Changing Rules on the Party List System

Much like a swinging pendulum, the decision of the Supreme Court on which parties compose the party list system swings from one side to the other. Previously, the Supreme Court limited the party list system to representatives of marginalized and underprivileged sectors. In Atong Paglaum v. COMELEC (G.R. Nos. 203766, et al., April 2, 2013), the latest in the series of party list cases, the pendulum now points to the opposite side.

The New Ruling

Atong Paglaum involved 54 Petitions for Certiorari and Petitions for Certiorari and Prohibition filed by 52 party-list groups against COMELEC for disqualifying them from participating in the May 13, 2013 party-list elections. One of the main reasons for the disqualification was their failure to represent the marginalized and underrepresented.

Two issues were presented:

(1)          Whether COMELEC committed grave abuse of discretion in disqualifying the petitioners from participating in the May 2013 elections; and

(2)          Whether the criteria for participating in the party-list system laid down in Ang Bagong Bayani v. COMELEC (ABB) and BANAT v. COMELEC (BANAT) should be applied by the COMELEC in the coming May 2013 elections.

The Supreme Court ruled that COMELEC did not commit grave abuse of discretion because it merely followed the rulings laid down in ABB and BANAT. However, the Court decided to abandon these rulings and adopted new parameters for the upcoming elections; thus, it remanded the case to COMELEC so the latter can determine the status of the petitioners based on the following new guidelines:

1. Three different groups may participate in the party-list system: (1) national parties or organizations, (2) regional parties or organizations, and (3) sectoral parties or organizations.

2. National parties or organizations and regional parties or organizations do not need to organize along sectoral lines and do not need to represent any “marginalized and underrepresented” sector.

3. Political parties can participate in party-list elections provided they register under the party-list system and do not field candidates in legislative district elections. A political party, whether major or not, that fields candidates in legislative district elections can participate in partylist elections only through its sectoral wing that can separately register under the party-list system. The sectoral wing is by itself an independent sectoral party, and is linked to a political party through a coalition.

4. Sectoral parties or organizations may either be “marginalized and underrepresented” or lacking in “well-defined political constituencies.” It is enough that their principal advocacy pertains to the special interest and concerns of their sector. The sectors that are “marginalized and underrepresented” include labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, handicapped, veterans, and overseas workers. The sectors that lack “well-defined political constituencies” include professionals, the elderly, women, and the youth.

5. A majority of the members of sectoral parties or organizations that represent the “marginalized and underrepresented” must belong to the “marginalized and underrepresented” sector they represent. Similarly, a majority of the members of sectoral parties or organizations that lack “well-defined political constituencies” must belong to the sector they represent. The nominees of sectoral parties or organizations that represent the “marginalized and underrepresented,” or that represent those who lack “well-defined political constituencies,” either must belong to their respective sectors, or must have a track record of advocacy for their respective sectors. The nominees of national and regional parties or organizations must be bona-fide members of such parties or organizations.

6. National, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations shall not be disqualified if some of their nominees are disqualified, provided that they have at least one nominee who remains qualified.

It is clear from the foregoing that a new rule has been set: not all parties in the party-list system have to represent a sector that is marginalized and underrepresented.

According to the Supreme Court, the framers of the Constitution never intended the party-list system to be reserved for sectoral parties. The latter were only part of the party-list system not the entirety of it. There were two more groups composing the system — national and regional parties. This is evident from the phrasing of Section 5, Article VI of the Constitution, which states that:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of not more than two hundred and fifty members, unless otherwise fixed by law, who shall be elected from legislative districts…and those who, as provided by law, shall be elected through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations. (emphasis supplied)

National and regional parties are different from sectoral parties such that the former need not organize along sectoral lines and represent a particular sector. Hence, it is not necessary for these parties to be representative of the marginalized and underrepresented. In fact, Republic Act No. 7941, the enabling law of the party-list elections under the Constitution, does not require these parties to fall under this criterion. The Supreme Court emphasized that the phrase ‘marginalized and underrepresented’ appeared only once in R.A. No. 7941, particularly in the Declaration of Policy. The section provides:

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 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. Towards this end, the State shall develop and guarantee a full, free and open party system in order to attain the broadest possible representation of party, sectoral or group interests in the House of Representatives by enhancing their chances to compete for and win seats in the legislature, and shall provided the simplest scheme possible.

The oft-quoted phrase neither appeared in the specific implementing provisions of R.A. No. 7941 nor did it require sectors, organizations, or parties to fall under the criterion as well. In this regard, how then should the broad policy declaration in Section 2 of R.A. No. 7941 be harmonized with its specific implementing provisions, bearing in mind the applicable provisions of the 1987 Constitution on the matter?

The Supreme Court answered in this wise:

The phrase “marginalized and underrepresented” should refer only to the sectors in Section 5 that are, by their nature, economically “marginalized and underrepresented.” These sectors are: labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, handicapped, veterans, overseas workers, and other similar sectors. For these sectors, a majority of the members of the sectoral party must belong to the “marginalized and underrepresented.” The nominees of the sectoral party either must belong to the sector, or must have a track record of advocacy for the sector represented

The recognition that national and regional parties, as well as sectoral parties of professionals, the elderly, women and the youth, need not be “marginalized and underrepresented” will allow small ideology-based and cause-oriented parties who lack “well-defined political constituencies” a chance to win seats in the House of Representatives. On the other hand, limiting to the “marginalized and underrepresented” the sectoral parties for labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, handicapped, veterans, overseas workers, and other sectors that by their nature are economically at the margins of society, will give the “marginalized and underrepresented” an opportunity to likewise win seats in the House of Representatives.

This interpretation will harmonize the 1987 Constitution and R.A. No. 7941 and will give rise to a multi-party system where those “marginalized and underrepresented,” both in economic and ideological status, will have the opportunity to send their own members to the House of Representatives. This interpretation will also make the party-list system honest and transparent, eliminating the need for relatively well-off party-list representatives to masquerade as “wallowing in poverty, destitution and infirmity,” even as they attend sessions in Congress riding in SUVs.

Based on the Court’s ratiocination, only sectoral parties for labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, handicapped, veterans, overseas workers, and other sectors that by their nature are economically at the margins of society must comply with the criterion of representing the marginalized and underrepresented. For national, regional, and sectoral parties of professionals, the elderly, women and the youth, it is sufficient that they consist of “citizens who advocate the same ideology or platform, or the same governance principles and policies, regardless of their economic status as citizens.”

Consequently, since political parties are essentially national and regional parties, the Supreme Court categorically stated that they may participate in the party-list elections. The rules for their participation are found under guideline number three.

Evolution of Party-List Cases

ABB and BANAT were the prevailing jurisprudence prior to Atong Paglaum.

In ABB, the Supreme Court recognized that even major political parties may join the party list elections. However, the Supreme Court went on saying that although they may participate, it does not mean that any political party — or group for that matter — may do so. It is essential for these parties to be consistent with the purpose of the party-list system, as laid down in the Constitution and R.A. No. 7941.

According to the Supreme Court, the purpose of the party-list system is clear: “to give genuine power to the people, not only by giving more law to those who have less in life, but more so by enabling them to become veritable lawmakers themselves.” Essentially, the goal is to give voice to the voiceless — to enable Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented to become members of Congress.

Hence, only parties representing the marginalized and underrepresented may join the party-list elections. The Supreme Court stressed that the party-list system cannot be exclusive to marginalized and underrepresented because if the rich and overrepresented can participate, it would desecrate the spirit of the party-list system.

In BANAT where the Supreme Court again had the opportunity to deal with the matter, it categorically declared, by a vote of 8-7, that major political parties are barred from participating either directly or indirectly from the party-list elections.

Clearly, the doctrine in Atong Paglaum is in stark contrast with the former interpretation of the party-list system. The Supreme Court’s reasoning in both decisions also sits at opposite sides of the scale. In ABB and BANAT, the Supreme Court concentrated on the spirit and purpose of the party-list system while in Atong Paglaum, it focused on the letter of the law and the intent of the Constitution’s framers and Congress.

No wonder this decision has sparked intense debate and passionate reaction from the stakeholders. These party-list cases constitute three decisions with two exceptionally different doctrines. Which then is correct? Should the spirit of the law prevail over the letter? Should the party-list system be really open to all? Should the court engage in socio-political engineering as it did in the first two cases or should it remain as neutral magistrates of the law, blindfolded like lady justice, interpreting the letter of the law strictly according to its words?

The decision in Atong Paglaum is not yet final and executory. The case is still, if not already, subject to a motion for reconsideration. It is still possible for the pendulum to swing back to its former side or it may remain suspended where it is now.

(Teng Gerochi and Tanya Baldovino co-authored this post.)

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