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PHILIPPINES: Party-list Legislators Often Forgotten in Poll

MANILA, Apr 2 2010 (IPS) - Second-class legislators. A different political species in the Philippines’ rough- and-tumble – and very personalistic – brand of electoral politics.

All of these capture a bit of what a party-list member of the House of Representatives is, 12 years after elections began to be held for slots that were meant to allow representation of groups like fishers, migrant workers, veterans, women, urban poor and others that would otherwise have a hard time getting into public office.

The election of party-list legislators was meant to counter the elitist and often corrupt system of district-level politics, where candidates with money, name and fame – sometimes all in the same clans — often provided people tickets to power.

Indeed, the number of party-list congressional representatives has grown over the years and they occupy 52 of the 269 House seats today in this South-east Asian country of more than 92 million people.

But while they are the politically correct legacy of the post-dictatorship Constitution of 1987 – playing key roles in the passage of more progressive laws like those on cheaper medicines, the urban poor and more control on transnational firms – they are still not seen as quite like the other legislators. They also attract less excitement from voters.

“There is a sense of tokenism, yes,” said Danton Remoto, chairman of ‘Ang Ladlad’ (Coming Out), a political party pushing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. It is one of 187 party list groups seeking to win slots in the lower chamber of Congress during the May 10 national election.

“Ang Ladlad is not just treated as a second-class Party List nominee, but as a pariah by some conservative, narrow-minded quarters,” Remoto said in an interview, referring to the Catholic Church in this mainly Catholic country.

District-elected legislators do not see party-list members as equals, says Jose Descallar, advocacy officer for the anti-abortion ‘Pro-life Buhay’ (Life) party. “District representatives consider themselves the true representatives since their constituency is more quantifiable and geographically determinable, unlike party-list groups, which are sector-based,” he explains.

Most members of the lower house of Congress are elected from their geographical districts – the traditional mechanism of legislative representation. While they represent areas, party-list representatives represent groups of people and specific causes. The members of the upper house of Congress, the Senate, are elected nationally.

A member of Congress from the southern Philippines is in fact quite vocal that “party-list representatives only duplicate their (district legislators’) functions and projects”, says journalist Sherrie Ann Torres, who wrote a series on the party-list system for the online newspaper ‘Vera Files’.

The first party-list representatives were appointed by the President from 1987 to 1997, and campaigned for the first time in the 1998 national poll. A party-list group names one congressional member if it gets at least 2 percent of the total number of voters in the party-list election. The maximum number of nominees is three.

“They see us as members of Congress but cannot really say what distinguishes us from the district congressmen,” says Walden Bello, a University of the Philippines professor, author and party-list member of Congress for the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, which has its roots in the country’s social movement.

Many remain clueless about the significance of a well-represented party list system, he adds. A Pulse Asia survey in February shows that 69 percent of Filipino voters are unaware of it.

But although Filipinos are unclear about party-list representatives, Bello disagrees that they are second-class citizens in Congress. “We are treated as equals,” he says.

The party-list legislators’ difficulty in getting voters’ attention is also reflected in the lack of space for their platforms in the media, which tend to gravitate toward popular candidates and big political machinery.

“The media must be educated further on the importance of the party list system so that they’d know what to ask, whom to ask and what kind of law this is,” explains Torres. She adds that other party-list groups have resorted to multimedia venues, such as Facebook and Twitter, to reach more groups.

Ironically, the party-list system is also seen by some politicians and dubious groups as a shortcut to getting into Congress, which would be a “bastardisation” of its goal, says Cristina Palabay of the Gabriela Women’s Party, which has a party-list seat.

Media reports say that a son of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is eyeing to be nominated to a congressional seat under ‘Ang Galing Pinoy’, a party-list group that supposedly represents security guards.

Bello says the law’s weaknesses can be addressed in the future. Reforms are already coming out, including a clearer definition of what a marginalised group is and “who can represent an accredited party for a marginalised group”, he adds.

In he end, he says, voters and watchers of the Philippine democratic process must not miss the main point, which is the party-list legislators’ voice in shaping national policies and diversifying representation in a typically oligarchic and elitist electoral system.

“Whether it was on land reform or on protecting the rights of labour or on human rights or on the conditions of the urban poor or informal settlers, it was the party-list representatives that played the most prominent role in these debates and played a leading role in crafting legislation,” Bello points out.

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession, as well as stories and opinions on democracy, development and human rights in Asia. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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