violators of overspending,” says Bag-id. “Magiging precedent kasi ito eh. Regardless, kung malaki or maliit, nag-overspend ka (This would serve as a precedent, you see. Regardless if the amount is big or small, you still overspent).”
BIG, SMALL AMOUNTS
Under Section 13 of Republic Act No. 7166 or the 1991 Synchronized Election Law, local candidates may spend P3 for every voter currently registered in the constituency they filed their certificate of candidacy. A candidate running without a political party or support from any political party meanwhile may be allowed to spend P5 for every such voter.
The CFO even found two candidates in the 2013 polls who each overspent by less than a peso: mayoral candidate Nelieta Q. Noval of Tubod, Lanao del Norte who went over the limit by 50 centavos, and Edgar C. Padayao, who overspent by 70 centavos when he ran for councilor in Paoay, Ilocos Norte.
The biggest overspenders in the 2013 polls, though, went beyond the cap by millions of pesos: Mussah Mohammad Muksan and Halkin Appang Arasain who ran for mayor and councilor of Siasi, Sulu, respectively. Muksan declared spending P60 million, and Arasain P10.45 million. The expenditure limit for candidates in Siasi, a second-class municipality of less than 70,000 people, is only P60,114 each.
Muksan’s P60-million spending bill in 2013 indicates per capita spending of P886.19 per person, not necessarily all voters, in his town. Arasain’s overspending bill would come up to P154.35 poll spending per resident of Siasi.
While Muksan and Arasain both overspent the most by amount and percentage of the limit in 2013, Manuel A. Morente Jr., candidate for Oriental Mindoro provincial board member, overspent the most by amount in 2016. Morente spent P1.65 million even though the limit was at P596,193.
By percentage of the expenditure limit, independent candidate Adil Batawi Sultan, who ran for mayor in Piagapo, Lanao del Sur, was on top of the 2016 list of overspenders. Sultan spent P600,000 or seven times more the authorized amount of P71,905.
No national candidate or any local candidate from Metro Manila was among the list of overspenders in 2016 elections. Nine local candidates from the National Capital Region, however, were identified in the 2013 polls.
SUBPOENAS DUE OUT
Comelec is already set to file charges against the 2013 campaign overspenders, with media reports quoting Comelec Commissioner Luie Tito F. Guia as saying that the poll body is now in the process of reviewing their case files for eventual indictment.
The CFO meanwhile has submitted the list of those who overspent in the 2016 elections before the Comelec En Banc and the Law Department for action. Bag-id says that the Law Department will conduct a preliminary investigation that would involve a review of the CFO’s findings and issuance of subpoenas to respondents for them to appear on a date and submit their statements.
Tasked to audit the thousands of Statements of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE) submitted to Comelec, the CFO compared two sets of information to identify overspending candidates: their declared expenditures plus receipts and the expenditure limit prescribed in law.
The penalties for overspenders include the loss of one’s right to vote and a jail term of one to six years. Those who were elected into office would also lose their post.
Comelec already unseated Laguna Governor Emilio Ramon ‘E.R.’ Ejercito III for election overspending in the 2013 polls. Ejercito spent P23.56 million even though the legal cap applicable to his position was P4.57 million. The Supreme Court affirmed his disqualification in February 2015. He ran again for Laguna governor in 2016 but lost.
Comelec lawyer Sonia Bea Wee explains that Ejercito was able to run again last year because the Commission’s decision to disqualify him on the basis of overspending was “on the administrative aspect only and can only bind him for the 2013 elections and 2013-2016 term.”
“Perpetual disqualification to hold public office, imprisonment, and losing the right to vote are penalties imposed as a result of a criminal conviction for overspending, which only the court can impose after successful prosecution of a criminal case against him,” says Wee. Ejercito’s case was not filed in court.
Aside from Ejercito, nearly half or 454 of the 936 overspenders in 2013 won their coveted posts. But the CFO was still reviewing the 2013 SOCEs when Ejercito’s political rival Edgar ‘Egay’ San Luis filed a petition for disqualification against him for overspending; Comelec granted the petition. The rest of the 2013 overspenders were able to keep their seats because the CFO — which up till now has not been assigned plantilla items to hire full-time personnel — finished drawing up its list of 2013 overspenders only early this year.
Says Wee: “When lawyers were hired for the CFO — there were only two of them — they initially focused their efforts on 2010 overspending cases, which had to be filed by 2015, or else the offenses prescribe after five years. Due to the limitations in human resources, tasks had to be prioritized. In the months prior to the May 2016 (polls), we had to shift our focus to training our field officers to properly receive the SOCEs, and right after elections, to check SOCE submission compliance.”
As for the 2016 overspenders, 21 were elected into office, with the three highest officials from Sultan Kudarat among them: Suharto T. Mangudadatu, 1st District Representative of Sultan Kudarat; Datu Pax Pakung Mangudadatu, provincial governor; and Raden Camlian Sakaluran, vice governor.
The 2016 list also has seven incumbent mayors, four vice mayors, and seven provincial board members.
Two current mayors — Burahan of Pata, Sulu and Zigfred P. Duterte of Tabogon, Cebu – as well as a candidate for councilor, Naim B. Alimosa of Bayang, Lanao del Sur, appear in both the 2016 and 2013 lists. Interestingly, while Burahan exceeded the limit by only P10 last year, he was 10 times over the cap in 2013.
(PCIJ called and sent formal letters of request for an interview or comment to 11 of the 21 incumbents on Comelec’s 2016 overspenders list. The rest could not be reached via their published office numbers, so letters were sent to them by post. PCIJ has yet to receive any reply from the incumbent overspenders.)
ARMM hosts the most
The total amount candidates overspent in the 2013 elections came up to P128.2 million. In 2016, the amount reached a more modest P4.89 million.
It’s unclear why the number of overspenders dropped dramatically between 2013 and 2016, although the development is obviously welcome. Yet while there is a good chance that Ejercito’s much publicized case may have made candidates in 2016 more cautious about their spending, it could also be that there were candidates who simply under-reported their expenses.
The 2016 overspenders are spread across 13 regions although some 40 percent come from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). One of its five provinces, Lanao del Sur, has the highest number of overspenders: 17, or 31 percent of the total.
Lanao del Sur also had the most number of overspenders in the 2013 midterm polls: 162, or 17 percent of the total. Similarly, ARMM had the most number of overspending candidates – nearly 30 percent of the total — in those elections.
ARMM is the poorest of the country’s 18 administrative regions. The poverty incidence rate in ARMM is 48.2 percent, or almost triple the national average of 16.5 percent. ARMM’s per capita gross regional domestic product of P27,345 is also the lowest in the country and just 19 percent of the national average of P140,259 (as of 2016). ARMM has a population of 3,781,387 and an Internal Revenue Allotment of P19.8 billion, the fifth lowest allocation among all regions in 2016.
Lanao del Sur, meanwhile, is the Philippines’ most impoverished of the 81 provinces of the Philippines. It has a population of 1,045,429, the largest in ARMM, according to the 2015 census.
Lanao del Sur’s capital Marawi, whose mayor Majul Usman Gandamra is among the 2016 campaign overspenders, has been under siege by ISIS-linked extremist groups for more than two months now. More than 500 people have been killed in the conflict so far, among them at least 45 civilians and 105 soldiers and police officers.
Comelec’s official list of candidates show that in 2016, about 20 percent or 16 of the 54 overspending candidates ran as independents while 10 (or 18 percent) belonged to the Liberal Party (LP). Seven other overspenders were from the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) and six from the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). The rest of the overspenders came from nine other parties.
By comparison, the 936 overspenders in the 2013 polls were spread over 42 political parties, with the LP having the most: 377, or 40 percent of the total. Candidates who ran as independents, though, made up the second biggest group of overspenders at 94, or 10 percent of the total.
Also among 2013’s top overspending groups or parties were: the Nacionalista Party (NP), 79; UNA, 73; NPC, 72; National Unity Party (NUP), 52; Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-LABAN), 37; Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), 17; and Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (LKS-CMD), nine. (Comelec records did not indicate the party of 42 overspending candidates.)
BILLS TO RAISE CAPS
For sure, critics of the campaign spending limits have long clamored for increasing the amounts that candidates may be allowed in election campaigns. Some nine bills seeking to amend R.A. No. 7166 have been filed in the House of Representatives while one other bill is in the Senate.
Senate President Aquilino ‘Koko’ Pimentel III filed Senate Bill No. 1178, arguing that candidates find it difficult to limit their spending because prices of campaign materials such as printing, political advertisements, transportation, and other operational expenses have noticeably increased in the past two decades.
Citing Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas data, Pimentel’s bill states that there has been 259.5-percent increase in the prices of commodities from 1991 to 2015. The value of P1 in 1991 is now equivalent P3.60. The National Economic and Development Authority or NEDA, according to the bill, also projected that the P3 used in election-related spending in 1991 is actually equivalent to P9.10 in 2016.
Pimentel says that these data show that the figures used in R.A. No. 7166, which was passed in 1991, are outdated especially for local candidates who cannot take advantage of economies of scale in their purchase of campaign materials. The senator says that the best way to address the issue is to increase the amount of allowable political campaign expenditure.
Pimentel proposes the following changes:
Pimentel, however, says that the spending cap for barangay elective positions should remain at P3 for every registered voter. This is because, he says, barangay elections are nonpartisan and “should be less ‘bloody’ than the other elections.”
At the House of Representatives, the proposed increases vary by bill author. Quezon City Rep. Feliciano R. Belmonte Jr., for instance, seeks only to increase the spending limit for president and vice president from P10 to P50, and for political parties from P5 to P30. In House Bill No. 15, the lawmaker didn’t propose to amend the limit for other candidates such as senators and local candidates.
In the meantime, Pangasinan Rep. Marlyn L. Primicias-Agabas, in House Bill No. 3249, seeks to raise the spending cap for president and vice president from P10 to P30 and for political parties from P5 to P25. In addition, she proposes to increase the allowed expenditure for candidates running for senator and other positions to P20 instead of P3 per voter. Candidates without a party would be allowed to spend P25 per voter.
Both Belmonte and Primicias-Agabas’s bills also include a provision authorizing Comelec to adjust the amount based on the Consumer Price Index every five years. — With research and reporting by Karol Ilagan, PCIJ, August 2017