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The Historic Struggle for Representation of Persons with Disabilities in the Filipino Congress

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Philippines MapIn May 2013, the Philippines will have an election to elect members of the House of Representatives and half of the Senators. The upcoming election is an opportunity for persons with disabilities to finally gain representation in the legislature of the Republic of the Philippines.

Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that persons with disabilities are entitled to participate equally in political and public life. This includes the right to cast ballots in an independent and secret manner, and participate in decision making processes that affect themselves and their communities.

However, persons with disabilities face challenges that make inclusion in these processes difficult.

Representation in the legislature is a goal disability rights activists have been pursuing worldwide. Political participation represents a strategic step in realizing the rights of persons with disabilities. Through representation, persons with disabilities can push for legislation to promote and protect their rights to employment, education, health care and accessibility, among others. It is also a very important step to fight discrimination and raise general awareness about the issues persons with disabilities face daily.

Long before the inception of the CRPD, the Philippine government had taken steps to promote political rights of persons with disabilities. The 1987 Constitution mandates Congress to “design a procedure for the disabled and the illiterates to vote without the assistance of other persons. Until then, they shall be allowed to vote under existing laws and such rules as the Commission on Elections may promulgate to protect the secrecy of the ballot.” The Local Government Code of 1991 also mandates local legislative councils to appoint three sectoral representatives, one of which must come from an underrepresented community, such as persons with disabilities, urban poor or indigenous cultural communities.

More importantly, the Constitution provided for the adoption of a Party List system and paved the way for the passage of the Party List Act (RA 7941) that provides for “proportional representation in the election of representatives to the House of Representatives from marginalized or underrepresented national, regional and sectoral parties, or organizations or coalitions thereof registered with the Commission on Elections (RA 7941). “The act further clarifies that the Party List system is meant to “enable Filipino citizens belonging to the marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies but who could contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole, to become members of the House of Representatives.”

The words “marginalized and underrepresented sectors” allowed groups representing persons with disabilities to vie for 20 percent of the total number of representatives, including those under the party-list system of representation. However, it was not a clear cut path.

History of Elections in the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines is one of the first democracies in Southeast Asia. It also has one of the longest electoral histories in Southeast Asia – organizing its first election in 1946, not long after it gained independence. The only other country in Southeast Asia that has a longer electoral history is Thailand, which organized its first election in 1933.1 The Philippines can claim to have a longer electoral history if the elections held before gaining independence are counted. The first election held in the Philippines was in 1907, when it was still a colony of the United States, to elect members of the Philippine Assembly.2 The Philippines is also the first country in Southeast Asia to directly elect a President. This was done in 1935, under American occupation, and again in 1946 after it gained independence.

Except for a short period between 1973 and 1986, the Philippines always used the bicameral system.3 The Upper House is the Senate and the Lower House is the House of Representatives.4 The House of Representatives has 287 members who serve for a term of three years.5 They can serve for no more than three consecutive terms.6 Two hundred thirty members are elected by plurality vote in single-member constituencies, and 57 members are elected through the proportional representation (PR) system.7 Under the PR system, minority groups can propose a party list of candidates.8

The Senate has 24 members who serve six-year terms, and are allowed to serve for only two consecutive terms.9 Elections for members of the Senate are held every three years to elect half of the senators, which means only 12 seats are available in every Senate election. The election uses a block-vote system – the 12 candidates who win the most votes will win the seat.

The President is directly elected by the people using a plurality system. The candidate with the most number of votes will win the race. The President serves a six-year term with no possibility of extension.

Captain Oscar TaleonPolitical Participation of the Disability Sector through the Party List System

For the first time in 1998, Philippine voters were introduced to the Party List system. Persons with disabilities, who at that time were organized into single and cross-disability organizations in the local regional and national level, decided to field the Party List group called Alyansa ng Maykapansanan sa Pilipinas (AKAP). Retired Navy Captain Oscar Taleon, a leader and advocate who is blind, led the set of AKAP nominees.

AKAP garnered 200,000 votes out of the 26.9 million cast for Congress and ranked 15th overall in Party List groups. Unfortunately, only the top 13 qualified for seats in the House of Representatives.10 Another persons with disabilities Party List group, Pinoy May “K”, ran and lost during the same elections.

Realizing that running as a united Party List to represent the disability sector was a better strategy, AKAP and Pinoy May “K” combined forces as the AKAPIN Party List for the 2004 elections. The group got about 110,000 votes of 13.2 million cast for Congress but the sector, again, did not secure a seat in the House of Representatives. RA 7941 section 11 specifies that to gain a seat, a party competing in the party-list system must win at least 2 percent of the total votes cast.11 In the 2007 elections, AKAPIN again failed when the votes dropped to 80,000 votes of the 28.9 million cast for Congress. According to Capt. Taleon, the lack of resources and political machinery were among the reasons why the sector failed in their bid for Congress.

In 2009, the organization AKAP-Pinoy launched the Disabled Pinoy PartyManuel Agcoili (DPP)12 to compete in the 2010 Legislative Election. However, the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) decided not to accredit DPP for participation in the election,13 a controversial and criticized decision.

Rights groups claimed that COMELEC failed to appreciate the importance of having representation from the disability sector in Parliament. Many pointed that the intent of RA 9147 was to give persons with disabilities representation in Congress because they are part of marginalized and underrepresented sectors. There are over 9 million Filipinos with disabilities, most of them living in poverty,14 which means they would benefit most from representation. Despite the criticism, COMELEC's decision held. In 2011, AKAP-Pinoy launched PWD (Pilipinos with Disability) to represent the disability sector and participate in the 2013 Party List elections. The group gained accreditation by COMELEC on September 26, 2012.

One cannot know if 2013 will be different for the disability sector. The answer will be up to persons with disabilities. Manuel Agcoili from AKAP-Pinoy, in a conference in Bali, Indonesia, in 2012, declared that the time to make changes is now. “The challenge is to make the public realize…that our sector is truly deserving and in dire need of support come Election Day,” he said.

Representation in the Philippines legislature will bring the sector one step closer in realizing the full implementation of disability rights in the country. As Agcoili said in Bali, “The opportunity to institute reforms and changes is now here as we grab the challenge with both hands.”

This article benefits from the contribution of May Butoy of IFES Philippines.



 

1http://nationmultimedia.com/2007/11/15/politics/politics_30056242.php
2http://www.nhcp.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14
3The Philippines are now using the 1987 constitution. Before that, the country used the 1973 Constitution. See: http://www.congress.gov.ph/about/index.php?about=history
4When the Philippines was using the unicameral system, the parliament was called the Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly), ibid.
5http://www.electionguide.org/election.php?ID=1490
6http://www.congress.gov.ph/about/
7Philippines citizens are allowed to cast two votes for the House of Representatives election. One vote is to elect a member through the single member constituency, and the other vote goes to the PR system.
8The Philippines Constitution of 1987, Section 5, sub-section (2): “…one-half of the seats allocated to party-list representatives shall be filled, as provided by law, by selection or election from the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector.”
9http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2254_B.htm
10Based on an interview with Ret. Capt. Oscar Taleon on 27 February 2013
11RA 7941 Section 11: “…The parties, organizations, and coalitions receiving at least two percent (2%) of the total votes cast for the party-list system shall be entitled to one seat each: provided, that those garnering more than two percent (2%) of the votes shall be entitled to additional seats in proportion to their total number of votes: provided, finally, that each party, organization, or coalition shall be entitled to not more than three (3) seats.”
12http://deafphilippines.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/disabled-pinoy-congressional-party-launched/
13http://www.mb.com.ph/node/249397/comelec-bar#.USSFCKXviSo. One of the reasons for the disqualification is because COMELEC was not convinced that DPP can conduct a nation-wide campaign. Perhaps this decision was based on the fact that so far disability parties had failed to get enough vote for a seat in the House of Representatives.
14From the presentation of Mr. Manuel Agcoili of AKAP-Pinoy at the Second Regional Dialogue on Access to Elections for Persons with Disabilities, organized by AGENDA in Bali, 10 November 2012.

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