Comelec to monitor, but can't sanction 'premature campaigning'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 20) — The Commission on Elections will keep a close watch on online campaign spending starting October, but the law prevents it from holding candidates accountable for premature campaigning, an official said Tuesday.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez told CNN Philippines some of the politicians' social media posts and other activities now may be tantamount to premature campaigning, but not under Republic Act 9639.

The law states that someone who submits a certificate of candidacy, or COC, shall only be considered a candidate and be held liable for "unlawful acts or omissions" once the official campaign period starts. That's February 8 for the 2022 elections.

"Talagang lahat ng pwede nilang gawin, pwede lang natin sitahin, pwede lang natin i-regulate (We can only call out and regulate their actions) at the start of the campaign period, kasi (because) that's the only time they become official candidates," Jimenez explained.

"That's already premature campaigning, you know it is. But it's not something that is legally actionable. It's not something we can take action against," he added.

Jimenez, director of Comelec's education and information department, said the law needs to be amended. For now, Comelec can only monitor campaign activities of those who will file their COCs from October 1 to 8.

The poll body is also working on the guidelines for the computation of campaign advertisements on social media.

"The Comelec will start monitoring October 1 so that we know, even though there's not really a whole lot we can do with it, we know how much they're spending. We have an idea of what sort of spending is going on because even now, there's a lot of reporting coming out about how much these people spend," Jimenez said.

He also said the Comelec supports the bills seeking to increase the authorized campaign expenses, to allow for more virtual instead of face-to-face campaigning amid the pandemic.

In June 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill raising the campaign spending limit from ₱10 to ₱50 per voter for presidential and vice presidential candidates. Under the proposal, those running for the Senate can also spend up to ₱50 per voter while political parties can shell out up to ₱30 for local candidates and ₱50 for national bets. A similar bill is pending in the Senate, but with a lower ₱20 cap for both candidates and political parties.

Candidates are required to submit their Statements of Contributions and Expenditures by June 8, 2022. Jimenez said this will be compared with the reports from social media platforms to check if there is underreporting or overspending.

"If it was done accurately, then there's no problem. If the report misstates a fact, then you have grounds for a legal complaint," he said.