Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s Sri Lanka visit and talks with the Tamil political parties here triggered speculation that the Rajapaksa government would be compelled to expedite the process of holding the much-delayed Provincial Council (PC) elections. But the government on Tuesday (19 Oct.) announced that the PC polls would be held only after the electoral reforms were in place. Media Minister and Cabinet Spokesman Duallas Alahapperuma told the media that there were flaws in the controversial Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act introduced by the previous government. That is the PC polls are not likely to be held anytime soon although Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris said, a few days ago, that the PC elections were likely to take place before March 2022.

The Attorney General informed the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms, about a week ago, that the PC polls could not be held without amendments to the existing law.

Minister Alahapperuma informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants the new electoral system to be introduced to retain the positive features of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. He has rejected as a joke the existing mixed representation system, which requires 60 percent of the representatives to be elected under the first-past-the-post system and the others under the PR system.

The hybrid system was first used at the 2018 local government elections, and the number of representatives more than doubled. At present, the local councils have more than 8,000 members!      

PR, campaigning and expenditure

The opponents of the PR system claim that a candidate has to campaign throughout an electoral district, and some electorates are left without MPs to nurse them as a result. True, candidates have to spend huge amounts of funds on electioneering, and the rich have an advantage over others. But even if the first-past-the-post system is restored, there still may not be a level playing field, for the rich candidates are not likely to cut down on their campaign expenditure; instead, the same amounts will be spent on electioneering within electorates. This, we saw at the last local government elections (2018). A candidate in Monaragala spent as much as Rs. 40 million to win a ward. Even in the past, the rich contesting elections threw money around in their electorates. In the run-up to the 1947 general election, H. W. Amarasuriya, a wealthy businessman from the South, spent lavishly on his election campaign in the Galle electorate so much so that W. Dahanayake, who vied with him, used to joke that he had shaken a money tree and the people could pick up money and vote for him. Amarasuriya’s expensive campaign was in vain.

Campaign expenditure becomes a problem when candidates are not known to the people in an electoral district, or they happen to be sitting MPs (or Provincial Councillors or local government members) who have failed to live up to people’s expectations and therefore have to repair and shore up their images through aggressive propaganda campaigns. Candidates who are parachuted into an electoral district also have to spend colossal amounts of funds to make themselves known to electors. Those who have been among the people do not necessarily have to throw money around.

Minister Alapperuma has set an example to others. He conducts eco-friendly, low-cost campaigns but gets returned from the Matara District. Others should emulate him, and thereby help cleanse Sri Lankan politics, which stinks to high heaven. If every candidate does likewise, campaigning throughout a district will not be a problem.

In this age and day, when social media dominates every aspect of human life, candidates can keep their propaganda costs extremely low, provided they are capable men and women with unblemished reputations. There is hardly any Sri Lankan without a smartphone, and electioneering is not as difficult and expensive as it used to be.

PR and weak governments

The PR system is known to bring about situations where no party can obtain a working majority, and bring about weak governments as could be seen from the outcomes of the general elections in 1994, 2000, 2001 and 2004, and 2015. The People Alliance government led by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, formed in 2000, collapsed the following year for want of a working majority, and the UNP-led UNF government which came to power in 2001 was also weak; it could not retain power at the snap general election in 2004. The United People’s Freedom Alliance government, formed in 2004, became weak but managed to complete its full term because Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in 2005 and engineered crossovers from the UNP. The UNF government formed in 2015 was weak but managed to stay in power because it was propped up by the TNA and the JVP.

The instances where strong governments were formed under the PR system were in 1989, 2010 and 2020. The number of seats the UPFA and the SLPP secured in 2010 and 2020 respectively fell short of two-thirds majority only by a few seats each. But these elections were held under extraordinary circumstances. The UNP government was elected in 1989 during the JVP’s second uprising, which enabled the UNP to stuff ballot boxes. The 2010 election was held a few months after the defeat of the LTTE, and the 2020 parliamentary polls came after the 2019 presidential election held only about seven months after the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which made the people fear for their safety.

The PR system has also given rise to coalition politics. Coalition governments could be unstable due to their internal problems. Thus, it is true that, overall, the PR system brings about weak governments. However, there is no guarantee that all governments formed under the first-past-the-post system are stable. The collapse of the UNP government in 1960 a few months after its formation is a case in point.    

The first-past-the-post system is hailed as the best in some quarters, but it also has some weaknesses. It favoursthe main political parties and places smaller ones at a disadvantage and has an adverse impact on the parties whose votes are scattered over several electorates. This could lead to the disillusionment of some communities with the parliamentary system.

Mixed representation system

Both PR and first-past-the-post systems have strengths and weaknesses, and the babies must not be thrown out with the bathwater, when an electoral system suitable for this country is designed.

Sri Lanka’s experiment with a mixed representation system—a cross between the majoritarian voting system and PR—has not been successful if what happened at the 2018 local government polls is any indication. But this does not mean that it is a total failure. It can be improved on. This is a task for the PSC on electoral reform.

In changing any established system, haste has to be avoided. The process of reforming an electoral system requires an enormous amount of patience, expertise and, most of all, a consensual approach with the participation of all stakeholders. Care must be taken to prevent an increase in the number of representatives.

Much-maligned Manape

If the PR system, or its basic features, is to be retained, then the preferential vote should stay. Otherwise, party leaders will be able to appoint their favourites at the expense of the deserving ones among the contestants at an election. The preferential vote mechanism enables the people to vote for not only the political parties of their choice but also their favourite candidates. This is something the opponents of the preferential vote or manape should bear in mind.

The main argument against the preferential vote is that it leads to violent clashes among candidates. There is some truth in it, but these incidents are mostly due to the fact that political parties nominate the lowest of the low to contest elections. If decent men and women are fielded at elections, they will not clash over preferential votes. Another reason for this sorry state of affairs is the failure of political party leaders to enforce discipline. The fault actually lies not in the preferential vote but in candidates and their party leaders.

The JVP is free from preferential vote clashes because its candidates put the party before self. Why other political parties cannot emulate the JVP is the question. If all political party leaders get their act together and ensure that their candidates behave, the preferential vote will not be considered a problem.         



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