[Analytics] Philippine party-list elections steal from the poor and give to the rich

A supporter takes a selfie with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Internet speeds in the country lag the region’s. Photo: AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The Philippine election system includes a party-list system intended to ensure that 20 per cent of House of Representatives seats are occupied by marginalised and underrepresented groups like the urban poor or indigenous communities. But what is supposed to benefit the poor is instead ending up with the rich. Danilo Araña Arao specially for the East Asia Forum.

In Philippine election cycles, media coverage tends to focus on the presidential and senatorial elections. In 2022, the presidential race has received even more media attention as Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, remains the frontrunner in a recent voter survey. Little attention is given to the party-list election, despite its purpose of providing the marginalised and underrepresented with a voice. In 2022, 177 party-list groups are vying for 63 seats.

According to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), the party-list system allows ‘small political parties and marginalised and underrepresented sectors to obtain possible representation in the House of Representatives, which traditionally is dominated by parties with big political machinery’.

Even though the COMELEC acknowledged the domination of the ‘big’ and the need to accommodate the ‘small’ as early as 1995, the party-list system has instead been weaponised to further marginalise the already marginalised. A Supreme Court decision in 2013 exacerbated this by allowing party-list nominees to run even if they do not belong to the sector they supposedly champion, among other interpretations of the law at the expense of the marginalised and underrepresented. This effectively reversed the Supreme Court’s 2001 stand that party-list representatives should belong to the sector they claim to represent.

Election watchdog Kontra Daya recently identified that at least 120 of the 177 party-list groups have links to political clans or big businesses, unclear advocacies and representations, nominees who are incumbent local officials or have pending court cases, or connections with the government or military. In another study, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism showed that at least 70 party-list groups have connections to political clans or incumbent national or local officials.

In the 2019 election, Kontra Daya flagged ‘only’ 62 out of 134 party-list groups. This makes the issue of questionable party-list groups in 2022 even more pressing. Another factor is that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is known for ‘red-tagging’ government critics, have decided to run party-list nominees for certain groups.

The party-list system has become a backdoor for the rich and powerful to further entrench themselves in Congress. The richest House of Representatives member is currently Mikee Romero of the party-list group One Patriotic Coalition of Marginalized Nationals, with a net worth of US$135 million. The party-list has been abused to help the relatives of congressional district representatives get additional seats in the House of Representatives. In addition, local officials affected by term limits use the party-list system to wield power and influence as they prepare to regain their position in the next election cycle.

The rich and powerful also use these seats to secure votes for preferred bills and resolutions. They can also make use of the allocated budget for legislative offices, not to mention the controversial pork barrel funds to which every House of Representatives member is entitled. Having the word ‘Honourable’ attached to one’s name is also an advantage in dealing with government agencies and private corporations.

Instead of serving the poor in whose name they ran, many party-list representatives have been accused of corruption, like the pork barrel scam where government funds worth PHP10 billion (US$192.5 million) went missing. Party-list representatives also pushed for the closure of ABS-CBN, a leading broadcast network critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, even as a survey showed that 75 per cent of respondents were in favour of a new franchise for the beleaguered network.

Due to the bastardisation of the party-list system, certain groups and individuals have called for its abolition. Duterte issued the same call but for a different reason, parroting the NTF-ELCAC’s claim that certain party-list groups have links with communists.

But more progressive legislators prefer to amend the party-list law to reflect its original objective. Reminiscent of pressure on the COMELEC to extend the deadline for voter registration last year amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, public pressure is necessary for Congress to pass these amendments. Aside from this, the Supreme Court decision in 2013 also needs to be addressed.

Reacting to the domination of the party-list system by the rich and powerful, the COMELEC claimed that its hands are tied and that the only solution is to change the law. But as an independent commission, it has yet to maximise its quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative functions in ensuring that the intent of the party-list law is observed.

Given the COMELEC’s lack of political will and credibility, voters should take the initiative to familiarise themselves with the party-list system and its objectives. While most of the voting population have become more aware of the party-list system, the greater challenge of voting wisely remains.

Danilo Araña Arao is Associate Professor at the Department of Journalism, the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is also Special Lecturer at the Department of Journalism, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Santa Mesa, Associate Editor at Bulatlat Multimedia, Editor at Media Asia and convenor of Kontra Daya (Against Fraud).

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