PARTY-LIST GROUPS A BREED APART

MANILA,  May 17, 2004 (MANILA TIMES) By Annie Ruth C. Sabangan , Senior Reporter  -  THEY are not your traditional congressmen; they are not warlords or political dynasties. In title and position, they are lawmakers, but most of them don’t behave like typical politicians. Party-list congressmen are, in fact, the antidote to their mostly elite and compromising colleagues at the House of Representatives.

In the next Congress, representatives of progressive party-list organizations (oftentimes described as groups with leftist leanings) currently leading the election are expected to remain steadfast in pushing for what they call a people’s agenda—issues that concern most of poor Filipinos.

“Our agenda for the next administration will still be the same or a continuation of what we have started in the past,” explained Teddy Casiño, second nominee of the party-list group Bayan Muna, represented by Rep. Satur Ocampo during the Twelfth Congress.

Casiño said Bayan Muna will push for the passage of economic measures such as higher wages, assuring job security by prohibiting the rampant practice of labor contractualization and repealing automatic appropriation for debt servicing that would be realigned to the health and education budget.

Legislation on the peace-process issue will also be pushed, particularly the reforming of the “antidemocratic character” of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Casiño said.

He said the Armed Forces modernization law addressed financial issues only, not orientational reforms, in the military. “There is a need for instance to create bills that would address issues on corruption in the military, similar to those raised by the Oakwood mutineers. Raising the consciousness of the Armed Forces in human-rights issues and the political situation in the post-Cold War era is also important to erase notions that all groups with antigovernment positions are communists.”

Similarly, the Akbayan party-list organization, represented by Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales since the Eleventh Congress, will focus on increasing wages and enhancing job security.

Measures on socialization and accessibility of public utilities and the extension of PhilHealth coverage to workers in the informal sector will also be drafted, according to Percival Cendaña, Akbayan’s spokesman.

Differences

Although Akbayan and Bayan Muna belong to the left of the political spectrum, they differ in some issues.

Before this year’s electoral campaign, for instance, Akbayan’s Rosales criticized the New People’s Army for collecting fees from candidates campaigning in areas that are considered under NPA control. Rosales filed a bill condemning the practice that was sponsored by other House members. Bayan Muna did not support the measure.

In another measure, the Marcos Compensation Act, Bayan Muna’s position was to limit the compensation to victims of human-rights abuses during Marcos’s rule. Akbayan wanted to expand the coverage to supposed victims of abuses committed by the Aquino and Ramos administrations.

There was even a time when Rosales suspected she was on the hit list of the mainstream left. She feared she would be assassinated by the NPA, which carried out a purge of former communist leaders accused of defying the ideals of the movement and engaging in corruption.

Rosales even thought that some Bayan Muna officials had a hand in the perceived threat on her life. But some Bayan Muna officials and members dismissed her suspicion and quipped that “Etta could be hallucinating.”

Some in Bayan Muna also thought that Akbayan had entered a tactical alliance with the military, and that Akbayan launched a campaign in the provinces against voting for Bayan Muna and to support other party-list groups including Akbayan.

Akbayan strongly denied the accusation. “It isn’t true. If they were our allies then our peasant leaders would not be harassed by the military. We will not compromise with the government. Etta’s criticism on the administration’s performance remain acerbic as ever,” said Cendaña.

Allies still

Casiño and Cendaña admitted that the exchange of accusations would only weaken organizational unity between the two party-list groups.

“In so far as working together and coordinating with each other, I think there would be some organizational problems,” said Casiño. “There is a feeling of discomfort, knowing that there is infighting between us,” said Cendaña.

But Cendaña and Casiño agreed that in terms of “political positioning” Bayan Muna and Akbayan have a common stand especially on propoor issues. “Basically, we still have the same issues when it comes to socioeconomic changes like in education, land reform and labor. So I think we would still be able to transcend some of our differences and unite against the injustice in the status quo,” said Cendaña.

“We could still unite in pushing for measures that would help transform society. Organizational harmony is not a prerequisite for common legislative actions,” said Casiño.

Although some considers left-leaning party-list groups the most progressive voice in Congress, they remain at the bottom of the political totem pole. Republic Act 7941, which established the party-list system, comes across to many as an exercise in political tokenism.

Though the law was considered the best hope for changing the traditional political system into one with more program-oriented parties championing the poor majority (i.e. workers, farmers and fisher folk), the law only provides 20 percent of the 260 House seats to party-list groups, thereby maintaining the present makeup of Congress, where majority of legislators remain trapos.

If party-list seats remain a minority in Congress, critics believe the poor would remain underre­presented.

The analyst David Wurfel, political science professor at Toronto University, emphasized that the party-list system’s aim was to “focus attention on the party [and] not on personalities.”

“Name value is meaningless, since most voters won’t even know the names of the candidates chosen by the parties when they are asked to vote for a party. This should also reduce money politics and put emphasis on party platforms and programs,” he added.

Bayan Muna had felt the impact of tokenism in the party-list system. Casiño said it’s not only the party-list law that restricts their existence in Congress. The government and its repressive apparatus have also caused them serious problems. “It’s hard. Sometimes we think if it’s worthy for Bayan Muna to get three seats in Congress in exchange for 41 lives,” said Casiño, referring to the number of Bayan Muna members and organizers allegedly killed by the military since Bayan Muna joined the party-list election in 2001.

Cendaña also agreed on the very limited power vested by law on party-list groups. Nevertheless, Cendaña still values the role of Akbayan and other party-list groups in the House as fiscalizers and dissenters.

“Under normal circumstances, corrupt and abusive legislators and other government leaders could have gone scot-free had there been no progressive bloc in Congress. For instance, the P500,000 payola scam for the passage of the power bill in 2000 would not have been exposed. There would have been no measure passed on reproductive health and antidiscrimination of gays and lesbians. The farm collateral bill would not have been blocked,” he said.

In hindsight, Casiño realized that the alleged atrocities of the military against Bayan Muna did not totally hinder its undertakings. “The number of casualties of Bayan Muna members was biggest in Mindoro Oriental. The military campaign against us in that province was also intense, yet we got 20,000 votes there. It only goes to show that the military did not succeed in destroying us, much less in breaking the people’s spirit,” he said.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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