How Duterte Has Twisted the Party-list System

How Duterte Has Twisted the Party-list System
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The party-list system was created to empower the marginalized and underrepresented. Now it’s exploited by Duterte-aligned groups.

The Philippines created a party-list system to give legislative power to, as the 1995 law states, those who are “marginalized and underrepresented.” The law holds that 20% of congress’s lower house will be allocated to nominees from organized party-lists of sectoral groups like women, farmers, workers, and urban poor. In the 2019 midterm elections, 61 of 134 seats contested were afforded to candidates who received at least 2% of the entire party-list votes cast.

But critics claim that a 2013 Supreme Court ruling broadening the scope of the permissible groups in the party-list elections strongly favors administration-friendly political powerhouses. These political machines, an election watchdog organization claims, have undermined the purpose of the party-list system by out-muscling the genuine representatives of the marginalized.

Three elections have passed since the Supreme Court ruling. Each race comes with its own set of new party-lists, and those aligned and/or fronted by those from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte are becoming more noticeable leading up to the May 2022 elections.

Because of the ruling, Danilo Arao, convenor of citizens group Kontra-Daya (Oppose Fraud), said it’s “not surprising” that there are party-list groups currently identified with the administration. The party-list system works to their advantage to win seats at the House of Representatives.

The Supreme Court’s ruling implied that party-lists didn’t have to represent the “marginalized and underrepresented” and their nominees didn’t have to align with a sector. It also allowed national and regional parties and advocacy groups to re-organize themselves as party-list groups. The court also said that these new groups need only clarify that “their principal advocacy pertains to the special interest and concerns of the sector.” 

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
People taking part in a simulation for the 2022 Philippine election, at a polling station in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 29, 2021.

Professor Bobby Tuazon, policy director for the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance of CenPEG summed up the effect of this ruling. “The Party list system was bastardized further by mainstream political parties and other traditional forces,” he said. “Only a few of the party-list groups are left to represent the poor sectors.”

Of the total 134 party-lists in the 2019 mid-term polls, the ABS-CBN research team noted that 39 party-list groups had nominees belonging to prominent political clans based among the various regions in the country. 

According to Arao, “almost half” were controlled or significantly influenced by political clans and big business groups or had otherwise dubious advocacies. In addition, there were several party-list groups with open ties to the regime. 

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque is a former head of the Kabayan Party-list. The nominee from ACT-CIS, which advocates crime and terrorism prevention, is related to the President’s Special Envoy to China. And there is the unashamedly named “Duterte Youth Party-list,” which flaunts itself as a political party dedicated to defending the president and the nation’s youth from threats to the administration. These groups are among those that Arao and Tuazon note as having no credibility to be underrepresented. 

Bayan Muna (People First) is one of the most successful party-list groups in the country, winning the most votes of all such groups more than once. They are also an opposition party and its two-term representative Teddy Casiño said that the current state of the voting process has been “hi-jacked by political dynasties, incumbent administrations and moneyed interests that it was originally designed to check and balance.” Thus it has robbed other grassroots groups of a chance at representation.

Duterte’s Cronies In, Nurses Out

In light of the pandemic, voting adjustments and conferences are being made to ensure distancing protocols. Nurses United, a newcomer to the party-list race, has grabbed the attention of a nation as the group has been denied accreditation by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). 

A COMELEC Resolution signed on October 1, explained that the Nurses United party-list failed to meet the requirements set by the poll body for accreditation. Specifically, they were unable to provide documents proving that they were representing nurses. Maristela Abenojar, the group’s first nominee, shared with The News Lens that they had provided COMELEC with copies of the nursing licenses of their leadership and from their 11 city-wide chapters upon their initial application. They pointed to this in their October 9 Motion for Reconsideration.

On December 6, the COMELEC denied 107 applications of new party-lists, including Nurses United. Abenojar called the decision “heartless” and said “It’s an injustice to bar us from running. It’s the COMELEC mandate to ensure the voice of the marginalized. We are the biggest workforce in the health sector and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Nurses are essential.” 

No grounds were cited for the final decision regarding the applications. COMELEC Spokesman James Jimenez said in a radio interview, “The denial of each application has its own reasons. Broadly speaking, the reasons for the rejected applications were non-compliance with the requirements or issues with the sector that they claim to represent.”

A nurse checks a trader's body temperature at the trading floor of the Philippine Stock Exchange, in Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 30, 2020.  The Nurses United party-list has recently failed to meet the requirements for accreditation.

Abenojar blasted the government’s double standard. She said, “The COMELEC says it is being more stringent in its appraisals of applications. We have no qualms about stricter application guidelines…but instead of ensuring the good intentions and objectives of the party-list system, the COMELEC is serving as an instrument of those in power to hinder the voices of the oppressed.” 

Meanwhile, ACT-CIS and Duterte Youth’s applications were automatically approved alongside others who have been previously flagged for their backing by political clans. In addition, among the new party-list groups who’ve been accredited are Abante Sambayanan (Forward People) representing ex-guerrillas who have decided to pledge their allegiance to the military, the People’s Volunteer Against Illegal Drugs (PVAID) whose main platform is continuing the anti-drug campaign of the president, the Hugpong Federal Movement of the Philippines seeking to champion Duterte’s federalist ideals, the 4Ps Party-list whose nominee is known to host campaign rallies for the aspiring presidential tandem of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter.

When the COMELEC completed the list of approved party-lists on December 23, they included Mothers for Change or MOCHA, fronted by vocal Duterte supporter and former state communications official Mocha Uson, and Malasakit (compassion) Movement with former Metro Manila Development Authority Spokesperson Celine Pialago.

Tuazon believes these party-list groups “betray the intentions of the law.” On social media, Uson has been criticized for naming the group after herself and not even being a mother, or part of the community she claims to represent. Tuazon recommends “some short-term doable reforms cry out to be done like establishing real political parties, removing the president's powers in appointing COMELEC officials, and enacting an anti-dynasty law.”

Bayan Muna has endeavored to amend the party-list law in the past but never succeeded. “We need measures to ensure that only marginalized groups and sectors and their genuine representatives are allowed to participate,” he said. “As expected, Congress has never passed such measures because the majority of its members benefit from the status quo where the PL system is an additional door, not a back door anymore, for their entry into the corridors of power.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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