Revisiting the Party-List System (and What the Media Missed)

Written on July 1, 2010 – 10:29 pm | by mediaandelections |

Published on May-June Issue of the PJR Reports
By John Reiner M. Antiquerra and Rupert Francis D. Mangilit

An April 2010 report from Pulse Asia said that nearly half of the Filipino electorate would be going to the polling precincts unaware of the party-list system. But the media still covered the party-list elections least.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)’s monitor for the periods of April 12 to 16 and April 19 to 23 showed that only 25 of  723 television reports were on the party-list elections. What was worse was that only four of the 187 party-list groups were the subjects of these reports. Radio coverage was not good news, either, as the CMFR monitor for radio showed only 6 of the 77 reports are on the party-list groups.

While the media could have explained the many issues bedeviling the party-list system, they chose to focus only on its controversial aspects instead. One of the most covered party list groups during the period, Ang Ladlad (Out of the Closet), received coverage only after the Supreme Court reversed a Nov. 11 Commission on Elections (COMELEC) decision and granted it accreditation.

The COMELEC’s later decision on the fate of Ang Galing Pinoy (Great Filipino/AG), was likewise duly reported by the media only after the former upheld the latter’s accreditation even when its first nominee, presidential son and Pampanga Rep. Mikey Arroyo, hardly qualified it as a representative of a marginalized sector.

These cases, said various civil groups and political watchdogs, reflect COMELEC’s alleged faulty mechanism in recognizing which organizations are qualified to run in the party-list elections.

Regarding Ang Ladlad’s case, COMELEC seemed to be lost in the game, even when it claimed to have merely followed available guidelines. Christian Monsod, delegate to the 1986 Constitutional Commission and co-sponsor of the party-list provision, said in a May 20 interview that (Ang) Ladlad, earlier barred to run on moral bases, “was disqualified for the wrong reasons.”

Starting point

To enlighten the electorate, the media could have provided some explanation of why the party list system is now part of Philippine elections for the House of Representatives. Traditionally, all posts in the legislative chamber of government are elective. In 1976, however, an amendment was introduced in the 1973 Constitution providing seats for representatives from the labor sector. Commissioner Eulogio Lerum, during the deliberations of the Constitutional Commision, said this idea came about when President Marcos, during the early years of Martial rule, called for conferences acting as a body to resolve labor disputes. During the conferences, said Lerum, the labor sector had shown “it can act with maturity,” thus leading to the amendment. In the Election Code of 1978, representatives for farmers and the youth were added.

The appointment of sectoral representatives was adopted by the Eighth to Tenth Congresses, when the Con Com delegates gave President Corazon Aquino this prerogative through Sec. 7 of the Article on Transitory Provisions. It was only when the Party-list System Act of 1995 or Republic Act 7941 was passed that the party-list elections actually started.

The enabling law implements Article VI, Section 5 of the Philippine Constitution. Of the 285 seats in the Lower House, twenty percent, or 57, shall be given to party-list representatives. The party-list system, according to Monsod, was proposed upon the assumption that after nine years of sectoral representation, sectoral parties are strong enough to “engage in mainstream politics without the need of a reserved seat,” and eventually, effect concrete changes in an otherwise traditional and homogenous legislative.

While the Con Com delegates initially listed five marginalized sectors, they left the task of determining other marginalized groups to the legislators who would draft the enabling law.

Entry through the backdoor

RA 7941 broadened the scope to include the term “professionals” but Dr. Wilfrido Villacorta, Con Com delegate, believed its inclusion caused more harm. The term, he said, only served as an “escape [term] that allowed non-marginalized groups such as small entrepreneurs and physicians to form party-list groups.” Former Marikina Representative Romeo Candazo, co-author of enabling law, himself acknowledged the disadvantage of the “all-embracing” term.

But the bigger problem lies not on the term, or terms used, but on how political players, like outgoing President Gloria Arroyo herself, outsmarted COMELEC resolutions and the enabling law itself and use the system but to their advantage.

Records from the 13th Congress showed party-list groups which, while not directly fielded by Arroyo, had given her more than enough numbers to survive attempts to impeach her.  Such groups as ALIF, APEC, AVE, Butil, and Veteran Freedom were among the party lists that voted for the junking of all three impeachment complaints against Arroyo in September 2005.

Although media (Journal Online, ABS-CBN, have given some coverage to 1-UTAK, again, on controversial grounds after transport sector groups questioned the idea of Angelo Reyes representing them, no attention was given to actually question the ties that bind this, along with AG and the 13 other party-list groups, to Arroyo. And yet, media could have gotten that information.  The non-governmental Kontra Daya, for example, has a list of groups reportedly linked to the Arroyos by family, business and political ties in its website.

In some cases, however, the media have been ignored by decision makers. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), as early as 2007, had revealed that a memo from the Office of External Affairs ordered Malacañang to bankroll party-list groups (PCIJ also posted the counter plan here.) to pit against groups known to be critical of the Arroyo government. COMELEC, and the mainstream media, however, seemed to have shrugged off this information.


Another loophole can be seen in the law’s guidelines for nominees, which are so basic as to allow just anyone to participate: nominees can run provided they are natural-born Filipinos, at least 25 years old, registered voters with at least one-year residency prior to election, and bona fide members of the party for at least 90 days before elections.

This has further opened the party-list system to use and abuse, not only by Arroyo, but also by groups and individuals whose interests are as narrow as their own political ends. For one, children of senators and some outgoing local officials themselves have run for seats in the party-list. (Kontra Daya has provided a matrix. Click here).

Also, the rich may have realized—through the P200-million annual pork barrel—how a lucrative venture party-list representation can be. Records from the 13th Congress show that some “marginalized” parties were actually represented by multi-millionaires such as Ernesto Pablo and Edgar Valdez of APEC, and Guillermo Cua of Coop-Natcco to name a few. Likewise, a vigilante group founder and an army official with a record of human rights violations have managed to win party-list seats.

The foray of television personalities like Leo Martinez (Alyansa ng Media at Showbiz or AMS) into party-list politics surprisingly received lackluster coverage from the media (CMFR reported AMS was covered once in TV Patrol according to the March 15-19 and 22-26 monitors). That they actually ran could h

ave established how party-list politics has suffered from the infiltration of traditional personality politicking. It could have also pointed out another abuse of the system: the tendency to focus on who the nominees are rather than on what the party can actually offer platform wise.

Slipping through

Despite the scant coverage, Buhay (Life) has called the attention of the media and the public, thanks to the pro-life groups that called for a boycott of the said party-list. What the media overlooked, with the exception of Newsbreak (which can be accessed  here) was that putting moral grounds aside, given what Sec. 6 of the enabling law says, Buhay could have faced disqualification.

Section 6 of RA 7941 specifies that religious groups do not qualify as party list groups.  But Buhay’s main nominee is El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde’s son Rene.

The over liberal interpretation by the COMELEC of the Act is evident in its accreditation of 187 party-list groups representing a hodgepodge of pseudo- “marginalized sectors” (like  Filipino-Chinese, sorority members and miners).

Concretizing social justice

Fr. Joaquin Bernas argued during the Con Com debates that the concept of social justice, enshrined as early as in the 1935 Constitution, should be made practical. The Commission was faced with two options of doing it: give sectoral groups reserved seats, or allot seats of the Lower House for which sectoral and small political parties can vie.

Commissioners,  like the late Lino Brocka and Fr. Bernas, pushed for permanent seats because of the concern that these sectoral groups might not have the resources to match the more powerful and moneyed political parties who might also take advantage of party-list representation. But the key to win over the economically able, Monsod pointed out, is for sectors to become strong forces by forming coalitions.

In the end, the commissioners reached a compromise of reserving the seats for three terms before opening the seats to election through the party-list system. This compromise, said Fr. Bernas in the deliberations, does not only recognize the minimal political machinery and economic resources sectoral groups have, but also poses a challenge to strengthen their base in preparation for the time when the seats are subject to election.

What coalition?

But the apparent lack of understanding and appreciation of the Constitutional intent of coalescing among sectors has brought forth disunity among members of different sectors. Monsod said in the interview that party-list groups should realize that coalescing from within could actually make them a political force strong enough to effectively put their concerns forward in the national drawing table. If consolidated, a sectoral party can even “equal political parties that [usually] break down and come again,” he said.

However, the implementing law actually hindered coalescing because of the threshold of seats in the Congress. Section 11 of RA 7941 states that while a party-list group can get a seat for every two percent of the total votes for party list, it can only get as much as three seats. Felix Muga II of the Ateneo Math Department said in a 2007 forum that this three-seat limit further tolerated, and maybe even forced sectoral groups to break up into groups that, according to Monsod, actually push for the same ends.

While it may translate to more seats, the atomization of sectors like women (1-ABAA, Gabriela, BABAE KA, Buklod Filipina, Womenpower), farmers (AANI, ABA, Anakpawis, Butil, Abono, SABOD) and indigenous peoples groups (Katribu, ALIF, ATM, Katutubo), may also lead to spoiled votes for groups that will fail to reach the two-percent limit set by the enabling law.

More so, the atomization could make—and actually has made—the system prone to use and abuse by major political parties. PCIJ reported on April 29 how major political parties “piggybacked” on the party list groups like Butil and AGHAM to be able to air ads even after reaching the Comelec-prescribed limit. These groups aired ads that focused more on the standard bearers of the major political parties (Liberal and Nacionalista) rather than their platforms.

Numbers are a factor

Laws passed under the first batch of elected representatives under the party-list system reached 1,572, in comparison to the barely 300 laws passed by appointed sectoral representatives. However, the number of bills filed significantly dipped in the 13th Congress, to 774.

While  part of the reason could be frustration over the long legislative process, Bayan Muna representative Teddy Casiño was quoted in a PCIJ article as saying that the frustration comes more from the fact that most bills party-list groups have filed are still pending. Most of the bills they proposed, he said, would collide with the interests of the traditional politicians. In the end, it is still the interests of the latter, to which 80 percent of congressional seats are allocated, that prevail in legislation. The media could have looked at problems such as this, but mostly didn’t.

See related stories:

Election day coverage: Automation, at last!

Media Technology on Election Day 2010: Showdown or Showtime?

CMFR Monitor of the News Media Coverage of 2013 Elections

Given the special nature of the 2013 campaign and elections, the media’s role as credible and critical sources of information and analysis during the election season bears watching. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) is monitoring the news media coverage of the 2013 campaign and elections in the context of both the special circumstances in which they were taking place, and the opportunity for improved and meaningful reporting and analysis the exercise offered to the Philippine media. 

CMFR has been monitoring media coverage of Philippine elections since 1992, and in every instance has made recommendations towards the improvement of media coverage. These efforts have not been unrewarded. Changes in media coverage incorporating some of the recommendations of the CMFR monitor in 2004 were evident, for example, in the media coverage of the 2007 elections.

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