Crumbs from the master’s table

The Commission on Elections has embarked on the unenviable task of cleansing the party-list system by weeding out groups that do not measure up to its understanding of what it means to represent a “marginalized” and “underrepresented” sector. This is a job that has long been waiting to be done; tackling it is far from easy. Every decision the Comelec promulgates canceling the accreditation of an existing party-list group is sure to be challenged at the Supreme Court, if not in the streets.

The complexity of the problem arises from the fact that the words “marginalized” and “underrepresented” that lie at the core of this controversy were originally used in the context of political rhetoric. Rhetoric aims to persuade, not clarify. No one bothered to specify the meanings of these terms when they were imported into the legal system. Their ambiguity will continue to haunt us. We cannot ignore the questions they pose to our self-understanding as a political community.

If the original intention is to build an inclusive political order by finding a way to represent sectors at the margins of the nation’s political life, can the party-list system be other than temporary? If the marginalized are to be permanently represented by one-fifth of the members of Congress, are we not then in effect acknowledging that the remaining four-fifths are there to represent the elites? Shouldn’t the long-term solution to political inequality be to restructure the entire political system, instead of creating sinecures for the weak?

On the other hand, wouldn’t the Comelec be more faithful to the spirit of the Constitution if, instead of bearing down on party-list groups, it started disqualifying candidates who have no visible qualifications other than their privileged affiliation to political dynasties? After all, the concept of marginalization or underrepresentation is no less vaguely defined by law than the concept of political dynasty.

But, perhaps more to the point, it is worth asking if the party-list system has evolved into anything more than the concession it was meant to be—a gesture aimed at pacifying discontent and legitimizing a political order run by the property-owning elite. That the political elites have not hesitated to help themselves to the party-list positions originally reserved for the underprivileged only seems to further attest to the emptiness of its promise as a mechanism of representation. But, what particularly worries me, as one who participated in the formative years of Akbayan, is what the party-list system may have done to the ranks of political progressives.

The ruling class of this country must feel amused to see Akbayan and Anakbayan, who represent two strands of the Philippine Left, fight over the crumbs that have fallen from the dining table of the powerful—instead of joining forces to attack the shameless way in which the latter cling to power. Not too long ago, the larger movements from which they sprang fired the imagination of a generation of Filipinos with their respective visions of an alternative socialist order. One sought to reform the existing political order by making full use of the open spaces carved by civil society, and partly by electoral participation. The other chose the path of armed struggle, and blended it with limited parliamentary engagement. It seemed clear to both at the time that winning elections under a flawed system could never be the primary goal of progressive politics.

Do they now seriously think that the party-list positions they occupy represent the fundamental realization of their historic struggles? I’m certain that their answer is no. And yet when one considers what the terrain of progressive work has been like since the Left entered party-list politics, one cannot help but ask how much in terms of ideologically-oriented organizing and advocacy has been given up in exchange for so little.

It took a while for the national democratic movement to come to a decision to join the party-list elections. Akbayan, in contrast, participated in the very first elections for party-list representatives, and managed to win a seat.  The dominant system was, in the beginning, not exactly keen to accommodate new participants who had previously shunned electoral politics. But this initial reluctance was soon overcome. Etta Rosales, Akbayan’s first representative, showed how progressive ideas could be injected into a chamber dominated by traditional politicians without endangering the system. Today, with more leftists joining Congress via the party-list system and becoming part of mainstream coalitions, the question is bound to arise: Are they still marginalized?

More precisely, shouldn’t political groups that have had the chance to wield power be competing for regular positions, instead of vying for the few places reserved for the marginalized? Some note that it may not have been a bad idea if the law had provided for term limits that would prohibit party-list groups that have served three successive terms from seeking reelection. Of course, had there been such limits, nothing would have stopped these groups from mobilizing the same forces under new names—in a variation of revolving chairs reminiscent of political clans.

The purging of fake party-list groups that do not represent anything but the same entrenched family interests is definitely a step in the right direction. But it is not certain how far the Comelec can go in questioning the accreditation of the ideological party-list groups without appearing to drive them back to the terrain of unconventional politics.