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Untangling the mess that is the party-list system

The reputation of the party-list system has long been diminished and its effectiveness continues to be debated.

Different sectors within the country have different needs. The creation of the party-list system in the 1987 Constitution aims to offer these sectors an avenue to voice out their concerns. Although the system acknowledges and gives way for the underrepresented to be represented, issues surrounding misrepresentation arose over the years, especially with different interpretations of the law.

A social justice provision

Republic Act (RA) 7941, more commonly known as the Party-List System Act, refers to a mechanism that allows marginalized and underrepresented sectors to organize their own coalitions and to register these under the Commission on Elections (Comelec). One of the main purposes of RA 7941 is to allow underrepresented and “marginalized” sectors to send representatives to Congress, where they will voice their sectors’ concerns during the law-making process. Additionally, the said act, according to Philippine Air Transport and Training Services College of Aeronautics Political Science Professor Felizardo Sumpay, aims to achieve “the broadest possible representation of all interests”.

University of Michigan Political Science Professor Allen Hicken also adds that “the party-list is generally designed to represent broader interests and to try to strike a balance between individual candidates and voters.”

Furthermore, Atty. Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, mentions the decision penned by former Associate Justice Antonio Carpio where the phrase “marginalized and underrepresented sectors” not only applies to the economic status of the party-list but also extends to its political status as well.

“The party-list system is one of the social justice provisions of the Constitution…that recognizes economic, political, and social inequalities in the country,” Monsod explains.

Problematic system

While the framers of the Constitution presumably had good intentions, people of different political backgrounds have generally agreed—although for different reasons—that there needs to be a systematic change toward the current party-list system.

In separate interviews, Bayan Muna third nominee Amirah Lidasan and current Bayan Muna Representative Ferdinand Gaite agree that reforms in the system are needed. For Gaite, the system has been invaded by “the same ruling class which [were] originally barred [from the party-list system].” which led to the “bastardized” version of the system today as labeled by Lidasan.

Political science professors have also weighed in on the topic. Sumpay agrees that the system is problematic, echoing concerns such as it being infiltrated by political clans. He also points out that in the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, party-list nominees do not necessarily need to come from the sector they are representing.

“Nominees [do not necessarily need or are not required] to be a member of that sector [that the party-list represents]. So for example, a lawyer representing the magsasaka, that nominee can represent their interest and it (the ruling) does not require that the lawyer must belong to that sector,” he furthers.

On the other hand, Hicken states that the system was not abused as it is “not inconsistent with the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 2013.” However, he mentions that there are inconsistencies between the 2013 Supreme Court decision and the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution.

“So if the goal was to represent disadvantaged and marginalized groups, [the system is] not a complete failure because some of these [marginalized] groups are getting elected and getting seats,” says Hickens. He continues, “But the fact that politicians now have been able to use this as a backdoor for their interest, to get representation through the party-list [system], that certainly seems to sort of be stretching the meaning of the term ‘disadvantaged’ and a violation of the principles—at least as I understand—behind the party-list as originally conceived.”

In a separate interview, Monsod contradicts this notion by supporting the 2013 Supreme Court decision. “It was time to correct the erroneous previous decisions of the Supreme Court because there has been a lot of confusion on what the intent of the constitutional provision was. “There was also, I think, a very, very poor implementation by the Comelec of the party-list system. It (the 2013 decision) was timely and Justice Carpio got it right,” he states.

Meanwhile, Legal Network For Truthful Elections Policy Consultant Atty. Izah Reyes cannot recall any court decision stating the abuse of the system. However, she recounts receiving complaints from partner organizations as the little power they have continues to diminish as election years go by.

Countering disproportional representation

Proposals have emerged to counter issues of misrepresentation and to prevent distortion of proportional representation. As per the interviewees, there needs to be a clear definition of what “marginalized” and “underrepresented” really mean as there are debates on who really are deserving to run under the party-list system. Furthermore, a review of nominee qualifications is also sought as politicians use the system as a backdoor to have wider control over the law-making process.

Former Comelec Commissioner Atty. Luie Tito Guia also suggests the removal of the three-seat capacity limit—a limit which Hicken describes as unusual—to avoid “unfilled seats”.

More seats in the Congress would also promote a better conversation between the district and party-list representatives who are often relegated as “second class politicians,” states Lidasan.

“Twenty percent is so small para magkaroon ng conversations and debates sa gigantic crowd ng mga district representatives. Nakaka-overwhelm, so mas maganda sana ‘yung mga ‘true party-list’ representatives, ‘yung talagang galing from the grassroots would have more access and would have more representatives inside Congress for party-list representation.” adds Lidasan.

(Having only 20 percent of the seats is overwhelming. It would be better if “true party-list” representatives from the grassroots…)

Guia furthers that party-lists should be “capacitated” to develop their own platforms and nurture their own members.

“What is essential, however you reform the procedure, is that parties become capacitated to act as real political parties,” he emphasizes.

Comelec’s effectivity

The most highlighted issue among all other issues presented against the party-list system is the infiltration of political dynasties within the party-list system. Citing the case of former Ang Galing Pinoy Party-list Representative Mikee Arroyo as the worst example, Monsod believes that the Comelec “has not really done a good job of screening the applicants for party-list.” This, in turn, leaves a lot to be desired from the Comelec to strictly scrutinize the legitimacy of party-list groups and their advocacies beyond the basic requirements set forth by the law and the 2013 Supreme Court decision.

On the other hand, another mandate of the Comelec, according to Section 10 of the RA 7941 is to “undertake the necessary information campaign for purposes of educating the electorate on the matter of the party-list system.” When asked about the effectiveness of Comelec in enforcing this mandate, Hicken believes that “Comelec has a lot on its plate” but “can certainly do more to educate voters.” He, however, maintains that voters’ education is just a part of a bigger problem regarding the party-list system.

“Vigilance is the price of liberty.” While heavy emphasis is placed on electing the correct candidates, voters should still practice careful consideration in choosing the party-list to avoid Batang Isinubo ng Magulang sa Politika politicians that do not really represent the sector they claim to be representing. At the end of the day, no matter how abused the party-list system may or may not be, there is no better substitute for an election to get the will of the people.

By The LaSallian

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