Monday, April 16, 2007

Bare the List: tough questions, hard case

Should the names of party-list nominees be revealed by the Commission on Elections?

Party-list groups, worried that some of these parties are administration fronts, have called on the COMELEC to reveal the names of the nominees. Chairman Benjamin Abalos has refused to reveal these names on the ground that there is no law that compels the Commission to do so. He can even cite section 7 of Republic Act No. 7941 to support his position. That section states that “The names of the party-list nominees shall not be shown on the certified list.” If Chairman Abalos revealed the names of the nominees will he not be charged with violating a clear directive from Congress?

In his latest column, Fr. Joaquin Bernas argues that the COMELEC can be compelled to reveal the names of the nominees of part-list groups vying for seats in Congress. He suggests that there is no logic to Section 7 of the Party-List Act: “Of what use is knowing what groups may participate in the party-list elections if the voters do not know what kind of people they seek to place in Congress?” Unfortunately, a bad law, even a silly one, does not permit us to ignore it and Chairman Abalos will still have a legal basis for keeping the list of nominees secret.

Fr. Bernas then suggests that the prohibition is unconstitutional. He argues that the Constitution can be used as a basis to challenge the COMELEC’s decision. He cites Section 28 of the Constitution’s Declaration of Principles: “Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.” (Emphasis mine). But this is a weak argument. The provision itself expressly provides that the right is subject to restrictions. Could Section 7 of the Party-List Act be construed as a restriction?

The other argument is that Section 7 of the Bill of Rights which provides that “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized.” Bernas then argues that “Knowing who the candidates are is a matter of highest public concern.”This provision has been interpreted In Gonzales v. Narvasa where the Supreme Court held:
Under both the 1973 and 1987 Constitution, this is a self-executory provision which can be invoked by any citizen before the courts. This was our ruling in Legaspi v. Civil Service Commission, wherein the Court classified the right to information as a public right and "when a [m]andamus proceeding involves the assertion of a public right, the requirement of personal interest is satisfied by the mere fact that the petitioner is a citizen, and therefore, part of the general 'public' which possesses the right. However, Congress may provide for reasonable conditions upon the access to information...

Elaborating on the significance of the right to information, the Court said in Baldoza v. Dimaano that "[t]he incorporation of this right in the Constitution is a recognition of the fundamental role of free exchange of information in a democracy. There can be no realistic perception by the public of the nation's problems, nor a meaningful democratic decisonmaking if they are denied access to information of general interest. Information is needed to enable the members of society to cope with the exigencies of the times." The information to which the public is entitled to are those concerning "matters of public concern", a term which "embrace[s] a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because these directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citizen....

Gonzales, however, also says that the right to information is subject to restrictions that Congress may provide.

Is the COMELEC’s position justified? Perhaps it is. The party-list system encourages the consideration of party platforms in voting for representatives in Congress. Theoretically, voters will cast their votes in favor of a party, not the people behind it. The party’s nominees are intended to determine who will sit in Congress in the event that the party wins enough votes to qualify for seats. It should not matter who is in the list because theoretically the nominees will work towards the realization of the party’s platform in Congress.

Should this view prevail, the solution is to ensure that the parties and organizations vying for seats under the party-list system are genuine parties that represent marginalized groups. The COMELEC’s decision to include parties that do not represent the marginalized have been challenged before and parties of dubious backgrounds have been removed from the list of parties with the help of the Supreme Court (See Ang Bagong Bayani-OFW Labor Party v. Commission on Elections, (G.R. No. 147589, June 26, 2001).

Ang Bagong Bayani provides one argument in favor of revealing the names of the nominees. In that case the Court held that the persons nominated by the party-list candidate-organization must be “Filipino citizens belonging to marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties.” Towards the end of that decision, the Court held that “not only the candidate party or organization must represent marginalized and underrepresented sectors; so also must its nominees.” How can we question the qualifications of the nominees if they are kept from public scrutiny?

This is a tough fight for those agitating for more transparency from the COMELEC. But there is enough I think for the Courts to rule against the position taken by the COMELEC.

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