Suffrage for Overseas Filipino Workers

Arab News

Suffrage for Overseas Filipino Workers

by Manuel L. Quezon III

I’ve been advocating suffrage for Overseas Filipino Workers for a decade and more recently, some kind of representation for them in Congress. The legislation that’s been passed, so far, is highly discriminatory. But democracy, when it moves forward, even inch by inch, has a relentless characteristic that politicians who try to limit it find difficult to counteract.

A case in point is the anxiety being demonstrated by some political leaders with regards to the opinions of overseas Filipinos. The past year has seen the political leadership trying to move heaven and earth to achieve two things. First, the elimination of nationally elected positions (such as president and senator) because the masses behave differently when electing national versus local, officials.

The second is, to eliminate a national leadership in the interest of collective harmony among the professional politicians, who can each aspire to be the big chief in their captive districts, and share the loot with each other under a parliamentary setup that’s unicameral. No figure can become too big for his britches by playing off the public versus the professionals. At the same time, the line between executive and legislative would dissolve, and thereby present a united front against the judiciary.

Two goals via a two-step project: Engineer the abolition of the Senate, through a constitutional amendment approved in a plebiscite (and governments generally don’t lose plebiscites) which then permits a unicameral Parliament to rewrite the constitution at its convenience and pleasure. A side-benefit: President Arroyo buys time and can expand her political options beyond 2010.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what I expect to be a rigged plebiscite: Overseas Filipinos began to grumble. As it is, it’s incredibly difficult to vote from overseas. The Filipino worker abroad has to make all sorts of vows (meaning, if you vote abroad now, you must promise to vote from home next time) and travel to a designated embassy or consulate on voting day, which is a holiday at home but obviously not abroad. Congress thus virtually engineered a self-defeating measure, gleefully pointed out when the number of overseas Filipino voters turned out small. Still, the opportunity was there; and efforts are being made to make voting easier.

A parliamentary system, as proposed, however, would eliminate national positions and thus the chance for an OFW vote. Speaker Jose de Venecia at first proposed that the solution would be OFW representation in the ruling party — his party — but the response was, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Now he’s proposed to permit OFW representation under the party-list system. The response has been a little less underwhelming, but still generally cautious, and skeptical.

Those who’ve taken the time and trouble to look over the three proposals floating around — there’s no single, definitive, administration proposal because that would be too convenient for the public — might notice, as I’ve noticed, a kind of vagueness covering the party-list system. As I understand it, it will actually be engineered to provide a kind of bonus for the parties that do best (which means, the administration). If your candidates win X number of district seats, then the party gets Y added seats to fill with party appointees. Now, for the near future, Z number of seats might also be reserved for party list representatives, but it would be for a total of 30 percent of the National Assembly’s seats — never enough to challenge the ruling party, and that percentage would be divided among many party lists, anyway.

Compare that to the potential of the 8 to 12 million Filipinos abroad, if they got their act together, voting for national candidates. It could spell the difference for a president and many senators. The Middle East alone has enough Filipinos to rival Cebu Province in terms of votes. Each major OFW constituency — the Middle East, Japan, Hong Kong, Europe and of course, the USA — could rival the warlord-dominated command votes of quite a few cities and provinces at home.

The speaker knows he as to offer OFWs something, because no politician worth his salt wants to alienate such an important constituency.

Even if many haven’t voted in the past, each OFW has his or her own command vote — relatives at home. If enough OFWs get mad at a politician, it could spell trouble. But the speaker is clever enough to offer only the appearance of representation, not its substance. So, the offer of potential party list seats, never clearly defined, rather than guaranteed seats in Congress for OFWs. My personal preference, for example, is Senate reform along the Italian model: Two Senate berths to be selected by OFWs (one each for Asia and Middle East and the other, Europe and the Americas), along with one seat for Muslims, another for Indigenous Peoples and one for peasants and fisher folk, one for the urban poor, (the remaining 18 seats then apportioned 6 each for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao).

However, that’s just an idea and it’s one properly initiated by OFWs. They have been given neither the time to consult each other nor the opportunity to participate in a debate at home. As with Filipinos at home, Filipinos overseas are only being presented with consolation prizes. Readers may find the 2004 Survey on Overseas Filipinos interesting. It’s online at

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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