Thursday, July 8, 2010

What is the Party-List System?

With loads of help from the primer of Commission on Elections (Comelec) on the party-list system and select excerpts from my daughter’s law books, I gathered that the party-list system of election was intended by the Constitution to ensure that the voice of the marginalized sectors in society is heard in Congress. In theory, this is ensured by allotting 20 percent of the total number of Congressmen ( the members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives) to representatives coming from marginalized sectoral, regional and national parties, coalitions or organizations. Representatives elected via the party-list system are different from the members of the Lower House. The latter represent their constituents in their respective districts—their representation is thus based on geography. Party-list representatives represent the constituents of the marginalized sectors of society. These marginalized sectors are those belonging to the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors identified by law (Republic Act No. 7941, in this case), with the exception of religious groups.

The makers of our Constitution deemed it wise to include these sectors in Congress, which is populated with traditional political parties. The idea was that since the representatives or nominees (who each must be bona fide member of their respective parties) coming from these marginalized groups have a common vision and a clear constituency from whom their representatives derive their mandate to represent the group in Congress, the representatives are accountable to their constituents to pass laws that will directly benefit and protect their collective interest in Congress, under pain of removal as the party’s nominee. This setup is anathema to what we see in traditional political parties, which are perceived to revolve around personalities—thus lacking a clear constituency, ideology, and built-in mechanisms under which they may be held liable.

What It Takes to Participate

In order to participate in the party-list elections, an interested group will have to organize itself, create a solid constituency, and select leaders as preliminary steps to registration—a very tedious and difficult process in itself. The group must register itself as a sectoral party, regional party, sectoral organization, political party or coalition as defined under Republic Act No. 7941, by meeting the prescribed legal requirements and the basic requirement that the group must represent marginalized sectors.

To be Heard, to be Seen, and to Win

Winning a seat in Congress is no small feat. A fledgling or even an established sectoral group, belonging as it does to one of the marginalized sectors of our society, does not have the resources of traditional political parties and regular candidates for electoral office. There are simply too many groups out there—established and upcoming ones, on top of candidates to vote for. Getting voters to pay attention to the group and its platform is difficult to impossible for a group short on resources. One must factor in these things when thinking of the legal requirements to win that coveted seat. Like what was said earlier, 20 percent of the available seats in the House of Representatives are for party-list representatives. We started with 250 members of the House of Representatives, and that number has increased, following the reapportionments of legislative districts. The party-list group must win two percent of total party-list votes cast in the election to get a seat (2% cap) and each party is entitled only to a maximum of three seats (three-seat rule). I discovered that there is actually a formula for computing the number of seats for the winning parties, but I will not even attempt to explain it here.

How Party List Groups Fared in the Last Elections

I’d like to share with you some enlightening findings made by Ramon Casiple, the Executive Director of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reform and Adriano Fermin of the Ateneo School of Government. These authors wrote about how the party-list groups fared in the last elections, the factors that affected the party-list elections, and the performance of party-list groups in the past. If we as responsible voters are to gain a deeper understanding of the party list system, I think the articles made by these political analysts are a good place to start.

In 1998, only 26 percent of the voting population voted for party-list representatives—dismal but expected because this marked the first time the party list system was implemented. The voting percentage has since then improved to 53 percent as of the 2007 elections—a shame, really, because a stronger election turnout could have spelled a major difference for the party-list system. Capsile says that the poor voter turn-out could be attributed to several factors, namely poor voter education and the sheer number of registered party-list aspirants.

Much is Left for Voters’ Education on the Party List System

How ironic it is that party-list groups that represent the marginalized sectors of society are also marginalized in the media. It is true that not much attention has been given by the media to party-list groups and that the focus has been on politicians. Notice that over the years, there has been much talk about guidelines on how to choose and vote for candidates to fill in positions like the President and the senators, but I have yet to come across an article or news feature on how to choose party-list groups. I have to agree that media and the Comelec’s efforts to educate voters on the party-list system has much left to be desired in this regard.

To be fair to the media, however, even if it does afford the different party-list groups needed exposure, there are simply too many groups claiming to represent the interests of women or labor, for instance. If the Comelec itself and the courts are having a tough time figuring out which of the parties claiming to genuinely represent the marginalized sector really do, what more for us voters? I admit I am fairly confused and I frankly do not have the time or patience to go through the platforms and really get to know each party-list group vying for my vote.

Only 12 Parties Won Seats in 1998 (37 Seats Were Not Filled)

Earlier I mentioned that 20 percent of the total number of seats in Congress have been allocated for the party list. In actuality, not all the seats allocated for party-list groups were filled during the past elections. During the 1998 elections for instance, only 12 parties won seats and the 38 remaining seats allocated were not filled following the decision of the Supreme Court which stated that obtaining two percent of the total number of the votes garnered in the party-list elections is mandatory.

The seats allocated for the party-list groups were not filled because few groups were able to meet the two percent threshold required by the law as a consequence of poor voter turnout for the party list, too many contending groups, little voter education, and lapses in the law, as studies conducted point out. The fact that not all the seats allocated for party-list groups have been filled in turn have the effect of stifling the voice of party-list groups and the sectors they are supposed to represent in Congress. And this reflects on the legislative performance of the groups.

Not One Bill Has Ever Become Law

According to the study made by Fermin in 2001 on the party list groups that won during the 1998 elections, party-list groups have crafted laws that addressed the needs of their constituents. Unfortunately, none of the bills of national importance made by party-list groups ever became law—at the most, some only made it to the second reading. From what I understand, getting bills passed in Congress is essentially a numbers game. It is here that the party-list groups are at a disadvantage, looking at it from the constitutionally mandated 20 percent allocated seats and what’s actually happening today.

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