The Case of Atong Paglaum: A System of Party-List Selection Consistent with the Constitution

In order to participate in the the May 13, 2013 party-list elections, approximately 280 groups registered with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to be included in the official ballot; however, Comelec disqualified 52 of these groups for not representing the “marginalized and underrepresented sector”, or for failing to prove that its nominees actually belong to the sectoral group they seek to represent, or for failing to establish a track record as an organization which seeks to uplift the “marginalized and underrepresented”.

Of these groups, 39 petitioners were able to secure a mandatory injunction from the Supreme Court to include their groups’ names in the printing of the official ballot, whereas 13 groups were excluded. The 52 groups each filed petitions before the Court, contending that Comelec committed grave abuse of discretion by cancelling their existing registrations as qualified party-lists or by disqualifying them from the 2013 May elections.

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The petitioners also questioned the rulings of Ang Bagong Bayani and BANAT, which had formed the basis for interpreting party-list selection and qualification under RA 7941, otherwise known as the Party-List System Act. These cases had previously laid down the precedent which disallowed groups and organizations which did not represent the “marginalized and underrepresented”, as well as political parties even through their sectoral wings, from directly or indirectly participating in the party-list elections.

In a vote of 11-2, the Court overturned the previous two decisions, and resolved to include: (1) national parties and organizations, (2) regional parties and organizations, and (3) sectoral parties or organizations. Further, sectoral groups may be “marginalized or underrepresented”, such as those defined under RA 7941 representing farmers, laborers, fisherfolk, urban poor, overseas workers, indigenous cultural communities and the like, or those that “lack well-defined political constituencies”, such as professionals, the elderly, women and the youth as defined under the same law.

National and regional groups may fulfill either of the two requirements – and as a reversal to the previous rulings – do not need to represent any “marginalized and underrepresented” sector. Political parties, whether major or not, may field candidates for the party-list elections, provided that they enter through their sectoral wings.

Finally, the Court ruled that nominees for sectoral parties must belong to the sector they represent, or have a track record of advocacy for in their respective sector, while the nominees of national and regional parties must be bona-fide members of their parties or groups. The History The party-list system in the Philippines uses the electoral system of proportional representation, and it is part of the parallel system used for determining the members of the House of Representatives.

It runs alongside the regular plurality/majority system used for determining representation among the legislative districts. As a mixed electoral type of system, the votes cast in the plurality/majority system do not affect the votes cast in the party-list system. Such measure excludes major political parties which field candidates at the district level, and gives the opportunity for party-lists to vie for seats in the House under a different set of parameters on national or regional scale. This type of electoral system was first introduced into and unique to the 1987 Constitution.

Since the 1898 Philippine Republic, however, Congress shifted between a unicameral and bicameral legislature, with its members at times either through appointed or elected to office. Previously to the current 1987 Constitution, the 1973 Constitution abolished Congress and replaced it with a National Assembly, known as Batasang Pambansa, which was composed of 200 members elected from the different provinces, cities and districts, and appointed from the different agricultural, labor, and youth sectors.

Under the 1987 Constitution, the framers of the 1987 Constitution experimented with proportional representation through the party-list system in the House of Representatives. For three consecutive election terms since the Constitution came into force, one-half of the seats allotted for the party-list representatives were reserved for sectoral groups.

Thereafter, the period provided by the Constitution for reserved-seat allocation for sectoral representation ended in 1998, with the hope that after such time these sectoral groups “would be expected to gather and solidify their electoral base and brace themselves in the multi-party electoral contest with the more veteran political groups”. In 1995, Congress passed RA 7941 to govern the system of party-list elections. The Supreme Court interpreted the law in the landmark case of Veterans Federation Party v.

Comelec, and established four parameters to determine the winners in party-list elections, which are (1) the twenty percent allocation, where the combined number of all party-list congressmen do not exceed twenty percent of the total membership of the House, (2) the two percent threshold, where only parties who have garnered at least 2 percent of the total valid votes cast in elections may qualify for a seat, (3) the three-seat limit, where each qualified party may not have more than three seats, and (4) proportional representation, where additional seats are allocated to the winning party-lists “in proportion to their total number of votes”.

It was in this case that the Court also ruled in passing that major political parties could not participate in the party-list elections, even if entered through their sectoral wings. In Ang Bagong Bayani v. Comelec, the Supreme Court ruled on the qualifications of party-lists as well as the nominees fielded by these party-lists as provided under RA 7941. It held that party-lists must represent the “marginalized and underrepresented” as laid out in its Declaration of Policy under Section 2 of the said law.

The Court ruled that “the party-list system is a tool for the benefit of the underprivileged… This Court, therefore, cannot allow the party-list system to be sullied and prostituted by those who are neither marginalized not underrepresented”. Nominees, therefore, must also represent such sectoral groups. The Court stated further: “However, it is not enough for the candidate to claim representation of the marginalized and underrepresented, because representation is easy to claim and feign.

The party-list organization or party must factually and truly represent the marginalized and underrepresented constituencies mentioned in Section 5 [RA7941]. ” The same theme was echoed in Barangay Association for National Advancement and Transparency (BANAT) v. Comelec, where the Court reiterated its ruling that, “By a vote of 8-7, the Court decided to continue the ruling in Veterans disallowing major political parties from participating in the party list elections, directly or indirectly. ” The Instant Case

The ruling in Atong Paglaum reversed the ruling of Ang Bagong Bayani, which had previously prevented, “by judicial fiat, ideology-based and cause-oriented parties from the party-list system”, when such was not the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution. As gleaned from the records of the Constitutional Commission, the primary reservation of the framers of the 1987 Constitution was that creating permanent seats for the sectoral parties would “stunt their development into full-fledged parties equipped with electoral machinery potent enough to further the sectoral interests to be represented”.

Further, Atong Paglaum revealed two major problems faced by the framers in choosing which sectors to include, as well as whom to include as members of such sectoral groups. The first was that identifying and designating each and every sector (which had run up to fourteen in the caucus exercise) posed the danger that, by statutory construction, the express mention of all would limit the list and exclude all other groups.

The second dilemma was that the sectoral groupings could create confusion in delimiting its membership; a farmer who is also a laborer, or a doctor, or a lawyer should be given the freedom to become a member of the sectoral group he represents. Ultimately, the framers voted down, by 19-22, a provision for permanent reserved seats for sectoral groups, and “expressly rejected the proposal to make the party-list system exclusively for sectoral parties only, and that they clearly intended the party-list system to include bother sectoral and non-sectoral parties”.

Atong Paglaum ruled that, aside from the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution to allow non-sectoral parties to run in the party-list elections, it is also expressly provided in Sections 5(1) and (2) of the 1987 Constitution that national and regional parties or organizations are separate from sectoral groups and may also participate in the party-list system. Also, by its provisions, RA 7941 also expressly allowed these groups to participate, and these organizations do not have to be “marginalized and underrepresented”.

The Court properly placed the phrase thus: “The phrase ‘marginalized and underrepresented’ should refer only to the sectors in Section 5 that are, by their nature, economically ‘marginalized and underrepresented’. The nominees of the sectoral party either must belong to the sector, or must have a track record of advocacy for the sector represented… A party-list nominee must be a bona fide member of the party which he or she seeks to represent.

In the case of sectoral parties, to be a bona-fide party-list nominee, one must either belong to the sector represented, or have a track record of advocacy for such sector”. Thus, national or regional parties or organizations do not belong to the major political parties; however, political parties, whether from the major or minority parties, may field candidates for the party-lists from their sectoral wings, which was a reversal of the Court’s ruling in BANAT. Analysis

The records of the Constitutional Commission are replete with the intent of sectoral parties included within the framework of the party-list system. According to the statement made by Commissioner Christian Monsod during the constitutional deliberations, “the proposal for the party list system is not synonymous with that of the sectoral representation”. After the three consecutive terms provided for sectoral representation, there are no longer any reserved seats for sectoral groups. Commissioner Monsod also stated, “We are for opening up the system, and we would like very much for the sectors to be there.

That is why one of the ways to do that is to put a ceiling on the number of representatives from any single party that can sit within the 50 allocated under the party-list system”. Other modes, such as capping the limit on the number of seats a party can win, was made in order to prevent a majority block from forming and dominating the party lists. Thus, the intention to design a system to protect the sectoral parties – other than outright exclusion of non-sectoral parties – was taken carefully into account and inherently planned within the party-list system.

The ruling in Atong Paglaum is not only consistent with the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, but with the express provisions of Sections 5(1) and (2) of the 1987 Constitution and RA 7941. This intent was clearly reflected and expressly provided for under the 1987 Constitution. While in Bagong Bayani, the Court held that: In the end, the role of Comelec is to see to it that only those Filipinos who are “marginalized and underrepresented” become members of Congress under the party-list system, Filipino-style.

The intent of the Constitution is clear: to give genuine power to the people, not only by giving more to those who have less in life, but more so by enabling them to become veritable lawmakers themselves… Where the language of the law is clear, it must be applied according to its express terms… While the enumeration of marginalized and underrepresented sectors is not exclusive, it demonstrates the clear intent of the law that not all sectors can be represented under the party-list system. Although the Ang Bagong Bayani ruling used the legal principle of interpreting the law through reason and intention, this interpretation runs counter to the express provisions laid down by the 1987 Constitution and RA 7941, and cannot hold water to the express words of the law. As mentioned in Atong Paglaum, the ruling in Ang Bagong Bayani places too much emphasis on the phrase “marginalized and underrepresented”, and discounts the rest of the non-sectoral organizations and groups in the process.

Further, RA 7941 is given the meaning to harmonize with the 1987 Constitution. While the phrase “marginalized and underrepresented” is mentioned only once in the entire law under Section 2, as its broad and general declaration of policy, it is not mentioned in the relevant provisions of Section 5(1) and (2) of the 1987 Constitution.

However, the terms “national” and “regional… parties” appear as often as seven times each under the law, under ‘Declaration of Policy’, ‘Definition of Terms’, ‘Registration’, ‘Refusal and/or Cancellation of Registration’, and ‘Certified List of Registered Parties’, and it is clearly expressed under Section 5(1) of the 1987 Constitution. It is a legal principle that the law must be interpreted within its four corners, and that the best interpreter of the statute is the statute itself.

Although the number of times these words appear in the law do not immediately include national and regional parties within those eligible groups for the party-list system, the fact that they appear together with “sectoral groups”, defined under law and led through the sections on registration, cancellation and certification of registered parties, reveal the intent of the lawmakers to include the former within the party-list system. Atong Paglaum also harmonizes the law with the Constitution so that the intent and express wording of the law and the 1987 Constitution include, rather than exclude national and regional parties.

By returning to the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, Atong Paglaum also overturns the ruling in BANAT that major political parties may not participate in party-list elections through their sectoral arm which was formalized the ruling in Veterans, and became the practiced norm with Comelec since its ruling and leading up to the 2013 elections. As Commissioner Jaime Tadeo affirmed in the Constitutional Commission, “Political parties, particularly minority political parties, are not prohibited to participate in the part list election if they can prove that they are also organized along sectoral lines”.

The ruling of Atong Paglaum rings true to the purpose of the party-list system, whose primary objective sought electoral reform in the Philippines. According to the separate and concurring opinion of Justice Brion, the interpretation of including only sectoral representation of the “marginalized and underrepresented” uses a frame-work of social justice, which is incorrect, and which does not support the leading and most important aim of the party-list system.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution truly intended for two different systems to govern national elections for the House of Representatives so that for party-list representation, those who struggled to win on the level of districts to have a chance to compete at the national and regional levels, where they might have enough votes to garner support for a seat in the House of Representatives. For the framers of the 1987 Constitution, underlying the party-list system was the goal for electoral reform.

As a tool for encouraging a multi-party electoral system, using a parallel or hybrid system through proportional representation tends to produce multi-party systems. Therefore, the aim of electoral reform among the framers was a plurality of groups within the party-list framework. According to Commissioner Monsod, the framers “wanted to open up the system to a pluralistic society through a multiparty system”. Thus, the limiting nature of confining party-list elections to the “marginalized and underrepresented” cannot bode well for electoral reform.

Although the theme of social justice was taken into account through the inclusion of three consecutive terms with seats reserved for sectoral groups, the framers did not intend for this to last, but merely for a chance for these sectoral groups to gain ground and hopefully, a foothold in the House of Representatives for when the period expired. The true intent of the proportional representation side of the electoral system was to open the doors for all participating parties to have the opportunity for a seat in Congress.

Further, since party-list representation is not governed by the Labo doctrine, where such ruling does not allow “stray votes” of disqualified candidates not to be counted counted, and that the election of the candidates next in line cannot be countenanced, the party-list system, by the express and special provision in the law under Section 10 of RA 794, provides that in the manner of voting, “A vote cast for a party, sectoral organization, coalition not entitled to be voted for shall not be counted”.

This is significant for the allocation of additional seats for the different party-lists because they are made in proportion to the actual number of votes cast. Therefore, should many party-lists be disqualified for failing the qualifications laid down in Ang Bagong Bayani, that is, not part of a “marginalized and underrepresented” sectoral group, this could possibly lead to a large disenfranchisement of the voters who voted for their respective party-lists but whose votes were cast away when such party or organization is rejected by Comelec.

This leads also to a very important aspect on the authority of Comelec in determining those who qualify for the party-list elections. The ruling of Atong Paglaum lessens the arbitrariness and opportunity for Comelec, a mere agency of the Government, to exercise undue discretion in deciding who may or may not run for the party-list elections. Truly, the reason why the case came about was because 52 organizations and groups had been disqualified, or their certification cancelled by the sole discrimination of Comelec.

Experience with the previous Ang Bagong Bayani ruling has shown that the use of “marginalized and underrepresented” to qualify whether or not a party or organization may participate in the party-list elections not only runs counter to the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution for a more plural and vibrant multi-party system, but gives an unnecessary and undue delegation to Comelec in selecting the parties for the party-list system. Conclusion Atong Paglaum chose to harmonize RA 7941 with the Constitution rather than to strike the law down as unconstitutional.

Contrary to the case ruling, I believe that the wording of Sec. 2, RA 7941 tends to refer not to “those belonging to marginalized and under-represented sectors, organizations, and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies” separately, but together. However, to strictly interpret the law this way would lead to a conflict with the Constitution. As the ruling pointed out, the youth, women and professionals do not necessarily represent the “marginalized and under-represented”.

Neither should the law be construed to effect the exclusion of national and regional parties. The law would be inconsistent with the Constitution if phrase were to be given weight, when it merely states the overall intent and declaration of RA 7941. A well-known legal principle is that the law should be interpreted with a view of upholding rather than destroying it. I believe it was proper for the Court to give the law a holistic interpretation, as well as a meaning not in conflict with the express words of the Constitution.

As to the impact of the instant case on law, the rule of law in the instant case was followed. I believe that the Court decided to stick to the intention of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, which is very important in determining the true interpretation of the 1987 Constitution and all laws which flow from it. While there really is a debate in balancing social justice with the element of “free elections”, that debate was won in the Constitutional Commission, and the courts must respect that decision.

As for the impact on public policy, this ruling will force the sectoral arms to compete on a level playing field, and truly have to learn to muster enough voters to fight competitively. As it was aptly stated under Section 2 of RA 7941, these party lists must also “contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole”. These words in the law also recognize the necessity of party lists to be able to gather enough national and regional support to have the political machinery and wherewithal to represent the people who voted for them.

The decision comes from a long line of decisions reflecting the policy debate over party-list representation ?I believe that the application of Ang Bagong Bayani ruling to the party-list system for the 2010 and 2013 elections has led to many groups being disqualified on the ground of not representing the “marginalized and underrepresented”, and that this ruling is a welcome change to the wide discretion that was allowed to the Comelec previously. The party-lists are mode of proportional representation in the Philippine electoral system.

Through the use of a parallel electoral system for the national legislature where the seats allocated for the legislative districts are separated from the party-list system, the Constitutional Commission envisioned a different playing field for groups to be represented in the House of Representatives where they had previously that had struggled to win a seat in the legislative districts but had a strong following on the national and regional level.

The groups which naturally came to mind were the farmers, laborers, fisherfolk, as well as other groups such as women and youth groups or cultural or ideological groups. Thus, a wider array of parties and organizations will encourage plurality, which could contribute to the vibrancy and dynamism of the multi-party system. It is important for these groups to truly represent the sectors with a valid number of voters across the country, and not merely because they were the only parties left who were not disqualified from the party-list race.

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