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Snags hit constitutional reforms

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As the general election draws near, it appears as if the understanding between the two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is slowly dissipating as both parties contemplate the prospect of wresting control of Parliament.

This week, the SLFP was reportedly insisting on enacting electoral reforms along with proposed amendments to the Constitution that would diminish the powers of the Executive Presidency, in keeping with the pledge given by President Maithripala Sirisena during his election campaign.

On Thursday, Cabinet spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne announced that the election would be held after electoral reforms were enacted-even if that meant that Parliament would have to be dissolved later than April, thereby disrupting the ‘100-day plan’ promised by the President.

This means a return, at least in part, to the first-past-the-post electorate based system of elections. The SLFP believes this would be to its advantage. The UNP, however, is not too keen on this as it believes the existing Proportional Representation (PR) system would help swell its numbers in Parliament.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other leading UNP ministers, however, continue to insist that Parliament should be dissolved by April 23 in keeping with the ‘100-day’ plan and that elections should be held in June. There is confusion all round, despite Minister Senaratne’s announcement on Thursday.

President Sirisena has the difficult task reconciling the two parties. He has been handed the leadership of the SLFP following his victory at the presidential election but he is also obliged to the UNP which campaigned hard for him at the grassroots level which led to the bulk of UNP votes accruing to him.

The Sirisena manifesto, in fact, promised a combination of the PR and first-past-the-post systems. It was envisaged that there would be representation at electoral level but at the same time a significant number of seats would be set apart for proportional representation pro-rated on a national basis.

This would mean that the major parties, even if they were to lose the general elections, would still retain a considerable number of seats and that there would be no ‘landslide’ victory for any party. It would also eliminate the intra-party scramble for preference votes at the district level.

A mix of the first-past-the-post and the PR systems will also ensure that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya which would be wiped out if allocations were based solely on a first-past-the-post system, still retained representation, thus guaranteeing the diversity of parties in Parliament.

The UNP’s reluctance to incorporate the first-past-the-post system stems from the fact that it didn’t win that many electorates in the South of the country in the recent presidential poll. That was because its grassroots network had gone into slumber after the party spent almost two decades in the opposition.

However, it must also factor in that changes that have occurred since then that have radically altered the political landscape. The country is now run by a mostly UNP Cabinet. They have the opportunity to perform prior to the election. Rewards for introducing the Budget, for instance, must accrue to the UNP.

Also, the state media and other state resources are now not at the disposal of the SLFP. Leading figures of the SLFP are under investigation for corruption and abuse of power. Some of them will most certainly be deprived of nominations from the SLFP by President Sirisena. Thus, the SLFP will not be at full strength.

If the forces within and without the SLFP which are fighting to drag former President Rajapaksa into the fray succeed in convincing him to do so, he would have to do so from a party other than the SLFP. Even if he doesn’t contest, there is a high chance of a breakaway faction of the SLFP splitting the party’s vote.

In any event, the electoral system is also a double edged sword. While it may seem at first glance that it would confer an advantage to the SLFP, key party leaders may suffer as a result. For example, the SLFP lost the Badulla electorate-nursed by Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva at the presidential poll!

The race to become the party with the most number of seats at the general election stems from the fact that its parliamentary leader will become Prime Minister after the poll with executive powers at his disposal, while President Sirisena appears to be content to take a back seat, relinquishing most of his powers.

The stage is thus set for a few months of hard-nosed political bargaining. Whatever the final outcome, it is important that both the UNP and the SLFP do not waste the political window that was opened on the eighth of January for the purpose of ushering in a more stable, peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding nation.

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