2022 Philippine Elections

Town halls, social distancing: What will pandemic election campaigns look like?

Sofia Tomacruz

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PHYSICAL DISTANCING. Residents gather in a covered court while observing physical distancing measures.

File photo by Rappler

(UPDATED) Lawmakers call on the Commission on Elections to carefully study the matter to avoid disenfranchising voters and creating an unlevel playing field for candidates

Over a year before the May 2022 polls, lawmakers have started to explore the ways an election will be upended by the pandemic after the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said that traditional face-to-face campaigns may no longer be allowed in the coming season. 

Lawmakers called on the poll body to carefully study the matter to avoid creating an unlevel playing field for candidates and to ensure voters are still able to receive information on who they would vote for. 

Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez earlier said that campaigning, like most activities that have to be stopped during the pandemic, will need to change due to the threat of COVID-19. 

Jimenez said face-to-face activities are a particular point of concern for the commission since this could facilitate the spread of the virus. 

“Activities, like giving out materials or going out or talking to people face-to-face for campaign purposes – that’s going change. Door-to-door campaigns might be prohibited,” he said in an ANC interview. 

The Comelec spokesperson said conversations on changes were taking place in the poll body, along with possible amendments to election campaign laws needed to facilitate elections during a pandemic. 

What lawmakers propose

Reacting to the Comelec’s statement, Senator Francis Pangilinan said banning face-to-face campaigning altogether may be too restrictive. Instead, he said the poll body may look to prohibit large gatherings, but allow “small meetings of 10 to 30 people” where attendees must wear masks and observe physical distancing. 

Senator Imee Marcos, who has sponsored a bill pushing for hybrid elections, proposed a similar setup like small “town hall” gatherings held outdoors and where minimum health standards may be considered. 

Marcos, who chairs the Senate committee on electoral reforms and people’s participation, said lawmakers in the upper chamber have started discussion on what a “new normal” campaign season will look like. The proposed legislation being discussed include amendments to campaign spending, especially in light of the use of social media. 

Still, she said it will be the Comelec’s responsibility to provide clear guidelines for monitoring social media “so that candidates do not exploit their algorithmic and ad potential while also not being held liable for vague “alleged violations.”

In the House, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate urged the Comelec to thoroughly study proposed bans on face-to-face campaigning, warning it would “extremely favor rich candidates and further disenfranchise poor candidates and voters.” 

“If face-to-face campaigning would be prohibited, candidates would have to rely on online and media ads campaigning which is very expensive…. If this happens then the next elections will just become a contest for the rich and famous while more Filipinos are disenfranchised,” he said. 

Meanwile, Ako Bicol Rep Alfredo Garbin Jr said, while he agreed that face-to-face campaigns pose a health risk, the Comelec may face “legal and practical” challenges when reforming ways of campaigning during elections.

He cited the cap on campaign expenditure, which, if raised, would favor wealthier candidates and disadvantage new candidates, as well as those with less funds. He also pointed out issues in accessibility to different media, with households across the Philippines having varying degrees of connectivity to TV, radio, and the internet. 

“Our democratic institution is pillared on the ability of the population to vote wisely. The population cannot do this if they will not be given the opportunity to hear the candidates and understand their platforms, which is done mostly through house-to-house and face-to face campaign,” Garbin said. 

Garbin urged the Comelec to wait for the government to roll out vaccines, saying the poll body may be “jumping the gun” if it decides to phase out face-to-face campaigning. 

Senator Joel Villanueva, likewise agreed with the Comelec, saying no person should become ill on the campaign trail. 

While Comelec explores adjustments to campaigning under a pandemic, Villanueva cited urgent matters that the poll body should address now, including boosting voter registration, campaign finance reform, and increasing efforts to safeguard the election system. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.