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
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”.