Monday, April 15, 2013

Debasing our democracy

No matter all the previous misgivings about her appointment, Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno has got it right, at least this time.
Chief Justice Sereno dissented with the majority decision of the high court that the party-list system need not represent marginalized and underrepresented sectors.
Recall that under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the party-list system was envisaged by the framers to be a “tool for social justice” that will allow the poor to have a voice in Congress by allotting 20 percent of the seats for the marginalized and underrepresented.
The underlying purpose of the party-list system is to promote proportional representation in the election of representatives to the House of Representatives. This was clearly the mandate echoed in RA 7941 or the Party-List System Act that was enacted in 1995 as the enabling legislation for the implementation of the constitutional provision for a system of proportional representation.  

Of the total party-list members of Congress, all but five are millionaires, raising the
question whether they represent the marginalized and underrepresented sectors of the
country. Click to
view Party-List System, Dapat na nga bang Amyendahan?
So much of the debate about the party-list system has been focused on the requirement that parties or groups registered under the system must represent the marginalized and underrepresented. But in doing away with this requirement, the Supreme Court has in effect undermined the original intent of the Constitution and further entrenched the free-for-all political process (first-past-the-post system) that has hitherto favoured the elite and the wealthy.
The Supreme Court has effectively bastardized the party-list system since it is now open to all national, regional and sectoral parties and organizations, making it easier for millionaires and traditional politicians to use the party-list system to get elected. As a result, the underrepresented, because they cannot compete with the resources of the rich and powerful political parties, becomes even more marginalized than ever.
The party-list system is now virtually exposed as a mere lip service to the goal of representative democracy. Consider too, that with 20 percent of congressional seats reserved for party-list members, this system of representation is hardly proportional to the total votes cast, rendering it unimaginable for a disunited and disorganized number of party-list representatives to possibly override the dominant interests of the major political parties to pass legislation for the benefit of the marginalized.
Section 2 of the Party-List System Act declares: “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. 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 provide the simplest scheme possible.”
From the very beginning, the Act is a defective piece of legislation. While it recognizes the obligation of the state to guarantee free and broad democratic representation, it also identifies marginalized and underrepresented sectors as the principal beneficiary of the party-list system. This is a contradiction in terms: free and democratic representation, yet excluding the marginalized and underrepresented. In effect, it is an affirmative action program, which Chief Justice Sereno called a “tool for social justice” and consistent with the original intent of the framers of the Constitution.
Both the Constitution and the Party-List System Act have chosen to reflect reality, for without the means to elect their own representatives in Congress, the marginalized would be forever voiceless. The law recognizes the inequity in Philippine politics where it is impossible for the marginalized to participate in legislation because the system is monopolized and controlled by the oligarchic elite from which the major political parties draw their members. The drafters of the Constitution envisioned that the party-list system would be “a countervailing means for the weaker segments of our society to overcome the preponderant advantages of the more entrenched and well-established political parties.”
Justice Arturo Brion, who voted with the majority, is totally wrong when he disagreed with Chief Justice Sereno that it is not the principal function of the Supreme Court to create policy. Brion argued that the party-list system is grounded on electoral reform but that is a vacuous line of reasoning. Electoral reform for what? In deciding on cases, the Supreme Court is in effect mediating conflicting arguments that could determine and define policy that is expressed in the law.
Brion explained that the party-list system aimed to benefit “those who were marginalized in the legislative district elections because they could not be elected in the past for lack of the required votes and specific constituency in the winner-take-all legislative district contest…” With due respect, Justice Brion is totally out of touch with reality. The main reason why the marginalized could not get elected is not because they lack the required votes, but the fact that they could not simply compete with the wealthy and entrenched candidates of the major political parties. Their marginalization is not the result of a failure to garner the plurality of votes but their lack of resources and political capacity to compete against the big and traditional politicians.

In disagreeing with the court’s majority decision, Chief Justice Sereno says that it “may have further marginalized the already marginalized and underrepresented in this country. In the guise of political plurality, it allows national and regional parties or organizations to invade what should be constitutional and statutorily protected space. [It] fails to appreciate that the party-list system is not about mere political plurality, but plurality with a heart for the poor and disadvantaged.”
Sereno further argues that Section 1, Article XIII of the Philippine Constitution mandates Congress to give highest priority to enacting measures that “reduce social, economic and political equalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good.” This strikes directly at the heart of Justice Brion’s superficial argument that the Supreme Court is not tasked to create policy when in fact the court’s majority decision, particularly with its parameters on which parties, sectors or groups can register under the party-list system, practically amended the party-list law which is a function that belongs to Congress.

Ang Galing ng Pinoy Party-List Representative Mikey Arroyo who claims to
represent security guards, tricycle drivers and the unemployed. According to
the Comelec, Arroyo authored only one bill on the welfare of security guards
and the measure has languished in Congress due to  either "sheer laziness"
or a "glaring lack of empathy" for the plight of the truly marginalized. 
Before the Supreme Court decision, 54 party-list groups were disqualified by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for failing to meet the requirements that they represent marginalized sectors in the House of Representatives. Included in this group was the son of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo of the party-list Ang Galing Pinoy, which claims to represent security guards, tricycle drivers, farmers and small businessmen. In addition to Mikey Arroyo, other groups that can now participate in the upcoming polls include Kakusa, or Kapatiran ng mga Nakakulong na Walang Sala, which was organized by convicted child-rapist and former Zamboanga Representative Romeo Jalosjos, and the Bantay party-list group of fugitive human rights violator Jovito Palparan.
According to the Comelec, majority of the 54 previously disqualified party-lists might be allowed to run again in the May 13 midterm elections under the new guidelines issued by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has allowed these groups to participate in the elections as long as their principal advocacy pertains to the special interest and concern of their sectors. What special interests and concerns of security guards and tricycle drivers does Mikey Arroyo represent that they ought to be heard in Congress? This wasn’t the intent of the law in providing for the party-list system. It’s not the advocacy of special interests that matters but the absence or lack of resources of marginalized groups to compete against the powerful traditional politicians.
The current party-list system is already abused as it is by the landed elite and dominant political families. With the new Supreme Court ruling, the dominant political parties will be further entrenched in power because they could easily register their members under the party-list system and grab the 20 percent seats allocated for marginalized groups. As a result, with the election of their dummies under the party-list system, politics will continue to be dominated by the oligarchic elite. In the words of Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of the progressive Anakbayan party-list, the elite will further “trapofy” the House of Representatives. (“Trapo” is short in Filipino for traditional politicians)
It will take more than the current party-list system to democratize political representation in Congress. The Party-List System Act was mandated to promote proportional representation as envisaged in the Philippine Constitution, but dominant political families have ambushed the party-list system from progressive-minded groups, and now the Supreme Court has distorted the system by opening party-list registration to national parties and other sectors.
We might as well kiss goodbye to the party-list system and embark on a process of genuine political reform that will revolutionize the existing political system.
To make the system more representative and democratic, it makes sense to return to the unicameral national assembly under the 1896 Malolos Constitution where representatives in Congress shall be elected directly by their constituents to whom they can closely identify with their problems and interests.
The Senate has to be abolished for there is no need for senators to be elected at large based on popularity and wealth.
Campaign financing must be reformed and there should be limits imposed on how much candidates can spend to level the playing field.
Prominent political families must be reined in from dominating the political process.
Then apply the system of proportional representation at the district level, i.e., voters will choose among parties rather than among candidates and votes are awarded to parties in proportion to the votes they receive. In this way, proportional representation will open up the political process beyond one or two dominant political parties.
The biggest problem, however, is whether our elected representatives have the political will to go on board this odyssey toward genuine political reform.

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