campaign finance

‘All candidates cheat!’ Senators tackle ugly side of campaign spending in PH

Mara Cepeda
‘All candidates cheat!’ Senators tackle ugly side of campaign spending in PH
Deliberating a bill that will increase the amount campaigns are allowed to shell out, senators acknowledge that current limits force candidates to misdeclare their expenses

Short of admitting they themselves had committed “cheating” in some form or another, senators acknowledged that skirting election regulations and entering “under-the-table” arrangements happen during the polls.

This acknowledgment of electoral realities surfaced on Wednesday night, May 19, as they debated the bill raising the allowable campaign expenses per candidate. 

Senators were deliberating the final amounts to be indicated in Senate Bill 810, which seeks to allow candidates and political parties to spend more per voter during the campaign period. 

Senator Imee Marcos, as chair of the committee on electoral reforms and people’s participation, was sponsoring the bill in the plenary. 

The current version of SB 810 proposes different amounts for presidential, vice presidential, senatorial, and local candidates. From the current P3 to P10 allowable expenses per voter, the bill would increase the cap to P10 up to P50, depending on the post. 

The measure seeks to make amendments to Section 13 of Republic Act (RA) No. 7166 or the law providing for synchronized national and local elections in the Philippines.

But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon suggested to just set a standard amount for all positions, then let the size of the constituencies of each post determine the total amount that a candidate can spend. 

Why? Because all candidates cheat anyway, said Drilon.

“You know, today, we are kidding ourselves. We set all kinds of limits, but we know that all of us cheat! I mean, not that I [do]; all candidates cheat!” said Drilon. 

This was backed by another ranking member of the Senate, Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, who said candidates tend to misdeclare the actual amounts in their Statements of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCEs).

“As Senator Drilon mentioned earlier, most politicians cheat in the filing of their SOCE. In other words, they are not filing the correct amount…. That’s the truth of the matter: Many candidates doctor their submissions, unfortunately,” said Zubiri.

The Majority Leader also said “many” candidates engage in “under-the-table” arrangements with television and radio stations in airing their paid campaign ads. 

“I’ll be very honest: With many candidates, they talk to other radio stations – not of course GMA and ABS-CBN, they do not agree to that – but other radio stations no longer issue receipts, Mr. President! Sometimes they resort to under-the-table deals to meet the expense limitation,” said Zubiri in a mix of English and Filipino.

Section 6 of RA 9006 or the Fair Election Act of 2001 states that each candidate or political party for a national post can only have a total of 120 minutes of TV ads per station and 180 minutes of radio ads per station.

A candidate or party for a local post, meanwhile, is only entitled up to 60 minutes of TV ads per station and 90 minutes of radio ads per station under the same law.

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Senator Grace Poe later chimed in to call out media companies for allegedly charging “astronomical fees” in airing political ads during the campaign season. She hopes advertising fees would be regulated as well.

“Sobra naman (That’s too much). They expect public servants to be honest, but then they charge such astronomical fees. That’s very difficult if we are to be very realistic,” said Poe. 

A Rappler report that looked into the political ad spending of senatorial bets in the 2016 national elections showed candidates generally poured their money mostly into TV spots.

On average, winning candidates spent around P98 million each for TV commercials alone, spending a total of P1.2 billion just for political ads.

A creatives director of a well-known advertising agency said conceptualizing and shooting a campaign ad could range anywhere between P1 million and P3 million, depending on the agency. Stars appearing in campaign ads usually waive talent fees to throw support for the candidate.

Still, Zubiri appealed his colleagues to give SB 810 a chance.

“If we know that there is a mistake, so let us adjust the law or at least come cleaner to the real amount,” Zubiri said.

The House of Representatives already approved its own version of the bill in June 2020.

Impracticality and propriety

Senator Panfilo Lacson even went as far as calling SB 810 “impractical,” predicting that candidates would still end up overspending even if Congress raises the campaign spending cap. 

“What is the policy here, Mr. President, when we enact laws and we know that the laws that we enact are unimplementable, if not impractical? So what do we get? Nobody complies, nobody follows the law. So this is a policy issue that we must resolve and agree on, Mr. President,” said Lacson.

Senator Richard Gordon also expressed his reservations about the bill, arguing the root of the problem is enforcement due to a lack of candidates being held accountable for overspending.

“We will not prevent overspending with this bill, Mr. President. Just some thoughts on my corner here. I’m sorry, I don’t want to step on anybody on the purpose of this bill,” said Gordon. 

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Senate President Vicente Sotto III then interjected and raised the propriety of raising campaign expenses while the country still grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Senator Richard Gordon pinched a raw nerve in this representation. Dahil baka sabihin ng mga tao, ‘Pandemic, hirap na hirap kami, puro pera pinag-uusapan ‘nyo. Puro gastos ‘yan.’ Baka gumanun eh,” said Sotto.

(Senator Richard Gordon pinched a raw nerve in this representation. People might say, “We are in a pandemic, we are struggling, and yet here you are talking about money, about spending.” The conversation might go that way.)

With the complexity of the issue at hand, Sotto proposed to suspend the deliberations on SB 810 for now so senators can further discuss the measure in a closed-door caucus. – with reports from Ralf Rivas/

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.