President Rodrigo Duterte wants the party-list system scrapped, saying it has been abused. The opposition from party-list groups and representatives was expected.
Indeed, the party-list system is a mechanism that is necessary to keep the democratic flame burning, but our experience in the past years provides proof that it has gone bad. It has failed to serve its purpose of providing proportional representation in legislation for the marginalized sectors.
The President’s wish cannot be done overnight because the party-list system is provided for in the 1987 Constitution and, in effect, through an enabling law, that is, Republic Act No. 7941. So it can only be removed when the Constitution is amended, rewritten or revised. And we all know that previous administrations have attempted to amend it but members of Congress could not agree on how it should be done. They tried all three modes provided in the Constitution – people’s initiative, constituent assembly, and constitutional convention – but none ever prospered.
The incumbent President’s expressed desire to rewrite the Constitution early on in his administration may spell a difference. Unlike him, some of his predecessors were highly suspected of being interested only in extending their terms of office via a Charter change.
Section 5, Article VI (The Legislative Department) of the 1987 Constitution provided that 20 percent of the House of Representatives should be representatives “elected through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations.”
For three consecutive elections from 1988 to 1995, party-list representatives came from sectors representing labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women and the youth. They were chosen by the President from a list of nominees submitted by organized sectors.
In 1995, Congress managed to get RA 7941 through the legislative mill, and the first party-list election was held in 1998. The May 9, 2016 elections marked the seventh time Filipinos voted for party-list representatives. Yet, a good number of the electorate remained either unaware of or indifferent to the party-list election.
Adding to the low level of awareness about the party-list system is the confusion caused by the dizzying interpretations that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Supreme Court have of the Constitution and RA 7941, resulting in changes to the rules almost every time elections are held, such as on the 2 percent threshold in the distribution of party-list seats.
The party-list system was intended to help narrow the gaps of representation in Congress by allowing marginalized or underrepresented sectors in an institution that is controlled by big traditional political parties and families.
But recent experiences have shown us that the established political parties have – as Senator Panfilo Lacson described it –bastardized the party-list system. They managed to do that by either fielding candidates or organizing party-list groups to accommodate traditional politicians who could not occupy slots in the political parties, and to neutralize the impact of left-leaning parties winning seats so they could push their agenda in Congress.
Under the party-list system, a voter casts his vote for a party-list organization rather than for an individual candidate. These organizations are given seats in the House of Representatives based on the proportion of votes they get. This way, the electorate is given a bigger voice as more parties may be voted into office. They submit a set of up to five nominees who would take the legislative seats once their parties garner the required number of votes cast in the election.
In the 17th Congress, the Comelec has proclaimed 46 winning party-list groups getting 59 seats at the House of Representatives, with one group getting three slots, 11 have two each and the rest, one each.
The Comelec has become lax in accrediting party-list groups, but then the Supreme Court said in a 2013 decision that groups, even political parties participating in the party-list elections, need not be marginalized for as long as they register under the party-list election and do not field candidates in the legislative districts.
The SC ruling also allowed political parties fielding candidates in legislative district elections to participate in the party-list elections through a sectoral wing that can separately register under the party-list system. The sectoral wing is by itself an independent party, and is linked to a political party through a coalition.
The party-list system has truly become a politics of accommodation.
As Duterte said, the rich and the powerful have made a mockery of the law on the party-list system.
With a new Constitution, “I will insist: no party-list,” he said.
Representative Edcel Lagman of Albay, one of the authors of RA 7941, is putting forward some viable reforms to the law in the hope of saving it from the monopoly of the rich and powerful political families who seek to perpetuate themselves in public office.
What should be done really is to make the law more perfect by ensuring that “only the marginalized are represented,” Lagman said when interviewed on television a few days ago.
For one, he said, the Comelec should not “open the doors to pseudo-representation.” Another is for the Supreme Court to stop “pendulum decisions” on the party-list system, citing the 2013 decision that “expanded the incursion of party-list representation” by ruling that they may “belong to those lacking definite political constituency even if they do not have to be marginalized.”
Unless Duterte really puts his foot down against the manipulation of the party-list elections, I seriously doubt if it can be scrapped, given the composition of the present Congress. Even if a Con-con is convened to amend the Constitution, I don’t think its delegates would be any different from Congress, and I don’t expect them to easily let go of something from which their families benefit.
You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so it is said.