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The party-list system is utterly absurd, a mockery of democracy

First of 2 parts

IF there’s any provision in our Constitution that indisputably has to be deleted, it is that which called for 20 percent of the House of Representatives seats to be given to so-called “party-list representatives,” supposedly to represent the country’s marginalized sector.

Unlike the usual congressmen who are elected by voters registered in a political district, party-list representatives are elected by any voter anywhere in the country, who elect not the individual but the party-list, which then designates him as its representative.

Cory Aquino in 1987 pushed for such a system, partly to crush the two-party system she hated. But the system has proven to be so utterly absurd, a scandalous mockery of our democracy. And we taxpayers shoulder the party-list representatives’ and their staff’s salaries as well as expenses in the amount of about P2 billion per year.

Instead of powerless sectors—“labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors” as the Constitution put it—it has only given political clout to multi- millionaires, even two billionaires, so they could defend or expand their business interests. It has also given additional seats in Congress to provincial or regional political clans, for them to increase their political clout.

Most ironically, the party-list system has put cadres of the Communist Party in the House of Representatives giving them additional resources, especially finances—raised from our taxes—to advance their agenda to violently overthrow our democracy.

Mikee and Mike: Left, 1-Pacman representative “billionaire” ‘Mikee’ Romero in a polo competition in Thailand. Right, religious leader ‘Bro.’ Mike Velarde’s campaign poster calling on his faithful to vote for his party-list.

The communist atheists are colleagues in Congress of two bible-quoting religious party-list representatives.

The Constitution’s Article VI, Section 5 (2) categorically excludes the “religious sector” from having a party-list representative. Yet “Brother” MikeVelarde who heads the huge born-again Christian group El Shaddai set up his Buhay party-list (Buhay Hayaan Yumabong) in 2001 and since 2004 has had two to three representatives in Congress. Buhay’s incumbent representatives are the preacher’s son Michael Velarde, Jr. and former Manila mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza.  

In this country steeped in religiosity, we’re lucky other religious groups aren’t as hungry for political clout, or as unscrupulous, or half of the party-list representatives will be from the Iglesia ni Cristo, Philippine Aglipayan Church, Eddie Villanueva’s “Jesus is Lord,” the fiercely pro-Duterte Christian Restorationist church of Apollo Quiboloy, Eli Soriano’s Dating Daan and several others with followings probably bigger than El Shaddai. (If ever though, I’ll certainly even vote for the bishop-backed National Transformation Council just so my articulate and fiery colleague Kit Tatad gives those trapos in Congress hell.)

Buhay’s Atienza practically has been the Catholic Church’s representative in Congress for its doctrinaire anti-contraception and anti-abortion stand. But a situation like that is precisely what the framers of the Constitution wanted to prevent by banning religious sectors from having party-list representatives.

However, the perfect example of how scandalous the system has become is the fact that the purportedly richest member of the present Congress— both of the Senate and the House of Representatives, that is—is a party-list representative: Michael (“Mikee”) Romero, who has reported his net worth at P7 billion. It is astonishing that this 45-year-old businessman reports that he is richer than property magnate Manuel Villar’s wife, Sen. Cynthia Villar (with a net worth of P3.6 billion) and world boxing immortal Sen. Manny Pacquiao (P3 billion).

Who is Romero? He and another congressman represent the party “1-Pacman,” a name which is as ridiculous as it is a travesty of our system of representative democracy. 1-Pacman doesn’t have anything to do with our boxing hero (and now senator) Manuel Pacquiao.

The party’s name is intended to fool careless, hurrying, or even ignorant voters that they are electing their hero Manny “the Pacman” Pacquiao. What the name stands for mocks our representative system. 1-Pacman purportedly is the acronym for: “One Patriotic Coalition of Marginalized Nationals.”

The “1” in this outfit’s name – just as a dozen other groups have done – is there so it would be higher up in the list of the ballot form, so its chances of being picked are enhanced.

1-Pacman doesn’t even pretend to be representing any marginal group, and merely says that “among its platform is to prioritize sports development.” Romero owns GlobalPort Batang Pier, a team in the commercial Philippine Basketball Association league, which even has three expensive Americans as players.

Game of kings
Romero’s preferred sport is the “game of kings,” polo, and he even owns a polo team he captains. His team competes in international polo events, which reportedly costs the billionaire at least P50 million to participate in each time because of the astronomical costs of transporting his prized stallions.

While the US Forbes magazine lists him as the country’s 47th richest billionaire with a net worth of $137 million (or roughly equivalent to the P7 billion he himself claims), there is a huge doubt that he has been such a great businessman to have amassed that much.

The bulk of his claimed assets is in his holdings in Harbour Centre Port Terminals, the monopoly in break-bulk handing at the Port of Manila, which his father, construction magnate Reghis, founded in 1996. (He is also vice chairman of budget airline AirAsia Philippines, which many believe is controlled by Malaysian Anthony Francis Fernandes.)

But his father Rhegis claims that after he let the son run the company in 2012, ‘Mikee’ falsified papers that assigned his father’s shares to him, and that he had run the company to the ground because of his mismanagement and billionaire lifestyle, which includes buying a private jet and competing in polo competitions all over the world. Mikee though claims that after building up the company, his father who had become impoverished wants the company back and is demanding P1 billion from him. The case is still in the courts.

The father-son feud has become so bitter that Reghis got a court to order his son’s arrest for the alleged theft of P3.4 million in company funds last year. Mikee ran from the law and became a fugitive even after he was elected 1-Pacman representative, and surfaced only in November last year when the case was ordered dismissed by a higher court.

That is the kind of party-list representative we have.

Romero’s case though would explain why somebody like him born with a silver spoon, fond of a luxurious lifestyle, who never thought of helping the “marginalized,” would want to be a party-list representative.

Political clout
Being a party-list representative obviously gives him the political clout to win against his father in their billion-peso feud. If he loses his fight, his father reportedly has been so incensed with his son that he has vowed to put him jail.

Other multi-millionaires who have become party-list representatives though aren’t as in such deep trouble as Romero. They, or their clans, probably calculate that a seat in Congress gives them clout for their business interests.

The second richest member of the entire Congress is another party-list representative Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, who reported a net worth of P1.4 billion in her 2017 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). She is the nominee of the DIWA party, which stands for Democratic Independent Workers’ Association.

Representing marginalized sectors? The 20 richest party-list representatives and their wealth. *Roque resigned his post to become presidential spokesperson last October. Source: House of Representatives

Has the 35-year-old Aglipay-Villar ever been a leader or organizer or counsel for a union or federation?

No. She is the wife of Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, son of one of the richest real-estate magnates in the country, Manuel Villar. Her P1.4 billion net worth is probably her estimated conjugal share in her husband’s wealth as shareholder and executive of his father’s conglomerate.

She is also the daughter of retired police general who became Philippine National Police chief during President Arroyo’s administration, Edgardo Aglipay. The latter is chairman of DIWA whose treasurer is of course Mrs. Aglipay. (The accompanying table shows the 25 richest party-list representatives with their net worth, based on their SALN.)

How do such multi-millionaires get to be party-list representatives? Believe it or not, it is unbelievably easy, as long as one has no scruples in trampling democratic values, and of course if one sees the investment as a worthwhile one.

A party-list gets a seat in Congress, if it gets 2 percent of total votes, with another seat given if it gets an additional 2 percent to a maximum of three seats, with 20 percent of Congress seats required by the Constitution to be allocated to such representatives.

In the 2016 elections, 59 seats were allocated to party-list representatives. To fill up these number, 33 out of the 46 party-list winners which got less than 2 percent of the votes were given congressional seats. Thus, the party which got the lowest number of seats, Agbiag got only 240,000 votes—just 0.7 percent total votes—to get a representative in Congress. An Ilocos-based “party-list,” Agbiag is represented by another millionaire, Michelle Antonio.

Romero’s 1-Pacman party got 1.3 million votes, so it got him and another representative, multimillionaire Enrico Pineda, into Congress.

Fake parties
How do artificial, really fake “parties” get the votes needed to win a seat in Congress?

One, they piggy-back on the electoral campaign of a local political boss and its network – of course after a huge payment – so the party-list is “carried” in their campaign for the traditional territorial-based representatives. As will be discussed on Monday, this is the reason why many party-list representatives are in reality mere extensions of provincial and regional political clans.

Second, I was told by many sources in the past several years that most party-lists get to have their numbers by sheer manipulation of returns by corrupt Comelec officials. The going rate in the 2016 elections, I was told, was from P20 million to as high as P30 million to ensure that a party- list wins.

Several years ago, I nearly fell off my seat when a Chinese-Filipino businessman mentioned over dinner that he was celebrating as his “party- list” won two seats in Congress, and he spent only P5 million.

It has been actually the easiest form of graft income in the Comelec, as the operators need not worry that a losing candidate would protest, as the party-list contest is not a one-o -one fight, with nearly every party-list aware that it is after all a bidding game.

That is how depraved the party-list system has become, which had been billed by the Left and the Yellow Cult in 1987, when the Constitution was being drafted, as Cory Aquino’s legacy to give political power to marginalized sectors and weaken the traditional pulitiko parties.

As with all of the Yellow Cult’s noble ideals, the reality is so rotten.

On Monday: How provincial political clans extend their reach through the party-list system.