My column partner to your right, Dinah, suggested we write something about the partylist system.
But my thoughts were quickly directed to two Bicolanos who served as partylist representatives who both died of tragic deaths. Their lives and manner of service to the nation were in contrast to the end.
Dinah is also from Bicol and it is just a coincidence that Bicolanos – the former labor leader Crispin Beltran and the recently murdered Rodel Batocabe, a lawyer — have figured prominently in the still very young Philippine partylist system since it was introduced in 1998 as a way of representation for the marginalized sectors of society.
Beltran, who was from Albay, was born poor and he died poor.
His death was tragic. He fell 14 feet from the roof of his very old house in Bulacan that he was trying to repair on 20 May 2008.
“The partylist was thought to have been designed to give the underrepresented community sectors or groups… their chances in crafting laws to their favor.
Beltran dedicated his life to the labor movement since he joined the Yellow Taxi Drivers’ Union in the early 1950s until he rose to become president of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), for which he was tagged a communist and served prison from 1982 to 1984 when he escaped and sought protection from the New People’s Army.
He was unsuccessful in his attempt to win a senatorial seat in 1987 as a Partido ng Bayan (a political party formed by majority of the Philippine Maoist Left) bet, but he garnered over 1.5 million votes which were double the membership of the KMU that he led at the height of its strength as the leading labor force in the country.
He died without much, proof that he dedicated his life in serving without financial benefit the poor and the workers, for which he was given the Red honor during his burial. He would have been happy to accept being called a communist, but for much of his life, Beltran as he was known, was a patriot who had his political awakening serving as a runner/messenger for the United States Armed Forces in the Far East. The USAFFE recognized him with a “youngest courier” award.
Beltran served as partylist representative for three terms from 2001 (for Bayan Muna) and in 2003 to 2007 (for two terms under Anakpawis). He died a year after his retirement.
Beltran’s transformation from labor leader/activist to partylist politician ushered in new heights for the Left movement with Bayan Muna topping the partylist elections twice in 2001 to 2004.
But major politicians and interest groups have learned the intricacies of the partylist system as a backdoor to power that groups, including Bayan Muna, were dislodged from their perches in the system and were replaced with parties with links to traditional parties, politics and personages.
Batocabe’s Ako Bicol alternated with Buhay (a party founded by El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde despite a supposed ban on the religious groups from taking part in politics and the partylist system) as the top vote-drawers.
Ako Bicol (2010 and 2016) and Buhay (2007 and 2013) have topped the partylist race and seem to have toppled the fragmented Left in terms of popular votes with the coming May elections still likely to be a contest for the top slot between them.
Both have yet to reach the most number of votes of more than 1.7 million garnered by Bayan Muna in 2001, but the trend now seems back to the traditional form of patronage politics even for the minor partylist players.
Unlike Beltran who retired to his old place and haunts at the end of his partylist service, Batocabe had decided to forego a third term to bid for the mayoralty post of Daraga, Albay.
His path is not unfamiliar to many. Batocabe was to follow the traditional political path when he was murdered. But his was in reverse, other politicians have used the partylist for their comeback and redemption.
Batocabe’s Ako Bikol was supported by former president and now Speaker of the House Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to become one of her numbers in Congress. It was funded by one of the region’s richest political personalities.
One of its representatives’ house was burglarized and thieves reportedly stole some P500,000 worth of valuables, an amount Beltran did not have.
But the partylist system had long been swayed “upwards.”
Then Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had ruled that “it is not necessary that the partylist organization’s nominee ‘wallow in poverty, destitution and infirmity’ as there are no financial status required by law.”
And so, while the partylist was thought to have been designed to give the underrepresented community sectors or groups, including labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural, women, youth and other sectors — except the religious — their chances in crafting laws to their favor, major political parties, personalities and interest groups have taken control of this small percentage of House slots.
Imagine Arroyo’s son, Mikee, once represented a partylist group for security guards and tricycle drivers. Ang Galing Pinoy was his avenue back to Congress after he served as Pampanga Second District Representative which Gloria took.
Multi-billionaires abound the partylist groups, too.
Beltran’s party and its ideological allies, meanwhile, are on the verge of losing their slots as money now plays the partylist card very well.
But they will not be gone completely.
Those in power know that giving the marginalized a small voice in everything is vital to staying in power, lest these sectors are driven to drastic actions and calls.
Feels like a joke
The Philippines’ partylist system has been a source of many controversies since it began. Created by the 1987 Constitution, this system which fills the House with 20 percent of its occupants has never been fully understood by the voting populace.
On the surface, it is supposed to give due representation to minority groups or “under-represented community sectors or groups, including labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural, women, youth and other such sectors as may be defined by law (except the religious sector),” as one online source enumerates.
Yet lately, the fact that political families seem to have claimed a huge chunk of this sector — and with the current sentiments prevailing against political dynasties — the partylist system has become somewhat of a joke.
An ABS-CBN online article last week encapsulates a thought that runs through so many heads, though no one has been as vocal about it: “Political families are trying to control not just their bailiwick, but also the partylist system by fielding their relatives as nominees.”
The list is quite telling. You’ve got husband, wife and children all vying for different positions this year, or even aunts, uncles and in-laws — making hard to contest grumblings about it being a “cottage industry.”
Some members of such political families have been known to share sentiments that no one else but those in their family would be fit to run a city or, heck, the whole country! I mean, what delusion!! What arrogance!
Even experts are saying the same thing nowadays. “Public office is a public trust and should not be treated as a family heirloom,” the same article quotes Prof. Julio Teehankee of De La Salle University, “who observed that some political dynasties are now using the partylist elections to stay in power.”
The partylist system had been questioned for various issues, including how the parties allowed to participate are chosen and how many seats the winners should get.
The fact that partylist representatives are elected indirectly — that is, people vote for the partylist and not the person or persons representing it — makes it even more vague for voters.
In the first place, come voting time, they would probably have little idea what the partylist they are ticking stands for.
The funny thing is those representing partylists that win at least a seat or a maximum of three seats in the House are suddenly “cong” who likely behave as kings in a world where titles matter more than actual abilities or track record!
Well, it seems this year the political wannabes are extra confident… extra optimistic.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) received a deluge of organizations wanting representation in lawmaking for the 2019 elections.
“Some… of such political families have been known to share sentiments that no one else but those in their family would be fit to run a city or, heck, the whole country! What arrogance!
A total of 185 organizations filed certificates of nomination, as well as certificates of acceptance by its nominees, last year.
On 5 December 2018, the Comelec released an initial list reflecting the order of appearance of partylist groups on the official ballot for the May 2019 midterm elections.
Some partylist groups, like Bayan Muna, which turned out to be the first in the list, have been visibly working for their respective cause.
Some personalities who were never in public service, but whose surnames are recognizable or whose names had become famous or infamous, have also put themselves in the running.
Frankly it has felt like a free-for-all so that groups like Kontra Daya have observed nearly half of those included in the official list of candidates were those of the “rich and powerful,” who did not represent marginalized sectors.
“It is possible that about half of the Comelec accredited partylist groups still represent the interests of well-entrenched political dynasties and big business interests,” they added.
I am bothered by the phrase “it is possible” in the above statement because, with over a hundred partylist groups supposedly hawking their specific, under-represented causes, no one has really bothered to find out what each and every group represents and what they have accomplished to show they have represented said causes well.