MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Election watchdog Lente warned on Monday, May 13, that the government's crackdown on vote buying is "prone to abuse," as local police can be influenced by politicians, especially incumbent officials.
Lente issued this warning as law enforcers arrest more people – including Quezon City mayoral bet Bingbong Crisologo – for alleged vote-buying and related offenses. (READ: Suspected vote-buyers, sellers arrested nationwide)
Rappler news editor Miriam Grace Go first raised the issue in a live interview on Sunday, May 12, during Rappler's special coverage of the 2019 elections. Go said that “the well-intentioned campaign to prevent vote-buying” had been “twisted and weaponized” by partisan groups to work against political rivals.
Local policemen – and in at least one case, even the National Bureau of Investigation – could be complicit or unwitting accomplices.
"There's a well-intentioned campaign to guard against vote buying and then some people actually found a way to use it against their rivals," Go said.
"We continue to ask citizens to report vote-buying incidents but also for them to be careful not to be used when one camp is just trying to spread black propaganda against the other one," she added.
In a statement, Lente said it welcomes the vote-buying crackdown "but with some hesitation."
"This new focus to curb vote-buying is positive as it may allow people to believe that vote-buying may be lessened. However, for this process to be considered to be of effective redress, it must be ensured that cases must be filed and that they must lead to penal or criminal sanctions," said Lente.
"We must also note that this operation may be prone to abuse," Lente pointed out.
"We must remember that the local police may still be under the influence of some candidates running for local positions, especially the incumbents. This process may be used as a way for electoral combatants to hinder their opposition," said the watchdog.
Lente called on the Philippine National Police (PNP) "to ensure impartiality when it comes to holding election law violators accountable."
The Commission on Elections said the PNP has arrested at least 174 people for alleged vote-buying, as it intensifies its crackdown on this perennial problem.
Crisologo, who is running against Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, was arrested Sunday evening, May 12, for alleged obstruction of justice at an alleged vote-buying site.
Ealier on Sunday, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Navotas conducted a warrantless raid on a poll watchers' briefing in the city – an operation denounced by lawyer Emilio Marañon III as "lawlessness." The NBI later cleared a coordinator of vote-buying allegations, and "apologized for the inconvenience." – Rappler.com
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Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.