Blueprint for unrest

Ronald Gian Carlo Cardema
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The way the Philippine Party List System has worked since it was created by the 1987 Constitution to assure “proportional representation” in the House of Representatives, and the Party List Act (Republic Act 7941) passed in 1994, has provoked even the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to consider asking Congress to amend the law. But it is unlikely that that body will do so — at least not towards making it truly serve the voiceless and marginalized sectors of Philippine society.

Article VI of the Constitution specifies that half the 58 party list seats in the House of Representatives “shall be filled by the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector.”

The obvious intention is to assure the representation, even if only to a limited extent, of those sectors of the population that have historically been denied a voice in the so-called House of Representatives. The Constitution implicitly acknowledges that their concerns have not been addressed by a legislature whose membership has over the years mostly consisted of landlords, provincial despots, political dynasties and/or their surrogates, agents and allies.

But that reason-for-being of the Party List System was completely missing in RA 7941. As a result, the Supreme Court made it possible through a series of decisions for the already over-represented political parties as well as those who claim to represent such sectors as tricycle drivers and security guards but who are neither to seek party list seats. 

As indifferent to the voicelessness and underrepresentation of vast sectors of  the Philippine population as any warlord coven, the Supreme Court based its decisions on nothing more than the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The consequences are glaringly evident in the results of the May 13 party list elections. Billionaires are among the nominees of certain victorious party list groups as well as government officials and oligarchs from various dynasties. The case of a former National Youth Commission chair is specially demonstrative of how the system has been debased. The Comelec not only allowed his campaigning for his party list group while he was still in government and had access to its resources, but may even approve his representing it in the House despite his being overaged.

The Comelec did take note of how a system meant to represent the marginalized, in the hands of the most corrupt and most self-aggrandizing political elite in Southeast Asia and its minions, has morphed into just another means for the dynasties to keep their monopoly over lawmaking in this country. That dominance has over the decades made reforms practically impossible through legislative means, and made rebellion and the rise of armed social movements inevitable.  But like the passage of  an anti-dynasty law,  any amendment to RA 7941 that would help make representation in the House at least partly proportional through the Party List System is doomed to failure, that option not being in the interest of the ruling majority in government.

What could prosper, however, are amendments to make the System even more pliable to the manipulation of the creatures who claim to be this country’s leaders. The primary reason for that travesty would be the failure of the present regime to prevent the election of the party list groups that truly represent marginalized sectors. 

Despite police and military harassment, threats, intimidation and even the murder by supposedly unknown assailants of some of their leaders, these groups have nevertheless again won seats in the House. Even the fact that their number has been reduced, though not significantly, is unacceptable to the present regime, on the argument that they’re no more than “fronts,” allies and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Any similarity between the programs of such groups as Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Act Teachers, Kabataan Party List, etc. and the CPP’s doesn’t prove that allegation. But their detractors used the anti-communist bogey to campaign against them — and only partly succeeded. Whatever their political and ideological convictions, the fundamental issue, however, is whether the presence in Congress of these party lists has been and is of any value at all to the imperative of giving the marginalized a voice so they can be part of the public discourse on what can be done to address the country’s legions of problems.

That of course is the point of the Party List System. It was part of the attempt by the more enlightened drafters of the 1987 Constitution to make government responsive to the plight of the poor, underprivileged and powerless, ignoring which had fed and continues to feed social unrest and even rebellion.

The sense of history implicit in that assumption is totally absent in the Duterte regime and its equally benighted police and military accomplices, for whom mindless violence is the only solution to any problem. Far more sophisticated in its approach to the ruling elite’s determination to end the armed rebellions that have haunted much of Philippine history, the 1992-1998 presidency of Fidel V. Ramos supported and supplemented the Party List System’s potential to make government open to reforms. It also revived peace negotiations with both the CPP and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its congressional allies repealed the Anti-Subversion Law (RA 1700) in 1992, in effect legalizing the CPP and similar organizations.

The idea was to enable reformists and even revolutionaries to have the legal opportunity to work for their programs, and even get elected to public office. It would then send to the dispossessed and discontented the message that they need not take up arms because the political system works well enough to welcome the demand for reforms and even radical change. Among the indicators of how effective this approach could be was the successful forging of a peace agreement between the Philippine government and Nur Misuari’s MNLF during the Ramos administration.

The assumption is that only the certifiably insane — and those militarists who benefit from it — prefer war over peace. Unfortunately for the ruling system, that basically sound approach met only limited success. It is failing, among other reasons because dynastic dominance over the political system has made running for public office an exclusive billionaire and warlord game, and because of  police and military allegiance to their local and foreign patrons and the unjust order that has so enriched and empowered them. 

Together with the rapid and irreversible perversion of the already limited Party List System, the exclusion of the poor, powerless and voiceless from participation in their own governance partly explains why rebellions and so-called “insurgencies” have been, and will always be, part of the Philippine landscape for decades. It is a blueprint for social unrest driven and protected by the very same ruling elite that’s focused on preserving itself and the political, economic and social systems that have served it so well.

But if history is any guide to human affairs, the very same blueprint could also help end the oligarchy’s decades-long monopoly over the political power it has so steadfastly denied the marginalized millions of this alleged democracy. More than the supposed “fronts” of the CPP, the message it is sending the poor and powerless is that the system doesn’t work, and reforms cannot be achieved  through parliamentary means.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the National Youth Commission Facebook page.

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