|PR system the
root of many evils at elections
Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake is an unhappy man these days.
He said so publicly on Wednesday. One can hardly blame him. The
Commissioner capped a meticulous career by serving as Elections
Commissioner and, not being in the best of health, was hoping
for a well-deserved retirement.
But it was not to be. In 2001, the then government passed the
17th Amendment, which provided for independent commissions to
govern the Police, Judiciary, Public Service and Elections. But
as successive regimes dilly-dallied on this amendment, the
appointment of an independent Elections Commission has been
delayed – and so has Dissanayake’s retirement.
The Commissioner resorted to petitioning the Supreme Court five
years ago, pleading to be relieved of his duties. In a country
where all and sundry desperately try to stay in office, his must
have been a unique case. The Supreme Court sympathised with the
aggrieved Commissioner but said that given the Constitutional
provisions that governed his office, they could do nothing.
In 2005, while officiating at the declaration of results at the
presidential election, an event broadcast live on television and
watched by millions throughout the country, Dissanayake made a
public appeal to President-elect Mahinda Rajapaksa, again
pleading for retirement. That too was not to be.
Three years later, the Commissioner continues to be in office,
six years past the age of retirement. That is all the more
reason why his words of wisdom should be listened to in earnest
for he has nothing to lose and nothing to gain; surely, he must
be speaking the truth as he sees it.
Dissanayake confirms a few home truths we already know. The
Proportional Representation (PR) system is the root of many
evils during elections because of the manaapa poraya (the fight
for preference votes), the Commissioner argues, and there is
ample evidence for this.
Quite apart from promoting the inter-party rivalry that
Dissanayake so candidly deplored, the preferential voting system
has other disadvantages as well: just as much as it ensures an
easy passage to Parliament for nationally known high-profile
politicians in each district, it shuts the door on the lesser
known but perhaps more diligent party organisers.
This system also means that ‘big names’ take their election for
granted, neglecting their constituencies because their election
is a virtual certainty. Moreover, the PR system allows for
several MPs from one electorate to be elected if they are from
different parties, while other electorates may not have a single
MP in the house.
As a result, not only does that electorate suffer inequalities
in the distribution of services and resources, political parties
also lose their grassroots support from that area. This is
undoubtedly part of the malady that has afflicted the United
National Party (UNP) now.
The PR system, it will be remembered, was the brainchild of J.R.
Jayewardene, who, having analysed the election results since
independence, deduced that since the UNP was the single largest
party in the country, it could never be defeated if a PR system
was in place.
Instead, what the PR system did was to prevent landslide
victories for any government; this has had the opposite effect
of what Jayewardene hoped for. The UNP has been out office for
over a decade now but it has also produced a series of unstable
governments – including the present one – which has led to heads
of governments resorting to dangling carrots before opposition
MPs to lure them to the government benches.
Alas, as a result, principled politics has taken a back seat as
Parliamentarians – including so called ‘gentlemen’ – have fallen
prey to the lure of the perks and privileges of power. The
present Parliament is the best example of this: nearly 40 MPs
elected to the House from the opposition are now with the
government, holding one inconsequential portfolio or another!
The Elections Commissioner also spoke of the lack of decency in
politics and noted that it was the financial muscle, thuggery
and violence which have held sway at recent elections. And as he
has seen it all, he should know what he is talking about.
Dissanayake also elaborated on how major political parties field
independent groups as contestants merely to gain the advantage
of having more persons supporting them at polling booths and
This only underscores the fact that elections laws as they exist
now lack teeth. Issues such as the use and abuse of government
property and the state controlled media during election time
have been debated time and time again – with no tangible result.
That is because the very parties which push for these reforms
while in the opposition abhor change when they are in power.
Rightly, the Commissioner unequivocally called for an overhaul
of the current election laws as well as the PR system,
advocating a hybrid of the Westminster-style First-Past-The-Post
system with the PR method.
Dissanayake did declare that such changes were long overdue but
he is now once bitten, twice shy. He did say that the prospects
of such changes materialising in the near future are quite
remote – and that is a stinging indictment of the current crop
of politicians who walk the corridors of power – and this is not
confined to those in the ruling party.
What is required if Sri Lanka is to make the quantum leap from a
corruption ridden election system to a free and fair poll is the
sincere commitment of politicians from both sides of the
political divide. Sadly though, the chances of that
materialising are as good as Elections Commissioner Dayananda
Dissanayake being offered his richly deserved retirement!