“It is still our best chance at ensuring a more substantial and inclusive representation in our legislature.”
With the national elections happening next year, the country’s party-list system has been recently a subject of criticism and even derision. Much of these questions arise from a lack of understanding of the party-list system itself and a poor appreciation of its role in our electoral system.
Article VI, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution mandates that the House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected from legislative districts and those elected through the party-list system. It further provided that the party-list representatives constitute twenty percent of the total number of House members. In simple terms, for every five members of the lower chamber, one of them shall be a party-list representative.
What follows is an often overlooked proviso—“for three terms after the ratification of this Constitution,” half of the seats reserved for party-list representatives shall be filled by sectoral representatives, as may be provided by law. This was the basis for the sitting President to appoint sectoral representatives, subject to the confirmation from the Commission on Appointments, following the 1987, 1992 and 1995 elections.
In 1995, President Fidel Ramos signed into law Republic Act 7941, the Party-List System Act which served as the enabling act of the party-list system. The law provided for a mechanism of proportional representation in the elections of representatives to the House of Representatives from national, regional and sectoral parties or organizations or coalitions registered with the Commission on Elections.
Sounds simple and straightforward, but the mathematics of “proportioning” the seats turned out to be complicated in the end. As a result, the Supreme Court had to intervene on more than one instance on revising the formula for assigning party-list seats.
Other controversies also came out—such as the qualifications of party-list nominees, and the question of sectoral representation.
The main issue stems from the common misunderstanding that a party-list representative is a separate and distinct political office. This can be usually deduced when candidates and voters themselves explain that a particular group is “running for party-list”. But simply put, the party-list system is basically a separate manner of electing additional members of the House of Representatives, albeit on the basis of proportional representation. In fact, House members who ran “under the party-list system” have the same duties and responsibilities as their district counterparts.
The key principle of proportional representation is that all votes cast contribute to the result of the election, and not just the bare majority or plurality. To illustrate, it is like dividing the pie, that is the total number of party-list seats, to all those who participated in the election on the basis of how many votes each party received and the minimum number of votes required by law to qualify for a seat – that is, in the case of our party-list system, at least two percent.
By ascribing sectoral representation to the party-list system, it was originally expected that it would be a pathway for marginalized sectors to be represented in the corridors of power. But a careful reading of the provision would show that the main intent of the party-list system was not simply to allow for sectoral representation – but for the inclusion of proportional representation into our legislative branch.
So, who can actually participate in the party-list system? The Party-List System Act enumerates three groups – first, national parties or organizations; second, regional parties or organizations, and sectoral parties or organizations – who “could contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole.”
While sectoral representation was one of the important reasons behind the introduction of the party-list system, neither did it limit the participation of other political parties or organizations. To clarify this, in 2013, the Supreme Court, in the case of Atong Paglaum, Inc. vs. COMELEC laid down the defining parameters of our party-list system.
First, in addition to sectoral parties and organizations, national and regional parties and organizations may also participate in the party-list system. There is no need, however, for these groups to be organized along sectoral lines and for them to represent any “marginalized and underrepresented” sector.
Second, political parties can participate in party-list elections provided they register under the party-list system and do not field candidates in legislative district elections. A political party can only participate in the party-list elections through its sectoral wing, which must register itself as a separate and independent sectoral party.
Third, sectoral parties or organizations may either be composed of those belonging to “marginalized and underrepresented sectors enumerated in the Constitution” or those who lack “well-defined political constituencies” such as professionals, the elderly, women, and the youth. While it is important that the majority of the members of these sectoral parties or organizations must belong to the sectors of the constituencies that they represent, it is sufficient for the nominees to have a track record of advocacy for their respective sectors.
One cannot deny the apparent confusion between our legal interpretation of sectoral and proportional representation, which has led to questions that appear to discredit the entire party-list system. Sadly, this has resulted in calls to abolish the party-list system. Reforming the party-list system therefore is long overdue in order to clarify any persisting ambiguity in the law, and remove any opportunity for abuse – and thus reinforcing it as an effective platform for greater democratic representation.
While it may be true that much remains to be desired in the prevailing party-list system, one cannot simply ignore how it has contributed towards ensuring a broader political representation and in crafting more progressive and responsive legislation in Congress. In fact as it is, party-list representation is not to be taken lightly, because collectively, the party-list groups can constitute a powerful bloc in Congress. In the end, it may still be our best chance at ensuring a more substantial and inclusive representation in our legislature.