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This is my Nation


Electoral Reforms in limbo

Indeed, battles for the ‘manaapey’ are part and parcel of elections now. But, quite apart from the intra-party rivalry it generates, it has other undesirable consequences: it confers undue advantage on candidates with more financial resources, which can buy media time, print posters and ensure a propaganda blitz for his ‘electorate’, which is now, not merely his electoral division, but the entire district

The much awaited Electoral Reforms that mooted a hybrid between the Westminster style ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) system and the presently operational Proportional Representation (PR) system were shelved by the Government last week, in the face of opposition from many minority political parties.

The event may have passed relatively unnoticed in the midst of all the publicity surrounding the war, but it is significant nevertheless, in the implications it carries at a time when the nation is at a crossroads and political reforms aimed at ending ethnic strife in the country is high on the agenda.

To begin with, the proposed Reforms took a while to see the light of day. It was first mooted during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga and a Parliamentary Committee appointed to study the issue. It is nearly a decade later that, definitive proposals emerged, indicating that, much thought and effort went into the exercise and that, some resistance was also encountered.

What was proposed was a mix of the FPTP system and the PR system, with 70% of seats being allocated on the FPTP system and the balance 30% on the PR system. The proposed changes were to apply only for Provincial Council (PC) and Local Government elections, and not for Parliamentary polls.

But, after the committee announced its Reforms, and the process to make it law commenced, there was heavy opposition, especially, in the Eastern PC, where, ironically, the ruling party holds power, although it is really in the hands of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal led by child soldier turned Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias ‘Pillayan’.

This was only to be expected. The PR system, introduced through J.R. Jayewardene’s 1978 Constitution, simply stated that, the number of seats a party was allocated, would be proportional to the number of votes it polled. JR proudly said that, he had studied the election results until then and that, his aim was to ensure his United National Party (UNP) never suffered a defeat of the magnitude of the 1956 rout at the hands of the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Indeed, JR’s prophecy has proved true, for since 1994, General elections - barring one - have been unfavourable for the UNP, and it would have been reduced to a handful of seats, if not for the PR system.

Whatever JR’s ultimate intentions, the change also provided for a system where minorities could achieve significant representation, if they voted en bloc, because the allocation of seats was proportional to the votes polled. As a result, the influence wielded by ethnic based parties such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), increased exponentially.

Some regard this as an undesirable phenomenon, because then, the major parties have to pander to the whims and fancies of the minority parties, so, it could barter some kind of political agreement. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2001 General election, which the United National Front won, the UNP had to accommodate political unknowns from the SLMC on the National List, leaving out senior party members, much to their chagrin!

On the other hand, this system does ensure that, the minority voice is heard. It is a safeguard that must be protected, for it will not allow a major party to disregard minority sentiments, and play to the majority gallery, just to win elections, as it happened in 1956. The results were catastrophic, as recent history tells us so convincingly.
But the PR system has its inherent disadvantages, as we have seen over the past two decades, when it has been in operation, especially, in Parliamentary elections.

Chief among them is the intra-party rivalry it promotes. Political parties are required to submit a list of names, with candidates in excess of the number of electoral divisions in a given district. That is to allow for contingencies such as deaths and resignations during the period of office. But, it also means that. more than one candidate is named from some electoral divisions, leading to many ‘turf wars’, which have descended to blatant violence at present.

Indeed, battles for the ‘manaapey’ are part and parcel of elections now. But, quite apart from the intra-party rivalry it generates, it has other undesirable consequences: it confers undue advantage on candidates with more financial resources, which can buy media time, print posters and ensure a propaganda blitz for his ‘electorate’, which is now, not merely his electoral division, but the entire district.

Then, at the end of the election, some electorates are left with no representation, because even though a candidate may have won the electorate for his party, he will not be in Parliament, if he hasn’t enough preference votes. This is undemocratic, to say the least, but it also generates problems for political parties which find its grassroots organisations dissipating as a result - a predicament faced by the UNP today.

What is clear then is that, while the PR system has its advantages, it has its fair share of problems too. In principle, it does appear as if the ideal system of election would be a mix of the two systems, a conclusion the Parliamentary Committee seems to have arrived at.

But the proportions that have been decided on - 70% for the FPTP system and 30% for the PR system, appear to have caused understandable anxieties among minority parties. So, would a solution be easy to arrive at, by merely switching percentages and opting for say, 50/50?

That is unlikely to happen. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has indicated he would not pursue the matter for the moment, at least. In the aftermath of the military victories in the North, he would be anxious to project an image of being minority-friendly, and it is a fair guess that, the proposed Reforms will now be in limbo for the foreseeable future.

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