Of celebrities 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 landscape.

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 the electorate.   

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 honour?
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 parliamentarians.

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.