Party-list, an experiment gone berserk
The framers of our 1987 Constitution imported the party-list concept from parliamentary governments, notably of Germany, and embedded it into our American-based presidential system purportedly as an “experiment.” Unfortunately, that experiment has gone berserk, or, to quote the Inquirer editorial on Oct. 27, is “speeding up the country’s pell-mell rush to democratic hell.”
A political mongrel bereft of local ancestry, the Filipino-style party-list was, from inception, wobbled by two major challenges: (1) Who can qualify for and hold party-list seats, and (2) How many should they be? My limited space today can tackle only the first, and the second, next Sunday.
Ang Bagong Bayani vs Comelec (June 26, 2001) held, by a vote of 9-5, that only those parties or organizations and their nominees “who belong to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors” were qualified to hold party-list seats.
The Court stressed, “The intent of the Constitution is clear: to give genuine power to the people, not only by giving more law to those who have less in life, but more so by enabling them to become veritable lawmakers themselves… The law crafted to address the peculiar disadvantages of the Payatas hovel dwellers cannot be appropriated by the mansion owners of Forbes Park…”
Eight years later, Banat vs Comelec (April 21, 2009) went further by excluding the major political parties from party-list elections, since they were already well-represented in the district polls.
These two rulings were however modified and/or reversed by Atong Paglaum vs Comelec (April 2, 2013), which held that the “party-list system is composed of three different groups: (1) national parties or organizations; (2) regional parties or organizations; and (3) sectoral parties or organizations.” Items 1 and 2 need not represent any “marginalized and underrepresented” sector. It is sufficient that their members advocate common ideologies or governance principles, “regardless of their economic status as citizens.”
However, a major political party (like PDP-Laban or Liberal) “that fields candidates in legislative elections can participate in party-list elections only through its sectoral wing,” which must have its own constitution, bylaws, platforms, officers and members, a majority of whom belong to the sector (labor, peasant, fisherfolk, professionals, women or youth wing) it purports to represent.
The Court interpreted the words “marginalized and underrepresented” primarily in their electoral sense, that is, to benefit those who cannot win district elections for any reason, and only secondarily in their social justice sense, that is, to benefit those who deserve more law because they have less in life.
This new “verba legis” interpretation, in my humble view, has enabled the rich, the powerful and the dynasties to corner the party-list as an easier and cheaper backdoor to Congress. Ironically, they elbowed out the truly poor and powerless from being veritable lawmakers themselves.
As the decision writer of Ang Bagong Bayani, I fought valiantly, if I may say so myself, to reserve the party-list for the poor and the powerless via a liberal construction of the Charter and the law. And during his tenure, CJ Reynato S. Puno, my successor as the Court’s primus, equally fought hard in Banat, through his separate opinion, to bar (by a slim 8-7 vote) the major political parties from the party-list. Regrettably, during her watch, then CJ Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno’s spirited dissent favoring Ang Bagong Bayani was snowed down by an avalanche of votes for Atong Paglaum.
As early as 2001 when Ang Bagong Bayani was promulgated, I already urged Congress to craft a clearer-worded law to make sure “marginalized and underrepresented” would refer to the poor and powerless only. However, those who benefited from it by their party-list victory failed to secure the legislative clarity that could withstand a “verba legis” scrutiny.
Now, after the moneyed, the powerful and the dynasties have captured the party-list, these amendatory clarities may no longer be feasible, except possibly through a Charter change crafted by a constitutional convention, not by a constituent assembly of Congress.
Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@ hotmail.com
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