There is a lot to rethink about the Philippines’ party-list system. For one, President Duterte wants it abolished, saying that party-list groups are being used by millionaires to get a seat in Congress and push for their interests. While progressive groups recognize this flaw, they call not for abolition but for a thorough review that assures that party-list groups and their nominees truly represent marginalized sectors. On top of this, the recent elections also saw massive disinformation against and red-tagging of various progressive party-lists groups. But one crucial aspect of the party-list system that is oftentimes left undiscussed is the math behind who gets to win seats in the Congress and how many.
The Party-List System Act provides that a party-list group must garner at least 2% of the national vote to be allocated a seat. A group that gets more than 2% will be allocated another seat for every 2% of the vote thereafter until it reaches the maximum three-seat allocation. Twenty percent of the total number of representatives must be comprised of party-list groups. After the 1998 elections, however, when this 20%-allocation was not filled up due to the 2% threshold, the method was contested several times.
Presently, the method used to calculate who gets a seat in Congress is based on the BANAT vs. COMELEC Supreme Court decision. There are two rounds of seat allocation. The first round guarantees at least one seat for those who get at least 2% of the national votes. Those who get more than 2% will be guaranteed at most two more additional seats, the number of which is determined by multiplying the available seats by the percentage of votes garnered by the party-list group. In the second round, the remaining available seats will then be allocated to those who get less than 2% of the national votes based on ranking.
But the BANAT method, although arguably better than the previous ones, still raises two important questions. First, why is there a three-seat cap in the allocation? Second, why is 2% of the national vote the minimum percentage to be assured of one seat?
There have been several recommendations in the past to either increase the number of seat allocations per winning group or alter the 2% threshold or both. For example, a 2005 math journal article by mathematics professor Felix Muga II analyzes several of these proposed amendments and recommends the usage of the natural value of the winning minimum percentage (i.e. one divided by the total number of available seats) and the removal of the three-seat cap. The paper further argues that this method results in very high indices of representation and proportionality.
But why are the numbers important?
The calculation of the party-list seat allocation reflects the essence of the party-list system. If the party-list system aims to promote proportional representation, which technically allocates seats that are proportional to the votes that a group garners, why the three-seat limit? Is the limit an admission that a party-list group can have machinery large enough to gather electoral support that its sector does not actually deserve? If, on the other hand, the seat cap is increased, how can it prevent the case where only a few sectors dominate the party-list system, leaving the others unrepresented? What is the optimal way to make sure that a sector is given power proportional to the electoral support it gets while at the same time preventing traditional politicians from dominating the system?
The math behind the party-list system is important because it is the same math that party-list groups can weaponize to get a seat in Congress. A seat cap that is too low might urge party-list groups representing the same sector to split up to get more seats. A seat cap that is too high might allow traditional politicians to consolidate their power and rob other sectors of the chance to be represented. A higher threshold may discourage participation of marginalized sectors with limited machinery while a lower threshold may give seats even to nuisance groups.
Determining seat allocations and percentage thresholds becomes complicated when the party-list system gets to be hijacked by nominees who are not only disassociated from the sector they supposedly represent but are also capable of using their wealth and social capital to gain power. The math becomes even messier when some party-lists with catchy names but empty platforms are allowed to run. One can then adjust the math behind our party-list system to address these existing flaws or fix these flaws first before addressing problems on seat allocations and winning minimum percentage thresholds. It is only when one of these things is done that the party-list system can truly serve its purpose.
Reil Benedict Obinque has a masters degree in Basic Education Mathematics. He teaches math to senior high school students. Some of his fiction pieces have been featured in UP Likhaan, Philippines Graphic, and ANMLY Press, among others.