Out of context

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ORGIES OF overspending, vote-buying, intimidation and outright coercion, and exercises through which a few political families have monopolized practically every elective office from city councilor to President, Philippine elections are already a mockery of representative democracy. The latest Supreme Court decision declaring the party list system open to established political parties will make them even worse travesties.

By a vote of 10 to two, the justices overturned the Court’s own declaration 12 years ago that only marginalized and underrepresented sectors can participate in party list elections, and instead allowed other political parties and groups to run for seats in the House of Representatives.

The main argument of the decision as articulated later by some of the justices is that the party list system was put in place to allow pluralism in the legislative process. The decision thus declares that those political parties that are “ideological” but which do not have a “well-defined political constituency” must be allowed to participate in the system as well.

True enough. But the decision opens the system not only to small political parties and sectoral groups, but also to the bigger, more organized, heavily funded parties that are already in government and that have monopolized political power for decades and which have no ideological foundations to speak of except that of power – the very same problem the party list system was supposed to remedy.

The decision also declares that regardless of economic status, the citizens who belong to such parties can participate in party list elections. The declaration legalizes the ongoing penetration of the system by groups organized by the wealthy for no other purpose than to assure themselves of seats in Congress with relative ease. These made-to-order groups, often disguised as representing educators, jeepney drivers, and security guards, or as regional and local parties, have none of the ideology the decision mentions except that of keeping things the way they are, which places them in the same category as the political parties that have been in power since the Commonwealth period – and with which they are in many cases connected.

Against these groups the truly marginalized and underrepresented sectors will have to contend — and are likely to contend in vain, given the inherent advantage possession of huge campaign war chests, machinery, access to State facilities, funds and personnel endow them — and, let’s not forget, the advantage as well of name recall because of the dominance in the political system of dynasties whose names have been imprinted in the collective minds of the electorate for decades. The decision drives one more nail into the coffin of democratic representation.

The pointed inclusion into the 1987 Constitution of party list representation in the House of Representatives ( “The House of Representatives shall be composed of not more than two hundred and fifty members… and those who, as provided by law, shall be elected through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations”) is implicit recognition that Philippine representative democracy is neither representative nor democratic.

Section 2 of the Party List law (RA7941) thus declares that the system is meant to promote proportional representation by enabling marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties to send representatives to the House. (“Section 2. Declaration of Policy- “The State shall promote proportional representation in the election of representatives to the House of Representatives through a party-list system of registered national, regional and sectoral parties or organizations or coalitions thereof, which will enable Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies but who could contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole, to become members of the House of Representatives.”)

The Constitution also mandates that “For three consecutive terms after (its) ratification, 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.”

Therefore, (1) the system is meant to assure proportional representation; (2) it is representation in the House of marginalized and underrepresented sectors that will assure it; and (3) the phrase “marginalized and underrepresented” refers to labor, peasant, and urban poor groups, as well as indigenous cultural communities, women, youth and “such other sectors as may be provided by law.”

Both the Constitution and RA 7941 are responses to a reality that has been acknowledged and condemned since 1946: that only the handful of wealthy and already powerful families have sat in the legislature and other centers of political power in the Philippines. This has resulted in, among other consequences, the making and implementation of policies that have preserved the uneven distribution of wealth in the Philippines that’s based on such unjust social structures as the land tenancy system. Every effort at authentic land reform has thus been foiled by a Congress dominated by landed interests and their representatives and surrogates, for example.

The Constitution of 1987 was drafted by, among others, individuals whose experience with, and analysis of the state of Philippine society convinced them that representation in the House of Representatives of marginalized and underrepresented groups could help craft legislation to address such festering social justice issues as the uneven distribution of land and other resources in Philippine society; worker wages and benefits; gender equality; the poverty and absence of opportunities among indigenous peoples; the protection of the environment; and other equally vital but ignored concerns.

Unlike either the Constitutional provision or RA 7941, the Supreme Court decision completely ignores the political context of skewed representation in favor of the wealthy the party list system was intended to correct, if only partially.

It’s a view of the party list system alienated from the conditions — the absence of representation of indigenous peoples, workers, peasants, and women among others and the glaringly evident representation in Congress of landed and other vested interests — that gave it birth, and which the drafters of the Constitution had in mind when they put the system in place. Those conditions they sought to remedy because they have not only denied the Filipinos who belong to those sectors a voice in legislation. The same conditions have also prevented the transformation of Philippine society towards reducing poverty, and providing the poor with opportunities for advancement, education and social mobility.

It may be that the Supreme Court decision was totally based on what the law says, but because decontextualized, the decision ignored its spirit.

(BusinessWorld)

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