Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.
Whenever I am asked what provision of the current Constitution I think should be amended, I do not say that nothing there deserves to be amended. In fact, I would be the first to say that what we have now is by no means a perfect document. It is a work in progress and will continue to be such for as long as the Republic lasts. In a recent talking engagement, I was asked what three provisions of the Constitution I would like to see amended. I gave two answers and one of them was for a serious reassessment of where the party list system has brought us. I was not surprised when that answer received applause. After all, it is widely publicized that the Comelec is now in the process of cleaning up the system.
The original inspiration for the introduction of this novelty into the Constitution was a fairly widespread desire to give the underprivileged sectors of society the capacity to represent themselves in the affairs of the nation. The idea was generally accepted as valid, but the problem was how to put it into a workable formula that could produce the desired result. Nevertheless the Constitution Commission went ahead to engraft it in the Constitution as an experiment. The experiment has been going on for twenty five years now. That the Comelec is now engaged in a major cleanup campaign is proof that we have not yet solved that problem. Should we continue the experiment or end it?
The experiment started with two related concepts found in the Constitution itself: sectoral representation and party-list representation. The first phase was sectoral representation. “For three consecutive terms after the ratification of this Constitution, one-half of the seats allocated to party-list representatives shall be filled, as provided by law, by selection or election from the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector.” How were they to be chosen? “Until a law is passed, the President may fill by appointment from a list of nominees by the respective sectors, the seats reserved for sectoral representation . . .” Sectoral representation lasted for nine years. Thereafter the party-list system came into force.
Under the party list system, disadvantaged groups would still organize by sectors. Next, they register themselves as parties, and present themselves to the electorate. Hence, during election time, every voter casts two votes: one for a district representative and one for a party list organization. A citizen can vote for any party. At the end of the day, the COMELEC tabulates the votes cast to determine how many votes each party or organization garnered.
In the earlier phase of the implementation of the system, only the party-list organizations which garnered at least 2% of the total votes cast for party-lists could win a seat in Congress. Under this rule, while the party lists were entitled to 20% of the total seats the seats in Congress, the 20% reserved for them mathematically could never be filled. Hence, the Supreme Court declared the 2% requirement as unconstitutional and the 20% share of party list organizations as mandatory. Now, the Comelec keeps choosing qualifiers until 20% of the total seats in Congress are filled.
The system as described seems neat enough. But why are party-list aspirants being disqualified?
First, it is a known fact that elections cost money. The three-term grace period given to sectoral groups was meant to enable them to build up their resources in order for them to be capable of competing in the political arena. That was a tall order and I doubt that they succeeded in gathering enough political strength.
Second, left to struggle in weakness, they become easy prey to stronger political parties or wealthy individuals with goals of their own. This easily results in the bastardization of the system.
Third, as pronounced by the Court, participation in the party-list system is limited to the "marginalized and underprivileged” and that the system is “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 Court laid down guidelines for the Comelec to apply in deciding which organizations qualify. Among the guidelines was the requirement that the parties or organizations must truly represent the marginalized and underrepresented sector. The Comelec now is finding that many aspiring organizations do not satisfy this requirement.
Moreover, the Court also ruled that party-list representatives themselves "must represent marginalized and underrepresented sectors." That is, they must have at heart the interest of the party they represent. The problem, however, is that possession of this ideological quality is not easily proved or disproved. How do you prove, for instance, that Mikey Arroyo has or does not have at heart the interest of the party he represents?
This is not to say that there are no leaders that have arisen from the ranks of party list organizations. A few have. But do their number justify the continuation of the experiment?
8 October 2012