By Tony La Viña | Manila Standard
"This study suggests it is possible to hold successful elections even under pandemic conditions."
In this column, I borrow from an excellent study conducted and released by the PARTICIPATE coalition, led by the Ateneo School of Government. In that paper, the authors point out what is obvious, that the 2022 Philippine national elections, to be held on May 9 next year, will need to be conducted under pandemic conditions. One must remember that the electoral process does not begin and end in one day. Already, the election season has begun with registration of voters, and will ramp up as candidacies are filed in October, campaigns are launched. There will be election-day operations, and post-election activities. All of these phases of the electoral process must be made safe if the 2022 elections are to be successful.
The PARTICIPATE study proposes that the country must prepare at the earliest possible time to achieve this success. According to the authors: “Unless effective health and safety measures are adopted, elections during a pandemic can become super-spreader events, i.e. events wherein mass numbers of citizens could inadvertently pass on the coronavirus to each other. Just one undetected infection can spur an outbreak among attendees.” They pointed to elections in Malaysia and India which resulted in COVID infection surges. It is also observed that this risk can impede political participation, with some countries like Kiribati, North Macedonia, and Sri Lanka postponing elections. Other countries (i.e. Galicia, Basque Country in Spain) unfortunately suspended the voting rights of infected citizens.
Overall, though, according to this study, the international experience “suggests it is possible to hold successful elections even under pandemic conditions, and within reasonable cost to protect citizens and create an environment of safe and secure elections.”
Closer to home, the Palawan plebiscite held March 2021 shows that elections (a plebiscite is an election, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly said) can be conducted safely even under the pandemic. Rightly, the COMELEC treated the 2021 Palawan plebiscite as a simulation of the 2022 Elections. But this success in Palawan was possible because of a larger budget allocation that ensured the credibility and safety of elections.
One interesting observation the PARTICIPATE study makes is that election misinformation could become a key issue, particularly under the lockdown conditions of the pandemic. According to the authors: “Due to quarantine restrictions, electoral activities involving mass gatherings (i.e., candidate registration, campaigns, and proclamation of winners) moved to digital platforms.” It quotes the International Foundation for Electoral Systems who has found that “the risks of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech in online campaign activities may disenfranchise voters and undermine faith in democratic institutions.”
PARTICIPATE concludes that COVID-proofing the 2022 national elections requires a “whole of society” approach: “Stakeholders like civil society organizations, other government agencies, and even the academe should be treated as partners in the development and implementation of appropriate health guidelines for the elections. The crafting of goals and the steps taken to achieve them should arise from continuous and deliberative consultations.”
In this regard, I echo the recommendations in the Ligtas Halalan statement issued by PARTICIPATE:
“Ensuring that the COMELEC receives enough funds to overcome the fear and uncertainty of voting. An additional allocation of about PhP 10 billion is needed to implement measures that will protect citizens and create an environment of safe, secure, and credible elections. This estimate is based on international best practices, and the estimated additional cost the government needed to ensure the safe conduct of the Palawan Plebiscite in March.
“Protecting voters from COVID-19 and politicking. Stricter measures should be implemented from the start of the election period to voting day. The Philippines can learn from the best practices of countries that successfully held their elections amidst the pandemic such as Indonesia, Singapore, and the United States.
“There is a need to curb the expected rise in vote-buying due to the country’s economic conditions. It will also be critical not to politicize impending access to vaccines by making them fairly available to all based on identified needs and criteria. Responsive, prompt, and efficient distribution of financial aid will also help reduce politicizing social development, and consequently, the elections.
“Implementing an extensive information and awareness campaign on safety. To instill confidence among voters, there is a need to establish an atmosphere of safety and trust in health protocols. It is critical to provide accessible and reliable information on the safety measures done to prepare for election day and to form effective campaigns against disinformation and misinformation that may cause fear and concern among the voters.
“Promoting safe and fair new normal campaigning. There is a need to ensure that political campaigns are safe and fair, that spending is transparent, and that candidates are accountable for their actions.
“Adopting a multi-stakeholder approach to ensure transparency. Election stakeholders such as civil society organizations, other government agencies, the academe, the youth, and other sectors could be effective partners in developing and implementing appropriate policy measures and regulations for the elections. Transparency and cooperation can build the legitimacy of this democratic exercise.”