UNP, 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 as well.

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 office.
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 scepticism.

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 political history.
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!