By Jehan Perera –
The further postponement of provincial council elections will be necessary now that the report of the Delimitation Commission has been rejected in parliament. The majority in parliament rejected the report with all 139 of those present voting against it while 86 MPs including those of the JVP, who supported the report being absent at the time of voting. The fact that no party voted in favour of the Delimitation report is an indication that all parties are wary of elections. Different political parties gave different reasons for their rejections. The ethnic minority parties felt that the proportional representation system which had previously existed offered them a better outcome in terms of the numbers of members they could get elected. The bigger parties objected to the 50:50 proportion between those elected on a first-past-the-post basis at the constituency level and those elected through the party lists as it contributed toward unstable outcomes.
In the debate in parliament, the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake stressed the importance of approving the report saying the Elections Commission could have called for the much postponed provincial council elections the following day if the report was approved. Joint opposition parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena said it would be possible to hold the provincial elections under the proportional representation system if the delimitation commission was rejected but abstained from the vote. A key problem with the mixed system that the Delimitations Commission endorsed is that it is not conducive t stable majorities being formed. The first-past-the-post system enables locally popular persons to be elected who are not tied to the major parties. This enables them to function more independently and to switch sides as and when they want, leading to unstable administration.
The problem of forming administrations with a stable majority came to the fore at the local government election held earlier in February this year which yielded outcomes that required a considerable amount of time and horse-trading to settle down and enable an administration with a majority to be formed. Notwithstanding these demerits, President Maithripala Sirisena was a supporter of the new mixed system and commissioned the report that has now been shot down. The president appears to be conscious of the responsibility upon him to change the electoral system from being one of a proportional system with preference voting that leads to both inter-party and intra-party competition for votes and preferences respectively. But on this issue of electoral reform it appears that he has been left isolated.
It appears that at the present time narrow considerations of party politics has taken the upper hand, with everything being done with a partisan political motivation in mind. The vote against the Delimitation Commission’s report is an example. The commissioners were appointed after their selection by the Constitutional Council set up by the 19th Amendment to the constitution and consisted of persons who were qualified for their tasks. If there had been areas in their report that needed to be changed, this could have been done without rejecting the entire report and opening the door to having to start again from the beginning. It is especially ironic that the government parties should have not voted in favour of the report of a committee that the president had appointed on the recommendation of the constitutional council. The tension between the president and the rest of the government is indicated by this outcome.
On the other hand, even though the president has been unable to have his will prevail on the issue of electoral reform, he has been able to exert his presidential authority on other issues, but this has been to undermine other plans of the government. An example would be his recent objection to the proposal that government MPs who are responsible for rural development work that the Prime Minister is spearheading should be paid an extra allowance. The government stance with regard to the strike action that has been taken by railway union workers and which they threaten to relaunch is also weakened by the different positions taken by President Sirisena who had negotiated directly with the strikers and reached an agreement with them and the government which has taken the position that the railway demands cannot be dealt with on an ad hoc basis but as part of the general restructuring of government sector salaries.
At the present time Sri Lanka is in a period of uncertainty in which the way forward is difficult to see. There appears to be no team work on the part of the government to secure the future. The opposition too is fragmented and looking for a focus for unity. This may explain the bid to revive the aspirations of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to become a third term president despite the 19th Amendment that precludes those who have been twice elected to the post of president from contesting again. At a recent discussion with community leaders from nine districts there were two important points that were made. The first was the complaint that they did not know, nor did their compatriots know, what was happening in the country. A key example would be the constitutional reform process which has been ongoing for over two years, but with limited transparency, only to be periodically exposed in a controversial manner.
In the context of the rejection of the Delimitation Commission report it is likely that the country will continue to have a respite from elections for another year. The political parties need to use this period to identify their candidates for the different elections that are to come, especially the presidential and general elections. They also need to create greater awareness amongst the general population about the issues in economic development, reconciliation and governance and how they plan to overcome the challenges in each of these spheres in the national interest. The opposition has been particularly weak in this regard. They focus on criticizing the government for what it is doing and not doing, and promise to topple it from power without further delay. But apart from this negative campaigning they do not spell out their own responses to the challenges they accuse the government of failing to meet. If they wish to build on their previous success at the local government elections at the forthcoming national elections, they need to come up with a programme for positive campaigning.
In recent months the government has been making an effort to communicate its political reform and economic development projects to the general population. An example would be the Ahanna campaign that is being led by the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms which operates under the office of the prime minister. The Ahanna campaign is supported at the local level by the police and government departments. As the exercise gathers strength it is also receiving support from civil society. It explains what the government is doing in terms of national reconciliation, including the setting up of new institutions such as the Office of Missing Persons. However, it also needs to be supported at the macro political level by government leaders who publicly explain the need for continuing to give priority to national reconciliation and constitutional reform as being two sides of the same coin. There is a need to reassure the general population that the fears articulated by ethnic nationalists such as the division of the country will not come to pass.
The second point made by the community leaders in their discussion was that the benefits of the large scale economic programmes that are being launched by the government are failing to reach the majority of people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. The government is doing considerable advertisement of these programmes especially through the state media. But such media campaigns by themselves are not enough. If those at the bottom levels of society are to benefit, there is a need for decisions made at the top to be cascaded down through mentoring programmes. The community leaders pointed out that the government’s economic development programmes are benefiting those who know about them and have access to those who provide those resources. They stressed the importance of people at the community level being made aware of the new opportunities that are being provided and how to access them. There needs to be a nationwide campaign of awareness creation about how best to access the new opportunities which encompasses both the local and higher levels and state mechanisms need to be structured to support those who ought to benefit.