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Conceding that the Philippine Commission on Election or COMELEC had been rendered powerless by law in going after those who campaign outside of the period designated by law for campaigning, Chair Brillantes said that the poll body will instead go hard against candidates on campaign spending.

Well and good. If my recollection serves me right, this is the strongest statement ever by a high election official against excessive spending in election. Now the question is how will the COMELEC be able to do this?

As I have pointed out before, the poll body has no dedicated unit within its bureaucracy to perform campaign finance work. By default, the Law Department and the various field offices receive the mandatory (and perfunctory) Statements of Contributions and Expenditures of candidates and political parties, as well as the reports of firms and contractors producing campaign materials. The Education and Information Department receives copies of contracts and broadcast logs on political ads. But because these units perform other equally important election work during election season, all that they can actually do is to receive and compile reports, and in the case of the law department, identify those who submitted and those who did not. Virtually nothing more can done by these units.

In a newspaper report this morning, Comm. Lim was quoted as saying that Comelec needs to hire accountants for campaign finance work but the Commission on Audit would not allow money to be spent for it.  Although I can understand the context behind the statement and the call for civil society groups to do the audit of reports, this seems to show that the earlier strong momentum to capacitate the poll body to do campaign finance work might be waning.

The proposal almost two years ago for the creation of a dedicated campaign finance unit in COMELEC is precisely based on the aforesaid lack of capacity of the institution.

While those who will be assigned to this unit will be doing more or less exclusively campaign finance work, the unit itself will be on an “interim” status in the sense that what is really needed is a more permanent department within the Commission. Once the department is created, with the appurtenant personnel and budgetary allocation, the “interim” unit can metamorphose into a “department,” with trained, experienced, and fully capacitated personnel.

The idea of an “interim” campaign finance unit is to allow the Commission to do something more in its campaign finance work NOW without having to create new plantilla positions and to allocate compensations for them (and thus to complicate its budget issues) that a new “department” can bring. The recommendation was to pick from existing officials and employees from COMELEC and assign them to perform campaign finance work. I might be wrong but I do not see the need for additional compensation in this. If ever there is indeed a need, then the additional money would be very minimal. Further, I am sure there would be enough existing personnel within the Commission for this.

COMELEC had done this before. It created an Management Information Service or MIS unit in 1991, taking personnel from other COMELEC departments. When the Information Technology Department was created later in 1997, the staffers of the MIS became the new staffers of the IT Department.

New accountants, moreover, are not that needed at the start. Audits can happen after elections and the existing accountants in the Commission can do the audit work in between election seasons. But during the election period, all that are needed are trained personnel, not necessarily accountants, who can compile submissions, and do initial analysis on whether the reports are complete and faithful to the requirements provided.

The COMELEC can also scale down its own expectations on the output of the unit. The minimum is to ensure that the reports of candidates, political parties, donors, election material contractors, including media entities, are made transparent and EASILY and IMMEDIATELY available to the public. This would mean that all the necessary information are in the reports before they are accepted and that obvious discrepancies, suspicious entries, and outright evidence of an offense are immediately reported out.

Designating an Election Assistant to perform these functions at the municipal or city and at the provincial level will be necessary to make campaign finance regulation efforts be felt in the regions as well. Based on some informal consultations I had with field election officials, this will not be that much of a burden on their election work. All that they would need would be clear guidance and instructions on what they need to do.

It would also be good if the COMELEC itself take the initiative to report the information culled from the reports to the media. This would give positive public relations points for the Commission. The public would then be inclined to realize that COMELEC is actually doing something on this very vital aspect of election.

These are the envisioned activities of the “interim” campaign finance unit. Initially nothing much, but the impact is immediately strong. People are tired of candidates violating the law on election spending and are continually curious as to where candidates get the tremendous amount of money they spend for campaigning. Seeing COMELEC actually do, and not just say, something about campaign finance will increase the credibility of the institution.

I remain hopeful. Strengthened campaign finance regulation still happen. There just has to be a stronger will to work for it.