Time to COVID-proof the 2022 elections

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

Our next presidential elections are closer than you think. And this next one is unlike any other.

The Stratbase ADR Institute recently conducted a virtual town hall discussion to talk about the importance of holding inclusive and credible elections in 2022. During his talk, Prof. Dindo Manhit, president of the institute, pointed out that the filing of candidacy for the next elections is now less than twelve months away.

And while the official campaign period will not start until February of the following year, we know that unofficial campaigning begins much earlier. Some might even argue that it never stopped at all. While these remind us that the elections are already around the corner, none of it is new.

What is new and what makes our next election unlike any other is that this time, it is happening during a pandemic. COVID-19 changed the stakes, raised the significance of election preparation, and put even more pressure on election management bodies (EMBs) and civil society to ensured credible results.

When the pandemic hit us earlier this year, the Stratbase ADR Institute identified COVID-19 corruption as one of the country’s critical risks. We saw risk in the possible misuse of the response powers and funds to weaken institutional checks and balances, suppress media and opposition voices, build-up campaign war chests, or derail democratic elections entirely.

This concern is also not limited to the Philippines; according to the International Foundation of Electoral Systems, “as COVID-19 spreads across the world, nearly 60 countries and territories have announced postponements of national and subnational elections amid fears that large electoral events could accelerate transmission rates and that EMBs could not satisfactorily curb such risks.

While these postponements might sometimes be the best decision to protect voters and election officials, they may also open the door to political manipulation and abuses of power.”

For this reason, it was good to hear one of our speakers, Commission on Elections Director James Jimenez, say that they would not back down and are intent on conducting a COVID-proof election in May 2022. Comforting, given the recent call by some influential legislators to postpone it.

It was also good to hear about the preparations the Comelec is making to ensure election workers’ and voters’ health and safety, including implementing strict social distancing measures and possibly extending the number of hours or days for voting.

During the virtual event, we also had the chance to discuss other voting options that can be explored, such as the US’s mail-in ballot system or Estonia’s internet voting system. Jimenez conceded, however, that our postal system may not be ready for mail-in voting. On the other hand, while there is potential for internet voting due to the country’s high internet penetration, this system is something that the COMELEC is closely studying. Still, it perhaps will not yet be ready for implementation in time for the 2022 elections.

However, it was also emphasized that the onus of ensuring a healthy and safe election, is not solely Comelec’s. Political parties, too, have the responsibility to put in place and implement strict campaign and election day health guidelines for their candidates and supports.

Many things will have to change between now and the elections. However, some things hopefully do not.

First, participative elections should continue. In 2019, the mid-term elections saw 75.90 % of voters heading to the polls on election day. Compare this to the 30% voter turnout in the US in 2016.

Hopefully, with a pro-active Comelec, disciplined political parties, and strong support from civil society groups such as the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) and Democracy Watch Philippines, Filipinos will feel safe enough to go out and vote for their candidates in the 2022 elections.

The second thing I hope that I hope stays constant is the trend of increasingly credible and trust-worthy election results.

According to a study conducted by Ador Torneo and Topin Ruiz for the institute, the 2019 mid-term elections were a success in terms of voter participation, cover confidence, compliance with procedures, accessibility of precincts and overall integrity.

The study also found that when compared to past elections, the 2019 elections performed better in all indicators. The study further attributes the improvement in the credibility of the results to the growing trust Filipinos have in the automated elections system used in 2010.

This trust in the existing automated system was captured in a 2019 Social Weather Station Survey, which showed that 4 out of 5 Filipinos were satisfied with the elections’ results.

In addition to this, a 2020 SWS survey also showed that except for vote-buying, violative acts such as voter harassment, fling voters, cheating in the actual counting of votes, being bribed not to vote, and election day were all minor, and even vote-buying had been reduced.

Conducting a safe and credible presidential election in 2022 is fundamental to our democracy. For this reason, EMBs, political parties, civil society groups and the electorate must work together to ensure that our elections do not fall victim to a few that seek to use the pandemic as a means to hold on to power.

So, while the elections will not be until 2022, the preparations we must make for this election that is unlike any other must begin now. Indeed, the elections are much closer than we think.

This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: Philippine Star.

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