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Vying for poll position

As Sri Lanka concludes a bloody and violent election campaign for the Western Provincial Council, time is nigh to revisit the urgent need for an overhaul of the electoral process…

The election for the Western Provincial Council (WPC) held yesterday, became one of the most hotly contested polls held in the recent past, not only because of the privileged position the Council holds, but because of the high profile candidates this race appears to have attracted. The violent twist this campaign has taken, has once more brought to the fore, both the bane of the preferential voting system and the pressing need for electoral reform, which would see less emphasis on personalities and more on policy and good governance.

Ever since the ancient Athenians threw different coloured stones into a jar, to choose their leaders, democratic nation States have been obsessed with processes and methods by which they elect their representatives to office. One of the earliest recorded peoples’ ballots took place in the birthplace of democracy, Athens, Greece, where people tossed red and black pebbles into a large Grecian urn, in order to decide which of its citizens to ostracise. From those primitive beginnings, honed by mathematicians and developed into a fully blown political theory, electoral systems still determine the way the democratic world chooses its leaders.

Voting systems

A voting or electoral system allows voters to choose between options, often in an election where candidates are selected for public office. Each individual system contains rules for valid voting, and how votes are aggregated to yield a final result. Electoral systems vary from country to country and oftentimes, even the same theoretical electoral system might be applied in a variety of ways, depending on which country is adopting it. All modified systems, however, have their basis on one of three fundamental voting processes, namely majority rule (winner must obtain 51% of vote), proportional representation (PR) or plurality voting i.e. first-past-the-post (FPTP).
Sri Lanka, in its short stint as a democratic nation, has already adopted two of these three methods – plurality and PR – and clearly, neither has achieved the desired results.
For the first three decades of statehood, Sri Lanka adopted the Westminster system of prime ministerial government, with her representatives elected to office through the FPTP or plurality system, known colloquially as the ‘winner takes all’ or ‘relative majority’ method of voting representatives into office. The Constitutions of 1946 and 1972 provided for the election of members of Parliament from single-member constituencies, similar to those found in Britain. Consequently, relatively small changes in the percentage of voters supporting a given party caused large variations in the number of seats that party won in Parliament, and majority parties were over-represented in terms of their percentage of the popular vote. For example, in the 1965 General election, the UNP won 39.3% of the vote and secured 66 out of 151 seats in Parliament; its share of the vote in the 1970 election dropped 1.4% to 37.9%, but won only 17 seats.

JR’s revolution

Using the UNP’s sweeping majority won in the 1977 election, J.R. Jayewardene drafted the 1978 Constitution, which remains in place today, which, among other things, replaced the single-member constituencies with a system of PR, in which, the number of candidates returned from a single electoral district is determined on the basis of population. Although this system is believed to create a closer correspondence between vote percentages and Parliamentary representation, critics of the system claim that the equitable nature of PR is diluted by a Constitutional provision that grants the party with the largest percentage of votes in each district, a “bonus” seat, in addition to those gained through PR.

According to former civil servant Bradman Weerakoon, in his book Rendering Unto Caesar, another real issue pertaining to the new PR system of choosing representatives has been the fact that it had seemingly forever eliminated the possibility for massive swings at elections, and thereby, locked in JR’s 1978 Constitution into an almost impossible to change situation, because of the difficulty of ever again obtaining a two-third majority in Parliament. Recent history is littered with examples of how this question of a two-third majority became a major stumbling block for Sri Lanka’s leaders who attempted to resolve the ethnic problem by means of amending the Constitution. Hung Parliaments and slim majorities have allowed for, not only horse trading over Parliament seats, but also enabled Oppositions to impede any real policy or Constitutional changes incumbent regimes have attempted to bring about, for nothing more than just the sake of being difficult. Furthermore, the preferential voting system has given rise to an increasingly violent trend, even intra-party, given the often tight races for a seat in a governing body, as witnessed in these last two months of campaigning for the WPC election.

Space for ideology

On the flipside of this debate, the PR system has afforded minor parties and parties based on ethnic lines to make significant political inroads and create significant electoral bases, which proponents of the PR system believe is a much needed infusion of different ideologies into the Sri Lankan electoral process.

President Chandrika Kumaratunge, having realised this problem a few years into her presidency, appointed a Parliamentary Committee to study how the electoral system in Sri Lanka could be reformed. However, with Parliament lapsing several times, the latest committee to look into changing the PR system was appointed in 2005. And so, over a decade later, some progress appears to be being made. Urban Development Minister Dinesh Gunewardane as Chairman of the Electoral System Reform Select Committee submitted a report that was approved by all parties in Parliament, which proposed sweeping changes to the electoral system and the composition of the Parliament.
Speaking to The Nation, Minister Gunewardane said that a Bill had already been drafted by the Committee, and referred to the Provincial Councils (PC) for approval. The Bill, which envisions changing the process by which PCs, Pradeshiya Sabha and Local government elections are held, has already been approved by the Sabaragamuwa and North Western PCs, while several others are still in the process of debating it. “If the PCs approve, this Bill can be brought to Parliament and tabled for debate and vote. The new election system is a combination of both the FPTP system and the PR system at the local government level. According to the new system, 70% of the seats will be decided on the FPTP system and 30% on the PR system,” the Minister said. He added that Parliament was required to consult with the PCs about the proposed Bill, but the main legislative body could pass the Bill with a simple majority, in order to implement the changes.

Difficult road ahead

Things are not so simple with trying to effect similar changes to the manner in which Parliamentarians are elected to office. According to Minister Gunewardane, the Committee he chairs is still in the process of finalising the formula on which the electoral system should be changed, and are only just completing a new Act called the Political Party Recognition and De-Recognition Act, to streamline the election process to begin with. “In his observations to the Committee on electoral reform, the Elections Commissioner said that he was facing a problem with regard to eliminating political parties that were defunct, since there was no legal provision through which these parties could be removed from the electoral lists. Once this is complete, Gunewardane hopes the committee would be able to reach a final decision on the percentages of seats allocated on each of the two voting systems, in order to present their proposals to Parliament.

While the Local government electoral reforms are likely to go through, given the consensus on that matter by most parties in Parliament, the General elections are going to prove a whole other ball game, since it requires a two-thirds Parliamentary majority to effect the necessary change. As observed previously, this is a Herculean task, likely to be scuttled along the way by one or more Opposition parties. Under the present circumstances, therefore, while one could hope to see a change in the way the smaller elections are conducted in the island (hopefully with less violence and bloodshed), it will be a long and hard road before any tangible changes will be made to the manner in which Sri Lanka picks her national legislators.

Political parties have their say

Tissa Attanayake

With regard to the process of electoral reforms, the UNP is still in the discussion stages; therefore it is difficult to offer the party’s clear stand on the matter. However it is the majority view among party members that an electoral system which is changed to allow for a combination of both the first-past-the-post and the proportional representation system would be a positive step towards reforming the process. As part of this reform formula, the UNP is agreeable to 120 seats in parliaments being decided based on the first-past-the-post system, 80 seats decided on a system of proportional representation and 25 seats to be allocated on the national list. This way, there would be a percentage of MPs directly responsible to their constituencies, a percentage of MPs based on district based representation so that the small and minority parties are also included in the election process and no injustice is caused to them. In any case we are in the process of studying such a system and once there is consensus within the party we will articulate a clear position on the electoral reforms.

However, it must also be noted that what the UNP really stands for is a comprehensive constitutional amendment which not only seeks to change the electoral system exclusive of all other matters, but a change which would also reflect several other reforms to the political process in the country. We believe that such a constitutional amendment is crucial in order to have the 17th Amendment which provides for the setting up of the independent commissions without the current loopholes that have made them defunct implemented in full. The UNP also wants a constitutional change that would abolish the executive presidency and put in place an executive prime minister and we also believe that such an amendment should also stipulate the maximum number of cabinet members allowed by any ruling administration and clearly define the mandates of the ministers and their ministries and subjects. So electoral reform alone will not do, if all the support systems to ensure the process works are not in place. That will bring about no change at all eventually, and we’ll be back to square one.

If such moves are made the UNP will be fully supportive. At the moment however, the UNP will not move to impede any proposed electoral reform so long as it conforms to a just formula.

R. Yogarajan

Our party stand on the issue has always been very clear.
The system of proportional representation at elections has afforded representation for minority and minor parties. Any change in the system would be unfair to the smaller parties. Overall representation should be based on a proportional system to eliminate the preferential vote – a system can be devised combining both the PR system and the FTTP systems where 50 percent of the representation comes from each – but on the basis that there are two separate ballot papers.

Vijitha Herath

The virulent battles between same-party candidates are not entirely the fault of preferential voting or proportional representation system. The main reason for the escalation of violence is the fact that the Government is not taking any action to punish those who are guilty of violating the law of the land. And, in fact, it is the government sponsored thugs and goons that are responsible for 90% of the election related violence.

If the police was independent and if it can take action against wrongdoers’ people will be afraid to break the law. But the Government is making sure that the Police are powerless to take action against the state sponsored thugs. The message they are putting out there is “if you are with us you can get away with anything, even homicide.” Look at how the Police is treating the case of the assassination of Nandana Balage. When there are eye-witnesses giving evidence against the National Freedom Front candidates the police could at least ask Wijenayake and Co. to at least come and give a statement. Even that is not done.

If we get rid of the preferential voting system, do you think that the Government will stop or at least cut down the intensity of violence levelled at their political rivals? I think not. If it really needs to stop the election related violence, please reinstate the Independent Election and Police Commissions and allow justice to prevail.