The supposedly routine approval on third reading of the Political Party Development bill in the House of Representatives surprisingly led to highly-critical reactions from a party-list representative, minority representatives, a Catholic bishop, the Comelec chairman, an election lawyer, and a newspaper columnist. This particular bill was already passed–with the exact same content–on third reading by the same body in the 13th Congress without such negative reactions.
The reasons given against the bill were varied: that it is unconstitutional, allegedly discriminating against small parties, that it did not include party-list groups, that spending public funds for political parties is wrong and increases corruption, and that Jose de Venecia (one of the authors) is the wrong messenger for political party reforms.
These are serious accusations and deserve serious answers. First, let me state my position as an electoral reform advocate. I stand four-square behind the bill–it is a vital part of the package of political and electoral reforms we had been struggling for more than 15 years already. The package included such laws as the party-list law, the fair elections act, the overseas absentee voting law, the electoral automation law, the continuing registration act, and such pending bills as the anti-political dynasty bill, the local sectoral representation bill, the anti-turncoatism bill and on the amendments to the Omnibus Election Code.
The political party reform bill was drafted in 2002 and endorsed by the major political parties in the first-ever Philippine Political Party Conference, chaired by then-Speaker and Lakas-NUCD chairman Jose de Venecia. Election reform advocates participated in the drafting and endorsed the original bill, and later lobbied with government to pass it.
The unity for the bill started unraveling when GMA announced her candidacy for the 2004 presidential elections. Later, the presidential legitimacy crisis prevented movement on the bill despite GMA’s own endorsement in her 10-point “legacy program” and its inclusion in the Medium-Term Development Program. The current situation opened once more the possibility for passing it because of the urgency to address the requirements of a fair and free 2010 elections.
Cynicism about traditional politics and politicians, the legitimacy crisis, and the valid concern of small parties and party-list groups are new elements that have come up in opposition to the bill. However, it is my opinion that these concerns, despite their being correct, are misplaced and critics are barking on the wrong tree.
One, the bill is not about party-list groups or even the possible transformation of these groups into political parties. It is about developing and strengthening the political party system. Party-list groups can be covered once they registered as political parties.
Two, it does not promote only a two-party system or even the monopoly by major parties. It is designed however to exclude fly-by-night “parties” or those that do not have significant constituencies. The reason is simple. You do not want nuisance groups or even nuisance parties to muddle the system and the electoral process and dissipate public funds. Actual seats in Congress and other measures of party strength such as membership, geographical spread, record in local elections, etc. are a logical criteria for measuring viable political parties.
Three, public subsidy is based on the nature of political parties as public institutions, particularly in a democracy. Strong and healthy political parties are a key element in building a strong and healthy democracy–they are essentially one of the major organized links between the citizens and their government. If they are weak, non-existent or not performing this vital function, the gap between the people and government will widen and lead or contribute greatly to various ills of a dysfunctional democracy such as personality-oriented politics, political corruption, local warlordism, patronage politics, electoral fraud and violence, vote-buying, and dynastic politics.
Public subsidy is meant to provide the minimum resources for party-building, leverage for auditing, transparency, and accountability in the sourcing and expenditures of party and campaign funds, and for enhancing party authority and influence on their candidates and members.
Fourth, the bill provides the rationale for restricting turncoatism and against emasculating political parties and party-raiding by laying down the rules of behavior of political parties and politicians.
Fifth, the campaign finance provisions regulate campaign contributions by requiring bank accounts for these (for independent record and identification of contributors), set realistic limits and regulate campaign expenditures, institute higher and stiffer penalties for violations, and strengthen the role of the Comelec in supervising political parties.
The political party reform bill addresses most of the perceived ills of our political and electoral system. It is a key measure that sets the behavior of political players. To be sure, it has been subjected (and will still be subjected) to various compromises and pressures, possibly leading to weakening of some of its original provisions. However, on the whole, it is a real electoral reform measure in a tough electoral environment, our current best shot at instituting electoral reforms and setting aright what’s wrong with our elections–by setting its sight on the heart of traditional politics.
That Jose de Venecia (and Senator Edgardo Angara in the Senate) are major authors of the bill in fact show the seriousness with which major political parties view this bill and their openness to new rules of the political game. There are, of course, other authors of differing political persuasions.
Non-passage of the bill essentially means that the current presidentiable-centered, winner-take-all national politics, political dynasties, costly elections, and presidential patronage system will be with us for sometime to come, even after 2010 onwards. The law of the jungle will prevail.