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Let’s Party! A Look at the Party-List system

A burst of applause and cheers greeted the chair of the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, Rep. Fredenil Castro, as he announced the new Supreme Court (SC) ruling making the party-list proportional representation system now open to various groups and political parties. Previously the system was an exercise exclusive to the “marginalized and underrepresented” sectors.

That was in 2014 in the 16th Congress at one of the committee hearings on the party-list system. I had the occasion to sit as a resource person from the civil society groups invited to join the deliberations of related bills. Facing the district and party-list congressmen at the committee hearing I began to understand why there was a tremendous joy. Who would not be? Seated in front of the resource persons were neophyte and seasoned politicians, many of them from the country’s rich and powerful. The mood was the same at the Senate’s counterpart Committee on People’s Participation and Electoral Reforms chaired by Sen. Koko Pimentel. More than half of the members of Congress came from political dynasties, the rich and powerful clans who have big economic stakes to benefit significantly because of the ruling. With the new scheme, one does not need to be from the marginalized sectors anymore to join the party-list and enjoy the same rights plus perks of the district representatives. Up for grab in the May 9, 2022 elections are 63 seats among 165 accredited party-list groups.

Thus, since the SC ruling, there has been a proliferation of party-list groups all over the country. The party-list system has become a convenient entry point for everyone, including retired traditional politicians, rich private organizations, corporations, and show businesses. Before, everyone scrambled and tried to beat the other to get to the first line of the alphabetically arranged list of groups in the lengthy ballot starting with the letter A as in Abante, Ako, Anak, ABC, Aray! Some attach their names to their ethnolinguistic or regional origins for easy recall, like Bicol, Waray, Bisaya, Mindanao. A few others adopt names representing special sectors like Komadrona, Bombero, Pulis, Musikero or advocacy issues like Brownout and Krimen. Other unscrupulous politicians organize party-list groups for their spouses, siblings, and children or those loyal to the incumbent president.

It’s party time for every Tom, Dick, and Harry!

Since the first party-list elections in 1998, people have gotten used to voting in the single-member district and casting an additional vote for a party-list representative every election. But the history of behavior in the fractious Philippine politics indicates a dangerous trend that the party-list system has become the gateway for vested oligarchic interests or clans out to perpetuate power. It is no longer unusual for voters to see the name of a candidate for district congressman alongside the name of a relative running as a party-list nominee or of former government officials or barkada running in tandem as nominees.

A study of the 2019 polls showed 46 Comelec-accredited party-list groups had at least one nominee linked to a political clan or an influential figure in the country. “Proportional representation” has become misrepresentation. It is a mockery of democracy when a landlord-led party-list group proffers to represent farmers or a human rights violator-led party-list advocating peace and development. The SC ruling has unlocked a political rigodon of politicians hopping from district representation to party-list after each term, or of the wife/husband/children or friends substituting for the party-list seat in a never-ending revolving door.

In Bicol, old and new party-list groups have joined this somewhat aberrant behavior. Bicol Saro, Kusog Bicolandia (KB), Ako Bicol, and One UTAP Unified Transport Alliance Phils- Bicol (1-UTAP) are listed as accredited party-list groups carrying the Bicol trademark. Accessing each FB page or website, I found a common background, organizational profile, and similar platform, i.e., “to develop Bicol and help the Bicolanos.” The first three are regional political parties, while the 1-UTAP is a sectoral party-list for transport drivers. In one write-up in Bicol Mail, Luis Ruben General pointed out a common criticism about how these regional party-list groups would duplicate the work of the district representatives and have nominees belonging to the rich and “not representing the marginalized and underrepresented sectors.”

So, let’s understand why and what is the difference between them? What is the party-list system in the first place? Doesn’t it duplicate the role of the district representatives, if at all?

The 1987 Constitution created the party-list system as a powerful mechanism for the legislative participation of the “marginalized and underrepresented.” A social justice tool, it was envisioned to give more power to those who have less in life and become veritable lawmakers. It hopes to transform and offer a break from the trapo (literally old rug or traditional politician) and personality-oriented politics towards a more program-based political system that is responsive to the needs and concerns of the people. In 1995, Congress enacted the Party-List System Act (RA No. 7941) to enable Filipinos in marginalized sectors to have a voice in Congress and empower them to participate directly in enacting laws for their benefit. Originally, the party-list was open to the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous people, women, teachers, youth, handicapped and elderly, migrant workers, middle-class professionals, and other disadvantaged sectors. How? By ensuring that 20% of the total number of congressional seats is reserved for the “marginalized and underrepresented.” The first party-list groups that struggled to give meaning to this, like Bayan Muna and Gabriela, who won seats in the past Congresses, represented their respective sectors.

The SC ruling, however, changed all that. Today, the party-list system has become a free-for-all party, with groups led by and representing the interests of the elite. To help address a loophole in this aberration, many suggest to make permanent the reserved seats for real marginalized and underrepresented sectors in Congress.


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