By Kusal Perera –
After a long battle fought hard with his own men, President Maithripala Sirisena finally had 20A approved by the Cabinet on Monday 08 June. This incidentally was a special cabinet meeting convened by the President himself for the special purpose of forging consensus among quarrelling party leaders on 20th Amendment. The irony was, he only wanted “20A” and did not have any serious stand on what electoral reforms should be in 20A. It now goes the 20A approved by the cabinet had compromised on PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s formula of sticking to the 225 MP parliament with 125 elected on FPP system, 75 on proportional representation and the balance 25 from the national list.
Immediately, one of the self appointed electoral reform “experts” from CaFFE brayed its dissatisfaction and proved how wrong it had been in understanding electoral reforms. Issuing a statement CaFFE says though happy 20A finally came, this cabinet approved reform proposal has 03 major flaws. One, it would take a long time to re demarcate the 160 working electorates that now exist into 115 to 118 new electorates including multi member seats. It adds, all through history, all de limitation commissions have added and not reduced seats.
The absurdity of this argument is that CaFFE thinks taking time to do a good and a fair job in re demarcating electorates is bad, as reforms should be limited to easy and quick work. Therefore no serious reforms are necessary, goes the implied argument. Also, these “experts” don’t even know why previous de limitation commissions increased seats. It was to give better representation to the people in a single governing assembly the parliament then, with increasing number of Citizens counted after every 10 year national census. Now, with the 13A in place, responsibilities of the 225 member parliament had been reduced with a second tier representation of people in PCs, responsible for provincial rule. Such constitutional change that reduced responsibilities of the parliament demands a decrease in numbers at the apex assembly, not an increase. Therefore the past necessity of increasing is no more a necessity.
Two, CaFFE says, this will have adverse effect on minority parties. It argues, except by increasing numbers, small political parties cannot be adequately represented. This goes to prove how damningly stupid the “experts” have been in proposing increases. Electoral reforms are not meant to satisfy political parties. They are meant to strengthen people’s representation. Political parties will have to win the confidence of the people, if they want to have their nominees elected. In 1952 the SLFP won only 09 seats, a “small” party then. In 1960 July it formed its own government with 75 MPs. Having formed governments in 1947 and 1952 the UNP was reduced to a “small” party in 1956 with just 08 seats, “smaller” than the LSSP that won 14 seats. Again in 1965 election it won 66 seats to be the largest single party in parliament. How permanent are “small” parties ?
Therefore the issue is not how reforms could be worked out to accommodate the small JVP or the tiny JHU. These are temporary categories if political parties can strive to assert their presence in national politics. “Small” is not a category that should be in electoral reforms. This “small party” issue was a creation of JRJ used by him to justify his switch to a PR system. The issue is how reforms could be worked out to better accommodate the people in a representative democracy. The whole effort by these “experts” had been otherwise. They have only worked in creating space NOT FOR PEOPLE, but for political parties that cannot even get 05%, after the cut off mark was brought down to a pathetic low, from 12% and also to keep the larger parties happy.
Three, this reform will not provide adequate representation for minorities like Tamils outside North-East and Muslims in Sinhala areas and Sinhalese in Trincomalee says CaFFE. Once again, these “experts” see only the parliament as the only representative governing body. Strengthening of provincial rule would take care of such minorities, as far as their rights and socio economic life is concerned. That was why Telugu people wanted a State of their own, the “Telangana State” and did not demand larger representation in the Lok Sabha. At the apex level of governing, their representation has only to be guaranteed as “cultural entities” in policy making. That can be taken care of by introducing adequate number of multi party constituencies. Nuwara-eliya/Maskeliya seat elected 03 members. So did Colombo Central. There were also bi member electorates that allowed space for Sinhala-Muslim and Tamil-Muslim representation in electorates.
On almost the same grounds Mano Ganesan on behalf of their new 3 party alliance says, accepting this electoral reform is suicidal. It is, ONLY if they cannot win adequate confidence in their own constituencies to gain representation, which is not about a system but about their politics.
The actual problem with this cabinet approved reform is not what the CaFFE and Ganesan say it is. It’s the undemocratic and non transparent process rolled out behind closed doors and was restricted to funded project activities to claim “civil society participation”. As with all other reforms under this “Yahapalanaya” rule, this too was heavily based on scheming, manipulating and compromising with few self appointed “experts” working overtime to present different equations and formulas for political parties to reach consensus. This reform process did not know electoral reforms were meant for people to elect their representatives and thus has to be agreed upon by the people.
This supreme condition of people deciding how they should be represented was what the 05 member bench of Supreme Court judges decided as necessary, when JRJ tried to alter the composition of the parliament with a 3rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1981. After the 1977 July election that gave the UNP a massive majority in parliament with 140 out of the 168 elected members, it faced with an election petition against its Kalawana MP Abeyratne Pilapitiya. The hearing got dragged on, but was seen as a case, the incumbent MP Pilapitiya will not survive. Jayewardne thus used his overwhelming majority to keep his MP in parliament by tampering with the Constitution. MP Pilapitiya who meantime met with a road accident, absented from parliament for over 03 months. The UNP deliberately avoided proposing leave for Pilapitiya, who thus lost his seat. The UNP then nominated Pilapitiya under the “chit” system of appointing MPs that had been made operative by the government. When the election petition was concluded in late 1980, Pilapitiya who was unseated by the Court ruling was not in parliament, argued the government. This MP Pilapitiya is an appointed MP, was the argument.
Yet, JRJ was in a dilemma as the Court ruling to hold a by-election had to be acceded to. Therefore, while deciding not to contest the by-election, a 3rd Amendment to the Constitution was brought to parliament, to accommodate the winning candidate in parliament as the Kalawana MP. This would have created an extra seat in parliament. A 05 member bench of judges with CJ Neville Samarakoon decided, the parliament alone cannot decide such change. Such change in the composition of the parliament which is an elected body of people’s representatives has to be endorsed by the people themselves. Therefore such change adopted by a 2/3 majority in parliament has to go before the people at a Referendum. JRJ was thus stumped out and he dropped that 3rd Amendment to the Constitution. He did not go for a Referendum for his 3rd Amendment.
It is thus clear, the 20A that calls for a change in how the parliament should be constituted with changes proposed by this electoral reform approved by the cabinet, cannot be made law by a 2/3 majority in parliament alone. It has to be approved by the people at a Referendum. It is therefore best for everyone to have this proposal approved by the cabinet to be made public, before it is even gazetted and brought before parliament. Anyway, this 20A is only said to take effect in the future, after the next election is held on the existing PR and preference vote system. It thus has no reason to be hurried on ego trips of political leaders. This can be taken up after a new parliament is elected, whenever an election is held.