Friday, June 05, 2009

Philippine elections: Thinking outside the box

Good morning, Honourable Jovito Palparan, Member of Congress of the Philippines.

From a major general in the army, linked by no less than the Supreme Court of the Philippines in the kidnapping and torture of two suspected New People’s Army sympathizers, to a person of honourable standing in the legislature of the land.

That’s how easy one can pervert the present party-list system of the Philippines. Maybe, General Palparan should also change his name to “Palaparan” just to prove how close and wide his network of influence is in the axis of power in the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime. Now, everyone should call him Honourable Congressman, representing BANTAY, which Palparan claims is a party-list group of security guards and victims of the New People’s Army. Actually, BANTAY is founded on the eradication of communism in the Philippines, including legal and peaceful protests. It represents the “True Marcos Loyalist (for God, Country and People) Association of the Philippines.”

To add insult to injury, Ma. Lourdes Arroyo, a sister of President Gloria Arroyo’s husband, Mike Arroyo, will also sit in Congress as the representative of a party-list group called KASANGGA, loosely meaning “ally” or “comrade-in-arms.” According to Mrs. Arroyo, she represents the party list of small entrepreneurs, which include “balut” vendors.

The elevation of both General Palparan and Mrs. Arroyo to their seats in Congress is a shameful act and a mockery of Republic Act 7941 (the Party-List System Act), which was passed by Congress to “enable Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined 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.”

A party-list system underscores proportional representation in which voters choose among parties rather than among candidates. It’s a system that opens up the political process beyond one or two dominant political parties, thus helping create a healthy democracy and provide a citizen’s voice in Congress and in local government by allowing representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors.

Article VI, Section 5 (1) and (2) of the 1987 Constitution, adopted after the end of the repressive Marcos government, expands democratic representation by giving seats to “marginalized and underrepresented sectors” that cannot ordinarily compete with entrenched political parties and dynasties. In 1995, RA 7941 was passed by Congress declaring it the policy of the state to promote proportional representation through a party-list system.

This purpose of the Constitution was reiterated by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban when he said that “The intent of the Constitution is clear: to give genuine power to the Filipino people, not only by giving more law to those who have less in life, but more so by enabling them to become veritable lawmakers themselves.”

However, the Philippine experience with the party-list system has been a tragedy, if not a travesty, of the intent of the 1987 Constitution. Aside from genuine representatives of marginalized and underrepresented sectors like Satur Ocampo and the late Crispin Beltran, Congress has party-list representatives who are actually surrogates of political dynasties, vested interests, political parties and powerful blocs. Just look at the 50-plus party-list representatives in Congress and you will see that many of them are not marginalized, underprivileged or neglected, as envisioned in the Constitution. The recent proclamation of General Palparan and Lourdes Arroyo only betrays the hijacking of the party-list system by the same political dynasties, thus confirming that the Party-List System Act merely fortifies the stranglehold of political dynasties and powerful vested interest groups on the House of Representatives.

With a subservient and graft-ridden COMELEC that is entrusted by law to certify party-list groups, perhaps, it’s time for others to join the gold rush, with the likes of SINGAW (Samahang Inampon Ni Gloria Arroyong Walang-kaparis), PIGSA (Pangmalawakang Inisyatiba Ni Gloriang Sariling Atin), or BANGAW (Bagong Alyansa Ni Gloria Arroyong Walang-katumbas).

Or maybe, we don’t really need elections in the first place to choose our members of Congress.

How about experimenting with demarchy? In his book, Is Democracy Possible? the Australian philosopher, John Burnheim proposed the idea of demarchy as a hypothetical political system run by randomly selected decision-makers selected by sortition.

Don’t laugh now but sortition is not a new process at all. It was used in 6th century B.C. by Athenian democracy through randomly selecting representatives with nearly all government offices filled by lottery rather than by election. Sortition was also used as recently as two years ago in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario when a group of citizens was randomly selected to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform to investigate and recommend changes to the provinces’ electoral systems. Both citizens’ assemblies eventually proposed a system of mixed proportional representation in the election of members of parliament but the initiative was stymied in an ensuing referendum.

In Book 4 of The Politics, Aristotle wrote that “it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected, oligarchic.” Perhaps, our ancestors of the democratic form of government were a lot wiser, and even less corruptible than today, hence why sortition worked for them.

If anybody but those closely allied with the present government or powerful political blocs can be elected through the party-list system, in addition to those elected through the dominant political parties—the “trapos,” or traditional politicians, opening up the election of representatives in Congress by lottery could turn out to be more efficient and democratic. No need for “balut” vendors or security guards to enlist as members of a party-list group. By simply putting their names on the lottery, candidates can still be randomly selected. That way, they don’t have to owe their loyalty to General Palparan or Lourdes Arroyo but only to themselves, and who knows, even to the general public.

Under the demarchy system, everyone has an equal chance to be elected as a representative in Congress, including the marginalized and underrepresented, as envisioned by the 1987 Constitution. The present party-list system is prone to manipulation by special interests, such as those of the “balut” vendors. Burnheim’s model of politics makes it easier for ordinary citizens to meaningfully participate, and harder for special interests to corrupt the process.

Furthermore, in a demarchy, there’s no need to fret about minimum qualifications such as level of education, experience, criminal record or age, etc., thus making it open to any one—from movie actors to sports heroes like Manny Pacquiao or to common folk like Juan and Maria de la Cruz. Under demarchy, the group Mamamayan Against Droga, also known as MAD, will have a fighting chance to elect its first representative.

Politicians, including lobbyists, in present day democracies expend so much time and effort in trying to gain support and political strength. They spend a good deal of time influencing others in order to achieve their political goals. Demarchy works differently. It selects decision-makers randomly so the time and effort spent on political machinations and manipulation would be limited. In theory, demarchy may become a more efficient system of democracy than elected officials.

But whether it’s going to work is a big question. No modern nation has attempted to use demarchy as a system for political decision-making, although it has been proposed previously by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. For one, it could be very difficult to convince incumbent politicians and political parties to give up power voluntarily. Some amendments to a national constitution may also be necessary. The closest example of demarchy in most democracies is the use of a jury of peers in criminal trials, a system that has worked for hundreds of years in criminal cases. On second thought, juries would probably work in the Philippine Congress since most of its members have to be tried for crimes against the people anyway.

What is clear is that the process of developing and trying out alternatives is essential for all those seeking a more participative society. The old channels of electoral politics are inefficient and, to some extent, broken; the quest for reforms calls for creative and innovative forms and structures.

Philippine politics is held captive by well-oiled political machines, vested interests and powerful blocs, thus demarchy seems to be the closest alternative to an efficient democratic system for choosing our political representatives. The absence of observed evidence of its utility and efficiency does not mean it’s not going to work. Demarchy could be our best option in selecting representatives in Congress to make it more democratic and on a level playing field. Since we’re quite good at copying or adopting new or untested ideas, here’s our chance to prove ourselves.

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