Sounding Board

The new party-list decision


If I approached the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the party-list system by way merely of a mechanical exercise in statutory construction, I might conclude that the Court has stripped the party-list system of its soul. The party-list system is not merely a restructuring of the membership of the House of Representatives. It is a peaceful revolutionary measure that introduces social justice into the structure of the House. The constitutional framers intended social justice to be the soul of the system and the latest decision has preserved that soul, although giving it a reading slightly differently from the way the earlier Ang Bagong Bayani decision read it.

The Court’s new decision begins by saying that the party-list system has three component parts: (1) national organizations, (2) regional organizations and (3) sectoral organizations consisting of “labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law.” This enumeration is lifted out of the text of the Constitution.

When the framers were deliberating on the Constitution, they saw the generally marginalized condition of the third component of the system.  But the framers also saw that the economic sectors were not the only groups suffering marginalization and underrepresentation. They also saw some national and regional parties suffering this disadvantage. Hence what they created was “a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations.” But since the original inspiration for the party-list system was the economically disadvantaged sectors, the national and regional parties, when included in the system, must, under the rule of  eiusdem  generis, also have the disadvantage of being “marginalized and underrepresented”—but not necessarily in the sense of being economically disadvantaged.

In the language of the ponencia itself, “The common denominator between sectoral and non-sectoral parties is that they cannot expect to win in legislative district elections but they can garner, in nationwide elections, at least the same number of votes that winning candidates can garner in legislative district elections. The party-list system will be the entry point to membership in the House of Representatives for both these non-traditional parties that could not compete in legislative district elections.”

I do not know if we are only playing with words here, but I find this citation from the ponencia to be a good inclusive definition of the phrase “marginalized and underrepresented.”

But whence did the quality of being “marginalized and underrepresented” come from when nowhere does the phrase appear in the text of the Constitution? It comes from the general concept of social justice under Article II of the Constitution. The current accepted meaning of social justice in jurisprudence is that those who have less in life, either economically or politically, should be given more in law. That is what the party-list system tries to do.

The  ponencia, however, also notes that, while Republic Act No. 7941 mentions “marginalized and underrepresented” in its Declaration of Policy, the body of the law itself does not explicitly require that party-list participants must all be marginalized and underrepresented. But, to my mind, that is because making such an explicit requirement would be a superfluity considering that the party-list system was conceived precisely for the benefit of the marginalized and underrepresented.

The ponencia also says that the phrase marginalized and underrepresented should refer only to those that by nature are economically marginalized. I take this to mean that the requirement of marginalization, understood in the economic sense, remains applicable to the economic sectors. But it does not mean that national and regional parties that are not economically marginalized may not participate even if they are also otherwise marginalized, for example, ideologically. That would be true if the Constitution limited social justice, the soul of the party-list system, to economic social justice, as the 1973 Constitution did. But the 1987 Constitution has expanded the meaning of social justice to include political justice. It can cover not just the economically marginalized but also the politically or ideologically marginalized. In the ponencia’s own language, “The common denominator between sectoral and non-sectoral parties is that they cannot expect to win in legislative district elections.”

When reports came out about the latest Supreme Court decision on the party-list system, the immediate concern of some was that it had stripped the party-list system of its social justice soul. What caused the concern were reports that being “marginalized and underrepresented” was no longer a requirement for participation in the party-list system. Partly true and partly untrue. What I understand from the Supreme Court decision in its entirety is that economic marginalization remains a requirement for the economic sectors because that is the source of their weakness, but not necessarily for the national and regional parties. For these latter parties, what is sufficient is political or ideological marginalization, even if the ponencia prefers to limit the word  marginalization. In this sense, the new decision is a partial departure from the decision in Ang Bagong Bayani. Thus, social justice as the soul of the system remains intact.

More need be said, but I have run out of space.

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Tags: party-lists , Philippines , Supreme Court

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