'You can't win against vote buyers'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — It can come as a knock on the door at night. Answering it, one would be greeted by a white envelope containing a crisp ₱500 bill.

"Just take it," they will say. "Take this, and if the other camp gives you some, just take that too."

Two nights before one election day, Charlotte*, 39, answered to the knocking on the door back at her home province in Bohol. She said she felt guilty taking it, but also felt she had no other choice but to do so — unless she wants to offend the camp of the candidate offering her money.

"Wala na kaming kasalanan doon, pinapatanggap sa amin eh," she told CNN Philippines, speaking in her shanty in Parañaque City. "Bahala kayo. 'Di namin 'yan hiningi. Basta sa amin, kung sino talaga ang gusto naming iboto, 'yun lang."

[Translation: We're no longer in the wrong, in that case, because they were making us take it … It's up to them. We don't ask for that. For us, we would vote whoever we want.]

She took the cash, but never voted for the candidate whose camp gave it to her.

"'Yung nagpunta sa amin hindi ko talaga type 'yun," Charlotte said. "Hindi ko talaga gusto 'yun para kapitan."

[Translation: I really don't like the person who came to us … I don't want that person to become a barangay captain.]

In Bohol, Charlotte said it is called "gapangan." But residents in Parañaque, Manila and Las Piñas also told CNN Philippines of the same scheme by politicians seeking to secure seats for themselves.

READ: Why Filipinos sell their votes, and for how much

"Sa local? Hindi nawawala 'yan. Taga mo sa bato, kapag sabihin na walang nangyayaring vote buying, saan ka makakakita ng eleksyon na walang vote buying?" said Miguel*, a former coordinator for a mayoralty candidate.

[Translation: In the local race? That won't disappear. Set it in stone, they'll say that there is no vote buying, what kind of election doesn't have vote buying?]

Miguel was a coordinator for a mayoralty candidate in Metro Manila who admits that he once participated in vote buying operations.

As a coordinator, Miguel was in the frontlines of the campaign, mainly tasked to recruit volunteers. But as the election drew nearer and nearer, he was also asked to hand out cash —ranging from ₱250 to ₱500 — to voters in the slums in exchange for guarantees that they will vote for his mayor.

Miguel knows this is wrong, now stressing the need to think of who to vote for, but felt no guilt in having been a vote buying operative — an offense that carries a punishment of one to six years of imprisonment.

"Pagdating sa trabaho, hindi mo na maiisip 'yung konsensiya eh. Wala na sa panahon namin nung araw na 'yun na nakokonsensiya. Kapag kailangan mo, gipit ka, wala nang konsensiya," he said.

[Translation: When it comes to work, you wouldn't think of your conscience. No one back in the day felt a pang in their conscience. If you need it, if you're desperate, the conscience no longer exists.]

Keeping silent

Vote buying is an age-old practice in the elections that endures to this day. In a 2018 study, all 400 respondents from poor communities in Metro Manila said they have been offered to sell their vote and know others who have sold their vote. Of them, 90.8 percent said they took the offer.

"Since the survey was focused on a sample of low-income voters in Metro Manila, this result suggests that a vast majority of this group may have been targeted for vote buying by campaign operatives," said Tristan Canare, Ronald Mendoza and Mario Antonio Lopez in the study.

But the reports on the ground hardly translate to complaints. Data from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) Law Department obtained by CNN Philippines show that in the 2013 and 2016 elections, only a total of 171 vote-buying complaints were filed with the poll body. Of those, only six have made it to the court.

"People normally would not report having been approached," Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez told CNN Philippines. "Reporting this sort of thing, it can get complicated for the person. So it really takes a lot of guts."

Canare, Mendoza and Lopez said in their research that there is still a stigma attached to vote buying using money. Only 28.5 percent of their respondents admitted to being offered money in exchange for votes, while the rest said they were offered other items like food and clothing.

The poorer people are, the more likely they are to ask for smaller things in exchange for their votes, the researchers said. This is true for the neighbors of 52-year-old Nora Cruz in a temporary resettlement area for fire victims in Parañaque.

When local candidates go around to campaign, she said, some of her neighbors would egg on them to give them money for a snack and a drink. Most of the time, the candidates obliged.

Nora Cruz, 52, sits in her shanty in a temporary resettlement area in Parañaque City for fire victims. She says her neighbors often ask local candidates for money to buy snacks and drinks when they campaign.

Cruz knows this is wrong. She said she would never ask for anything in exchange for her vote, except in jest from her friends who are campaigning for candidates.

But she would still not rat out her neighbors.

"Hindi ako magre-report. Baka ako pa 'yung awayin. Bahala sila sa buhay nila kung manghingi pa sila," Cruz said.

[Translation: I won't report. They might fight me. It's up to them if they would still ask for money.]

Fear also keeps Billy* from reporting vote buying incidents that happen within his neighborhood, which is just a few minutes' walk away from the Comelec office in Intramuros, Manila. During elections, he said, campaigners for local candidates go house-to-house to invite people to a meeting, where they would be given an envelope containing ₱250.

"Kung mag-report ka, baka mapag-initan ka ng mga kandidato," he said.

[Translation: Candidates might come after you if you report.]

"Wala kang panalo laban sa kanila," said Isidra Figaro, a 63-year-old woman who lives in the same neighborhood. "Malakas sila. Kaya tahimik na lang. Ipagdasal ko na lang sa Diyos 'yung mga taong ganyan."

[Translation:You can't win against them. … They're powerful. So it's better to stay silent. I'll just pray for them to God.]

Isidra Figaro, 63, says she knows of vote buying operations in their neighborhood, but would not dare report them.

Comelec's Jimenez said politicians know that the people they are targeting will not turn them in — and no one can do anything about it.

Out of the box solution?

The poll body has not been remiss in reminding citizens each and every election to resist and report attempts at vote buying, but Jimenez admitted that relying on this strategy to curb the illegal practice is a "sterile" solution.

Adding to the problem of the Comelec in hunting down vote buyers is the need for the operation to be documented, like on video or on a ledger containing names of those who have received cash. But documenting this is not always possible, especially in door-to-door transactions.

In fact, one of the latest vote buying busts happened not because of a report directly to the poll body, but because of a police operation that uncovered envelopes in four boxes containing a total of ₱800,000 in a homeowners' association office. Police said the money would be used in a vote buying operation of Norzagaray, Bulacan Mayor Alfredo Germar and a candidate for councilor.

The Comelec Special First Division disqualified Germar and Rogelio Santos, Jr. in October 2013. The two appealed their case to the en banc, which initially dismissed their bid, but later on allowed them to sit in office because the en banc failed to muster the required majority of four votes.

The case was elevated to the Supreme Court which ruled in April 2016 that the en banc should not have applied the four-vote rule to Germar and Santos' appeal and should have disqualified them.

However, by this time, the two had been able to serve for most of the duration of their terms, and were already mounting their reelection bids. They won fresh three-year terms in 2016.

Now, Germar and Santos are running again, for mayor and vice mayor, respectively.

With the failure of the usual appeal to end vote buying, the Comelec has tried to turn to an alternative solution to the age-old problem.

The poll body tried to ban the withdrawal of more than ₱100,000 a day and the possession and transportation of cash exceeding ₱500,000 from May 8 to 13, 2013. It also attempted to prohibit the encashment of checks exceeding ₱500,000.

"That money ban represents an out of the box solution," Jimenez said. "It denies oxygen to the whole operation. Kasi kung wala kang [Because if you don't have] cash, paano ka magvo-vote buying [how would you buy votes?] You don't have to rely on the good behavior of the people."

But the ban was intensely frowned upon by banks and even by then-President Benigno Aquino III.

The Supreme Court eventually halted the implementation of the money ban, and the poll body has never attempted to revive it since then.

Jimenez said they are back to the drawing board on how to improve on the money ban, with the hopes of deploying it again in future elections.

But for now, all that they can do is to remind voters not to sell their votes and to report incidents of vote buying — their perennial reminder which seems to have routinely fallen on deaf ears.

*Names changed to protect their identities.