By Laksiri Fernando –
What we know from history is that electoral reforms can empower people and bring change for democracy, social welfare and even development. Take our own example of 1931. Before that only the educated with property could elect a limited number of representatives to the Legislative Council.
However, when the universal franchise was introduced with equal voting rights for women, the whole scenario changed. People became empowered. The State Counsellors had to deliver results in legislative initiatives and reforms. Of course some of our own leaders opposed the universal franchise, and reforms thereafter. But people embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm.
If we take the socio-political changes during 1931 and 1948, for example, they were tremendous. Free universal education was introduced, health services expanded, trade unions were recognized, Swabhasha emphasized and the local government system strengthened. Considerable stimulation and support were given to small and local industries. Large agricultural schemes were initiated.
Take the example of Britain, a century ago. The Great Reform Act of 1832 paved the way for further reforms and modern democracy in that country. The ‘rotten boroughs’ similar to our present district ‘manape’ were abolished and the parliamentary seats were re-distributed. The workers and lower middle classes were empowered. Although the universal franchise came to that country much later, the reforms paved the way for the modern Britain in tangible sense.
Root Causes of Political Ills
Many of the ills that we see in our political system today can be traced to the much maligned electoral system and election laws, both practiced and malpracticed. All recent election monitors, national and international, were unanimous that major election violence and violations were due to the ‘rotten manape’ competitions.
Under the present system, the candidates tend to use colossal amounts of money and then try to recover them through most insidious ways. Corruption is the whole mark at both ends. Only the rich or those who depend on the rich can easily contest elections from major parties. If there are exceptions, they are few and far between. The culprits are not only the people, but also the systems. The ills are systemic.
When the representatives are elected from large districts, they are not responsible to a particular electorate like in the good old days. When called for accountability, they easily pass the buck to another. Although some electoral organizers are appointed, those are for party purposes and not for people purposes. They jump from one party to another, back and forth. No by-elections are held.
The end result is low quality parliamentarians. Many of them don’t know whether they are coming or going. As some have revealed, 94 MPs are without O/L and 124 without A/L. The basic functional intelligence necessary for their tasks seem to be quite low. In the midst of them, even the experienced or ‘degree ones’ seem to get degenerated. This is abundantly clear from the debates that they conduct. The Speaker or the Standing Orders are rarely respected. Some of their utterances are quite unparliamentary or even obscene.
Effects of the Presidential System and the War
For the degeneration of the parliamentary system or traditions, not only the electoral system but also the authoritarian executive presidential system was responsible. When the sole executive powers were held at Temple Trees, and not at Kotte, the Parliament became virtually hollow. The roots of the situation is long standing, going back to 1978.
The protracted war made its own contribution for Parliament’s degeneration. The members of Parliament became communally polarized along with the country and its people. Communalism was easy propaganda for both or all sides. Otherwise, Parliament could have been a useful forum for conflict resolution or reconciliation.
With the militarization of the country, parliamentarians and their politics also became militarized. The result was presidential powers becoming enlarged, both before and after 18A. The MPs became just signal posts. Crossovers were induced making the opposition ineffective. The Supreme Court also gave decisions making the degeneration more sanctimonious.
What became apparent recently was the parliamentarians going behind a Presidential Supremo, losing their independence and integrity. There were some temporary reasons for it because of the war victory. However after the war, the situation was quite irrational and nonsensical. Parliamentary democracy is not a disguise for an archaic monarchy or authoritarianism. Now the situation is largely changed thanks to the 19th Amendment. However, some hangovers still remain anchored in the electoral system.
January 8th Mini Revolution
It is not an exaggeration to call the January presidential victory a mini-revolution. The victorious common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, has become largely the ‘change agent.’ It is unprecedented for a powerful President to give up powers. However, that has happened. Unfortunately, this momentum could not be seen in Parliament.
President has reformed him/itself. Would the Parliament reform itself? This is the million dollar question today.
Even the January revolution took place with pressure from the bottom or middle rungs of the people. Civil society played a major role pioneered by the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) and others. For that revolution to sustain, it should take the second step in reforming the electoral system and paving the way forward for a more effective, resourceful and progressive Parliament.
Electoral Reform Proposals
There have been certain uncertainties about the electoral reform proposals. These are natural given the past confusions or conflicting interests. The reform agenda also has to overcome some time-limitations. There is pressure that parliament should be dissolved soon and elections held.
Since independence, Sri Lanka has known two electoral systems. A combination of the two (FPP and PR) might be the best for the country. Both are known to the people. That is also the trend in most enlightened democracies in the world today. However, the question is how do you combine the two?
Some have suggested to combine the two in separate compartments, like in a train. In this method, the overall PR is lost.
However, the most recent proposals are to accommodate the FPP electorates within both the district and the national PR. This is the most progressive method where both targets are achieved. Here the overall PR can be achieved. However the other benefits depend on the specific combinations.
President’s first proposal had the potential of implementation even at the next elections without delimitation of seats. However, it unnecessarily enlarged the national list (59) or the overall number to 255. With the subsequent proposals, holding of the next elections under a new system is remote. Anyway, the Commissioner seems to be adamant, that the next elections should be held under the current system (Sunday Observer, 15 February 2015). That is his personal preference as well.
Opportunity for Change
Electoral reforms should be viewed within a broader framework of democratic change. Now the 18th Amendment is abrogated, even a future President cannot hold on to power for more than two terms. Most of the draconian powers of the presidency are also clipped under the 19A. More importantly, independent commissions are re-introduced although not yet implemented. Those commissions should be allowed to function properly before the next elections. The important task is to carry forward the democratic change that started with the presidential elections.
Therefore, it would be a great pity if the next parliamentary election is held under the defective present system, while the country adopts a better and a more desirable system after much effort and pain. It is true that under normal circumstances, when a new system is introduced, the implementation is delayed to allow the people to understand the new system. However, in the present case, the proposed system is not completely new, but a combination of the past two systems.
During mid-1990s, several countries moved into new electoral systems. Some countries took time to implement the new changes, while others moved swiftly. All depended on political necessity. New Zealand took time (1993 to 1996). In contrast, South Africa promulgated far reaching changes in January 1994 and held the elections in April of the same year.
What might be necessary in Sri Lanka’s case is to decide on an ‘interim’ and a ‘permanent.’ President’s first proposal (165+31+59=155) without the national list increase is the best for the next elections, while his second formula (145+55+37=137) could be the permanent with a dual ballot system. There is no need to go beyond 225 at the next elections as the UNP has suggested.
If the new FPP/PR system is introduced at the next elections, then it would tremendously improve the quality of the next Parliament. The new system would give a boost to the people to take control of the election moment. It would create a new enthusiasm for democracy, good governance and political change through ‘united fronts’ and ‘common candidates’ at the electoral level. The repetition of the district manape would probably divide the democratic forces. I have here discussed only the electoral system, but there are other election law reforms that are necessary for purposeful democratic change.