By Laksiri Fernando –
It is possible that the UNP is excessively concerned that they might be disadvantaged if the FPP constituencies are reintroduced, as they were before (160+5 seats), going by the results of the 2010 elections. However, that might not be the case. If the political trend is for change, away from the past practices, like at the presidential elections, then the main beneficiary would be the UNP. I say this purely as an independent observer.
On the other hand, the minor (or minority) parties do not need to worry much, if the FPP seats are accommodated within the PR system as it is implemented now. Only disadvantage will be the ‘overhang seats,’ that normally would go in favor of the major parties both in the South and in the North. However, this happening would be minimal at the next election given the tight competition between major parties or coalitions in the South.
The above also means or even otherwise, there is no need to formally increase the number of seats from 225 to 255 as proposed particularly by the ‘old guard’ of the SLFP. Only provision that should be made is to accommodate any ‘overhang seats’ in addition to the formal number of 225. This is the method used both in Germany and New Zealand. There are all possibilities that the overhang problem can be eliminated by reducing the number of FPP seats for example from 165 to 150 or 125 by rational delimitation after the next election.
It appears to me that political parties have now come to a better understanding about a rational or a better solution for the electoral system by agreeing to retain the present PR system as the overarching method while accommodating old 160+5 FPP seats within it for the time being. This is a considerable progress from what Dinesh Gunawardena Committee proposed.
It would be a great pity that if this opportunity is lost because of power competition between political parties or due to pure misunderstandings. Political parties do not seem to listen to each other. What I cannot understand is even the advocates of this system is calling it a ‘mixed system.’ This is not a mixed system. This is a valid PR system accommodating FPP seats within it.
The largely agreed system, if I am not completely mistaken, would employ both the 196 district PR allocations as at present, and the old 160+5 FPP seats within it. This is what I advocated in my very initial article on “Proposal for a Simple Electoral Reform” (Colombo Telegraph, 16 March 2015) except the multimember seats. Although the introduction of the multimember seats to the equation is little complicated, it is a good device to satisfy some of the minority parties. It is a good compromise.
No Need for a Large National List
However, what I cannot understand or agree is the increase of the national list PR allocation from 29 to 59. This is an increase of 30 seats (or over 100%) on the national list without much justification. These 59 MPs will not have any direct constituency or voter base unlike the other 196 MPs either directly linked to a seat or to a district.
It is true that the task of an MP is not purely welfare of constituency, but national. Yet the commitment to serve people should not be neglected. It is also true that there should be some room for accommodating deserving people who cannot contest grueling elections. But the present allocation (29) is good enough for that in principle. Any need to go beyond in that direction should be devised through a second chamber (Senate).
It might be true that major parties would fear that they might not find much room in the national list given the proposed deduction of overhang seats. But as I have shown, this would be only for the next election and even at the next, this might not be the case given tuff competition between the two main parties. Anyway, an electoral system should not be devised on the basis of immediate concerns. If a major party does not have enough room in the national list that also means it is well represented in the FPP and the district system.
Need for Compromise
Therefore for a viable compromise, the SLFP should withdraw its proposal to increase the number to 255 and the UNP should agree to 160+5 FPP seats, accommodated within district and national PR system.
All should remember that this is not a mixed system as such (or of the old style) but a PR system accommodating FPP seats within it.
If the parties (or major parties) agree for the basics of the proposed electoral system, then the 20A can be initiated in parliament with necessary other proposals for a free and fair election. The other provisions could include restrictions on election spending by candidates and parties, and basic agreement on qualifications for parliamentary candidates. There is also a need to scrutinize the voter lists to eliminate apparent ‘ghost voters.’
Under the new system, the next elections could be held with necessary preparations. The important thing is to agree upon the basic principles and passing of the 20A. Other details could be worked out by the elections department or the elections commission.
Nominations could be called for both 160 (+5) constituencies and district PR (variable for district). The JVP has asked for two ballot papers and this could be accommodated. One for the candidate in the constituency, and the other for the district PR. Both the JVP and the SLMC could benefit under this proposal although this may be little complicated to the voters. Any voter could use only one ballot paper without rejection as she or he so wishes.
Two questions naturally arise when introducing the new system. (1) Would the voters easily understand the new system? (2) Would there be difficulties in enumerating the election results?
It is obvious that the voters would understand the system easily if there is only one ballot paper. The name of the candidate, the party and the party symbol would suffice to make the choice. If a second ballot paper is introduced for the district, it is little complicated, although not so complicated as the present ballot paper with preferential voting. This type of a second ballot paper is common to many countries with full or partial PR systems. With the support of the media and the civil society, not to mention political parties, the department of elections could easily explain the system to the people.
The enumeration of results would be a minor problem. Already, the district PR allocations are fixed and known. Once the party voting is counted, the allocation of seats could be easily determined for the district and for the national list. Even before that, the winners of the FPP seats could be announced as it is a simple counting on the ‘first past the post.’ Only the additional district PR and the allocation under the national list might be slightly delayed. However, with new technology, by the next morning of the elections a new government could be formed. The method could be easily understood even by the ordinary voters with perhaps interesting stories or interpretations.
The direct benefits of the new electoral system would be (1) to eliminate the hazardous preferential voting and competitions (2) to reduce the unnecessary election expenses (3) to minimize election violence and (4) most importantly to bring the elected MPs closer to the electors (voters) with tangible accountability. While a new electoral system is not a panacea, it could pave the way for new opportunities for strengthening democracy in the country.
If the elections are held under the present system, the composition and the nature of the Parliament might be more or less the same. A change of character and quality could be expected only if the new system is introduced.