By Oscar P. Lagman, Jr.
“The party-list system has become one evil,” bewailed President Rodrigo R. Duterte at the oath taking of the newly elected officials of Cagayan de Oro City on June 13. He accused the rich of using their money to insert themselves into Congress. “They (party-lists) are named after laborers, but their nominees are millionaires,” said he.
The representative of party-list 1 Pacman in the 17th Congress as well as in the 18th Congress is Michael “Mikee” Romero, whose net worth of P7.9 billion makes him the richest member of the House of Representatives. Manila Teachers Party-list Representative Virgilio Lacson has a net worth of P793.87 million, Delphine Lee of Agri, P254.3 million, Jesulito Manalo of Angkla, P124.5 million, and Mila Magsaysay of Senior Citizens, P95.7 million.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the President was simply “expressing an idea and that’s for the Comelec (Commission on Elections) to respond to it.” Mr. Panelo makes it appear that the President defers to the Comelec, a constitutional body that is supposed to be independent of the dictates or influence of the highest official of the land. But the Comelec has demonstrated many times a willingness to abide by the biddings of the President.
Take the case of the Comelec’s acceptance of Ronald Cardema’s petition for last-minute substitution as the nominee of the party-list group Duterte Youth. The law says a youth sector nominee “must at least be 25 but not more than 30 years of age on the day of the election.” Mr. Cardema is 34 years old. There is also the issue of Mr. Cardema being the chair and chief executive officer of the National Youth Commission on the day of the elections. That should have disqualified him from being a substitute nominee of the Duterte Youth as incumbent officials of the executive branch are disallowed from running for Congress. That is why Bong Go resigned from his position as President Special Assistant months before the elections. So, did many other administration officials who ran for Congress.
The issue is cut and dry, yet the Comelec has not disqualified Mr. Cardema outright from representing the Duterte Youth in the House of Representatives. Mr. Cardema is a rabid supporter of President Duterte. According to Mr. Cardema himself, his wife withdrew as a nominee of Duterte Youth in his favor because she got scared of the idea of debating with leftist representatives and said that he would be in the best position to debate with them. The Comelec must be looking intensely for ways to justify his insertion into Congress.
Some time in May, Comelec Chair Sheriff Abas said, “The party-list system has become a joke. Those who join are billionaires while the marginalized are ousted. But that can be fixed by Congress.” He said the Comelec was, however, limited to implementing what the law allows.
The law is very clear. RA Republic Act No. 7941 or the Party-List System Act provides that: “The State shall promote proportional representation in the election of representatives to the House of Representatives through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations or coalitions thereof, which will enable Filipino citizens belonging to the 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.”
Twenty-nine party-list groups not only have fabulously rich people as nominees but are also allies of President Duterte, members of political dynasties, and relatives of government officials. Among them are Probinsyano Ako’s Caesar Fariñas, son of outgoing Ilocos Norte representative Rudy Fariñas, ACT-IS’ Jocelyn Tulfo, sister-in-law of Special Envoy to China Ramon Tulfo, and the aforementioned Ronald Cardema.
In 2010, the Comelec — then dominated by President Gloria Arroyo’s appointees: Nicodemo Ferrer, Elias Yusoph, Lucenito Tagle, and Armando Velasco — allowed her son Mikey, whose net worth at the time was P99 million and who never owned a security agency or a fleet of tricycles, to represent the party-list of tricycle drivers and security guards, in violation of RA 7941. When a disqualification complaint was filed with the Supreme Court against Mikey, the Court, also dominated by Arroyo appointees and headed by Renato Corona, her own choice of chief justice over two more senior associate justices, quickly dismissed the disqualification complaint.
Then in 2013, the Court — still dominated by Arroyo-appointees — ruled that party-lists need not represent any “marginalized and underrepresented” sector. The Court said it is sufficient that their members advocate common ideologies or governance principles regardless of their economic status. In effect, the Supreme Court usurped the function of Congress by changing the law.
The ruling enabled multi-millionaires, members of political dynasties, and those well-connected to the powers-that-be to use the party-list system as the easier and cheaper way of getting elected to the House of Representatives, thus crowding out of Congress the real marginalized folks.
The Comelec is now dominated by appointees of President Duterte. If he really finds rich people representing party-lists evil, he can direct the Comelec, as President Arroyo did, to observe RA 7941 by disallowing rich people from representing party-lists.
In the event party-lists representatives Romero, Lacson, Lee, Manalo, Magsaysay, Farinas, and Tulfo invoke the Supreme Court ruling that removed the concept of “marginalized sectors” from the law, then the President can influence the Supreme Court, as President Arroyo did, to restore the concept in the law.
After all, the Supreme Court has reversed its rulings many times. The high tribunal had ruled in 2008, 2009, and 2011 that the retrenchment of 1,423 Philippine Air Lines employees in 1998 was illegal and ordered their reinstatement. But in late 2011, in response to a mere letter from PAL lawyer Estelito Mendoza, the Court en banc issued a memorandum recalling the Court’s resolution.
With authoritarian Rodrigo R. Duterte as President and his appointees now dominating the present Supreme Court, I expect it to be more compliant to the President’s dictates and wishes as it had shown in the past. All His Highness had to do was say he wanted Ferdinand Marcos buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani, martial law imposed in the whole of Mindanao, and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno ousted from the Supreme Court , and his appointees to the Court willingly obliged.
With the chief justice his own choice and many of the associate justices now his own appointees (There are seven associate justices who are Duterte appointees, and four each appointed by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III — Ed.), the Supreme Court should have by now done away with the system the President considers evil after he expressed his disgust over it. But it has not, because the Chief Justice and the associate justices sense that the disgust is feigned. It stands to reason that the President would be happy to have the rich like Mikee Romero, Virgilio Lacson, and Jesulito Manalo and the relatives of his political allies like Caesar Fariñas and Jocelyn Tulfo represent party-lists in Congress because they are staunch supporters of his legislative agenda.
It is within President Duterte’s power and influence to do away with the evil the party-list system has become. But the evil thrives.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.