The government has undertaken to introduce electoral reforms amidst the Opposition’s protests against the indefinite postponement of the local government elections, and an alleged move to do away with the presidential polls due in 2024 by means of a referendum like the one with which the J. R. Jayewardene government scrapped the 1982 general election.

The Opposition has also warned of the possibility of the government trying to abolish the executive presidency as part of its strategy to avoid a presidential contest. The JVP and the SLPP dissidents have said they will help abolish the executive presidency on the condition that the parliament will be dissolved.

Another Commission of Inquiry

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) tasked with the following:

1. Examining all existing election laws and regulations and making necessary recommendations for the amendment of election laws to suit current needs, giving special consideration to following factors as well.

i. Increasing women and youth representation.

ii. Reducing the period between the time of declaration of an election and the release of results after conducting such election.

iii. Providing an opportunity for electronic voting using modern technology instead of the printed ballot paper.

iv. Providing facilities for voting by Sri Lankans overseas.

v. Enabling a person to contest 02 elections for the selection of people’s representatives and have the opportunity to represent both councils at the same time if elected (e. g. to give an opportunity for a person elected to Parliament to also contest a provincial council election, and if elected, have the opportunity to represent both councils at the same time).

vi. Providing an opportunity for voters not serving in the government sector, who are engaged in provision of election related services on election day, to use postal voting.

vii. Formulating an appropriate mechanism blended with the first-past-the-post voting system for the election of people’s representatives, not limiting to the proportional representation system, but taking into consideration the plural nature of society, and reflecting such plural characteristics.

2. Making recommendations for the formulation of media standards for the appropriate use of media by political parties and independent groups.

3. Making recommendations for the introduction of a code of conduct for political parties, independent groups and their membership in performing political and public affairs.

4. Making recommendations for the strengthening of laws and regulations related to registration of political parties and their operations in a manner that elicits trust and public accountability.

The CoI members are Retired Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, PC (Chairman), Suntharam Arumainayaham, Senanayake Alisandaralage, Nalin Jayantha Abeysekara Esquire, PC, Rajitha Naveen Christopher Senaratna Perera Ahamed Lebbe Mohamed Saleem, Sagarica Delgoda, Esther Sriyani Nimalka Fernando, and Vitharanage Deepani Samantha Rodrigo.

The CoI is required to submit its report within six months. However, going by its terms of reference, it is not likely to be able to meet this deadline. Will the government claim that it is not possible to hold elections until the CoI makes recommendations and they are implemented, as the Opposition has claimed?

Hasty move

What has prompted the government to evince a keen interest in electoral reforms all of a sudden? It may be anything but a genuine desire to straighten up the electoral system, which has become messier due to some ill-conceived, politically-motivated reforms over the years. The government, which continues to draw heavy flak for postponing elections on some flimsy pretext or another, is apparently trying to be seen to be doing something about the electoral process. Naturally, the SJB and the JVP-led NPP boycotted Wednesday’s meeting Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena held on electoral reforms.

SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, during his parliamentary speech on Wednesday, accused the government of making a sinister attempt to deprive the people of their right to vote under the guise of reforming the electoral system. He urged PM Gunawardena to introduce the proposed electoral reforms after holding the elections that had been put off. The government members present in the House remained noncommittal.

The Prime Minister said the government had offered to change the electoral system in good faith, and expected everyone’s cooperation. But the Opposition’s fears are not unfounded. Amendments to election laws have stood in the way of the holding of the Provincial Council elections.

The UNP-led Yahapalana government used the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Action of 2017 to postpone elections to the provincial councils, which have since been functioning without elected representatives. The Local Government polls cannot be held because the government has refused to allocate funds for the Election Commission by citing economic reasons. The Opposition Leader urged Prime Minister Gunawardena to intervene to make funds available for conducting elections, but his call went unheeded.

Electoral reforms proposed by a PSC

One of the main arguments the government is peddling against the new electoral system under which the last local government polls were held is that there are too many councilors, and the country cannot afford to maintain them. This contention is tenable, but the fact remains that the huge increase in the number of LG members resulted from the adoption of the new electoral system under the Yahapalana government (2015-2019).

Under the previous electoral system, there were 4,486 members representing 340 local government authorities, but the number rose to 8,356 when a mixed representation system was introduced.

A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has already examined the defects in the current electoral system, governing the Local Government elections, and recommended how to get rid of them. Headed by the then Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the PSC presented its final report to the parliament on June 22, 2022.

The PSC, which commenced its sittings on May 17, 2021 ascertained views of over 160 representations from several NGOs, religious organizations, women’s groups, representatives of various cultural and ethnic groups, and members of the general public. Out of 69 recognized political parties requested to make their representations, 36 including those represented in the parliament complied.

The PSC’s final report contains 25 observations and 15 recommendations for the local government, provincial council and parliamentary elections. The salient ones are as follows:

* Amending the existing laws pertaining to the Provincial Council Elections or formulating new rules and regulations or holding it under the previous election system.

* Various parties have suggested the need for a mixed election system and this report also highlights the need for a mixed system.

* Removal of overhang seats in local government elections. [If the members elected on the ward basis exceed the numbers to be selected from the proportional list, then the number of members elected for the local authority is in excess or overhang.]

* Ensuring youth representation in addition to women’s representation.

* That the duties, responsibilities and obligations of the media during the election period should be taken into consideration in keeping with the submissions made to the Committee by the Elections Commission.

* Although more than 70 political parties have been registered, various issues have arisen regarding the allocation of local and other recognized political parties to contest the Parliamentary polls and other elections.

* The election process is costly and full of corruption. The violation of election laws is due to the fact that today’s elections have been transformed into an affair of unlimited expenditure, thus there is a need to control election expenses, adopt a code of conduct and prevent the misuse of state resources for electioneering purposes.

Endless process

The process of electoral reforms has become seemingly endless. The main reason for this situation is that changes to the electoral system are not introduced systematically. When a mixed representation system was introduced for the local government elections, care should have been taken to prevent a huge increase in the number of councilors.

 The number of local government members could have been fixed at 4,486 with 60 percent of them being elected on the ward basis and others under the proportional representation system. A large number of wards countrywide could have been merged to reduce the number of councilors elected under the first past the post system, as some experts have pointed out.

Hidden danger

How vital elections are for democratic societies cannot be overstated. They are known to serve as a cornerstone of political participation, and ensure a fair and legitimate governance system while enabling citizens to exercise their franchise to choose leaders and representatives and hold governments accountable.

Elections serve another very important purpose. They help defuse pressure in a polity. If the local government elections had been held early last year, perhaps political upheavals would not have got out of hand; the people would have been able to register their protest against the government through the ballot instead of taking to the streets. An electoral setback would have knocked some sense into the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and caused it to make a course correction.

The J. R. Jayewardene government also blundered by doing away with the 1982 general election. If a free and fair parliamentary election had been held, President Jayewardene would have lost his five-sixths majority in the parliament, but the people’s resentment would have found expression in a protest vote against the government of the day, and ultra-radical political forces would not have been able to tap it to power their subversive projects, which plunged the country into a bloodbath.

Those who do not learn from history are said to be doomed to repeat it.