A Tale of Two Party-List Systems

By Miriam Grace A. Go

BANGKOK—In a country like the Philippines, where the multibillion-peso-a-year illegal drug trade had been destroying the lives of some 1.7 million individuals and, consequently, their families and communities, what impression would be created if an anti-drug foundation wins big in the party-list election? It means the public, especially the youth sector that delivered the vote, somehow understood that the ballot could get them started in addressing a national problem such as drug abuse.

Yet more than a year after MAD or Mamamayan Ayaw sa Droga (The People Hate Drugs) garnered the second highest number of votes in the party-list poll of 2001, it is still awaiting proclamation by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the hopes of its 1.52 million believers—10 percent of the total votes cast in the exercise—frustrated. MAD and most of the winning groups were retroactively disqualified due to an unnecessary legal debate on what the party list was all about.

If MAD ran that same year in the first party-list election of Thailand—where illegal drugs is also a big national concern—it would not have been visited by such a nightmare. In Thailand, in fact, the party that landed on the number two spot captured six million votes that translated to 31 seats in the parliament.

Why Thailand? Because its four-year-old party-list concept shares basic features with the Philippines’ 15-year-old system. (See table) Its newly established poll body that carried out the first party-list elections was largely modeled after the Philippines’ Comelec, which dates back to 1940. In both countries, this new manner of electing some members of the House of Representatives was introduced after a long tradition of personality-based and mudslinging campaigns and fraud-marred elections. Thailand succeeded on first try; the Philippines has failed in two elections so far.

In 1998, the Philippine failure meant being able to fill only a fourth of the 52 party-list seats in the House of Representatives. In 2001, the results were more tragic: to date, only seven of the 52 seats have been filled. Eight of the 11 winning groups were belatedly disqualified by the Supreme Court in a case that tells a lot of where the Philippine model went wrong.

Two of the disqualified groups, tapping political connections, managed to wangle exceptions from court decision. The rest, including MAD, have been left to appeal their cases without help from the Comelec, which had allowed them to run and validated their votes in the first place. And at the rate the questions raised by this cases about the real intent of the party-list system is being addressed by the government, the next party-list election, which is just two years away, is likely to fail, too.

“It’s another sad case of the Philippines having a headstart and Thailand overtaking us,” says lawyer Chito Gascon, one of the framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution that introduced the party-list system. Now executive director of the National Institute of Policy Studies, he was the first to point out the many similarities of the two countries’ party-list systems. “It was a matter of Thai voters being more mature than Filipinos in the sense that they understood what the party list was—that it is a system of proportional representation,” he says.

Platforms vs personalities
Both the Philippines and Thailand have a mixed House of Representative, composed of those elected through party list and those elected in localities. In the Philippines, the latter are called congressmen, from geopolitical districts of four to five towns each. In Thailand, they are called MPs (members of parliament), from every population of at least 150,000 each. A voter therefore has to cast two votes: one for a representative of his locality, one for a party that is seeking nationwide mandate.

Thailand has limited party-list participants to political parties, while the Philippines has opened the contest to just about any kind of organization—political parties, cause-oriented and advocacy groups, foundations, cooperatives—except those that are religious in nature, getting foreign funding for their campaigns, and espousing violence.
What helped Thailand succeed was an extensive and innovative information campaign initiated by the government. The Philippines missed out on this very basic element, thus allowing partisan groups to frustrate the system laid out by law.

The party-list system was introduced in both countries to provide a balance for locality-based lawmakers, who are almost always elected based on their personalities and the dole-outs they can afford. The party-list system is supposed to encourage people to vote for parties based on their program of government and track record. It is also meant to open doors to more qualified individuals, enlisted by the parties, who do not have the money and the personal connections to make him win in locality-based elections, but whose platform may appeal to voters nationwide.

Along with this clear idea of the intent of the party list, the Election Commission of Thailand also made sure the people understood the first step in the party-list poll: vote for a party, not its nominees. To further ensure this, the names and logos of the parties were pre-printed on the ballots, so the voters would just cross out the boxes corresponding to their parties of choice.

“The most effective strategy was face-to-face communication,” says Dr. Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner of Thailand whose job was to design a program that would familiarize voters with the new electoral processes put in place by the 1997 Constitution. The party-list system was just one of them.

Worth the money
With a 1-billion-baht ($32 million) appropriation, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) recruited 20,000 new college graduates in April 1999, one and a half years before the first party-list election. The volunteers went around in the 76 provinces and in Bangkok to explain to families the new election procedures.

The commission also sent to registered households posters and sample ballots explaining the new manner of casting votes. The layout and design of the samples were the same as the ones put up at polling precincts on election day, so as not to confuse the voters.

Some five million baht (P8.3 million) were spent on this.

The ECT also enlisted the help of NGOs in the provinces. The People’s Network for Elections in Thailand (P-Net) produced cassette tapes containing election songs. P-Net secretary Somchai Srisutthiyakorn says that to create impact, they set the lyrics on the traditional music of individual regions—for instance, the moa rum in the northeast provinces, and the manorah in south. Every morning, these songs roared from their village towers, the equivalent of barangay halls in the Philippines. Copies of the tapes had been distributed in schools, too, to prepare students who will vote in the future.

Usually in cooperation with the private sector, demonstrations on the new polling procedures were organized for the public to try out, and for the media to cover.

Although he acknowledges the power of the media, Gothom says he avoided the traditional promotion done through placing paid newspaper or broadcast advertisement. He says these were not just expensive, but were also easily forgotten by the public. Anyway, radio and TV, the media with the widest audience reach, were mostly government owned and were only too willing to air information on the party-list system for free.

Advertisements vs. information
In contrast, the Philippines’ Comelec, with a budget of P110 million ($2.11 million), relied merely on paid advertisements, placed only several weeks before the first party-list election in 1998. The pamphlets it produced explaining proportional representation were not widely disseminated despite the fact that it had a department exclusively tasked to do that.

This is ironic because years earlier, surveys were already done by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), the leading poll firm in the Philippines, showing that there had been “public demand for more information” on the elections through more personal means.

In a speech in February 1998, while enumerating possible ways to educate the voters, SWS director Mahar Mangahas seemed to be reading what Dr. Gothom was thinking in Thailand: “The most popular mass medium for communications… is television… (but) they are too easy for the public to forget. It is much easier to remember messages transmitted in the form of stories. Most effective of all is experimental learning, which in this case would be learning from participation in electoral exercises, either actual or simulated.”

Valid ballots say it
The high voter turnout (69.9 percent of the 42 million qualified voters) in 2001 is not the gauge for the electorate’s level of awareness of the party list; in Thailand, voting is semi-compulsory. What is significant was that all those 29.91 million voters who went out to vote for constituency-based MPs also cast ballots for the party list.

More significantly, says ECT deputy secretary Piroon Chatwanichkul, only 2.5 percent of the party-list ballots were invalidated, indicating that most voters understood how the new system of voting worked.
Also, an ECT volunteer interviewed by the Bangkok Post during the campaign recalled that people initially thought that voting for a party was impersonal compared to choosing their local MPs. Voters thought, too, that there was no way of telling which political party would be better, that they were all the same.

But came election day, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), a newly formed party, got an overwhelming 38.87 percent of the party-list votes because of its pro-poor platform. Although there is a debate now on whether the populist promises made during the campaign were sincere, political observers of various stripes acknowledge that TRT’s experience showed that Thai voters were capable of judging parties based on platforms and “qualifications.”

In the 2001 campaign in the Philippines, MAD ran on a relevant cause, catchy acronym and logo, determined information campaign, and, not to mention, the popularity of its top nominee Richard Gomez as an actor and sportsman. Such strategies could have worked among Thais as well, if we are to go by how most of them subscribed to the TRT platform. Interestingly, Thais also regard illegal drugs as a big national problem. In fact, according to the Thai Constitution, being a drug addict is the first ground for the disqualification of a lawmaker.

Piroon says that the party-list exercise in Thailand still had traces of the traditional personality-based campaign—enlisting celebrities who had qualifications to boost a party’s popularity, and telling people how many lawyers or doctors were on its list. He accepts them, however, as “campaign strategies” that parties had the right to employ. The important thing, says Piroon, is that the procedure was understood by the public and carried out smoothly by government.
Gothom says the purpose of an information campaign is to help voters make an informed choice when election comes, regardless of whether their choice, such as TRT or MAD, would be acceptable to the so-called progressive NGOs or the discriminating media.

NGOs take over
Failing an honest-to-goodness information campaign by the Comelec, partisan NGOs in the Philippines took it upon themselves to explain to communities what the party list was. But many of these NGOs were also running in the party-list election in which they threatened by stronger rivals. Not surprisingly, some of them gave voters a twisted interpretation of the system.

These NGOs said that the party-list seats are reserved for groups like them that “genuinely” represented the “marginalized” sectors. The other organizations accredited by the Comelec were “bogus,” they said.

In this convoluted line of argument, the “genuine” NGOs’ weapon was a sentence in the Constitution and the party-list law that, for the purpose of clarity, enumerates which sectors are referred to as “marginalized.” What those documents actually say is that there are many types of organizations that can compete in the party-list election, and that NGOs, such as those representing the basic sectors, can join, too.

To that misinterpreted provision, professor Wilfrido Villacorta, one of the framers of the Philippine Constitution, says, “I plead guilty.” He has realized that having those sectors enumerated apparently gave the NGOs the impression that they had to be accorded “special treatment,” an attitude that could cause to them to “remain mendicants.”

During the campaigns of 1998 and 2001 then, what was “marginalized” and “genuine” was determined by the NGOs that called press conferences and issued press releases most often, and beat the rest in accusing other groups as “bogus.” These busy NGOs were those with communist leanings.

Unfortunately, a press that obviously did not read up on its law never pointed out that the NGOs’ claims were contrary to what the Constitution and the party-list law say, further confusing the voters. Not a single report in the past two party-list campaigns pointed out that the party list, to begin with, was not about “marginalized” and “big” NGOs, but about proportional representation.

Despite the Left’s propaganda offensive, some of their pet peeves made it to the winning circle. MAD, which they said was not marginalized because it rode on the government’s anti-drugs campaign (something which is not prohibited under the party-list law), finished second. The Veterans Federation Party, a 1998 party-list winner that got to serve in the past Congress but which the noisier groups now said was not marginalized because it was backed by defense department, finished fourth. The political parties, which some groups said were not marginalized because their members had already won in the district elections, finished fifth (Promdi or “Province First” Development Initiatives), sixth (Nationalist People’s Coalition), ninth (Lakas-NUCD), and 11th (Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino or Struggle of Democratic Filipinos).

The leftist groups in the party-list contest brought their case to the Supreme Court in 2001, asking that the organizations they classified as non-marginalized be disqualified. The Supreme Court, in a display of what Gascon called “misguided judicial activism,” adopted the argument of the complainants. A national daily branded the ruling as “one of the most idiotic judicial decisions in the history of mankind.”

No to NGOs
“Our system is less complicated because we do not allow NGOs to join the party list,” says Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn, a member of the assembly that drafted the 1997 Thai Constitution. Although he also considers the NGOs’ electoral participation as a political breakthrough, they should be made to play fair, he says.

Suchit is now a justice of the Constitutional Court, an independent body whose task is to decide if any bill, law, government rule or policy is in accordance with the Charter. If there were such a court in the Philippines, it would have been the one to decide on the controversial party-list case of 2001. And Suchit says, “If they (NGOs) want that privilege (of participating in the party list), they have to transform themselves into political parties, and compete as the others do.”

He says that if NGOs want to push their cause, their leaders may run in other arena, such as the senatorial or the constituency-based polls. In their senatorial elections, where candidates are required to run as independents, 30 percent of the seats were captured by former NGO leaders.

Gothom, formerly the leader of an NGO called Poll Watch Foundation, says there is nothing wrong with NGO leaders entering politics. But “dragging the entire movement or NGO into the elections” is a different story, he says. In a party-list contest, he points out, participants cannot claim moral distinction from the others—all of them are “after state power.” Which group gets represented should therefore be determined by nothing else but the number of votes it gathered, reasons Gothom.

Besides, Suchit points out that, as the Thai system has shown, there is no guarantee that the party’s campaign platform will be realized when its nominees are already in the parliament. “Representing the people’s voice will always depend on individual politicians,” he says.
Political scientist Sida Sonskri of Thammasat University came to the Philippines in 1996 to study the structure of the Comelec and the country’s electoral processes, with the intention of recommending to Thailand’s Constitutional Drafting Assembly whatever good points she could pick up. The inclusion of NGOs in the party list appealed to her, but she says that her government quickly shot down the idea. “They didn’t trust NGOs and were so sure that they would only create problems,” she recalls.

Sida says that Thai NGOs may need 10 more years to develop the political strength of their counterparts in the Philippines, such that they could network, form their political party, and compete in the party-list poll. Except for the fact that the NGOs in the Philippines had overdone their campaign, she says, the Philippines’ party-list system would be “useful because no one else will propose laws for the sectors except their own groups.”

Start from square one
Gothom and Sida say it is unfortunate that the Philippines would fail in aspects where it has always been assumed to be stronger than Thailand. First, the Comelec is in a position to smoothly run a continuing voters’ education program because its provincial officers are civil servants who do not get replaced so often, unlike in Thailand where they are appointed and may be replaced on a whim.
The election watchdogs in the Philippines—such as the National Movement for Free Elections, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, Vote Care, and others—have established and more extensive networks than those in Thailand, note Gothom and Sida. They have also proven their ability to enlist volunteers on meager budgets, and have them work until the canvassing is through. If the Comelec could enlist their help, the Philippine government could accomplish the information drive without having to spend as much as Thailand did.

The Philippine party-list system clearly has to start from square one. Suggests Gothom: “Before you do an information campaign, you will have to decide first whether to amend your Constitution’s provision on the party list, or accept the Supreme Court decision. Otherwise, people will be saying different things and the public will remain confused.”

Philippine Congress is talking about amending the Constitution, and it will be wise for it to fix up the party-list mess in the process before another obvious failure takes place in the 2004 elections. Otherwise, it may be better to save the government’s money, and spare the people’s time and aspirations, by scrapping this pretension about proportional representation altogether.