Comelec puts caps on cash withdrawals to curb vote-buying

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By Mikha Flores, VERA Files

The Commission on Elections, in an unprecedented and controversial decision, has imposed caps on cash withdrawals and prohibited the transport of huge amounts of money from May 8 to Election Day in a bid to curb vote-buying.

Comelec promulgated Resolution 9688 on Tuesday that imposes a ban on cash transactions exceeding P100, 000 a day or its foreign currency equivalent on banks, finance companies, pawnshops, remittance companies and other institutions performing similar functions. It also prohibits the possession and transport of cash exceeding P500,000 pesos.

The move is meant to prevent, or at least mitigate, vote-buying during elections, said Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes.

Non-cash transactions are not covered. “Wala namang namimili ng boto ng cheke. Hindi namin problema yun (No one buys votes in checks. It’s not our problem, really). You can issue billions of checks. Wala kaming pakialam dun (We do not care),” he said.

It was not clear how the Comelec would implement this as the move does not have the imprimatur of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), which has regulatory authority over the entire banking system.

The poll chief said they discussed this move earlier with the BSP but he said the agency was lukewarm to the idea.

“Sila ang merong regulatory authority over banks and even lending institutions (They are the ones who have regulatory authority over banks and even lending institutions). We are attempting to regulate and at least deputize them para maenforce namin (for us to be able to enforce it) effectively,” he said.

Brillantes said BSP officials raised issues like “restraint of trade” and violating the bank secrecy law when they first raised the plan with them.

Comelec has directed all checkpoints in the country to hold a 24-hour “money ban checkpoint”, in addition to the existing gun ban checkpoint during the period. The transport ban does not include farmers, merchants and other individuals who transport cash for business transactions, it said.

Brillantes said they started discussing the money ban in March but deferred announcing the plan to avoid candidates from getting a heads-up of their plan.

“We all kept quiet. Let’s draft a resolution but we take it up when Election Day is very close,” Brillantes said. “Para biglaan, ang desisyon namin is one week before elections (To catch people off-guard, we decided to release it a week before elections),” he added.

Based on experience, nobody has gone to jail for vote-buying, he pointed out. “Kung di tayo makakapagpakulong (If we can’t imprison anyone), at the very least let’s minimize vote-buying,” said Brillantes, a veteran election lawyer before he was appointed Comelec Chair.

Vote-buying and vote-selling are considered election offenses under the Omnibus Election Code. Both carry a penalty of up to six years in prison.

Brillantes said candidates usually give around P500 to P3, 000 for every voter which translates to millions when added up. “Millions yan lahat (It’s in the millions),” he added.

Comelec officials observed vote-buying intensified when elections were first automated in 2010.

In an interview with Probe, Brillantes said automating the elections cured the perennial issue of cheating in elections but failed to address vote-buying and the use of force and intimidation to coerce vulnerable voters.

Planning Department Director Ferdinand Rafanan said in March vote buying is “a very urgent and long-lasting issue” in the country. “Hindi dapat tayo ma mislead. Ang number one at pinakalaganap at pinakasakit ng election ay vote-buying (We should not be misled. Vote-buying remains the biggest and most widespread disease of elections).”

Comelec has deputized the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the Anti-Money Laundering Council and other government financial agencies to implement the ban on cash transactions.

The Philippine National Police (PNP), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and other agencies were also tapped for enforcement.

(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)

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