PR system the root of many evils at elections

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 counting centres.

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!