The Philippines is set to have national and local elections in 2022. Far from the usual, the 2022 elections will be held during a pandemic. It will test the credibility and capacity of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to deliver a democratic mandate that is to conduct a free and fair election under a health crisis. Is it about time to reimagine our election procedures and protocols and use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink and reform elections in the Philippines? More than a year ago, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has already echoed the new regulations in the conduct of the 2022 polls amid the multiple mutations of the COVID-19 virus from one variant to another.
More than 18,000 national and local elective posts to be contested. Typically, there will be around 45,000 candidates who will vie for elective positions. According to COMELEC there are 85,769 clustered precincts. In each precinct, there will be five election personnel. This will mean 428,845 election officials and observers. This doesn’t account for the other deputized agencies and units on election day including the Department of Education (DepEd), the Department of Finance (the office of the City or Municipal Treasurer), Department of Transportation, the National Telecommunications Commission, the Philippine Postal Service, the Philippine National Police to name a few. There are 63 million voters expected based on historical figures of voter turn-out from the COMELEC. In 2019, the Philippines had a 75% voters’ turn-out. Almost 9 million voters or 14% of the voting population are senior citizens, a high-risk group for COVID-19 infection. Almost 21 million or 33% of the voting population are between the ages of 18 to 33 years old. With or without the pandemic, this is a logistical challenge for the COMELEC.
The COMELEC painted a “COVID-19 superspreader scenario”, particularly the holding of political rallies. Many elections were postponed or cancelled in 2020 was largely due to the fear that it can trigger an increased infection rate. Hence, there are more reasons to allow marginalized sectors to vote ahead of the majority of the voters in the country such as early voting for PWDs, IPs, elderly and pregnant women.
As a consequence, the absence, limited, restricted or controlled election campaign activities such as political gatherings or stage meetings, public debates, door-to-door visits and walkabouts by politicians, is the glaring difference between the coming elections and those in the past.
Regardless of political camps, these ‘traditional activities’ have always been among the political tools to disseminate information and messages more effectively when it comes to canvassing for votes. For the candidates, it is a platform to make themselves known to the voters; on the other side of the fence, it is a place for the electorate to digest information on various issues before shading the ballot on which candidates to vote for. These activities can actually help build up the election momentum and generate the mood, the thrill and excitement can be electrifying.
HUGE CHALLENGES FOR REELECTIONISTS
There’s a huge challenge if you’re seeking reelection. However, if you’re confident you had a good track record with passing grades in your score card, why worry? Some observers dared all reelectionists not to spend a single centavo on campaign materials, advertisements, celebrity endorsements, and other campaign-related schemes assuming their performance for the past three or six years is sufficed. Regardless of the political camp, who had performed well and been going down the ground constantly, I’m convinced that they would not need to worry too much about their chances of getting reelected or even voted to a higher position without the help of all the traditional political activities. When the voters need you, you are there to serve them. When there are public hearings or consultations, you are there to lead and facilitate. When COVID response is required, you are there to provide vaccination to constituents and even non-residents, you provide support to small and medium businesses, you provide gadgets and free connectivity to students and teachers, and you provide livelihood for displaced workers. These should be enough to give you the confidence of getting reelected. But to those who did not perform when given the chance to do so, they might as well step down or withdraw from running instead of continuing to bank on their luck for victory.
TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Be that as it may, I believe all is not lost, as despite the new restrictions, the election candidates can still make themselves known through social media and online campaigning. Nonetheless, I admit it would be tougher for them to reach out to the voters, and win their hearts and minds. Yes, face-to-face meetings with the voters certainly carry more weight, but if there’s no choice, then social media campaigning would be the next resort. I suggest the candidates can set up their own video projects and narrative materials, post them online or other virtual facilities to promote themselves.
This is what some candidates for the coming elections are already doing now. Indeed, the candidates who can face up to the new normal and make full use of digital technology and social media would definitely have the advantage. This is the new reality that people have to face due to the pandemic, unlike in past elections where the free-for-all activities had been conducted. I’m sure this unprecedented Philippine election is going to enter the Book of World Records in the COVID-19 era as being the most memorable.