The Manila Times : Election campaigning in the new normal

11 October 2021

By William Depasupil | The Manila Times

Social media, long a part of the savvy politician's arsenal, has become even more important as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to run rampant.

Admittedly, social media remains second fiddle to traditional face-to-face campaigning, which usually culminates in a grand miting de avance on the eve of election day.

Covid-19, however, has changed the way the game will be played in the 2022 elections. Lockdowns could derail rallies, for example, and strict implementation of health protocols may prevent supporters from attending evens.

"Definitely, there will be changes in actual campaigning. It will never be the same again. There are apprehensions that it (face-to-face campaigning) is a super spreader event," Comelec Commissioner Antonio Kho Jr. pointed out, citing Covid-19 case spikes in India following unregulated political rallies.

Kho admitted that no law presently regulated social media campaigning but because of the pandemic, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) was prompted to issue measures to control its use in the elections.

"It is a control point for paying vloggers and websites, among others. It will be linked to the statement of expenses of candidates. We will control them on expenses," he explained.

Social media campaigning has been classified by the Comelec as a form of broadcast advertisement to ensure that prospective candidates comply with spending limits.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez also said that online or social media campaigning could be the new normal for the 2022 polls. The commission, he said, is considering limiting traditional face-to-face campaigning in the wake of uncertainties brought by the virus outbreak.

The poll body, Jimenez added, has already urged the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to discuss the matter. With some 80 million Filipinos needing to be vaccinated, implementation of the vaccination program could last up to 2024, the Comelec noted.

In the absence of herd immunity, it would be in the best interest of all concerned to limit face-to-face campaigns to control the spread of Covid-19, Jimenez said.

However, the poll watchdog Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) — the Comelec's citizens' arm during the 2019 mid-term elections — has strongly opposed a ban on face-to-face campaigning, saying that limiting this to to online platforms "goes against the standard of democratic elections" because it will curtail the people's rights to be informed about candidates and political parties.

"It is Lente's position that Comelec should allow all forms of political campaigns in accordance with the law but implemented in observance of minimum health standards, with the aim of mitigating the risk of virus transmission," the group said.

It also pointed out that the move would disadvantage candidates and political parties with few resources and limited capabilities, and that a significant number of voters had no access to the internet and social media platforms.

The group warned that online campaigning would result in rampant violations of the Fair Elections Act. "The provision can also potentially open the floodgates for unabated spending of well-resourced parties ad candidates because the monitoring and regulation of online campaigns remains weak," it pointed out.

Lente recommended that the Comelec coordinate and consult with the IATF, public health experts, political parties, civil society, and other stakeholders in crafting campaign guidelines.

The guidelines, it stressed, could include requiring the use of well-ventilated spaces, limiting venue occupancy, and penalties for erring candidates and political parties.

Lente also called on political parties and candidates to engage with the Comelec to ensure that campaigning for the 2022 elections is effective, safe, fair and inclusive for candidates, political parties, and voters.

The start of the campaign period under the Omnibus Election Code (OEC) is 90 days before the elections for national candidates and 45 days for local candidates. The OEC also limits the campaign spending of candidates.

Republic Act 9006 or the Fair Elections Act, meanwhile, regulates the size of printed campaign materials and limits television and radio advertisements.

During the 2019 polls, the Comelec, for the first time in the country's political history, monitored the social media expenses of candidates and political parties. The commission en banc promulgated Comelec Resolution (CR) 10488, setting the rules and regulations implementing RA 9006 or the Fair Elections Act.

Section 9-C of CR 10488 states that "each registered political party and candidate shall register with the Education and Information Department of the Comelec, the website name and web address of the official blog and/or social media page of such political party or candidate."

Social media, according to Comelec rules, refers to the collective of online communication channels, including websites and applications, that enable users to create and share content, collaborate, and interact with each other.