UPFA should together develop hybrid electoral system
The government is contemplating changing election laws for
local government polls to enable both the Proportional
Representation (PR) and Westminster style first-past-the-post
system to work in tandem, it was announced recently. This marks
a significant shift in thinking from the ruling party, but what
merits inquiry more than the announcement itself is why the
powers that be opted for change.
The PR system was introduced to Sri Lanka with the 1978
Constitution of J.R. Jayewardene. JR, tempered by decades of
political turmoil, before he finally assumed leadership of the
nation, surmised that his United National Party (UNP) was the
single largest political party in the country. He saw that,
under a PR system, its survival would thereby be ensured,
eliminating the prospects of a 1956-style rout of the UNP.
JR calculated correctly. Had it not been for his PR system, the
UNP would have been reduced to a handful of seats in Parliament
today. However, by the same token, if there was a
Westminster-style election in 2001, which the UNP won, the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) too, would have been demolished to a
negligible opposition, and the UNP, arguably, could have still
been in power today.
So much so for the vagaries of the PR system. JR’s argument for
the system was that, it ensured balanced representation between
the government and the opposition and that, it provided minority
and fringe political parties representation in the legislature-
important to alleviate their concerns and prevent those
grievances re-incarnating themselves as insurrections.
In that sense, the PR system has served its purpose. But
overall, as we look back on 30-years of elections based
exclusively on the PR system, we can see a few glaring drawbacks
Prior to 1978, there was a trend best described as the ‘thattu
maaru’ system: at an election, the incumbent government was
booted out and a different regime was ushered into power, often
by an overwhelming majority. The PR system has effectively put
an end to that: Since ’78, the UNP ruled continuously for
16-years and since then, SLFP-led coalitions have held sway,
except for a brief interlude of UNP-rule between 2001 and 2004.
Whether these long periods of ‘one party rule’ have been
beneficial to the country is a moot point.
If minority and fringe party representation was desired and
obtained with the PR system, it does also appear as if the
system has allowed this phenomenon to be carried to the other
extreme. We now have the spectacle of several minority and
fringe parties playing a larger-than-life role in the political
theatre: the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the Ceylon
Workers’ Congress (CWC), the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and of
course, the Janatha Vimkuthi Peramuna (JVP).
An inherent weakness of the PR system was that- unlike in the
first-past-the-post-system, the winning party was less likely to
garner an absolute majority in Parliament, so, it had to pander
to the requests of smaller fringe and minority parties, who, of
course, gleefully seized the opportunity and demanded their
pound of flesh in the form of plum portfolios and other perks of
And when, even that was not enough, the Executive had to resort
to luring members from the opposition ranks into the Cabinet,
again offering Cabinet posts as reward. The results are now
plain to see: a mega Cabinet of over a hundred ministers and a
hodgepodge of a democracy, where half the Cabinet have been
elected to Parliament on the votes of the opposition!
Then, to cap it all, we have the ‘manaapa poraya’. The battle
for preference votes has left party unity in tatters and ensured
that, while the political big guns in each district have a joy
ride to Parliament, lesser known and perhaps, more deserving
individuals stand virtually no chance in a political catfight,
where campaigning with mega bucks is the only way of ensuring
your passage to the legislature. And, as a result, some
constituencies will have two or, sometimes three members of
Parliament, other constituencies will have none. Surely, that
cannot be good for democracy.
Considering all this, it almost goes without saying that, a
hybrid system, which incorporates what is good in both the PR
and Westminster systems would be welcome. There would, of
course, be little issues to be ironed out: what the PR to
Westminster ratio would be and the logistical and political
implications of an election held under the hybrid system.
More importantly, though, it must be said that, for some time
now, tinkering with the election processes have been undertaken
by successive governments- be they blue or green, not with
entirely pristine motives. Their agenda has been to preserve the
privileges of power for themselves, for as long as possible. And
that is why, even the current proposed changes to the electoral
process, will invariably, come to be viewed with some degree of
Ideally, what would benefit the nation most would be at least,
the two major parties coming to some agreement regarding the
best possible electoral process for the country. After all,
hindsight will tell them that any system that disadvantages one
party is bound to have a negative impact on them at some point
in time- and there are many such examples in our recent
So, it would be in the best interests of the two major parties,
if they can, at least, agree to disagree on the little details,
but arrive at a consensus, with regard to amalgamating the PR
and Westminster systems.
But alas, though that would be the ideal, we know that we do not
live in an ideal State!