Who can be a party-list rep?

Who can be a party-list rep?
By Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN word went around that Rep. Mikey Arroyo, anticipatedly displaced by his mother from his seat in Pampanga, might run for a position in Congress as party-list representative, true or not, people naturally wondered if this was constitutionally allowable. For that matter, a similar question was asked about Secretary Angelo Reyes.

It is a legitimate question because there is a distinction between the qualifications of a district representative and those of a party-list representative.

We are familiar with the qualifications of district representatives. They must be natural-born Filipino citizens, at least 25 years of age on the day of the election, registered voters in the district to be represented and residents of the district they hope to represent for at least one year immediately preceding the election. No qualities of the person are prescribed, no level of education, no party affiliation, no profession. One can be a lawyer, a doctor, a billionaire, a laborer, or even a Cardinal. Yes, even a Cardinal, because the Constitution says that no religious test shall be imposed for the exercise of civil or political rights.

Clearly, Mikey Arroyo or Secretary Reyes can be one of them. Not everyone, however, can be a party-list representative.

The birth of the party-list representative came with the party-list system. Both arose out of the desire to give voice to the underrepresented and marginalized classes of society. The Constitution has reserved 20 percent of the total membership of the House of Representatives for party-list representatives. According to current jurisprudence and on the basis of the total number of representatives today, party-list representatives can be as many as 55—a force to reckon with if strategically deployed.

Constitutionally, a party-list representative has the same qualifications as a district representative, except for the fact that party-list representatives, since they do not represent a district, can be registered voters in any place of their choice. Since, however, they are to represent a party-list organization, they must also be bona fide members of a party-list organization.

The Constitution says that the party-list members must be chosen, as provided by law, 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.” Hence, if Mikey Arroyo is to become a party-list representative, he must fit into one of these classes. This may take a lot of doing!

In 2001 the Supreme Court thoroughly discussed the issue as to what kind of organizations may participate in the party-list system. The current doctrine on this subject is summed in the Epilogue to the 2001 decision:

“The linchpin of this case is the clear and plain policy of the law: ‘to enable Filipino citizens belonging to marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies but who could contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole, to become members of the House of Representatives.

“Crucial to the resolution of this case is the fundamental social justice principle that those who have less in life should have more in law. The party-list system is one such tool intended to benefit those who have less in life. It gives the great masses of our people genuine hope and genuine power. It is a message to the destitute and the prejudiced, and even to those in the underground, that change is possible. It is an invitation for them to come out of their limbo and seize the opportunity.

“Clearly, therefore, the Court cannot accept the submissions of the Comelec and the other respondents that the party-list system is, without any qualification, open to all. Such position does not only weaken the electoral chances of the marginalized and underrepresented; it also prejudices them. It would gut the substance of the party-list system. Instead of generating hope, it would create a mirage. Instead of enabling the marginalized, it would further weaken them and aggravate their marginalization.

“In effect, the Comelec would have us believe that the party-list provisions of the Constitution and RA 7941 are nothing more than a play on dubious words, a mockery of noble intentions, and an empty offering on the altar of people empowerment. Surely, this could not have been the intention of the framers of the Constitution and the makers of RA 7941.”

The Court’s decision is a clear enunciation of what an organization must stand for if it is to be allowed to participate in the party-list system. It is a great idea which I myself supported in the Constitutional Commission. But it can also be a backdoor entry point for the undeserving. Hence, who should be elected to represent that organization?

Section 9 of the Party-List Law says that he must be “a bona fide member of the party or organization which he seeks to represent for at least ninety (90) days preceding the day of the election.” This should mean that a party-list representative’s heart and mind should belong to the organization he or she represents. It may not always be easy to substantiate this requirement. Conversely, it may be easy to feign possession of this requirement!

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.