Experiment gone berserk
Some say that the recent Supreme Court ruling on party-list groups will open the floodgates for the rich and powerful to seize parliamentary seats reserved for the poor and powerless. Their fears are misplaced.
On the contrary, the decision should rein in the power of the Commission on Elections to concoct bizarre standards on which group is truly “marginalized.” It minimizes the subjective test of whether a group is disadvantaged based on ever-shifting goalposts at the Comelec. It prefers the more objective test of whether that group is underrepresented through traditional district politics and should thus gain entry through the nontraditional route.
The Court’s most recent decision consists of 54 petitions filed by party-list groups excluded by the Comelec from the May 2013 elections, and all consolidated under the lead case of the group Atong Paglaum. It held that party-list groups “do not need to represent any ‘marginalized and underrepresented’ sector” provided they are “lacking in ‘well-defined political constituencies.’” Their nominees need not belong to their purported sector provided they have a track record of advocacy for that sector. Political parties may also participate through a so-called “sectoral wing,” and the nominees must belong to that party.
To start with, even under the old rules, we already had the problem of Forbes Park dwellers pretending to come from the hovels, to borrow the Court’s earlier metaphor. The Atong Paglaum decision did not create that problem. How else could a Mikey Arroyo have sat as the congressman for the party-list Ang Galing Pinoy, representing the country’s security guards, tricycle drivers, farmers and small businessmen? Wasn’t that most absurd and perverse, a shining exemplar of the Constitution’s good intentions run aground in politics?
But the real mischief in the old rules was that we suddenly faced sectors that claimed to be “marginalized and underrepresented” and the Comelec, bereft of any real standards, was unable to separate the bogus from the bona fide.
Witness the circus over which the Comelec presides, the varied mix of groups that were denied accreditation: artists, a teachers’ loan association, agriculture and cooperative sectors, coconut producers, the innocent who are in jail (under the rather catchy name Kapatiran ng mga Nakulong na Walang Sala Inc., or Kakusa), rural energy consumers, electric cooperatives, Ilonggos, “Bikol,” “Bisaya,” “homeowners’ associations, entrepreneurs and cooperatives,” journalists, drug counselors, veterans and the youth, and—to top it all—the party-list named The True Marcos Loyalist (for God, Country and People) Association of the Philippines Inc.
Worse, the Comelec may have unwittingly joined the circus itself. One, it has excluded an environmental group because “the party is an advocacy group and does not represent the marginalized and underrepresented.” The Comelec was a bit too literal with the rules; Mother Earth may be disadvantaged, but it is not a sector. Two, it has excluded party-list groups that had earlier won a congressional seat but which have failed to live up to their promise, “fail[ed] to present activities that sufficiently benefited its intended constituency.” Indeed the Comelec may be right, but it doesn’t have the right to preempt the voter’s judgment to vote or oust a nonperforming official. Three, it has disqualified groups because they claim to represent sectors “with conflicting interests” (e.g., drivers and operators) or with overlapping but distinct interests (e.g., urban poor youth and urban poor). Again, the Comelec makes substantive choices usually left to the wisdom or folly of the voter, which is how democracy works.
The separate opinion of Justice Arturo Brion aptly structures the debate as one between the party-list system as a social justice tool or as an electoral reform measure. As a contributor to the Inquirer has said: “It is time to disclose constitutional law’s dirty secret: The party-list system was not intended solely for marginalized sectors.” It likewise aimed at giving smaller parties a fighting chance even if their constituents are dispersed widely and not in a single district. The party-list system speaks of giving a voice to the voiceless. We have tried, but failed, to identify authoritatively the muted sectors. The latest ruling can still help us amplify the voices, however feeble, of the cause-oriented and the activist who would speak and not be silenced.