22 September, 2020

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Of Babies & Bathwater

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

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.

Mahinda vote 2015The 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.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    0

    Emil van der Poorten

    RE: Of Babies & Bathwater

    “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.”

    The proportional representation, cured an earlier problem of the Hegemony f the two main parties. That forced the small parties to form alliances and made great asings in the MPs from each major party.

    Proportional representation, avoided that problem, and let smalle partiers be heard and represented.

    However, it created the problem of NOT tying the MP to the electorate, only to the district, and distanced the MP from the people.

    Furthermore, the MPs can be traded as commodities. The elected MP thinks that it is his personal property, and will trade that for money.

    So, this needs to be fixed by saying that the MP who comes from a party cannot cross over, unless, permission is obtained, if not cannot cross-over and forfeit the seat or the MP need to re-contest in a by election.

    There was corruption before as well.

  • 6
    1

    Established democracies typically operate on the 2 main political world views – The Left and the Right.

    The Left is typically liberal with people’s money. They are pro-poor and tends to spend big driving down the reserves.

    The Right has a conservative outlook on the economy. They mostly tend to save and consolidate the gains.

    So in a nutshell, after the Left goes on a spending spree and growing the economy, the Right comes in and consolidates the gains. Both the dynamics are essential. Both needs to take turns like Ying-Yang fashion creating a Feign-shui like balance.

    In Sri Lanka the Left is represented by SLFP and UNP is mainly a Right of center thinking mob.

    In an established democracy like Australia for example, apart from the 2 main parties you have the Greens, Sex Party and “Monster Raving Looney party” etc. The Preferential system is perfect here to add color and character to the main parties. The minor parties themselves do not represent fundamental values of people.

    In Sri Lanka on the other hand the minor parties are Tamil alliance, the Moslem alliance etc i.e. They do not compliment the 2 main parties. Ideologically they operate isolated from the 2 main parties creating an imbalance.

    The Preferential system strengthens the isolation further. Until the minorities stop playing the race card PF is not suitable for Sri Lanka.

    • 1
      1

      You are right. The man writing this is a part time free lance “journalist” who is a racist allowed to publish his anti Sri Lankan views from some “whites are bright” part of the world.
      In France the UK or any other Democracy Vanderpooten does not know come to exactly the same results. But he has his eyes on Sri Lanka. The SNP won 56 seats in Westminster polling less votes than UKIP who won just one. So this man will only be tolerated by an LTTE run News site.

      • 2
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        Peter Casie Shitty:
        Sumaney must be jumping for joy at his newest recruit to the Club of Incoherency!
        You seem to be as geographically-challenged as Mr. S. in the matter of where I am located, so you start off with yet another thing in common. Apart from plain stupid viciousness, that is.

  • 3
    2

    Is the Poodle Club of Colombo President’s son, young Navin PR or FPP?.

    He is full on practising Yahapalanaya in all our Sports and Sports Bodies according to news reports.

    He is even building a state of the art High Altitude Training Centre for our Athletes.

    And the cost of the facility is USD 60 Million.

    Wonder whether Galleon Ravi is in charge of writing the cheques from CB…

    Never knew our Dalits have so much prowess at the Olympics.

    Wonder how many Medals even in Copper will this USD 60 Mil buy for us?.

    Or should it be better spend to build a State of the Art Hospital in NuwaraEliya or even Udupussellawa for our Dalits who live a hard life in High Altitude and make help them live a little longer.

    One would have thought Mr Poorten the Philantho of the Dalits will take up issues which affect the rural poor instead of worrying about Thaidi Menikas and Baby Showers.

    • 2
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      Sumaney:
      Uh-huh? Even by your standards of incomprehensibility this comes close to taking “a gold.”
      Perhaps, its more than the high-altitude whatchamacallit; something else that’s supposed to provide a “high,” perhaps?

    • 4
      2

      K.A Sumanasekera

      “Wonder how many Medals even in Copper will this USD 60 Mil buy for us?.”

      How many schools/Unis could have been build for the tidy sums of

      $350 Million (cost of Matale bird sanctuary),

      more than $400 mil Whale watching dock (Hambantota Harbour, China gets controlling stake at Hambantota port, it does not even belong to the Dalits),

      More than US$455 million Norochcholai Coal Power Plant (training institution for failed Chinese engineers/technicians/management/designers)

      • 0
        1

        Native Vedda,

        “Matale bird sanctuary”

        “Whale watching dock”

        “training institution for failed Chinese engineers/technicians/management/designers”

        Thanks. Good descriptions.

        Unfortunately we have to pay the debts.

  • 1
    0

    Hello Emil,
    First past the post and PR are trying to cure the ill of territory based representation. Territorial Imperative (Robert Ardle)of the animal kingdom marking out their territory with urine and bird songs and defended it with claws and beaks still continue in representative governance with more sophisticated defence and offence systems.

    Why don’t we base professions as the unit of representation – educators, health workers, farmers, fisherfolks, unemployed, entrepreneurs etc. It will eliminate the territorial imperative, ethnic imperative, caste imperative (may be). Number of representatives can be based on the numbers (the unemployed would rule the country. or may be the daily wage earners.)I wonder how a state would look like under such a democratic system. Interesting thoughts from an Octogenarian approaching senility!or may be already there.

    • 0
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      N. Ethirveerasingham:
      So good to see your name back in the comments section!
      Your suggestion is thought-provoking though my immediate (gut) reaction is negative because anything that divides people on anything but grounds of philosophy or principle runs against much of that with which I was raised. I must and will think more about your suggestion, though.

  • 0
    0

    Emile van der Poorten,

    “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!”

    Our laws are often pretty good but not implemented at all.

    Why do not the police officers escorting our politicians and candidates stop them from breaking the law as they are supposed to do according to the Police Ordinance?

    Can you imagine a police officer reminding a politician that a political meeting should follow the regulation that exists for using loud speakers? Or not to held meetings at public buildings? My understanding is that all buildings that are even partly financed by tax payer money are considered public. This covers most libraries, community centers and even many Hindu temples in the North. In some cases tax money has been used to buy loud speakers for them.

  • 0
    0

    Mr. Poorten, I strongly agree with you in this and do not really see how the 20th would have solved all the problems the people face. The main problem in the politics of this island is that people are easily swayed by racial and nationalistic rhetoric and end up electing people who are selfish and corrupt. The presidential system works fine in most countries, and so does the proportional representation system. In this island, people constantly elected presidents based on the sole criteria “who will be toughest with those horrible Tamils?” This is how they ended up getting MR. Tamils applying similar criteria ended up with VP (though it is encouraging to note that both communities now have elected infinitely better leaders than MR and VP, though the Sinhalese needed ‘help’ from Tamils and Muslims without which they would have got it wrong again). As long as people think that maintaining the feel-good factor of ” My race is better than yours” is more important than the collective well-being of all humans, they will continue to elect selfish and corrupt leaders and they deserve the leaders they get.

  • 0
    1

    The humans have no control over climate change. All depend on where the sun is travelling in the galaxy and the earth axis and the magnetic field and the solar storm.

  • 0
    0

    I am no political student, but I would have thought in a country where the different communities and races are not evenly distributed, the first past the post system is probably ideal. The proportional representation system is a recipe to enable a minority to rule over the majority. In a recent referendum in UK the people quite rightly rejected a proportional representation system because there the different communities are quite well distributed in contrast to the European Election where proportional representation rightly exists for all the member states.

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