Marginalizing the party list

The party-list system is probably the most important feature of this year’s election.  But there has been absolutely no indication that the general public and the leaders of the country think so.  By the shabby treatment they have so far received from the Comelec, party-list groups are beginning to look more like nuisance candidates — objects of patronizing attention — than pioneers of a novel democratic experiment.

Jay Sonza’s Tapatan episode last Wednesday gathered a whole bunch of them in the cramped studio of GMA-7 so they could explain what their groups stood for.  But because there were so many of them, some did not get even the chance to say what their acronyms meant. In what seemed like a desperate bid to maximize the scant TV exposure they were getting, the various invited groups jostled against one another for space as the camera coldly scanned their faces and banners.

In an ideal context, the entire scene would have signified a vibrant democracy in action.  But here, the tapestry of names and acronyms held out before the TV camera became just another pathetic populist backdrop to the main event of elitist politics.  If one cared to listen carefully, one would have been impressed by the seriousness and urgency of the discussion.  Alas, the visual performance conveyed something else; what one remembers are all the marks of marginality.

One wonders what kind of treatment awaits the genuine party-list groups at the House of Representatives if they should win any seats. It took a long time before their predecessors, the appointed sectoral representatives, could begin to neutralize their image as second-class legislators.  Some of the elected trapos openly regarded them with contempt and staunchly denied them the courtesies accorded to members of the House.  The manner in which sectoral representatives had been chosen is mainly to blame for this attitude.  Their selection depended less on the power of the sectors they were supposed to represent than on their personal acceptability to the president and powerful politicians.

The election of party-list representatives will hopefully erase the stigma that paralyzed appointed sectoral representatives in a chamber dominated by elected politicians.   Nevertheless, the widespread confusion over the party-list system could resurrect the same biases that had relegated the sectoral representatives to a peripheral position in the House.

In a paper written for Kasarinlan, the journal of the UP Third World Studies Center, Dr. David Wurfel, a noted scholar of Philippine politics, traces the origins of this confusion to the deliberations of the 1986 Constitutional Commission as well as to the text of the 1995 Party-List Act.   “In the ConCom debates,” Wurfel notes, some commissioners were under the misimpression that the party-list system was equivalent to functional representation.”  Party-list or proportional representation, a feature of many western democracies, is completely different from sectoral or functional representation.  RA 7941 tried to clarify this confusion by treating sectors as only one type of organization that can join the party list, instead of equating them with the party-list itself.

But the confusion persists.  The vocabulary of sectoral representation, introduced by Marcos during Martial Law as a mechanism of cooptation, survives in the party-list law, as well as in the consciousness of those who seek an alternative route to Congress.  Wurfel examines the text of the party-list law and observes: “Sectoral party, sectoral organizationand political party are carefully defined in Sec. 3, even though the distinctions are meaningless in the subsequent sections of the law.  In fact, twelve sectors are enumerated, but there are no provisions for refusing to register parties or groups formed around other unnamed sectors.”

Wurfel suspects that the distinctions were part of earlier bills that intended to set aside 50% of the party-list seats in favor of the enumerated sectors.  When the final version came out however, the law reserved no special treatment for sectoral groups, but the “drafters forgot to remove the definitional distinctions.”

Thus even the Comelec’s belated information plugs continue to talk of the party-list system as a mechanism for ensuring that underrepresented sectors of our society will have their voice in Congress. The underlying concept remains still one of political tokenism.  And because the benefits must be spread out among the needy, the law puts a limit on the number of representatives that a group can elect — three.  This provision, Wurfel says, is not found in any other country with a party-list system.  Its insertion in our party-list law pits people’s organizations against one another and discourages the formation of broad political coalitions around a common progressive agenda.

The main purpose of a party-list system is to compel the voting public to choose leaders not on the basis of who they are but on the basis of what their parties or organizations stand for.  It is meant as an antidote to the excessive personalism that has effectively concealed the forces and interests that dominate our national life.

The modified tokenist party-list system we have right now will not accomplish these purposes.  But it may well show us the path to authentic political reform.  Groups like Akbayan and Abanse Pinay! have thus a duty not only to win seats in this election but to explain the alternative concept of proportional, rather than sectoral, representation.


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