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Can the Party-List System Change for the Truly Marginalized?

It's another star-studded year for candidates.
by Erwin Colcol
Oct 13, 2021
In this photo taken on August 12, 2020, a group of jeepney drivers with placards strapped along their bodies with writings "Mam/sir, we're jeepney drivers, asking for your help", beg for alms along a road in Manila.
Photo/s: Ted Aljibe, Agence France-Presse
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President Rodrigo Duterte's most ardent supporter on Facebook is seeking a party-list seat under an eponymous group that she says, advocates for "Mothers for Change", one of many celebrities and politicians who want a seat in the House of Representatives that the law reserves for the marginalized.

Every three years, voters are dumbfounded by the barrage of party-list candidates who want their one vote on the ballot. Some appeal to regionalism, while others play on politicians initials to sell their advocacies.

For 2022, TV host Karla Estrada is running with a party-list that represents Haiyan-ravaged Tacloban, whose current representative, voted to deby her home network, ABS-CBN, a fresh franchise. There's also perennial candidate, Superstar Nora Aunor, who is running under namesake NORAA, that's National Organization for Responsive Advocacies for the Arts.

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Blogger turned government official Mocha Uson is running under MOCHA and filed her candidacy with fellow nominee, beauty queen and sportswoman Michele Gumabao.

Why the beeline to run for party-list representative? It's an alternative for politicians who don't want to go the congressional district route, political strategist Gerardo Eusebio told reportr.

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Ang isang dahilan kung bakit nananatili ang party-list at wala ring grupo ng mga congressmen na gusto silang tanggalin, kasi sila ang alternative,” said Eusebio.

Kunwari, first district [congressman] ako, [pero] hindi na ako pwedeng tumakbo, saan ako pwedeng tumakbo? Party-list na lang," he added.

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What is the party-list system?

To ensure representation in Congress, the 1987 Constitution allows party-list groups to participate in the lawmaking process by allocating them 20% of the total membership of the House of Representatives.

It’s the Constitution’s way of giving voice to marginalized and underrepresented groups. According to the Party-list System Law, party-lists should represent the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, and youth sectors, among others.

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Party-list groups need to get at least 2% of the total votes cast for the party-list elections to secure one seat in Congress. They can get additional seats in proportion to their total number of votes. They are allowed a maximum of three seats.

In the 2019 elections, eight party-list groups got more than 2% of the votes cast, automatically giving them one seat. Since 61 party-list seats were up for grabs for that election, the first eight seats were deducted from the total and the remaining 53 seats were distributed among the rest of party-list groups according to rank, as explained in this Philippine Daily Inquirer story.

Currently, 51 party-list groups compose the House of Representatives led by ACT-CIS party-list supported by Raffy Tulfo, which has three seats. Tulfo will attempt to replicate the party-list’s victory as he joined the senatorial race in the 2022 elections.

Why candidates opt to join the party-list elections

Although elected on a national scale, candidates still try their luck in the party-list elections because it’s a cost-effective way to win the polls. Nominees only need to target a specific number of people without having to campaign around the country, said Eusebio, the political strategist.

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Kunwari samahan ng mga tricycle driver, siyempre tatargetin mo lang. Normally 250,000, 300,000 [votes] meron ka nang one seat,” he said.

Mag-iisip tayo, dito na lang tayo mangampanya sa Quezon City, sa Manila, okay na… pero counted pa rin ang boto mo sa Sulu. Hindi naman mauubos ang pera mo dahil ang habol mo lang ay a certain number of votes,” he added.

It’s also easier for candidates to campaign under the banner of a party-list than as an individual representing a legislative district, Eusebio said, as their votes could come from any part of the country regardless of which district they reside in.

Take Ako Bicol party-list, which has consistently won more than one seat since the 2010 elections. While the group represents Bicolanos, its votes do not just come from the Bicol region, but from all Bicolanos around the Philippines.

Kung ako yung Ako Bicol representative, ang aking area of responsibility yung Bicol, pero as a matter of fact, hindi lang Bicol, buong Pilipinas basta may Bicolano. Basta yung rights and aspirations ng mga Bicolano, hawak ko,” Eusebio said.

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Because of how easy and cheap it is to win, some candidates take advantage of the party-list system for their political gain to the disadvantage of the marginalized groups they should be representing, according to Eusebio.

Ang dami diyan duplication, tapos wala namang accountability dahil minsan, para ka lang meteor, isang buga ka lang tapos nawala ka na kasi nanalo ka na,” he said. “It fails to address the sector it is supposed to serve.”

Party-list groups 1-UTAP and Manibela claiming to be the genuine representatives of the transport sector have filed their bids for the party-list elections, saying they never felt truly represented in Congress.

How to spare party-lists from trapos, opportunists

As the problem with party-lists is systemic, addressing it requires legislation. Several attempts have been made before --- from amending the Party-list System Law to revising the Constitution --- but none has been successful so far.

For Eusebio, the first step is to study on the effectiveness of the party-list system, whether it truly addresses the concerns and welfare of the marginalized sectors.

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Halimbawa, may isang academic group composed of different representatives of top universities in the Philippines that would collate the legislative records of the party-list since its inception in 1998, tignan kung talagang nakatulong sa mga sectors na nire-represent nila, kung may impact,” he said.

There may also be a need to revise the mechanics on how party-lists win seat in Congress to ensure that only the deserving ones win, he added.

Eusebio recognized that the voter turnout for the party-list elections is usually low because not everyone aligns with a particular sector, and this defeats the purpose of party-lists as enshrined in the Constitution.

Kaya kailangan ng isang malawakang pag-aaral. Talagang honest to goodness study in aid of legislation,” he added.

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