Philippines to extend use of proportional representation

by Eve Robert // Published May 5, 2009
The Philippines Supreme Court issued a landmark decision last Thursday, paving the way for important changes in the voting system used to elect House representatives.

Of a possible 250 members of the House of Representatives, 206 are elected with winner-take-all in single member districts, the remainder of the House seats being allocated through at-large party list elections. The law mandates that only party-list organizations garnering at least 2 percent of the total votes cast nationwide for the party-list system shall be entitled to one seat each. It also says that each party shall be entitled to a maximum of three seats, and that the allocation of seats will be proportional to the total number of votes.

It is worth noticing that the mainstream political parties (the ones that win the winner-take-all seats) are not allowed to participate in the party-list elections. The Filipinno system is indeed designed to allow for clear and solid political majorities (through winner-take-all seats) as well as for the full representation of "Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organization and parties,", as the 1995 Electoral law puts it. Labor, fisher folk, peasant, women, urban poor, youth, indigenous cultural communities, veterans, professionals, handicapped and the elderly are examples of groups that have benefited from this mechanism. Established right after the People Power Revolution and the end of the dictatorship, this system was also designed to free the party system from the domination of the political elites and dynasties.

The unanimous direction-setting decision handed down by the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional this 2% threshold, breaking fresh ground for the deepening and enlargement of the party-list system. The judges noted that under the 2% threshold rule for the distribution of additional seats, the maximum number of seats in the House that may be occupied by the party-list representatives could never, mathematically, exceed 50. Thus, the 2-percent threshold, the Court ruled, "prevents the attainment of the broadest representation of party, sectoral or group interests in the House of Representatives." The immediate consequence of this decision is an actual increase in the size of the House (from 238 members to 270), from the current 22 proportionally elected representatives (from 16 political parties) to 55 representatives, from 36 political groups. The ruling was swiftly implemented, and 33 new party-list members entered the House of Representatives on Monday.

The political significance of the decision is huge. The Supreme Court, choosing to deepen the party-list system, endorsed and validated the party-list system as a means to broaden the base of Philippine parliamentary democracy with the diversification of the political tendencies, but also as a strategy to attract insurgent and marginalized groups to join the system. Full representation mechanisms have proven to be an efficient incentive for communists and leftists (the Philippine communist revolution is one of the few surviving communist insurgencies in the world today) to enter the parliamentary stream, while abandoning their revolutionary struggle. By allowing for the entry of Right-wing groups coming from the historically anti-communist military sector, the Supreme Court decision marks a new step for the movement toward ideological reconciliation. The United States should follow the example of its former colony and consider the benefits of that type of mixed electoral system. The Filipino example reveals that the accurate representation of marginalized and extremists group in the Parliament – as opposed as their presence on the streets as radical and populist movements- does not necessarily hinder the parliamentary process. In contrary, it can promote inclusiveness and dialogue, while actually enhancing the stability of the system. In addition, creative solutions such as increasing the size of the House to increase its representativeness could easily be implemented in the U.S. context, as a recent study by FairVote demonstrates.