Sunday, March 28, 2010

Will the real party list group please stand up?

VERA Files

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In 1998, the Association of Philippine Electric Cooperatives or APEC decided to plunge into Philippine politics through the party list elections.

That year happened to be the first time that Filipino voters would be electing a party list group, on top of an individual politician in their congressional districts, to the House of Representatives. Approved three years earlier, Republic Act No. 7941 or the party list law had sought to include "marginalized" sectors in lawmaking.

But the leaders of APEC, composed of electric cooperatives based mostly in Mindanao, only thought of joining the race five months before the May 1998 polls, and nearly everything—from the name of the group to its list of nominees for congressional seats—was done hurriedly, admits Edgar Valdez, APEC’s current representative to Congress.

"Noon turo-turo na lang. Parang it was all a joke (We just pinpointed who would be the nominees. It’s as if it was all a joke)," said Valdez, who was at the time the group’s No. 5 nominee.

The last-minute formation of the party list organization and the absence of a track record are enough grounds for APEC’s disqualification under an administrative order of the Commission on Elections.

APEC’s accreditation, admits Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, is one big blunder committed by the Comelec.

But the poll body has not acted to correct its mistake. Save for a petition filed by another organization before the Supreme Court questioning the qualification of APEC’s nominees—a case the electric cooperatives later won—no one has disputed APEC’s presence in Congress.

The party list group representing electric coops has consistently landed a seat in Congress since the 11th Congress. Today, in the 14th Congress, it holds two seats, enjoying the perks of lawmaking, including the infamous pork-barrel funds placed at Congress’ disposal every year.

Comelec’s apparent laxity in accrediting party list groups, coupled with a Supreme Court order allocating seats to party list groups that garnered only 1 percent of votes instead of the 2 percent required by RA 7941, has led to a deluge of party list group aspirants, with a record 293 applying and an unprecedented 158 accredited for this year’s elections.

Among the party list groups that have sought accreditation are those that claim to represent tricycle drivers and security guards, miners, itinerant vendors, barangay tanods, golf course caddies, and even jail inmates. Some have nominees or representatives who are actually traditional politicians or former government officials.

"It’s a mockery, it bastardizes the principles of the party list system," said former Akbayan Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales.

The original intention of the party list system was to open up the legislative system to sectors whose views and voices have been excluded. The law originally lists categories of these "marginalized," among them peasants, labor, youth, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, and women. And part of the intention was to bring these sectors into Congress from the parliament of the streets where they have been holding rallies for decades.

But Rosales said most of the party list groups applying for accreditation are fake: they were nonexistent before the elections, have no nationwide membership, no clear legislative programs to implement, and even have "bogus" nominees.

Among the nominees in the current crop of applicants are First Son Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo, who is the nominee for a group representing security guards, and former Armed Forces Chief of Staff and environment and energy secretary Angelo Reyes, who is the nominee for a transport sector group. Rosales said the two are proof that traditional politicians are using the party list system as a backdoor to Congress.

"The first thing any clear thinking Comelec should do is to question. We know that this (Mikey Arroyo) is a very rich person who owns property all over the world, including California which he didn’t declare in his Statement of Assets and Liabilities," said current Akbayan representative Walden Bello.

On the other hand, 1-Utak, the transport sector group that is adopting Reyes as a nominee, came under fire for allegedly being a front of the big oil firms. The jeepney drivers and operators’ group Pagkakaisa ng Samahan ng Transport at Operator Nationwide finds it suspicious that 1-Utak’s legislative program is centered on the pricing of petroleum products rather than the welfare of jeepney drivers. 1-Utak has denied the accusation.

Last week, the Comelec issued Resolution No. 8807 which may yet disqualify Mikey Arroyo and Reyes from the party list race. The resolution stipulates that party list nominees have to submit documentary evidence to prove that they "belong to the marginalized and underrepresented sector/s, the sectoral party, organization, political party or coalition they seek to represent."

To qualify, a party list group must not be funded by a foreign government or the Philippine government, must renounce violence and represent a marginalized sector, must have track record, and must show proof of "national constituency" (regional chapters in at least nine regions in the country).

Despite Comelec’s supposed strictness, many groups with questionable records have passed its scrutiny. For one thing, the sheer number of applications has forced the Comelec to hear 10 to 15 applications—25 at times—a day.

But a more inherent problem is R.A. 7941 itself. "(T)he law passed by Congress has many gaps, has many vague provisions," Sarmiento said.

Others, however, chiefly blame Comelec and its interpretation of the law.

APEC’s Valdez, who was president of the Sultan Kudarat Electric Cooperative for 17 years before becoming a congressman, insists there is no really case against APEC and faults the Comelec for the late issuance of implementing rules and regulations for R.A. Act 7941 in the 1998 elections.

He also said the track record required of party list groups is not found in the law but was just imposed by Comelec.

"Gawa-gawa lang ng Comelec ’yang administrative order nila (Comelec just made up that administrative order was only made up by the Comelec). It did not exist in 1998. If it’s illegal now, it would be faux facto (false fact)," Valdez said.

Comelec’s definition of "marginalized" is also unclear, said UP professor and former National Treasurer Leonor Briones.

Sectoral parties, organizations, political parties pursuing ideologies and ideas, and coalitions can be accredited as party list groups.

But Briones said the criteria being used by Comelec in legitimizing such groups are so vague that one could no longer identify which is indeed marginalized and which is just projecting itself to be so.

She cited An Waray, a regional organization based in Eastern Visayas whose advocacy is to uplift the plight of poor Visayans.

Briones, who is from Dumaguete City, takes issue with An Waray’s insinuation that all Warays are poor and helpless. "What is the basis to say who is marginalized? The Warays as Warays or as fisherfolk? Is it according to livelihood? Is it according to region? Is it according to economic sector like fishermen or farmers?" she said. "If you are from Samar, therefore you are marginalized? I would dispute that."

Briones also scored the entry of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s son, Narciso II, as a party list representative of the rural communities.

"How can the son of Miriam be a representative of the farmers?" she asked of Narcisco II, who used to be a member of his mother’s legislative staff.

"The party list system is in a mess. It’s supposed to give representation to marginalized sectors, but if you look at the present party list representatives, it’s very obvious they are not marginalized," Briones said.

The composition of the 32 party list groups now sitting in Congress underscores the imbalanced representation of marginalized sectors in the legislature.

Abono, Anakpawis, Aba-Ako, ARC and AGAP represent the agricultural sector. Groups formed to lobby for the poor are the An Waray, Alagad, Bayan Muna, Akbayan, Ang Kasangga, Gabriela, Akbayan and Aangat Tayo. For the barangays or villagers, there are Banat and Ang Bantay. TUCP and 1-Utak represent the public transport sector, and A-Teacher and Abakada-Guro the teachers. Cibac and Yacap are anti-graft watchdogs. Cooperatives are being represented by the Coop-Natcco, Butil and APEC. The elderly has the Senior Citizens and the Veterans Filipino parties.

Ironically, Kabataan is the sole representative of the youth even if more than half the country’s 89 million population belong to this sector. The indigenous peoples are represented only by Ang Laban ng Indiginong Filipino.

No party list group represents the physically impaired or overseas Filipino workers whom the government calls its "modern-day heroes."

Migrante International, an OFW party list group and the only organization identified with migrant workers, was disqualified by the Comelec along with 25 others. The reasons: it had failed to obtain 2 percent votes and to participate in the 2007 elections.

RA 7941 clearly prohibits religious groups from becoming party list groups. Yet questions linger as to why Cibac (Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption), which is allied with Jesus is Lord Movement’s Eddie Villanueva, and Buhay, which is identified with the El Shaddai’s Mike Velarde, have been accredited by Comelec.

Villanueva’s son, Joel, even represents the minority bloc at the powerful Commission on Appointments. Velarde’s son Rene, on the other hand, is the deputy majority leader. Both are on their third and final term. In the 2010 elections, the elder Velarde himself is listed as a Buhay nominee. No one has ever questioned their groups’ seats in Congress.

Sarmiento said the Comelec has noted all these violations but is caught in a dilemma on how to address it. He said only Congress can end this recurring problem.

"I think the law has to be fine-tuned. When you say supported by a religious sector, what does it mean? There are groups in Congress that are being supported by a religious group," Sarmiento said.

As disturbing as party list groups backed by Church groups are those affiliated with giant political parties or with nominees related or identified with political figures.

As early as the 1998 congressional elections, the Lakas-NUCD-CMD, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino, Liberal Party and Kilusang Bagong Lipunan have been banned from joining the party list elections.

These groups, however, have tried various tacks to slip into Congress via the party list route, aided by what used to be a policy of Comelec against disclosing the names of the nominees of party list groups. (The Supreme Court has ordered the Comelec to disclose the nominees of every party list group that is participating in this year’s elections.)

The groups included GLOW (Gloria Arroyo); NCWP (National Council of Women of the Philippines), with the sister of former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. as the second nominee; Bagong Bayani, with former congresswoman Andrea Domingo who was also head of the JDV Foundation; Kampil (Kabataang Masang Pilipino) of JV Ejercito, and Lakas-CCW. Some of them, however, lost during the electons.

In the 2007 polls, the Partido Demokratiko Sosyalistang Pilipino attempted to enter Congress. Its first nominee then was Norberto Gonzales, who was already in the Arroyo Cabinet.

Ang Kasangga sa Kaunlaran (Ang Kasangga) was formed in 2005 and succeeded in putting presidential sister-in-law Ma. Lourdes Arroyo as the representative of vendors and other small-time entrepreneurs in Congress. She is the fourth Arroyo in the House.

Kakusa, founded by convicted child rapist former Zamboanga del Norte congressman Romeo Jalosjos, is also part of the 14th Congress. Kakusa is also affiliated with Gonzales’s PDSP.

The brother of former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos, Dr. Arsenio Abalos, nearly made it as a party list representative of tricycle drivers through Biyaheng Pinoy. Public outrage forced then Comelec Chairman Abalos to scratch his brother’s group from the list.

Agbiag is an Ilocano group connected with Thompson Lantion, former chair of the Land Transportation Land and Franchising Regulatory Board, while Ahon Pinoy has Dante "Klink" Ang Jr. as its first nominee. Ang is the son of Dante Ang, Arroyo’s former publicist who now heads the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

Resolution 8807 should aid the Comelec in deciding who should be a party list group’s nominees. The law allows an "advocate" of a sector to pass as a group nominee, but the resolution now states that the nominee must come from the sector he or she seeks to represent.

"If the group or sector is really marginalized, the representative must be marginalized also. Because that is the best," Sarmiento said. "But what’s happening is there are advocates who are millionaires. Is that acceptable? For me it’s not acceptable."

(The author is a television reporter who submitted a longer version of this article as her master’s project at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Asian Center for Journalism. Her adviser was VERA Files trustee Luz Rimban. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues.)

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