Clarion call for PR system to go

By Tharindu Prematillake and Ishtartha Wellaboda

More credible electoral process needed - Monitors

Representing the only foreign observation team at this year’s election, Somsri Hannanutak, of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), said that they were intrigued by the preferential voting (PR) system even though it appeared to create conflict between candidates in the same party. However, they added that there was significantly less violence than in any recent poll in Sri Lanka. “We have noted that there was significantly less violence in Sri Lanka. However, we see that most of the clashes had happened between members of the same party”.
The foreign observers also noted that the country needs to eliminate electoral impunity and ensure the rule of law. They also cited the need to ensure a just process to bring about a more credible electoral process. “This will bring about a new era for voter empowerment and Sri Lankan democracy”, observed another.

One of the main UPFA Government slogans at the General Election was that a two thirds majority was needed to change the electoral system. With results from two districts yet to be finalised, the Government seems to be in a position where it can almost get closer to a two thirds majority. With such a majority the possibility of changing the PR system has become a reality.

Heightened intra-party violence has ensured that the general election which was due to be held on April 8 is still not complete. As a result a re-polling at 38 centers, with a cost of 3.5 million rupees is set to take place in Trincomalee and Nawalapitiya on April 20. Election monitors have reported an average of 350 incidents of election violence leading up to April 8. They attribute more than fifty percent of those cases to intra-party violence.

The increasing number of clashes between politicians from the same party has been blamed on the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system in which party members forget all loyalties in their mad dash for ‘manapa’.
Since 2002 there has been talks in political circles for changing the current electoral system. What has been suggested is a hybrid system where attributes from the PR and the First Past the Post systems are combined.
The Nation spoke to party representatives from the three main political parties and a randomly selected group of people from the general public to get their views on changing the PR system.
A common agreement on an issue is a very rare occurrence among Sri Lankan political parties. However, when it comes to the PR system The Nation heard a unanimous call for change and reform from all the UPFA, UNF, and the DNA as well as the general public.

Change not far away - Karu (UNF)

It was the United National Party that first suggested that the current PR system should be changed. In 2002 we brought forward this idea and then created a parliamentary select committee to study how we could formulate a better electoral system. It was agreed to appoint a member from the opposition as the head of the select committee, and that is why Dinesh Gunawardena was appointed to that position.
A lot of work has been done in the committee so far. It has been agreed that we should have a combination of the First Past the Post system and the PR system. I believe that a positive change to the system is not far away.
There are major deficiencies in the current system. It has led to a lot of intra party violence, it promotes an atmosphere where only the rich can contest an election, and it robs the people of the basic essence of a true democracy.
India, which has a population that is many times bigger than ours, has been able to implement a proper combination of the two systems. Therefore, there is no reason why we can’t work something out as well.
However, a mere change in the electoral system is not going to be enough. The 17 amendment has to be enforced properly. There needs to be independent police and elections commissions, and all forms of corruption and malpractice at elections should be removed immediately. The system needs to be depoliticised. Otherwise it won’t matter what electoral system we have.


All parties support changing PR - Keheliya (UPFA)

There are plus and minuses of both systems. We experienced the First Past the Post system up until 1977. Thereafter, we have had the PR system. There have been suggestions for a long time that the PR system should be changed, and a combination of the two systems should be introduced.

You can’t say that one system is ‘the’ system. The PR system gives a voice to every single vote. However, in the First Past the Post system it is winner take all. For example, if one candidate gets 50,000 votes, and the next candidate gets 49,999 votes the first candidate will get in to parliament, but the second candidate won’t get anything. And all the votes that he got will be wasted. Therefore, if we just stick to the First Past the Post system you can’t say that the majority will of the people is represented.

On the other hand, even the present system is not great. It has brought forward a culture of violence and dragged politics to the filthiest form possible. The expenditure involved with contesting under the current system is immense. Money plays a major role today and it does not let the will of the public speak out. It’s very simple, if you don’t have a lot of money you can’t contest today. We need to change that and make sure that anyone who wants to represent the people gets a reasonable chance.

We have been doing studies about the integration of the two systems for quite a while now. We’ve been able to make a lot of good progress and we should be able to change the electoral system before long. I believe that all parties will stand up and support such a change because a change in the current system is a must.


Change PR along with political culture - Handunnetti (DNA)

We believe that the current ‘manapa’ system should change. There is no doubt about that. But we believe that it is equally or even more important to change the current political culture. There is unbelievable corruption, malpractices and violence taking place today. Everybody is making such a big deal about changing the system, but they seem to be forgetting that no matter what system we have Sri Lankan elections will continue to be a shameful exhibition as long as we don’t see a change in our political culture.
Even with General Fonseka in jail we were able to get the second highest percentage as a party. We had to overcome many obstacles thrown at us in order to make such a significant achievement. Our performance in the election is an example to all, on how to contest an election while respecting law and order and basic human decency.
You saw how members of the Government fought against each other in the past election. People need to ask themselves whether that is how politicians who respect the people should be acting. Politicians from the other parties go killing each other and then go and blame the electoral system for everything. How convenient is that?
It is true that certain changes should be made to the current system, but I don’t think that, that is the most important issue at hand.

What public say...

V. Padmakanthi – Janitor

“The present elections system should change to allow for better representation for the villages. When we are faced with a problem, there is no one that we can go to because there are no direct representatives for our area.
Politicians are using this system as an excuse not to work for the people. They say that people from a particular town did not vote for them, so they will not go there.
This system has separated the politician from the people. As we can see there is no proper representation for individual electorates. There are seats in rural areas with no representation.
As long as we can remember there were two main political parties. And it was mainly politicians from those two parties that represented the people and worked for them. Other political parties would simply pop up only during election time and then disappear. So, even if the election system changes it won’t effect the representation in the parliament too much”.

S. Padmananda – Elderly gentleman

“Yes they should completely abolish the preferential voting system. Under the PR system we see nothing but intra-party violence. Even during the last election it was reported that most of the fighting occurred because people from the same party fighting for preferential votes.
Politicians should realise that no matter what, the people will vote for the most suitable person who has worked for their community. People know how to separate what is good from what is bad. Therefore, all this fighting for preference is pointless.
I have heard that some parties are against this saying that they will lose their voice in the parliament. The truth is that we have never seen any of these people speaking up for the people or working for them. I believe that the president has a clear vision and that under this system he will be able to reduce the cabinet and concentrate on developing the country.”

Galkotuwe Gedara Tikiribanda - Ice cream vendor

Changing the PR system is a very good move. This system does not suit this country. Those days there was the UNP and the SLFP and they always kept the democracy alive. People were satisfied with what these parties had to offer. Now we see so many parties on the ballot paper, but they are never there when we want something done.
These people are trying to ruin the country. They get all these funds from NGOs which goes straight into their own pockets. It is clear that they don’t want to do any good for the people but for themselves. Lankan politicians are corrupt and crooked. This system must change.
I believe abolishing the PR would be a good move to ensure this change. It is time that the president, as the nation’s leader, took the initiative to change this corrupt political culture.

Piyal - Auto rickshaw driver

As long as this system is around people from the same party will continue to bite each other over votes. Because of this we have lost a unitary opposition.
If you take any electorate, there are representatives from various parties there, but none of them are from the area. These politicians come down to the people during the elections and then they completely disappear. Before the PR system there used to be proper representation for each seat. And if there is someone who genuinely worked for his seat even he might lose because of these imported candidates. Look at all these artists and various other celebrities who got elected this year. They are not from the areas that they represent, but were elected simply because of their star power. I have heard that one such actress that got elected has said that she will move to the district that she represents, but what good will that do. You cannot expect a single candidate to work for the votes of a complete district.
Also look at the length of the ballot papers this year. It was almost impossible to find the symbol of the party that we were voting for. There were an impossible number of parties and most of them were unheard of. Few years ago the ballot papers were only a few inches long. Now they have become several feet. This has to change.

Vijitha Kusumpriya - Salesman

When J.R Jayewardene introduced this system I believe his intention was to stop the minority parties like the Tamil United Liberation Front from coming into power. However, I don’t think even he foresaw the devastation that this system would bring. Therefore, I believe the people have given a clear mandate as they have given such huge number of seats. The recent polls have shown that the people want the president to make some clear reforms in the Lankan political system.
In the past there were so many learned people in the parliament. Those people had a passion and a drive to work for the people. But today we see that the man, who has the most money, can organise the best district-wide advertising campaign to get into the parliament. Then, at the end of the day, all of his promises end up being limited to his cut-outs and posters.

Leela Kaluarachchi - Retired govt. servant

The preference system is useless. What good has it done to the country? It has corrupted the entire political system. Those days a political party was like a family, sure there were problems, but they never openly attacked each other or killed each other.
The people will always vote for the most suitable person despite what they do. This trend must change. Otherwise, the country will never be developed. Even all these party crossovers are happening because the ruling party is trying to obtain more power. This would not be necessary any more as the people have given a clear mandate this time. The voters are clearly demanding change.