By ALFRED GABOT
Editor in Chief
MANILA – The May 9, 2022 election entered a new phase on March 25 as races for over 300 House of Representatives members, including party-list representatives, and over 10,000 local executives officially opened their 45-day campaign, heating up further the political cauldron in many parts of the country.
For one, the Philippine National Police (PNP) has been placed on alert, especially on areas considered as possible “hotspots” which include 488 municipalities and 52 cities. Of the number, 39 towns and seven cities have been placed under Red Alert after they recorded the highest incidences of violence in the election.
Some 800 areas though are expected to go on with the campaign and election smoothly because some candidates there are running unopposed.
Based on Commission on Elections data, among those running unopposed are Tagaytay City’s husband-and-wife tandem of outgoing 8th District Representative Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino and incumbent Mayor Agnes Tolentino who are running for mayor and vice mayor, respectively, under the National Unity Party.
Thirty eight candidates for the 253 congressional seats are unopposed, led by returning Pampanga congresswoman former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, outgoing Senator Ralph Recto in the 6th district of Batangas, and reelectionists Rep. Crispin Boying Remulla of 7th district of Cavite, House Majority Floorleader Martin Romualdez (1st District, Leyte), and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco (lone district, Marinduque).
Officially, there are a total of 18,023 local seats up for grabs in the local elections, 253 of which are for members of the House of Representatives (some 60 party-list representatives not included), 81 seats each for provincial governor and vice-governor, 782 members of Sangguniang Panlalawigan, 1,634 seats each for city/municipal mayor and vice mayor, and 13,558 seats for the city/municipal councilors, according to the Commission on Elections.
The last stage of the campaign is expected to further heat and muddle up the campaign for president, vice president and senators as the Comelec gets ready for the overseas absentee voting which starts in April for some 1.7 million Filipinos working and residing in over 120 countries.
This year’s overseas absentee voting is expected to have a bigger effect on the results of the national elections in the Philippines as voting by mail has been allowed by the poll body for president, vice president, senators and party-list representative prompting experts to predict more overseas Pinoys to vote.
Going into official local election campaign, rival candidates for governor, vice governor, city and town mayors and vice mayors have started to exchange charges and tirades with some filing charges and complaints against their foes.
There were also few killings in some areas of some candidates, prompting the Philippine National Police (PNP) to go on high alert during the campaign, imposing the election gun ban, setting up some checkpoints and sale of liquor, among others.
Notable of these heated local races are in Manila where Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna is pitted against businessman Alex Lopez, who is a brother of incumbent Rep. Manny Lopez, both sons of the late Mayor Geminiano Mel Lopez, former Congressman Amado Bagatsing, son of the late Mayor Ramon Bagatsing Sr.; and Cristina Lim Raymundo, daughter of the late Mayor and Senator Alfredo Lim; and in Quezon City where Rep. Michael Mike Defensor is trying to unseat Mayor Josefina Joy Belmonte.
Unfazed by Defensor’s exposes, Belmonte has filed libel cases against Defensor over allegations of anomalies in the city government.
In Manila, Alex Lopez questioned the allegedly untimely and costly projects of Mayor Isko Moreno and Vice Mayor Lacuna, notably the P1.7 billion Manila Zoo rehabilitation.
Lopez is running for Manila mayor under the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, the party of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr.. His running-mate is actor Raymond Bagatsing, who is under Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), and is pitted against Manila 3rd District Representative and fellow actor Yul Servo, who is John Martin Nieto in real life.
In Makati City, Mayor Abigal Binay, a lawyer, launched her campaign for third term together with runningmate Vice Mayor Monique Lagdameo and her Team United.
In Pasig City, the fourth richest city in Metro Manila, Mayor Victor Vico Sotto, who won in 2019 as the youngest mayor at 27, is being accused of graft and corruption and alleged nepotism by his rival, a grandson of a former Pasig mayor and current Vice Mayor Iyo Bernardo.
Bernardo filed a cyber libel case against Sotto, alleging that the mayor besmirched his reputation during a January flag ceremony that was live streamed.
Unlike in the last elections where he won against old city politicians despite a ragtag campaign and without any candidate for vice mayor and councilor, Sotto this time has former Rep. Robert Dodot Jaworski Jr. for vice mayor and a strong slate for councilors.
During his proclamation rally speech, Sotto highlighted the city’s annual P1-billion savings which he attributed to an aggressive anti-corruption push, and the billions of pesos worth of aid the local government shelled out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Sotto asked the Pasig voters for another chance to continue the reforms he has started.
“Yung binasag natin na sindikato, yung binasag natin na korapsyon ay nasa ₱1 billion per year,” Sotto said during his campaign kick-off at the Pasig Mega Market.
He was referring to savings the city government earned through proper bidding processes with no kickbacks. The funds went to the expansion of social services, the mayor said.
“Pero ang totoo po niyan, nasa primera pa lang po tayo (But the truth is, it’s just the beginning),” Sotto said.
The mayor said he needs more time for “tunay, malalim, at pangmatagalang pagbabago (genuine, deep-seated, and lasting change).”
Local officials have 45 days for their campaign while those seeking national positions have 45 days which started earlier.
Meanwhile, groups warned of possible election anomalies ahead of the May 9 election.
Already, allegations of vote buying have been reported, the latest included Cavite Governor Juanito Victor Remulla and Quezon Governor Danilo Suarez, both of whom denied the allegations.
There were reports of vote buying also during the campaign involving the Marcos-Duterte team, but the same was denied.
President Rodrigo Duterte and the Commission on Elections have pledged a clean, honest and safe elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
At least 33 people were killed in the 2019 midterms – though the 2009 Maguindanao massacre remains the most brutal example.
In collaboration with the Philippine election watchdog Kontra Daya, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) has now initiated the International Observation Mission (IOM) – right in time for the official start of the election campaign on February 8, 2022.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec), meanwhile, said it will form a task force that will investigate allegations of vote-buying.
“The Commission will be creating a Task Force that will handle reports, complaints. Definitely, the Comelec can motu proprio (on its own) investigate. The Comelec can always direct its field personnel to submit a report to us. We will have a task force for us to immediately take action,” Commissioner George Erwin Garcia said in a press conference at the conclusion of the end-to-end demonstration of the Election Day Automated Election System (AES) at the Diamond Hotel in Manila.
Garcia, however, reminded the people to be very careful in making reports of vote-buying.
“As you know, politicians can always invoke the Peñera doctrine. Technically it’s not yet the start campaign period for local candidates. We will not hesitate to prosecute those who may be involved in vote-buying. We are so serious that for this election it is necessary to equalize everything. We will punish those who will be violating the Omnibus Election Code,” he added.
Brig. Gen. Jonnel Estomo, PRO-5 regional director, led the sendoff ceremony for the troops held at the PRO-5 Grandstand in Camp BGen. Simeon A. Ola in this city.
“The RSOTG is expected to closely work with the Armed Forces, stakeholders, and other force multipliers to deter any untoward incident amidst the national and local elections on May 9 this year,” he said in a statement.
In their petition, the National Press Club of the Philippines (NPC) and the Guardians Brotherhood and Automated Election System (AES Watch) sought a writ of mandamus from the SC for the poll body to allow access and inspection of the printing of ballots at the National Printing Office (NPO), including the examination of the ballots already printed without the presence of observers.