The True Cost of a Political Campaign

To build a case for oneself in this country’s forthcoming national elections, a candidate requires charisma, connections, and billions of pesos in campaign funding

by Wilson Lee Flores

To build a case for oneself in this country’s forthcoming national elections, a candidate requires charisma, connections, and billions of pesos in campaign funding

One of the most daunting challenges that must be faced in order to have a shot at the presidency or the senate is preparing an election war chest.

Not only is our republic scattered into thousands of islands, we also have the world’s 12th largest population with a lot of dialects; that’s why 2010 vice-presidential bet Jojo Binay had to spend for airing TV and radio commercials of his supporter Senator Chiz Escudero in different major dialects nationwide. Even icon Fernando Poe Jr. needed funds. In fact, almost all politicos have “Jose Pidal” bank accounts.

National popularity in opinion surveys alone is not enough to translate into votes and victory, as shown by the exceedingly popular late actor FPJ in the 2004 election. Political advertising and mass rallies are only one aspect of a campaign. There are many other expenditures, from poll watchers to all sorts of expenses for local ward leaders.

A young tycoon told me that in the homestretch of that election, FPJ reportedly ran out of funds and had to ask help from close friends as well as supporters. However, a top movie producer told me that FPJ was different from other politicos: after receiving several million pesos in donation for a certain need, he had an excess of a few million pesos. FPJ remarkably returned the balance to the shocked film producer. The movie producer said: “In all my many years of dealing with all kinds of politicos, some even forgetting to say thank you after the election, FPJ was the only candidate who returned excess donations!”

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty financials of what it takes to win a national election, I wish to reiterate what a major politician told me at the height of the “Jose Pidal” scandal on alleged fake names for ex-First Gentleman Mike’s bank accounts: “The costs of campaigning for politicians can vary within a big range. Why? A popular politician needs to spend much less, but a less popular candidate has to spend more. That’s the reason I am telling you that almost all of us political leaders have our own ‘Jose Pidal’ bank accounts, not just Mike Arroyo. Like in my case, I have high survey numbers, therefore I get to receive more campaign donations and also I need to spend less. With my excess funds, the bankers themselves would call us to advise us to open ‘Jose Pidal’ accounts. A lot of these criticisms by my fellow politicos is plain hypocrisy for news headlines.”

That said, how much does it really cost to win an election as senator or president, in general?

Minimum price tag for presidency: P2 billion to P3 billion?

“A national candidate for president, vice-president or senator needs a minimum of P2 billion to run,” Dr. Temario “Temmie” C. Rivera, former chairman of the political science department at the University of the Philippines and now Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) senior research fellow, told me last June.

Dr. Rivera and his fellow UP Political Science Professor Bobby M. Tuazon discussed election campaign costs as part of their analyses of the 2016 election at the “Kapihan at Pandesal sa Kamuning” media forum, which was organized for the purpose of helping elevate issue-based political discourse. Both men said that the present political system is lopsided in favor of entrenched political dynasties, celebrities, and politicians connected to vested interests, due to the extremely high election campaign costs. No wonder political corruption remains endemic.

Why spend billions to win a job that pays so much less?

An 80-year-old businessman based in Makati agreed to grant me an interview on the condition that he remain anonymous due to his friendship with many national politicians. When I asked how much one needed to run for president or senator, he readily replied: “A candidate needs at least P2.5 billion to P3 billion to run for either president or vice-president. For a senator, a candidate needs at least P400 million upwards.”

What about the cost of running for a congressional seat? The businessman laughs and says, “It depends where you are running. Maybe you need only P500,000 to run for congressman in a barrio in Bontoc, but as much as P30 million to run in Makati.”

He added, “How can we have a good political democracy when you need billions to run for president and that position only pays a salary of P200,000 a month? Do you know former Senate President Manny Villar said he spent P3.2 billion to run in 2010 and he didn’t even win? In a country like Singapore with a political system institutionalized by the late Lee Kuan Yew, they pay their cabinet ministers $42,000 per month!

“My friend, the late Jobo Fernandez, used to earn P27 million a year as president of Far East Bank, but when President Ferdiand E. Marcos appointed him Central Bank governor, do you know he only got paid P50,000 a month? Then his son wanted to go to Harvard at that time, with annual tuition costing $16,000. Do you see how absurd our political system is and how badly we really need to reform our so-called democratic system?”

Personally, I still have faith in the self-renewal possibilities of our flawed American-style electoral system, despite the seemingly pervasive dominance of money politics. Why? The rise of social media democratizes access to information, and the steadily expanding middle-class of the Philippines and millions of Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) will hopefully create more discerning voters. A demographic shift towards younger voters will hopefully make them more critical of our broken traditional politics.