The Manila Times - Revamp party-list system, but stay clear of Cha-cha

News & Interviews
24 January 2021

By The Manila Times

We reiterate our support to overhaul the party-list system, but to do so by amending the 1987 Constitution through charter change (Cha-cha) would doom that to failure.

In recent weeks, lawmakers at the House revived debates to amend the Constitution to discuss its economic provisions that supposedly pose obstacles to foreign investments and to a larger extent, economic development. Around that time, President Rodrigo Duterte also renewed his desire for changing the Constitution, but his reason was to scrap the party-list system that has been co-opted by groups advocating the overthrow of government.

First, people by and large do not trust lawmakers to change the Constitution. Even if they vow to limit their focus on economic provisions, the public cannot shake off their suspicions that congressmen are actually driven to remove term limits.

President Duterte seems to be against term extensions, particularly for himself. But lawmakers make him the target of similar suspicions by timing their initiative at the tail-end of his term. Admittedly, proper timing is elusive. Even when such amendments were attempted early in a presidential term, as it was done a few years ago to push federalism, charter change failed to take off. As usual, people were wary of the lawmakers’ motives, and there was always more pressing business to occupy national leadership.

Besides, the argument for amending the Constitution’s economic provisions just to bolster the investment climate seems weak. Take China and more recently Vietnam, for example.

Both impose foreign equity caps and limit land ownership, and yet they are prospering.

Those countries even have restrictions on repatriating foreign investors’ income, which the Philippines does not have.

The economic boom in China and Vietnam are attributed to their stable and predictable policies. In contrast, the Philippines has a reputation for changing policies, even terms of government contracts, whenever a new president is elected every six years.

Fake lawmakers

The part about the party-list system brings us to our second point. We agree with the President that those espousing the violent overthrow of government should be disallowed from elective office. But that prohibition should not be imposed on all those in the Left, especially not against those who denounce violence and are committed to peaceful means to achieving their political aims.

Our democracy should accommodate broad political views. But if certain groups balk at condemning terrorism and other forms of violence, can they blame those who question their true intentions? Also, they should not exploit the poor by using poverty as a justification for rebellion and similar crimes. The overwhelming majority of poor Filipinos are peace-loving and law- abiding.

Unfortunately, the party-list system has also been captured by traditional politicians and the economic elite. They have exploited the system designed to give a voice to marginalized sectors of society. In doing so, these “fake” congressmen crowd out those that the Constitution wanted to guarantee representation in government.

To us, the Constitution seems clear on its intent. The problem, and thus the remedy, should be to change Republic Act (RA) 7941, the party-list system’s enabling law. This seems to have support from both allies and critics of the Duterte government.

Moreover, RA 7941 empowers the Commission on Elections or Comelec to remove or cancel the registration of any party-list group, with due process of course. Section 6 says in part that the Comelec can do so if a party list “… advocates violence and unlawful means to seek its goal …” Perhaps another alternative to Charter change would be to check whether the poll body is incapable of doing its job, perhaps because of corruption, incompetence or both.

As argued here, there are paths to fix the party-list system without amending the Constitution. Besides being politically divisive, doing so is a distraction. To pursue that now when the political season has started would divert national attention from urgent issues of our time, which is fighting the pandemic and working toward an economic recovery.

Lawmakers and others in government should address the country’s concerns with laser focus. Most of all, they should earn their keep by putting the country’s interests before their own.