PH party list: Making it more representative

Benjamin Reilly

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PH party list: Making it more representative
Scholars advocate that the number of seats a party has in the legislature should be proportional to the number of votes that the party has received in the election

Across the world, there are different systems used to elect legislative bodies. One of the most basic differences among them is whether they rely on proportional representation (PR) rule or the “winner take all” rule to allocate seats. 

Under a “winner take all” system, also known as a plurality system, there is one candidate per district and the candidate that wins the most votes wins the seat. This is the system used in electing the bulk of congressmen and congresswomen in the Philippines. 

Under a PR system, legislators are elected from multi-member districts. The number of seats that a party has in the legislature should correspond as closely as possible to the number of votes that the party has received in the election.

Many countries use a combination of the two systems to elect their legislatures: Mexico, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan among them. Across countries, there are varying mixes of district seats (chosen by plurality) relative to seats chosen by proportional representation.

The Philippines also has a mixed system in elections for the House of Representatives. It combines a “winner take all” system for its district representatives, and a special “party list” for roughly 20% of the chamber’s seats. In the upcoming elections in May, that 20% will be equivalent to a total of 59 seats. 

The Philippine party list varies a great deal from the common pattern of PR. This brief article will first describe a standard PR system, then examine the features that make the Philippine system very distinctive – seemingly the only type of its kind found anywhere in the world. I shall assess briefly the impact of the system and conclude by surveying possibilities of reform.

How proportional representation works

Proportional representation is a widely-used electoral system. Almost every European democracy uses a form of PR, as do most of the newer democracies in Eastern Europe. Similarly, all of Latin America uses at least some element of PR to elect its legislature. 

Typically, in PR systems, the contest is among parties rather than individual candidates, with seats allocated in accordance with each party’s vote share. A party that wins 20% of the vote should win 20% of the seats. In contrast, in a winner-take-all system, the same party may win few or no seats at all. 

Standard PR systems have 3 characteristics that are particularly worth highlighting:

  • First, there is no upper limit on the number of seats that a party can receive. For example, a party that wins two-thirds (or more) of the vote should win two-thirds (or more) of the seats. 
  • Second, in order to rule out parties with very low support levels, a minimum vote threshold of between 3-5 percent is commonly applied. This deters small fringe groups from entering the legislature.
  • Third, all parties are allowed to compete (i.e., the system is not reserved for specific types of parties representing specific constituencies).

(For those interested in the technicalities: PR elections start by determining the “quota” of votes needed to win a seat. This is typically calculated by taking the total number of votes gained by all parties in the election and dividing this number by one more than the number of seats to be elected. For example, if there are 100,000 votes for 99 seats of the legislature the quota would be 100,000 divided by 100 seats = a quota of 1,000. Seats are allocated sequentially, with the process repeating until all seats are filled; in this example, a party will receive a seat as soon as it obtains its first 1,000 votes. Usually, any remaining seats are allocated to the parties with the highest leftover vote less than a full quota).  

The Philippine party-list system actually varies in very significant ways from the way PR systems in the rest of the world work.

The Philippine system

The party-list seats were introduced in the 1987 Constitution as a way of increasing minority and sectoral representation in Congress. Voters are given two votes for members of the House of Representatives: one for their district seat and one for the party-list seats. Any party, group, or coalition receiving at least 2% of the votes wins a seat, up to a maximum of 3 seats.

In 3 key ways, the Philippine party-list system differs from standard PR systems.

First, the 3-seat ceiling goes against the principle of proportionality. If a party were to obtain 20% of the vote, it would still be given only 3 seats. In a truly proportional system, a party obtaining 20% of vote would get 20% of the available 59 seats, or at least 11 seats.

At the other end of spectrum, parties with very low popularity can also end up winning some of the remaining seats once the more popular parties have reached their limit. In other words, the percentage of seats that they obtain can be significantly greater than their percentage of the vote.

Second, there is no minimum vote threshold in the Philippine party-list system. This reinforces the opportunity for a party of very low popularity to gain a seat in Congress.

Third, the system was originally limited to “marginalized groups,” such as youth, labour, the urban poor, farmers, fisherfolk, and women. With major parties still unable to compete directly (as long as they are also contesting seats in the district elections), the goal is for party-list representatives to bring more diversity to Congress and to inject some new voices into government processes.

In practice, however, some traditional politicians learned to use the party list to enhance their own voices in Congress, albeit in the name of marginalized sectors. It remains common for politicians to use the party list to enter Congress when their relatives have already filled up the district seats. 

Impact of the party list

The presence of a 3-vote ceiling and the absence of a minimum vote threshold has encouraged a proliferation of parties competing for seats. Some political groupings have even split themselves into several sub-parties so that they can try to get around the 3-seat limit. This multiplication of parties undermines the goal of more coherent party politics, as well as the traditional notion that political parties play a critical role in the aggregation of societal interests.

The reservation of party-list seats for marginalized interests has made Philippines politics more representative, argues political scientist Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan, but “it has also partially ghettoized those interests. Mainstream political parties and politicians seem largely content to leave programmatic campaigning and the representation of marginalized interests to party-list groups.” 

Because of confusion as to which parties can participate, the party-list system has been a constant source of legal challenge and has required many rulings of the Commission on Elections and the Supreme Court. 

Is there a better way? 

Many political scientists – including Gabriella Montinola of the University of California – argue that an important means of promoting genuine party development and accountability in the Philippines would be to eliminate the provision capping the number of seats that can be won. 

In essence, these scholars advocate moving to a more standard PR system: the number of seats that a party has in the legislature should be proportional to the number of votes that the party has received in the election. This would allow a truer representation of groups and reward those with real connections to the community. 

Second, the institution of a threshold would reduce the chances of splinter parties gaining seats.

Third, this could be combined with another standard PR feature, and that is allowing all parties to compete freely for the seats. After all the confusion and litigation generated by the current party-list system, this reform would make the system more transparent and comprehensible.

On top of these 3 measures, it would be possible to increase the percentage of congressional seats elected on the basis of PR relative to those that are elected according to the single-member district plurality system that currently dominates election to the Philippine House of Representatives. In Japan and Germany, for example, 40% and 50% of the legislatures, respectively, are elected via PR systems. – 

Professor Benjamin Reilly is dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

Read the other articles in the “Elections: What PH can learn from the world” series:

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