Editorial

Like a soap bubble

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Maybe this is what happens when lawyers are appointed to the Commission on Elections not as lawyers but as laymen. The Comelec begins to lose sight of the limits set by law.

The election agency’s resolution limiting cash withdrawals from banks and other financial institutions to not more than P100,000 per transaction from May 8 to 13, in a bid to stop vote-buying before and on Election Day, is one of those initiatives that, like a soap bubble, at first seem like a bright shining thing, but cannot bear the weight of even the slightest touch.

There is no arguing with the chief premise behind Comelec Resolution No. 9688. Many politicians or their financiers release money in the last stage of the election cycle directly into the hands of voters, either to vote for their preferred candidates or, in the case of their opponents’ supporters, to entice them to stay at home.

But the Comelec’s sweeping ban on bank transactions means none of the commissioners had sufficiently thought the matter through. We realize that, in defending the controversial resolution, Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes pointedly noted that the poll body had studied the matter for two months. That fact, however, cannot surmount the two main arguments against the so-called money ban.

(Aside from the limit on withdrawals, the resolution also limits the amount that can be transported to not more than P500,000.)

Let us first note that there is a popular argument against the ban that sounds good on first hearing but upon inspection turns out to be based on a dangerous way of thinking. Why will the Comelec focus its attention on cash, so the argument goes, when there are other, non-cash forms of vote-buying? True, there are other forms of buying someone’s vote. But does this mean that the Comelec should prepare a comprehensive program to combat all forms of vote-buying before it can even act? That kind of thinking is a formula for government paralysis.

The first major argument against the money ban is legal. Where does the Comelec draw its authority to limit the amount that can be withdrawn from a bank? The election agency does not in fact have the legal power to regulate banks and other financial institutions. That authority, even during an official election period, lies mainly with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and also with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Comelec could have worked through the BSP, if it had so chosen; perhaps that approach would have resulted in an initiative with a better chance of success. Instead, the Comelec treated the BSP (and the SEC) as though these independent institutions had been deputized like the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.

A corollary to the legal argument is the effect the ban would have on bank secrecy. The central bank’s official statement emphasized this legal aspect: “The BSP is constrained from enforcing the Comelec resolution because this would necessarily entail looking into bank deposit accounts. This is essentially unsound and in violation of Republic Act No. 1405 (the secrecy law on peso deposits) and RA 6426 (the secrecy law on foreign currency-denominated deposits).”

The second and more consequential argument against the ban is practical: It will be dramatically disruptive, and yet the outcome, the attainment of the objective, is far from assured.

A text message from Lorenzo Tan, president of the Bankers Association of the Philippines, summed up the case in a few sentences: The ban “will hamper the commercial and business transactions of banks in general. Workers and suppliers of certain industries are paid weekly. Public markets operate on cash basis daily.”

In response to this line of argument, the Comelec changed tack, slightly. “On the money ban, we are now signing the amendatory, supplementary resolution,” Brillantes told reporters yesterday. But the amendment is essentially to grant an exemption: “Since [the banks] have what is known as a customer relationship, they will know who among their clients regularly withdraws in excess of more than P100,000.”

That just makes the whole thing even more absurd. What if those regular customers were the very politicians and financiers the Comelec sought to prevent from buying votes in the first place? For the commissioners to accept this “risk,” which undermines the logic they themselves used to justify the controversial ban, only means one thing: Their amendment is only meant to save face.

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