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Constitutional reforms under scrutiny

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Despite not having set up an all party committee on January 28 to present proposals for electoral reforms as promised in the 100-day program, on Thursday (March 5) the government announced that the next general elections would be held under a new electoral system. According to the 100-day program the government has promised to replace the current preferential voting system with a mixed electoral system that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms put in place to ensure proportionality.

However, the switch from the preferential voting system to a mixed system will possibly make it difficult for minor political parties to gain seats, especially those which lack strongholds and rely on gathering dispersed votes from across a local authority to win representation. While some minority political parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) or Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) will likely continue to win seats in areas where they dominate these parties but will also find it difficult to gain parliamentary seats in areas where the communities that they represent are a minority.

The Janatha Vimukthi Permuna (JVP) in particular could also lose representation as a result of the switch in the system. But given Sri Lanka’s experience of violent conflict, it is vital to have political groups within the system so that they are given a voice, rather than outside the democratic and governance structures.

While party representation was ensured while compiling the Dinesh Gunawardena Committee Report on Electoral Reform in 2003, it is doubtful if the government has welcomed any such discussions or proposals by other parties as yet despite common belief that these electoral reforms could be detrimental to minorities as well as minority parties thereby affecting their bargaining power in Parliament.

Not consulted – TNA
While speaking regarding the announcement by the government, President of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Suresh Premachandran voiced his displeasure that minority parties have not been consulted regarding the proposed electoral reforms. “I have not heard anything from the government,” he said adding that it is yet to be seen if the government will reach out to minority parties. According to him, if representation of minorities is not ensured, the new system will be detrimental to parties representing such groups. “We will find it difficult to support and accept such a system,” he said.

“It is absurd and foolish to say that demarcation of land can be done through solely aerial mapping, census data and technology without the consultation of minority parties,” Premachandran said adding that the government should answer as to how such a re-demarcation is to be done. According to him, if the government attempts to re-demarcate as they wish without any consultation it will prove problematic and a committee, as proposed, must be appointed immediately.

No Issues - SLMC
Speaking to The Nation Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Assistant general secretary Nizam Kariapper confirmed that the government is yet to ask the party’s response for the suggested electoral reforms. However, according to him, the party have no qualms about the proposed mixed electoral system.

“If due representation of minor and minority parties are ensured we have no issues with the said electoral reforms,” he said adding that proportionality must be made certain.

Country first – JHU
For the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) even though the reforms could be detrimental according to National Organizer of the party Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe country must come before one’s party. “This may be undesirable for minor parties but the country must be thought of first,” he said speaking to The Nation adding that therefore JHU supports the government’s move at their detriment. According to him, if any party does not support the move it will amount to turning their backs on the people’s mandate.
According to him, the curbing of presidential powers also must be ensured along with the new electoral system. “Reforming the electoral system makes no sense if not,” he said adding that however the JHU fully supports the proposed mixed system.

No draft – FLSP
The front line socialist party (FLSP) like many other political parties agrees that the current electoral system must be reformed. “We agree it must be reformed and our MP Ajith Kumara requested at parliament that a draft be shown to minor parties,” said politburo member of the party Pubudu Jayagoda, however according to Jayagoda other parties including the FLSP have no clear idea about the new system. “It may be proportional or ensure that only major parties win,” he said.

According to Jayagoda, while reforms are constantly debated no mention is made regarding enacting the legal barriers to ensure candidates with less financial capabilities are also able to contest and given a fair chance. “The current election system that favors moneyed candidates must be changed,” he said adding that democracy calls for giving a voice to the minorities.

 A masquerade – JVP
While the JVP might be another party that is put in an unfavorable position by the new reforms according to JVP Western Provincial Council Member H.D Lalkantha, the JVP is indifferent about the matter. When asked if the government has asked for the party’s stance, he said that it’s confusing as to who or what consists of the term ‘government’ at the moment. “We are not bothered no matter what electoral system is used,” he said adding that it is not the system that is plaguing the political scene today. “This is a masquerade by the government,” he said adding that civil society groups must take note of this. Lalkantha is of the opinion that it is only through taking away of political privileges that the politics of Sri Lanka can be cleaned up rather than through reforming the electoral system.

It is clear that many minor and minority parties have much to say about the proposed reforms and each has his own areas of focus. While the proposed system, similar to German system will overcome some of the key drawbacks of the proportional representative system, it will possibly affect the representation of the small parties. Therefore, while the government can clearly get the reforms passed without support of minority parties, however it is their responsibility to make the promised effort to engage such parties to ensure positive implications for democracy and better governance in Sri Lanka.


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