By Kusal Perera –
“New look at electoral reforms: 250 seats” – Sunday Times lead story on 29 March, 2015
Sri Lankan political leaders from the South live with a political perversion in creating this region’s largest projects. This greedy trend is now talked of as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s giant derailment in creating white elephants. Within them, the less popular giants include a 235 acre MR National Tele Cinema Park in Ranimithenna at a cost of over Rs.200 million, a hitherto incomplete Hambantota Sports Zone with indoor and outdoor facilities, including a 18 hole golf link, all planned for the 2018 CW Games at a total cost yet to be estimated, the Sooriyaweva international cricket stadium at a cost of Rs, 700 million that since 2011 had seen only 05 international cricket matches. But Mattala international airport, Magampura port, Colombo Port City, Lotus Tower are the popular visits for all political opponents of MR.
Can these abuses be reduced to individual greed? Nay, they are also about centralised power in Colombo and Sinhala politics. Centralising power in the hands of Sinhala leaders has been the core ideology of Southern politics in post independent Ceylon and now Sri Lanka. Therefore even before an Executive Presidency took total control, there were South Asia’s largest condensed milk factory built in Polonnaruwa to produce “Perakum” condensed milk and an international cricket stadium in Dambulla, now almost closed up. These don’t come merely as greedy ego trips, but are made possible with political power centralised in Colombo. Such would not be possible if provincial power had been effectively devolved, leaving the Colombo power centre to deal with only national policy, defence and external affairs. That as often happens and given no attention, we are now coming to head with another massive proposal for electoral reforms. Reform for an increase in the number of MPs from 225 to 250.
Electoral reforms are necessary. The present system with preference votes for individuals within a proportionate count for political parties has deformed the representative democratic structures of governance at every level. Then CJ Sarath N Silva’s ruling on crossovers has further defamed and derailed the whole representative character in an elected parliament. All of them have to be put to right.
The trillion Yuan question therefore in present day Sri Lanka should be, “What do we expect from electoral reforms?” Is it to accommodate tiny political parties in parliament that just scrape through with 05% plus votes ? Is it only to allow major political parties to form stable governments in Colombo ? Is it to allow compromises and consensus amongst political parties in gaining better numbers in parliament? Why do we actually need electoral reforms for ? A simple answer would be, reforms are needed to clear all existing deformities in all elected bodies to strengthen people’s representation in democratic governance.
This brings us to the question, “Can people’s representative democracy in Sri Lanka be strengthened, with electoral reforms restricted to a single large parliament?” I have a firm “NO” to that. Yet the whole discussion on electoral reforms is only about the parliament. A few weeks ago, I was a passive participant in a discussion forum organised by a few NGO experts on electoral reforms. While the organisers provided good calculations on past elections juxtaposed on different formulas for a mixed bag of elected representation between the First Past the Post (FPP) and Proportional Representation (PR), the whole discussion centred on how best to achieve consensus within the present parliament. It was all about numbers and how the next parliamentary elections could be held as promised in the 100 Day programme. It seemed, for all who were there, political power is about the number of MPs who’d gather in the Diyawanna Wild Life Sanctuary and nowhere else. Here lies the catch and here lies the tragedy in getting back to a saner democratic governance structure through reforms.
No electoral reform in Sri Lanka can brush aside the fact that we have in front of us, the most depressingly prolonged national conflict since independence. A conflict that went through unwanted and unnecessary blood baths and one that still yearns for a decent, workable political solution based on power sharing with Colombo. We cannot therefore ignore the fact that we live with constitutionally devolved power to the provinces and also smaller representative entities in local governance. Our governance structure therefore is three tiered. It cannot be tinkered heavily at the top.
Parliamentary electoral reforms thus have to be talked of in terms of a parliament that will have to take note of the fact that its powers have been devolved to the provinces. An issue we keep ignoring for the sake of the South. Before the Indo-SL Accord in 1987, our parliament was elected by the people to govern every aspect of their socio economic, cultural and political life, in every hamlet anywhere. Therefore every school, every hospital in the island, was the subject of the Colombo parliament. Provincial economic planning and rural development was held with the Colombo government. Provincial housing, roads and bridges in provinces had to be planned, financed, constructed and maintained from Colombo. So were social services and rehabilitation, animal husbandry, irrigation, agriculture and agrarian services, public commuting within provinces, co-operatives and more. They were all devolved to provincial councils with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. Even with all such responsibility, 225 elected MPs for a population of 20 million were in excess, compared to other countries with similar democratic governing structures.
The problem with this XXL representation begins with the 13th Amendment becoming law. When Provincial Councils (PC) were to be established under the 13th Amendment, we should have asked ourselves the question, “What are we going to do with a parliament of 225 MPs hereafter ? Once half the responsibility is devolved to new PCs ?” That was never asked and answers found. We continued as usual. We do not need such a hefty parliament any more to handle much less responsibility. With the adoption of the 13th Amendment, we should have brought down the parliament to the size it was, at least in 1970. That would have meant a parliament of 151 MPs, much less cabinet and deputy ministers and a massive saving on tax payers’ money.
Into a new political culture since 1978 that bred growing corruption and power hunger in a free market economy, the parliament took no time to ponder on pruning itself to suit new and less responsibility. Society was shot into silent survival with the JVP gunning down any who supported devolution and PCs. Therefore political leaders and MPs had the advantage of a numbed society that could not discuss and debate the entirety of the 13th Amendment, its impact and the new formations of governing structures. We thus continue to live with an electoral system that accommodates a tadpole type representative democracy. With an oversized parliament swallowing billions of tax payers’ money spent in maintaining it, we say the PCs a waste of public funds.
If we compare ourselves to India where responsibility of governance of provincial life is handed over to State Governments, Haryana State is one that tells us, we are horribly oversized. Haryana State has close to 23 million, just 02 million people more than us, the whole of Sri Lanka. Haryana State consists of 15 districts and the 23 million people elect only 90 members to their State Assembly. They believe, 90 State Assembly members are adequate to take charge of all provincial responsibilities including socio economic development. Therefore, these 23 million people of Haryana elect just 10 MPs to the parliament, to the Lok Sabha. With local responsibilities taken care of at the State government level, they need only 10 MPs to represent them at national policy making, national security and on other national issues.
Compare this with our PCs and the parliament. Colombo district with only 2.3 million people elect 40 members to the Western PC and 19 to parliament, when Haryana with 23 million elects only 90 members to State Assembly and 10 to Lok Sabha. We are projecting large where we don’t have to. Obviously it’s the “Asia’s largest miracle” mentality. When 23 million people in Haryana are represented in parliament by 10 elected MPs, we have a parliament of 225 MPs. with Colombo experts, policy makers and political party leaders discussing reforms to further increase numbers.
Electoral reforms are necessary for the people. Electoral reforms should answer people’s issues and needs. The way the reforms are being schemed and manipulated at present, wholly out of reach of the people, reforms are to serve political parties and their leaders at parliamentary level. Mind you, political parties in Sri Lanka are as corrupt as any State and nongovernmental institution. They are no democratic organisations either. Their increased numbers in parliament ignoring the fact that we are already into devolution at provincial level and the fact we are hard pressed to find answers to the Tamil political conflict that can only be on the basis of a workable power sharing governing model, we are into further chaos. Therefore what is being discussed as election reforms can be too dangerous and too expensive to live with if they find passage through parliament.