The list of groups seeking congressional seats gets stranger and more absurd every election season, making the party-list system a joke, according to Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr.
A quick look at the Comelec’s list of the groups shows that health promoters, aviation advocates, athletes and hobbyists, entrepreneurs, former drug users, ex-military renegades, school dropouts and even foreign-exchange dealers want to run for seats in the House of Representatives that the Constitution reserves for marginalized and underrepresented sectors.
In a review of party-list groups, the election watchdog Kontra Daya cited, among many other groups, Ang Mata’y Alagaan (AMA), a group that claims to represent blind indigents and people afflicted with all kinds of eye diseases and disorders but whose nominees belong to the well-connected Velasco family.
AMA chose Lorna Velasco, a nurse and the wife of Supreme Court Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, as its first nominee. Velasco’s daughter, Tricia Nicole, a lawyer, was chosen as AMA’s second nominee.
“The Velascos are very powerful politically and economically, considering that they have as head of the family a sitting member of the highest court of this country,” Kontra Daya said.
“Clearly, the AMA has no bona fide intention to represent the sector it claims to represent, but rather to represent the interest of the already powerful, well-connected Velascos,” Kontra Daya added.
New groups have also sprouted claiming to represent the urban poor, whose current nominees in the House come from the upper crust of society.
Some organizations also claim to represent the sick and the handicapped, but their representatives are neither ill nor handicapped and some of them come from well-known wealthy political families.
Nominee from Corinthian
Kontra Daya also cited 1-AsalPartylist, a group that claims to represent the urban poor but not one of its first three nominees is a squatter in any slum in Metro Manila.
Its first nominee, Ryan Tanjucto, lives in posh Corinthian Gardens in Quezon City, according to Kontra Daya. His wife, Maria Lourdes, is the third nominee while the second nominee is Manila City Councilor Raymundo Yupangco.
Kontra Daya, led by Fr. Joe Dizon, also referred to the Association of Local Athletics Entrepreneurs and Hobbyists Inc. (Ala-Eh), whose first nominee, Elmer Anuran, is a known boxing promoter who runs a boxing gym and oversees Saved by the Bell Promotions.
Another group, FXD/MC (www.forexdealers.com corp.) also appears to be out of place in the party-list system, as money changers are not a marginalized sector, Kontra Daya said.
Finding the growing list of party-list groups becoming ridiculous, the Quezon City-based Kontra Daya made a database of old and new groups that didn’t seem to meet the legal requirements and submitted it to the Comelec.
Comelec review 1st time
The Comelec in turn used the database as one of its guides in reviewing the eligibility of these groups to run in next year’s party-list elections.
And for the first time since the introduction of the party-list system in 1995, the Comelec is reassessing party-list groups and screening their representatives in Congress according to the standards laid down by the Constitution and the party-list law.
“The party-list system has become a joke,” Brillantes said in an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Brillantes said he was aware that many party-list representatives in the House are multimillionaires and many of the groups seeking accreditation for next year’s elections have handpicked nominees who are either former government officials or members of powerful political clans.
“That’s why we are doing this [review] to be able to cleanse the list,” Brillantes said.
Clad in their black robes, Brillantes and the five election commissioners took turns grilling witnesses during public hearings called recently to begin the review of 120 party-list groups applying for renewal of their accreditation.
Authorized by Comelec Resolution No. 9513 ordering a review of party-list organizations, the hearings were held from Aug. 16 to Sept. 6.
Probing for fakes
First to be called to the stand was Abot Tanaw whose representative got asked such questions as:
“Mr. Witness, since when did you become a member of the party-list group?”
“Before you became a member, did you check the background of the party-list group?”
“[How much were your] assets and liabilities and net worth when you retired?”
“Do you belong to the group [that] you represent?”
“Did you know how many votes the group received in the previous elections?”
“How come you did not bother to check before joining the party?”
Abot Tanaw representative Dante Guevarra, former president of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, sat there for 30 minutes, answering questions that also touched on the controversy surrounding his organization.
Claiming to represent overseas Filipino workers and operate social media services to keep migrant workers in touch with their families in the Philippines, Abot Tanaw is reportedly a creation of Efraim Genuino, former chairman of Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) who is facing charges involving alleged irregularities at the state-run casino operator during his term.
In the 2010 elections, Genuino’s son-in-law, Gerwin See, was named the first nominee of Abot Tanaw. The others were said to be Pagcor consultants.
Guevarra himself has never been a migrant worker but he said he studied migrants’ conditions in Iraq, Libya and in Asia in the 1980s.
The election commissioners asked Guevarra if he knew why he had replaced See as Abot Tanaw’s first nominee.
Guevarra replied, “I am not familiar your honor[s].”
Although a new member of Abot Tanaw, Guevarra said the group had no connection with the Genuinos.
But before letting Guevarra go, the commissioners instructed him to refute the allegations in writing. The Comelec will use his refutation in deciding whether to allow Abot Tanaw to run next year.
289 seeking accreditation
Two hundred eighty-nine groups have filed applications for accreditation to contest next year’s party-list elections. One hundred sixty-five of them are new groups, and the Comelec’s job is determining their legitimacy to cleanse the party-list system that it concedes is infested by sham organizations.
“Can you imagine if every three years there are 165 new groups applying? By 2019, there will be more than 1,000 of them listed on the ballot… that will make the party-list system of elections absurd,” Election Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said in an interview with the Inquirer. “So to me, this is the opportunity to screen and process these party-list organizations.”
At the hearings, the election commissioners asked nominees or representatives questions derived from papers the groups themselves had submitted to the Comelec. The papers included articles of incorporation, lists of officers and nominees and their credentials.
The questions covered the history of the groups, the groups’ knowledge of the sectors they claimed to represent, the background of the nominees and the nominees’ knowledge about their fellow nominees, previous nominees, number of members, and votes polled in previous elections.
In asking those questions, the election commissioners were showing they doubted whether the groups and their nominees really came from the sectors they claimed to represent.
“There was this nominee supposedly representing indigent student athletes,” Brillantes said. “I told him, you don’t look like an indigent. You don’t look like a student and you don’t look like an athlete, either. So why are you the number one nominee?”
Who are qualified
Under Republic Act No. 7941, otherwise known as the Party-list System Act, only 12 marginalized and underrepresented sectors can seek congressional representation: Labor, peasant, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, elderly, handicapped, women, youth, veterans, overseas workers and professionals.
So why are former drug addicts, one-time coup plotters, athletes, and money changers seeking congressional representation? Or, for that matter, why are security guards and jeepney drivers represented in Congress not by security guards and jeepney drivers but by children or allies of big-time politicians?
Sarmiento said the Comelec would give weight to the documents provided by Kontra Daya in its review, likely to end in the fall of false party-list groups and in the recognition of the legitimate ones.
Brillantes said the Comelec would release the complete list of qualified party-list groups by the end of the month ahead of the five-day period allotted for the filing of certificates of candidacy (COCs), which starts Oct. 1.
“We want to get it over with before candidates start filing COCs because the party-list is a sensitive issue,” Brillantes said.
Ambiguities in the law
The Comelec blames the infestation of the party-list system with sham groups on the ambiguities in the law. Sarmiento said ambiguities in the law, exploited by politicians, blurred the concepts of marginalized and underrepresented in the Constitution.
The Constitution does not clearly define the two concepts and also does not lay down the qualifications for party-list nominees, Sarmiento said.
Congress could have filled those gaps by fine-tuning the party-list law, but it had done nothing to correct the flaws in the system.
“So now we have reached this point where many people are asking why are the moneyed people the ones sitting in Congress,” Sarmiento said.
Sarmiento referred to documents provided by Kontra Daya, one of which showed Rep. Catalina Bagasina of the Association of Labor and Employees as the “richest party-list solon” with a net worth of P133.938 million, based on her statement of assets and liabilities for 2011.
23 wealthy party-listers
Kontra Daya listed 23 other wealthy party-list lawmakers whose organizations will contest next year’s elections.
The representatives included Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo of Ang Galing Pinoy (P99.954 million), Teodorico Haresco of Ang Kasangga (P92.814 million), Christopher Co of Ako Bicol (P91.063 million), and David Kho of Coalition of Senior Citizens (P59.521 million).
At a hearing on the Comelec’s budget in the House recently, Sarmiento and other election officials raised the need to amend the party-list law.
“We appealed that the vagueness in the law be addressed for the guidance of the Comelec since we implement the law,” Sarmiento said.
In the absence of a more rigid law for the accreditation of nominees, the Comelec has tried to remedy the ambiguities in the law by issuing Resolution No. 9366, specifying that only those who belong to marginalized underrepresented sectors can seek party-list representation in Congress.
“Since no amendment to the law is forthcoming, we issued the resolution, which basically says that if you want to represent a group, for instance a farmer’s group, you must be a farmer,” Sarmiento said.
He described the resolution as guided by jurisprudence, particularly the Supreme Court decision in Ang Bagong Bayani v. Comelec case in 2003.
In that decision written by then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to ensure that only those who belong to marginalized and underrepresented sectors can run for party-list seats in Congress.
Show your record
The Comelec resolution also requires applicants to submit documents showing their track record and platform of government.
It also requires nominees to have “active participation” in advancing their groups’ advocacies, which can be validated through documentary evidence such as copy of speeches, declarations and written articles showing their support for the sectors they claim to represent.
“We are hopeful that through this resolution, we will address these questions of so many of our people and criticisms that the House is loaded with party-list nominees who don’t belong to the marginalized and underrepresented,” Sarmiento said.