Comelec

In policy shift, Comelec to go after premature campaigners for barangay, SK polls

Dwight de Leon

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In policy shift, Comelec to go after premature campaigners for barangay, SK polls

David Castuciano/Rappler

The Comelec under past leaderships said it could not penalize premature campaigning because of a Supreme Court ruling. But Chairman George Garcia says that, upon review, they conclude that the decision does not apply to manual elections.

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced on Friday, February 10, that premature campaigning restrictions would be in effect for the upcoming barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections scheduled for October 30, 2023.

It is an important policy shift for the commission. In the past, it resolved that it could not go after candidates who engaged in campaigning activities before the official start of the campaign period for the barangay and SK polls.

In a statement, Comelec Chairman George Garcia said the decision follows the poll body’s fresh interpretation of a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that basically abolished premature campaigning guidelines under the decades-old Omnibus Election Code.

Peñera vs Comelec

To understand the significance of the Comelec’s latest pronouncement, one must go back to Section 80 of the election code, which forbids a “candidate” from campaigning or engaging in partisan political activity outside of the campaign period. That law states that violators may face potential disqualification from the elections, and imprisonment.

In 2009, however, the Supreme Court, in the landmark Peñera vs Comelec ruling, said that an elective aspirant who filed their certificate of candidacy (COC) is only considered a “candidate” once the official campaign period starts.

That High Court ruling basically took away the punishment for premature campaigning.

(READ: Why ‘candidates’ can spend so much and not report it)

In policy shift, Comelec to go after premature campaigners for barangay, SK polls
New interpretation

The Comelec under Garcia’s leadership said that, after revisiting the Supreme Court decision, poll officials came to the conclusion that the Peñera doctrine only applies to automated elections, and not manual ones like the upcoming village and youth polls.

This is a policy shift for the poll body, which, in 2018, under the leadership of Garcia’s predecessor Sheriff Abas, resolved that premature campaigning for the barangay and SK polls was not an election offense.

“There is no distinction between a manual election and automated election,” then-poll commissioner Rowena Guanzon said at the time.

But incumbent Chairman Garcia asserted that what the Peñera vs Comelec upheld was the amended Poll Automation Law, which mandated an early deadline for COC filing to give ample time for the printing of ballots.

“Congress wanted to insure that no person filing a certificate of candidacy under the early deadline required by the automated election system would be disqualified or penalized for any partisan political act done before the start of the campaign period,” the High Court ruling read.

Garcia, who prior to his appointment as Comelec chief was a veteran election lawyer, appears to be pushing the envelope with this policy shift, and even expressed readiness about taking the risk should anyone take the poll body to the Supreme Court.

“Enough of this nonsense!” Garcia told reporters on Viber. “We cannot be inutile and powerless when our duty is to enforce and administer election laws.”

“We can always interpret the laws in a manner that protects the right of suffrage, the interest of the voters, and the Filipinos in general unless we are restrained or reversed by the Highest Court. Let anyone challenge the legality of our action,” he added.

The early campaigning tactics employed by politicians is a constant election issue that has irked a segment of the population, but the Comelec, in the past, said its hands were tied, unless Congress came up with a legislation that would prohibit premature campaigning.

Some lawmakers had introduced bills in Congress to make premature campaigning a crime, but none of these proposals moved forward.

The Comelec has yet to set the date for the COC filing for the October barangay and SK elections. – Rappler.com

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Malacañang, and the Commission on Elections for Rappler.