By R.M.B Senanayake –
Now there seems to be a clamor among our politicians for reform of the voting system. Should we go back to the first past the post system (FTPS) or continue the Proportional Representation system (PR) or a combination of the two as suggested by a Committee of the previous regime under Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena? The case for PR is based on the ground of fairness. Under the FPTPS a candidate can win without polling even 50% of the total vote. The total number of elected MPs will not correspond to the number of votes cast. We have seen political parties being decimated at elections although their total votes polled have not been reduced by much. This happened in 1956 and in 1977.
But political scientists have pointed out that the electoral system has a bearing on the strength of governments under the different forms of government whether the Executive Presidency or the Westminster system. Under the former the government does not fall because the Executive President holds office for a fixed term and can only lose his office if he is impeached which requires a two third majority. This ensures stable governments which is the main reason for its adoption by President J.R Jayewardene in 1978. But in a Westminster form of government the government can change where the ruling party loses its majority due to a cross-over of some of its members to the Opposition. It has happened several times and on one occasion it was alleged that the Members were bought over to cross and bring down the ruling government. So Britain despite the unfairness of the FTPS continues with it.
Britain elects its House of Commons by the single member constituency in which even if the winner has polled less than 50% of the total polled can still be selected There has been much agitation in Britain t change the system but after several studies the two main political parties have given up the idea because of the tendency for weaker governments under a system of PR despite its claims for fairness. Studies show that fairness depends on many other factors such as the size of the electorate and how homogeneous is the electorate. Fai8rness has several aspects.
Consider the governments in countries where the PR system prevails. It has had very frequent changes in governments. It has had 52 governments in the period 1848 to 1993 according the Economist magazine of May 1st 1993. Italian governments are known for their ineptness and corruption. So there has been a cry in Italy for the adoption of the FPTS on the British model for it always produces a single party government with an over-all and solid majority for one party. It also provides for nationwide political parties. So the FTPS has generally produced more stable governments. Small parties formed on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliation don’t emerge under FPTS unless there is large number of such minorities form a majority in well defined contiguous electorates.
But under PR small parties emerge if the qualifying limit is low. In fact while Italy with its PR has weak and inept governments, Germany has strong and efficient governments despite the PR system because the small parties must obtain 12% of the national vote to qualify. In fact President J.R Jayewardene adopted this system of PR for us. But President Premadasa allowed small parties with 5% of the national vote to qualify for recognition. This has led to the formation of ethnic and religion based political parties. President Premadasa also introduced the “manape’ or election according to the number of votes polled for the first three candidates instead of following the part list of priority. This has led to intra party strife and competition. Thus we now have coalition governments which can be held together it sees only by the offer of perks and privileges to the minority party members increasing corruption and making the coalition a matter for horse trading.
The PR system has led to weak governments not only in Europe but also in Israel. Umpteen political parties with even1-2% of the national vote have qualified for recognition.ith 3-4% they can bring down coalition governments which are of the Westminster type.
What about corruption. Will FTPS or PR produces greater corruption? Under the FPTS corrupt or unpopular governments which lost were decimated as happened during 1956 and 1977. But this cannot happen under PR. So despite the manifest corruption of the MR regime there is hope for MR to stage a comeback under PR. But corruption springs more from the strength of the administration of law and the social climate of the country. Most important of all is that it depends on the extent of control of economic and commercial activity by the State. As the scope of government expands to such activities so does corruption which explains why corrupt governments don’t want to privatize. So FPTS is no guarantee of good governance as we find in India or the African States where corruption does not come down with the change of governments.
Finally it must be said that fairness will depend not only on PR but on the demarcation of electoral districts and the number of votes in each such district and the homogeneity or otherwise of the electorate. Such fairness to minorities may lead to excessive demands by them. We find that despite PR our women are inadequately represented because the political parties don’t select enough of them to contest. Neither farness nor effectiveness exists “in vacuo”. They depend on a variety of factors all of which are not addressed by PR