coming to Parliament
This being election season, detest
it as we may, the battle for the ‘Preference’ vote
or the ‘manaapa poraya’ is here again, and this, we
believe, is good enough a reason to examine the
effect it would have on the Legislature we are due
to elect on April 8.
Having had a robust Parliament modelled on the
British styled first-past-the-post Westminster
system since Independence, Sri Lankaz was blessed
with brilliant legislators. An election every five
years - or sometimes even more frequently - ensured
that there was never a dull moment on our political
As representatives to Parliament
were elected on an electorate-by-electorate basis,
there was regional representation. To the people of
that electorate, the MP was ‘apey manthrithuma’, who
was responsible for the welfare of that region. If
he or his party did not deliver, voters could boot
him out at the next poll.
At times, this is simply what happened. At the last
such general elections, which was held in 1977,
there were giant killers, political unknowns who
defeated the big guns: Sarathchandra Rajakaruna
defeating Felix Dias Bandaranaike at Dompe and K.
Vincent Perera trouncing N.M. Perera at Yatiyantota
are two glaring examples.
The 1977 Parliament continued well
until 1989, by courtesy of the infamous Referendum,
and that is when the electoral system underwent a
sea change, with the introduction of the
Proportional Representation (PR) system and its
convoluted practice of electing MPs based on the
number of ‘Preference’ votes they polled.
Quite apart from the disadvantage of denying
regional representation for some electorates, while
allowing multiple representation in others, this
system and the results evident from two decades of
its use through four general elections, raise
another important question: Are the legislators we
elect, the best available?
This question comes into sharper
focus than ever before at the upcoming elections,
because of the bold decision by the ruling United
Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to field a string
of artistes, movie stars, sportsmen and other
prominent personalities as their candidates.
Those who drafted the 1978 Constitution did make
provision for prominent personalities to be
accommodated in the Legislature, with a ‘National
List’ to be nominated by the respective political
parties, but there was provision for only 29 members
in this category.
Indeed, somewhat ironically, the
National List has now become a haven for senior
politicians to take refuge in, when they are no
longer able or willing to indulge in the hard grind
of winning an election. It is also used to reward
political parties for their loyalty, by
accommodating their nominees on the list.
However, the UPFA’s move at this election to
nominate popular celebrities clearly goes beyond
what was envisaged in the National List. What might
be deemed unfair by fellow candidates is the fact
that an already well known celebrity is a near
certainty to win, given his ‘name recognition’ in
For instance, a cricketer who is
still a household name, because of his mercurial
exploits in the game, is now a contestant in a
southern district. He is more certain of making it
to Parliament, based purely on his popularity as a
cricketer, than he is certain of making it to the
next playing eleven in the national team!
A similar ‘short cut’ awaits other well-known
actors, actresses, artistes and other prominent
personalities. Very soon, one wonders whether the
best route to enter the Legislature would be to
first become a household name as a celebrity in
another sphere, and then stand for election!
Certainly, prominent personalities
have every right as anyone else, to seek election,
even if the system, arguably, confers them a
head-start over their fellow contestants. But the
issue at stake is not this. The more pertinent
question is whether they are the most suited to
become lawmakers of the land.
There was a time, to cite just one example, when the
late Sarath Muttetuwegama, parliamentarian par
excellence, spoke of coconut prices in the morning,
of foreign policy in the afternoon and of arts and
drama in the evening. Can an elected cricketer, for
instance, do the same?
Entry to Parliament is a coveted
honour, because it is the temple of democracy. This
is where laws are enacted and vital decisions
regarding the country’s future, especially in a
post-war era of conflict resolution would be made.
Shouldn’t the best men and women for that job have
That is not to suggest that being a sportsman or
movie star should be a disqualification for the
task. But keeping in mind the electoral system
through which they get elected, it would be only
healthy to entertain a degree of suspicion as to the
ability of these individuals to perform as seasoned
In this respect, the onus is on the
respective political parties to be judicious in the
selection of their nominees, considering that a
celebrity, once nominated, is a near certainty to
get elected. The country’s seventh Parliament will
tell us whether this political experiment is one
where we all got it terribly wrong.