Revisiting how the partylist system is implemented

After being roundly criticized, two high-profile officials were recently shoved out of Malacañang – presidential spokesman Harry Roque and assistant presidential communication secretary Mocha Uson – and they are now seeking election to Congress: Roque to the Senate, Uson to the House of Representatives.

Their antics in opting to use the partylist system in the House (with Roque getting in and out of it within two days) have served to call attention to the urgent need to review the implementation of what was supposed to be a social justice tool for broadening democratic representation in the legislature.

Roque first announced he would be the first nominee of the partylist Luntiang Pilipinas, taking President Duterte’s advice “that the best option right now is to go back to Congress, which really was one of my options.” Then he changed his mind and filed his certificate of candidacy for senator. He explained, “My heart really is with the Senate. I’ve already won in the partylist (as first nominee of Kabayan in the 2016 elections, but he was later expelled by the party), been there, done that…”

Uson is the first nominee of AA-Kasosyo partylist, which won a seat in the House in 2010. In 2013 the National Bureau of Investigation implicated its representative, Nasser Pangandaman, in the P10-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam masterminded by Janet Lim-Napoles. Uson said she wasn’t aware of the group’s history, although she claims to have been its honorary member since 2016. Asked about the group’s link to the PDAF scam, she nonchalantly remarked, “Yeah, sure, everyone is tainted.”

What the case of the duo indicates is that each had gone shopping for a party-list group to wangle a nomination. Apparently they were not nominated in the conventions that the partylist groups, per Comelec rules, were required to hold in the last weeks of September.

In fact, Kontra Daya (the anti-electoral fraud group formed by the late priest-activist Fr. Jose Dizon in the early 2000s) has pointed to Roque’s brief dalliance with Luntiang Pilipinas as evidence of how the partylist system has become “not just a back-door for the rich and powerful to enter Congress; it has also become a fallback option for the same rich and powerful.”

“How did Roque secure a nomination in this partylist?” it asks. “Was he ever a member to begin with? Was he ever nominated through a convention? What does it say of the partylist groups that allow such shortcuts to happen?”

Recalling its initial campaign against fake partylist groups and unqualified nominees in the 2007 elections, Kontra Daya laments, “To this day, many nominations in the partylist system have become a matter of political expediency and do not require actual membership and track record of advocacy.”

The anti-electoral fraud group also recalls that, two years ago, it undertook a study on the system and came up with this conclusion:

“The Supreme Court decision (on April 5, 2013) on the qualifications of partylist nominees, along with very lax Comelec guidelines, in the context of a political system dominated by the rich and powerful, are to blame for the rise of the political dynasties in the partylist system. This development also makes it even harder for grassroots-based party-list groups to gain entry into Congress, as they face further marginalization by the rich and powerful dynasties.”

Let’s look back briefly at how this deplorable situation came to pass.

The 2013 SC decision cited by Kontra Daya is the tribunal’s second major ruling on the partylist system. It practically reversed the first ruling, issued on June 26, 2001, on the consolidated petitions filed by Bayan Muna and Bagong Bayani partylist groups questioning the participation of major political parties and big sectoral organizations in that year’s partylist elections.

The 2001 ruling, penned by former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, is worth revisiting. It denoted the partylist system – introduced in the 1987 Constitution – as a “social justice tool designed not only to give more law to the great masses of our people who have less in life, but also to enable them to become veritable lawmakers themselves, empowered to participate directly in the enactment of laws designed to benefit them.”

The partylist system’s intention, the ruling added, was “to make the marginalized and under-represented not merely passive recipients of the State’s benevolence, but active participants in the mainstream of representative democracy.”

“Allowing all individuals and groups, including those which now dominate district elections, to have the same opportunity to participate in party-list elections,” CJ Panganiban’s ponencia declared, “would desecrate this lofty objective and mongrelize the social justice mechanism into an atrocious veneer for traditional politics (emphasis mine).”

That ruling set eight guidelines for the Comelec in vetting partylist applicants and their nominees. Key elements of the guidelines were the following:

• The party must show – in its constitution, articles of incorporation and by-laws, history, platform of government and track record – that it represents and seeks to uplift marginalized and under-represented sectors (labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, elderly, handicapped, women, youth, veterans, overseas workers, and professionals);

• Majority of the party’s members should belong to these sectors; its nominees must also belong to the sectors; and

• The party must not be “an adjunct of, or a project organized or an entity funded or assisted by the government…”

The 2013 decision, penned by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, marked a significant departure from the Panganiban ruling. In propounding a different interpretation of the constitutional provision on the partylist system and the law enacted for its implementation (Republic Act 7941), it modified the eight guidelines of the earlier ruling by issuing six “parameters” under which national parties/organizations, regional parties/organizations, and sectoral parties/organizations can participate in the partylist-system elections.

Due to space limitations, I can’t cite the specific parameters here at this time. Essentially, the decision says that the partylist system is not exclusive to the “marginalized and under-represented” sectors, but that instead it’s a system of “proportional representation” open to all kinds of parties and groups.

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Published in Philippine Star
Oct. 20, 2018

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