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Commentary

Party-list system’s dirty secret

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Commission on Elections Chair Sixto Brillantes is politics’ most feared janitor, thanks to his unprecedented party-list scouring to eject millionaires and alleged political dummies from a system designed to empower the marginalized. The scouring, however, finally exposes the confusion and schizophrenia inherent in the system’s design.

Everyone believes the cleanup is long overdue. First on the chopping block was Ang Galing Pinoy Rep. Mikey Arroyo, a son of an ex-president who became a representative of marginalized security guards. He did not even contest his party’s delisting. Previously, actor Richard Gomez presented himself as nominee for Mamamayan Ayaw sa Droga. Was he representing marginalized drug addicts? The son of El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde represents perennial powerhouse Buhay and a constituency of marginalized prolife advocates. These curious examples only punctuate the possible list of marginalized millionaires.

The scouring took a curious turn, however, after leftist groups asked the Comelec to delist Akbayan, another perennial powerhouse. With the greatest of irony, its Rep. Walden Bello found himself on the other side of a press conference that was raucously interrupted by rival Anakbayan. Such rivals argue that a party-list group cited by the President as part of the administration coalition, that is fielding Risa Hontiveros as a Senate candidate, and whose members have been appointed to key positions in the government, is no longer marginalized and underrepresented (note that this claim refers to the party, not its constituency).

It is time to disclose constitutional law’s dirty secret: The party-list system was not intended solely for marginalized sectors. It was also intended to empower smaller political parties regardless of sector, particularly those with a substantial following not concentrated in a single district. Constitutional Commissioner Christian Monsod, for example, argued that any group that can muster 500,000 members deserves a House seat. This would allow ideology-based parties such as an environmental party or regional parties for Bicolanos and Warays too weak to contest district seats. Under this vision, those who believe that cyberlibel was invented only in 2012, after Sen. Tito Sotto amended the cybercrime bill, may form a free speech party to amend the law themselves.

This second goal explains why the Constitution created “a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations.” The word “marginalized” is missing. “National” and “regional” refer to smaller political parties while “sectoral” refers to the marginalized sectors now familiar to us. The Party-List Act refers to “Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies.”

Then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, however, held in a judicial tour de force that the party-list system is solely intended for the marginalized, and the “national” and “regional” parties must be national and regional parties for the marginalized. He wrote: “The law crafted to address the peculiar disadvantages of Payatas hovel dwellers cannot be appropriated by the mansion owners of Forbes Park.” He also added that party-list nominees must be from the sector they represent. Chief Justice Panganiban’s formulation in the Ang Bagong Bayani case has gained universal acceptance, especially in the Comelec.

Akbayan is a model party-list group, not a bogus one, in the context of the lesser known policy goal of empowering smaller political parties championed by constitution drafters such as Monsod and Fr. Joaquin Bernas. There is no doubt that both the party and its individual nominees have unassailable track records representing the marginalized of various stripes. Beyond Ang Bagong Bayani’s requirements, Akbayan has an unmistakable party identity that transcends its increasingly prominent members and has successfully entered mainstream political debate.

Finally, the constitutional commissioners anticipated that small parties would ally with large ones. In the German system that the likes of Monsod referred to, such alliances split votes between a district candidate and a party-list, given there are two votes as in our system. Such alliances are the very fabric of politics and do not mean a party-list group is an administration front group.

Brillantes has taken on the herculean task of objectively enforcing the Constitution’s subjective goals. It is to his great credit that the public supports the purge. One hopes, however, that the Comelec treads carefully after the most obvious cases of abuse, given how someone like Walden Bello now finds himself on the same chopping block as Mikey Arroyo.

House representation for the marginalized has developed far more slowly than the Constitution’s drafters anticipated. The system clearly needs room to evolve given how subjective it is. In contrast to Mikey Arroyo, Bam Aquino can represent peasants despite his being the President’s cousin, given his long track record in social entrepreneurship. Billionaire Jaime Zobel de Ayala can represent veterans, having chaired the Hero Foundation for two decades. Abuses in the party-list system will not end until the electorate itself becomes conscious of what the bounds are, and tradition makes it unnecessary for the Comelec to conduct periodic scouring.

Oscar Franklin Tan (oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph) received the first Justice Vicente V. Mendoza legal writing prize for party-list system research [The Party-List System Revisited, 82(3) PHIL. L.J. 181 (2008), begun in 2002 as a freshman intern under UP Law Institute of Human Rights Director Ibarra Gutierrez].


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