Can elections be meaningful in a pandemic?


Former Senate President
Manny Villar

When we organize elections, our vision has always been to make sure that they are clean, honest and meaningful. They are the benchmark of a democratic system.  But given our situation today, we need to add one more: safe elections. Can we successfully hold meaningful and safe elections in the middle of a pandemic? This is a critical question we need to address even as we battle against the coronavirus that has upended our lives.

According to a study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), two in three countries scheduled to hold elections in 2020 have decided to postpone them. And significantly, among more than 50 countries that have gone ahead to hold elections during the pandemic, nine of them are in Asia. Will the scheduled 2022 Philippine elections push through?

Amidst calls from several personalities to postpone the elections because of the pandemic, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has proclaimed that the 2022 elections would push through. Its chairman, Sheriff Abas, has been quoted as saying that holding the elections is “Comelec's mandate… It will push through. The commission is busy preparing.” Even Malacañang dismissed the idea of postponing the 2022 polls saying that the Constitution is clear in requiring that the next general elections must be held on May 9, 2022, ahead of the end of President Rodrigo Duterte's six-year term by June 30 of that year.

The next question then should be: how do we ensure that the 2022 national and local elections are both meaningful and safe? It should be noted that this will not be our first time holding an electoral exercise while a pandemic rages. Last March 13, Comelec presided over the conduct of the Palawan Plebiscite that decided whether to split the province into three districts.

Election observers have lauded the success of the plebiscite as the process appeared well-organized, and anti-COVID protocols were being enforced and followed. Voters accomplished health declaration forms and submitted themselves to body temperature checks before casting their ballots. Election personnel wore the necessary personal protective equipment such as face masks and face shields while accomplishing their tasks. Despite the fact that this is a small election exercise compared to a national one, there is hope that the successful conduct of the Palawan plebiscite will serve as a lesson for the 2022 National and Local (NLE) polls.

But it is important to understand that the national elections will be much more difficult and that election officials and the public need to work together to ensure that the upcoming elections will not be a super-spreader event. Comelec needs to work with political parties and candidates to make sure that safety protocols are observed every step of the way.

The first difficulty any elections would encounter in a pandemic is the fact that electoral campaigns are generally reliant on mobility and gathering large groups of people together. Imagine, for instance, the practice of bringing a bunch of supporters to Comelec just to file one’s certificate of candidacy. In normal times, that practice brings a festive atmosphere to the event but during a pandemic that cannot be allowed because it can potentially increase the rate of infections.

Traditional election campaigns would have to be reevaluated too. I remember our Miting de Avance in Tondo in 2010 was attended by thousands of people and our various campaign sorties saw people flock the streets and our campaign venues. That would be difficult to do as the coronavirus continue to spread outside the National Capital Region. For reference, Singapore and Malaysia banned campaign rallies but Mongolia and Japan allowed mass rallies subject to safety and health protocols such as wearing of masks, physical distancing, temperature checks, strict ventilation being observed and implemented by organizers.

I guess this would be possible in our case as many of our campaign rallies are held in open air venues such as plazas and parks. But this means that election officials need to work doubly hard to ensure that physical distancing and other health protocols are strictly observed. Will candidates be allowed to shake the hands of the public? Or kiss babies during sorties? These are practical questions that the Comelec need to resolve as the campaign season looms.

In my next column, I will discuss the potential impact of the pandemic on the voting itself and the difficulty of ensuring transparency in the counting.