Dear PARTICIPATE Pro-Democracy Coalition Members:
I hope this message finds you and your families well during these difficult times. I write with some important updates on our ongoing coalition work to strengthen citizens’ participation in our democracy, and notably in the 2022 national elections.
In a recent forum organized by PARTICIPATE coalition partner, National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) reported on steps being taken to prepare for the Philippine national and local elections in May 2022. More specifically, the election agency recently concluded a voting simulation in San Juan City in October 2021 and is currently preparing for a mock election in December 2021. COMELEC recently released guidelines for conducting the 2022 polls containing health and safety standards and protocols to mitigate, if not prevent, the transmission of the COVID-19 during the conduct of elections. These include, among others, the following:
Guidelines for the conduct of: (1) In-person campaign, (2) Rallies, (3) Caucuses, Meetings, and Conventions, (4) Motorcades and Caravans, and (5) Miting de Avance under the New Normal in connection with the 9 May 2022 National and Local Elections;
General Instructions for the Board of Canvassers (BOC) on the constitution, composition, and appointment; consolidation/canvass; and transmission of votes/canvass in connection with the 9 May 2022 National and Local Elections;
Rules and Regulations Implementing Republic Act No. 9006;
General Instructions for the constitution, composition, and appointment of Electoral Boards; The process of Final Testing and Sealing of the Vote Counting Machines; and the Voting, Counting, and Transmission of Election Results in connection with the 9 May 2022 National and Local Elections; and
Rules and Regulations on Local Absentee Voting in connection with the 9 May 2022 National and Local Elections
These regulations provide that the following measures and those issued pursuant to the guidelines published by the National Government, DOH, IATF-MEID, and the Local Government Unit concerned, shall be observed at all times in all activities covered by these COMELEC resolutions, including, but not limited to:
Wearing of face mask;
Body temperature scanning;
One-meter physical distancing;
Frequent disinfection of hands;
Frequent disinfection of regularly-touched surfaces;
Proper cough and sneezing etiquette; and
Submission of Health Declaration Form.
The COMELEC also established an Isolation Polling Place (IPP) in every voting center so that voters who manifested any COVID-19 symptoms may still cast their vote. Moreover, a maximum of 10 voters will only be allowed inside the polling precinct at any given time on Election Day.
PARTICIPATE released a statement in 10 May 2021 to support adequate resource allocations for COMELEC in the 2022 budget, specifically to support its preparations for holding the elections under pandemic conditions. At the present time, the Executive Branch’s proposal for COMELEC’s 2022 budget is P26.7 billion. This represents a P16.6 billion increase from holding the Senatorial elections in 2019 and P10.7 billion increase from the last Presidential elections in 2016. This increase represents roughly the same increase in resources estimated by our analytics team in order to adequately “COVID-proof” the May 2022 elections. Our preliminary analysis reveals the main expenditure items for COVID-proofing the elections include:
The establishment of Voters Assistance Desks in all voting centers in lieu of voters’ list posted in the bulletin boards;
Health Protocol Desks in all voting centers to help screen the voters before entering the precincts;
Health Declaration mechanism as reflected in the COMELEC’s New Normal Guidelines;
Separate Voters Precinct for voters who have symptoms of COVID19 and Emergency Accessible Polling Places for the vulnerable sectors like senior citizens and pregnant women;
Additional honoraria for employees who will double shift considering the extension of the voting period; and
Additional allowances as such as the COVID19 Allowance of P500.00 per precinct staff.
Health and Safety Protocols based on Alert Levels
Cost of the medical and health supply requirements per clustered precinct;
Full PPE for precincts accommodating COVID19 suspects; and
Antigen testing for all election officials, staff and volunteers to be deployed during the elections.
Voters’ information campaign based on the New Normal Guidelines
Insurance and hazard risks for election workers and officials; and
Rental cost of private sector voting centers.
Other cost to be carried by other NGAs
Booster shots for all election officers, poll workers and other election front-liners
While COVID-19 cases are declining at the time of writing this update, the threat of new variants remains. Mostly recently, the omicron variant—first detected in South Africa in 24 November 2021--was later also detected in several European and African countries, prompting a growing number of countries to implement travel restrictions and lockdowns once again. Scientists are contemplating the possibility that present vaccines are less effective against the omicron variant, just as vaccine efficacy appears to have weakened against the earlier delta variant (first detected in India in late 2020, later spreading to over 130 countries by July 2021). Suffice to say that containment combined with vaccination are essential elements of countries’ defense against COVID-19 and its possible new variants.
Nevertheless, the Philippines carries the distinction of having implemented one of the longest and strictest general lockdowns in the world, resulting in dramatic economic contraction, exacerbating poverty, hunger and joblessness during the pandemic period. From one of the fastest growing economies in Asia prior to the pandemic, the Philippines suffered one of the worst economic contractions in 2020, and government forecasts it will take at least a decade to recover pre-pandemic growth trajectory, due to deep economic scarring from poor pandemic handling.
The World Bank observed that disease containment in the country is weak; and as a result, the country has been pushed back to hard lockdown at least 4 times during the pandemic (Figure 1), posing a growing economic cost as a result of its ineffective pandemic management strategy (Figure 2). As of the third quarter of 2021, the Philippines was ranked in the bottom of pandemic resilience measures by Bloomberg (53rd of 53 countries) and Nikkei Asia (121st of 121 countries). Oxford Economics also ranked the Philippines last in Asia in terms of severity in economic scarring, signaling a protracted recovery period. Rapid catch up in vaccination in early December 2021 appears to improve the country’s resilience prospects; however the vaccination roll out has been highly uneven across Philippine regions (Figures 3-5).
Figure 1. On again - Off again Lockdowns in Metro Manila
Figure 2. Year-on-Year Growth Rates (in percent) from Q1 2018-2019 to Q2 2020-2021
Figure 3. Total of COVID-19 Vaccine Doses in the Philippines
Figure 4. Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses
Figure 5. Percentage to Target of COVID-19 Vaccination
Source: Mendoza (2021). “From pandemic to endemic: Towards inclusive recovery from COID-19”. Presentation at the BSP Environmental Scanning Exercise, 2021. [Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdXhL6XHgY4&t=137s].
There are several risks worth flagging this early, in order to begin to map out possible contingencies and further support COMELEC and other elections and democracy stakeholders. First, COMELEC has begun to organize important confidence-building measures which will surely help inform stakeholders that necessary steps are being taken to prepare. The initial simulations and protocols suggest that crowd throughput management will be crucial in holding inclusive and safe elections. COMELEC’s arrangements of well-ventilated holding areas coordinating with the Department of Education (given their key role in the elections) will be crucial. Still, by our calculations, managing up to 15 voters casting their vote inside the precinct at any one point in time, and ensuring that they conclude the voting process within around 16 minutes will require strong efficiency among election administrators and cooperation among voters. (These are the performance numbers necessary to accommodate up to 800 voters per precinct for the country’s total number of precincts.) Managing crowds inside and near the voting centers will also be crucial, and the collaboration of the national security agencies (given their role) will be extremely important.
In addition, it is still not clear what the contingency plans are—if any—should a surge in cases occur in the run-up to Election Day. Early proposals for mail-in ballots have not progressed, and much now hinges on well-organized face-to-face voting arrangements that integrate sufficient confidence-building health and safety protocols. It is still not clear whether voting can be held under the highest-level mobility restrictions, and to what extent health and safety protocols can be adjusted to permit voting under such conditions.
The possibility of postponing elections must be well examined both legally and administratively, in order not to cause any political instability or uncertainty. Our present legal framework provides that the COMELEC can reset the date of the elections by a vote of the majority of the members of the COMELEC En Banc based exclusively on the following grounds provided in Section 5 of Batas Pambansa 881: (1) violence, (2) terrorism, (3) Loss or destruction of election paraphernalia or records, (4) Force majeure, and (5) Other analogous cause of such a nature that the holding of free, orderly, and honest election becomes impossible in any political subdivision. The Omnibus Election Code also provides that elections can only be postponed to a date reasonably close to the date of the election not held (i.e. 9 May 2022) but not later than 30 days after the cessation of the cause of such postponement or suspension of the election or failure to elect.
What is clear is that for postponement of the elections to happen, the extent of cause for postponement must result in the impossibility of having free, orderly, and honest elections. Such ground must exist before voting. Should there be a surge of COVID-19 cases on or close to 9 May 2022 leading to the imposition of tighter mobility restrictions, it can arguably be a ground for the postponement of the elections and it can be considered either as force majeure or falling under the broader category of "other analogous causes." It is critically important to map out this scenario in advance to ascertain whether steps can still be taken to hold elections despite lockdown and mobility restrictions, or, if this is obviated, under what conditions and given what possible delays the country may be facing. Mapping this out beforehand could spell the difference between a trusted set of actions by COMELEC, or a political crisis. Hence, these questions raise additional issues which should be considered early on.
What is the contingency plan, if any, should there be an actual surge of COVID-19 cases or the emergence of a new, more infectious variant, during the elections? Can we still hold elections if the government declares a lockdown?
Is COMELEC contemplating forming its own health advisory group to help ensure its independence in assessing the situation for the campaign period, and during election day itself?
Given how important vaccination is to the confidence and safety of voters, is COMELEC also taking steps to monitor and ensure the timely and equitable access to vaccination of regions with still very low vaccination rates?
What steps can we take to make sure that social protection and “ayuda” are not politicized? Same for vaccine access both at the government-to-government, and at the government-to-citizen levels.
What can pro-democracy stakeholders do to support COMELEC in its herculean task? We supported a higher budget allocation for COMELEC – how else can we support?
PARTICIPATE secretariat in collaboration with coalition member groups will continue to engage and support COMELEC and other partners to strengthen our nation’s preparations for the May 2022 elections. In case you may have questions or would like to share inputs, please feel free to reach out to our coalition advocacy officer Jaz Malonda (email@example.com) and political unit led by Raisa N.G. Salvador (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On behalf of your PARTICIPATE team, and with our best wishes of an auspicious 2022 for you and our entire coalition,
Para sa bayan,
RONALD U. MENDOZA, PH.D.
Dean and Professor of Economics
Ateneo de Manila University - School of Government (ASOG)