By Emil van der Poorten –
Most, if not all, those reading the title of this piece will be aware of the old chestnut about throwing the baby out with the bathwater or throwing something of significant value out with the material that was contaminated in the very act of cleansing the infant.
What has provoked this reference is the fact that there has been, for a considerable time now, a great hue and cry about the need to throw out most, if not all, of the current system of proportional representation (P.R.) in an effort to cure the electoral process of this country of what is consistently pointed out are the terminal maladies afflicting it – bribery, corruption and every other affliction known to democracy – replacing it with its predecessor in post-colonial Sri Lanka, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system.
Personally, I have to admit to a bias in the debate of PR vs FPTP because I was once actively involved in an effort to have the province in which I lived change from the latter to the former and my colleagues in that effort investigated and researched the subject more thoroughly than I thought possible and proved, if proof were needed, that a PR system (practiced in most of the established democracies, incidentally) served the purposes of electoral democracy infinitely better than the FPTP model.
I have had several discussions with my unilingual Sinhala-speaking neighbours and they don’t appear to have too strong feelings one way or another in the matter of P.R. vs FPTP. However, the never-ending cascade of propaganda claiming that PR is the sole cause of monumental corruption in the body politic seems to have taken its toll on rational thought and many people seem to be veering towards support of abolition of P.R. and the return of FPTP.
The attempts to raise this issue with my neighbours faced another hurdle in that their world-view was, essentially, somewhat limited by their not having experienced or not being familiar with different political and voting systems elsewhere. That said, it was fairly apparent that the matter of PR vs FPTP is really not No. 1 in the public’s list of concerns, unless it is identified as the sole reason for what ails us in the matter of corruption. However, if one were to push the envelope of discussion, one’s interlocutors will readily admit that it is the symptoms of corruption that are being identified as the problem while it is corruption and the abuse of power upto and inclusive of absolute impunity which really are. The concern is with deliberate and untrammeled corruption, abuse of all the rules with impunity that has resulted in bribery and violence ruling supreme. As long as this was seen as “someone else’s problem” the majority did not connect the dots of theft to their primary source– the pockets of Citizens Banda and Bisomenike. They were prepared to overlook the fact that there really was something rotten in the State of Sri Lanka. Recently, however, the implications of the wholesale misappropriation of what belongs to the people of this country has begun to dawn on my neighbours and they are no longer happy campers! However, the demagogues and charlatans, like the leaders of all good vigilante groups, have hung up the piñata of PR for the citizenry to whale on and that public, a noisy part of it anyway, has taken up the cry, demanding the return of FPTP, in modified if not pristine form, and certainly the reduction, if not total abandonment, of PR.
That said, the pendulum of broad public opinion has begun its, inexorable, return from the extremity of its journey towards the total abandonment of PR and does appear to be reaching the point where the need to respond to wholesale criminality on a national scale by utilizing the various elements of the law is beginning to be seen as the appropriate response. People are beginning to realize that it is not the system, in and of itself, but those controlling that system that are to be blamed and made answerable. That old saw that a system is only as good as the manner in which it is practiced is beginning to dawn on people and one can but hope that saner counsel will prevail instead of knee-jerk reactions to existing voting systems which are mathematically and, in essence, fairer than the simplistic FPTP.
On a personal level, I have distinct recollection of the totally skewed result that came out of an election, where, out of a total of 83 seats, 60+ representatives were elected from one party by approximately 25% of the eligible voters. While this was in a very different part of the word and I am aware that our voter turn-outs in Sri Lanka are at the upper end of the seventy percentile, it is not inconceivable that a government with, literally, power of life and death over the people, can be elevated to such a position by a small minority of the electorate if the vote is split several ways. This is particularly possible where violence and manipulation of the most blatant and dastardly kind are the rule rather than the exception. Here, again, it is not the mathematical possibilities but those of wholesale rigging that enter the picture. The more sober-sided examinations of the Fonseka vs Rajapaksa election that have begun to emerge recently, suggest that the margin of victory for Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa was significantly less than was proclaimed at the time and, some sources suggest, didn’t exist at all! Simply put, that didn’t have anything to do with the voting system.
I would suggest to any who are really interested in separating problem from symptom that they give this whole business a great deal more thought before they rush to the judgement that PR is the root of all (electoral) evil and go looking for some pure or bastardized FPTP system to take its place.
I know that, recently, the cry has been for a hybrid of PR and FPTP. On the surface, this sounds like the ideal compromise but a word of warning might not be out of place: remember what you get when you cross horses with donkeys: MULES (or Jennies) which do not have any capacity to produce!
In the last analysis, it is not simply a matter of putting a great and wonderful set of rules that can withstand no end of challenges in the highest courts of law in the country. It is a matter of ensuring that what already exists is observed in the first place. Sri Lanka has descended into a pit of lawlessness and impunity and that is the cause of our current predicament, not Proportionate Representation, per se.
If requirements that already exist in law in the matter of declaration of assets, the prohibition of the use of state resources for a candidate or party and a variety of other “thou shalt nots” are practiced, little of this hand-wringing and carrying-on in sackcloth and ashes would be necessary. For starters, ensure that what already exists in the realm of electoral rules and regulations are adhered to rather than simply paying lip service to them or, worse yet, bemoaning the fact that every one of them is observed in the breach! The first glimmerings of possibility appeared during the last Presidential election where, by some miracle, a senior public servant in the person of the Elections Commissioner tried, under the toughest imaginable conditions, to ensure some fairness in the electoral process. His, praiseworthy, though, admittedly, somewhat limited success did result in a sea change in the end result, something unimaginable in the days leading up to that particular writ being dropped . We need to build on miracles of that kind, appreciating what they really mean rather than dumping a potentially productive infant in some fetid drain while in the process of getting rid of the liquid which contains the detritus of which it has just been cleansed.