Of PR system and tinkering with the Constitution

Elections are a necessary evil in a democracy, and although we have had a surfeit of them recently, we have to brace ourselves for one more: The general election which has been slated for April 8.
Every election has issues that dominate, and this general election has thrown up an interesting question. The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is asking for a two-thirds majority to replace the current Proportional Representation (PR) system with a hybrid that would include a combination with the first-past-the-post system.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his final campaign rally for the presidential election, hinted that the ‘manaapa kramaya’ would be dispensed with. However, given the level of acrimony the presidential poll generated, the Opposition parties would not have cooperated in bringing about the necessary amendments to the Constitution, to do this prior to the general election.

This week, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake was to elaborate on the need to do away with the PR system: There were no MPs for some electorates, while other electorates had many; the ‘big names’ and those who had enough money to launch a publicity blitz, had an easy ride to Parliament while less fortunate contenders were left in the lurch. Obviously, the former was not the best.
We do agree with the Prime Minister’s thoughts. But it is germane to examine our electoral system from the perspective of its origins - the 1978 Constitution fathered by that master craftsman of political expediency, J.R. Jayewardene.

JRJ’s contentions were twofold. Publicly, he argued that the then prevalent first-past-the-post system of elections brought about a ‘thattu maaru’ style change of government every five years. Privately, he surmised that, with a PR type of representation, the UNP would never suffer a massive defeat, the kind of which it had to endure in 1956, being reduced to a mere eight seats.
Hindsight has proved JRJ correct. A country which had a change of government every five years or less, until the advent of the 1978 Constitution, then experienced 17 years of UNP rule. Thereafter, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalitions have been in power for all but three of the next 16 years. And, even in 1994, in the face of a ‘landslide’ that brought Chandrika Kumaratunga into power, the UNP obtained 94 seats, to the Peoples’ Alliance’s 105 seats in Parliament!

Therefore, the 1978 Constitution and its PR system of elections did bring about stability and, at the same time, ensured that no party received an overwhelming mandate. It also ensured that smaller parties had their representation in Parliament - a relevant factor, both for ethnic oriented parties and for those such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which were marginalised under the first-past-the-post system.
But this has come at a price, and the Prime Minister’s complaints about the PR system are chief among them. In addition, there are other issues: The PR system has spawned bitter intra-party rivalry, as candidates engage in a ‘do or die’ battle to win the preference votes in an entire district. In such a contest, it is only those with the means to indulge in mega campaigns, who win.

In this context, it is argued that the ‘quality’ of the average parliamentarian has declined considerably, since the introduction of the PR system. Whereas professionals - mostly lawyers - made up the bulk of the Legislature in the past, now it is mostly the opportunistic businessman, the nouveau riche and the political hangers on who hog the limelight, a sad state indeed.

If the PR system ensured representation for smaller and ethnic oriented parties, this, at times, worked against the principles of democracy and morality in politics. In the past two decades, we have seen how the major parties have had to pander to every whim and fancy of the smaller parties, doling out Cabinet portfolios and political privileges, in order to ensure a working parliamentary majority, which would have been easily obtained, had the first-past-the-post system been operational.

Careful consideration would therefore, have to be given to all these issues, if and when Constitutional reforms are being planned after the election. It is now more than 60 years since Independence, and it is high time that the country evolves a Constitution that it is comfortable with, not one which is tailored to meet the political needs of the day. As we already know from our experiences in tinkering with the Constitution, ad-hoc changes can only bring about disastrous consequences in the long term.
Perhaps a system of elections that is a hybrid of the first-past-the-post and the PR system, the so-called ‘German model’ is best, but this must be necessarily modified to meet the needs of this country. In designing this, it would be prudent to consult all political parties, for today’s opposition could well be tomorrow’s government, and there is no better advice than that of Alexander Pope: “For forms of government, let fools contend; that which is administered best, is best”.