party-list groups

[OPINION] No, the party-list system was never solely for the marginalized

Juan Paolo Artiaga

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[OPINION] No, the party-list system was never solely for the marginalized

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'Instead of abolition, the constitutional provisions pertaining to the party-list system must be reformed'

Actor-turned-Senator Robin Padilla faced significant public backlash on social media for his remarks regarding the party-list system, which he argued should be abolished due to what he perceives as the poor performance of its representatives, whom he described as katawa-tawa (laughable). Padilla’s comments sparked controversy over the merits and shortcomings of the party-list system as a mechanism for representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors in Philippine politics. 

Senator Padilla is not wrong in the sense that the current practice in the party-list system is very problematic. The party-list system has been exploited for years by the elite and by political dynasties to consolidate their families’ power or as a fallback for losing their district seats in a previous election. Research conducted by Kontra Daya reveals that approximately 70% of the 177 party-list groups permitted to run in the most recent election were “hijacked” by individuals connected with political dynasties, businessmen, or other similar groups. For example, the DUMPER PTDA party-list, a party-list supposedly for taxi drivers, is being “represented” by the daughter of the governor of Davao Occidental. Another is the Agimat party-list that claims to represent the working class but is represented by a member of the Revilla clan, a powerful dynasty in Cavite and in the entertainment industry. 

While the present form of the party-list system presents a lot of problems, I disagree that the party-list system should be abolished. After all, the party-list system is a centerpiece of the 1987 Constitution, which democratized access to the highest policy-making body in the country. Instead of abolition, the constitutional provisions pertaining to the party-list system must be reformed.

I’ve come to realize, however, that the need to revise the party-list provisions in the Constitution is, apparently, not a popular opinion. Despite acknowledging the flaws of the party-list system, some members of the opposition, including progressives, remain adamant that proper implementation, not constitutional reform, is what is needed to cover loopholes. This sentiment comes from an unfortunate misunderstanding — one that has been perpetrated for a long time by progressive sectors — that the intent of the party-list system was solely to increase the representation of the marginalized sectors. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise when critics in recent op-eds and news articles continue to attack the Atong Paglaum case and label it as the cause for the “bastardization” of the party-list system for “diminishing” representation of the marginalized. In fact, if we analyze further the full statement of Senator Padilla, he is echoing the same thought: that the party-list system should be abolished because the Supreme Court has sanctioned its bastardization by allowing rich people to game the system instead of giving the platform to the marginalized sectors. 

However, the tough pill to swallow is Atong Paglaom is correct — insofar as the intent of the framers (one of the tools for constitutional construction) goes — that the problem lies in the constitutional foundation, and not the implementation of the party-list system. In other words, the party-list system was never “bastardized” because it was never meant to be exclusively for the marginalized and underrepresented to begin with.  

The Atong Paglaum case

The Atong Paglaum case, penned by former Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, overturned the previous doctrine in the case Ang Bagong Bayani, which held that only marginalized and underrepresented sectors were qualified to participate in the party-list system. The Court, citing members of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, held that the party-list system was designed not only to represent marginalized and underrepresented sectors but also to promote proportional representation. 

Going deeper into the constitutional records, the Court found that there were two groups with diametrically opposed positions on the kind of representation the party-list system will espouse. One of these was the Villacorta group, which lobbied to reserve positions for the marginalized and underrepresented sectors because they believed that it would be unfair to pit sectoral groups against bigger and more established political parties that have a lot of resources and machinery. This was opposed by the Monsod group who thought that adopting the suggestion of the Villacorta group would stunt the development of the marginalized and underrepresented sectors into full-fledged parties equipped with the machinery abled enough to represent their groups’ interests. In the end, the Constitutional Commission voted, 19-22, against the proposal of the Villacorta group to either reserve permanent seats to sectoral parties, or to reserve the party-list system exclusively to sectoral parties. 

Thus, the Court in Atong Paglaum held that the intent of the framers was to include in the party-list system both sectoral and non-sectoral parties. With respect to the latter, the Court said that it is enough that these groups consist of citizens who advocate the same ideology, or the same governance principles, regardless of their economic status.

Therefore, to continue to call the Atong Paglaum decision the case that bastardized the party-list system and to echo the defeated position of the Villacorta group is to ignore the well-documented history of the Constitutional Commission and the clear wording of the 1987 Constitution. To repeat, the party-list system was never “bastardized” because it was never meant to be exclusively for the marginalized and underrepresented to begin with.  

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Moving forward

Given that there are problems in how the party-list system was enshrined in the Constitution that resulted in the situation we are in now, how do we move forward? 

According to Former Chief Justice Panganiban, there are three ways: (a) reform through a Constitutional Convention; (b) amend the party-list act; and (c) reverse Atong Paglaum. As discussed, the last one is unlikely to happen, considering the Supreme Court would now be blatantly overstepping its functions and performing judicial legislation. With regard to charter change, former Chief Justice Panganiban cautioned that this must be done through a Constitutional Convention rather than a constituent assembly, because the latter would be composed of members of Congress. He believes that those who are currently benefitting are likely unwilling to revisit anything that can be detrimental to their retention of power. 

I advocate for this option. To be clear, I am one with the many progressives who believe that the party-list system should be a tool to increase the sectoral representation of those marginalized. I am also one of those who are aware of how charter change can be abused by the administration, like how it was abused by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. However, I perceive that mere statutory amendment of the enabling law is futile as it would be met with very strong opposition from groups that have only grown bigger and stronger over the years as they entrench themselves further in the corrupted party-list system. 

Ultimately, in our journey towards a party-list system that espouses real and genuine representation of underrepresented and marginalized sectors, the first step that we must take is to finally recognize that the problem lies not with the system’s implementation, but with the limitations provided for by the Constitution itself. Progressives, therefore, should shift their energy away from propagating the erroneous narrative and move towards educating the masses, and ensuring that the proper changes are made when the time for constitutional reform arrives. –

Juan Paolo Artiaga is a lawyer by profession, and currently a Master in Public Policy student at the National University of Singapore.

1 comment

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  1. AH

    Mr Artiaga arrives at this debating point tortuously. I don’t get it. Sectoral representation + the intent to have proportional representation = the framers didn’t intend sectoral representation? Perhaps I need to take a few beers to come to conclusion that this point of argument justifies cha-cha. The text of the 1987 Constitution reads thus: “The party-list representatives shall constitute twenty per centum of the total number of representatives including those under the party list. For three consecutive terms after the ratification of this Constitution, one-half of the seats allocated to party-list representatives shall be filled, as provided by law, by selection or election from the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector.”

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