By Jehan Perera –
The postponement of provincial elections was not expected. The constitution states that provincial elections must be held on schedule. But the postponement was not surprising. Local government elections have been postponed for over two years. Every few weeks there have been declarations by government leaders that the conduct of local government elections is imminent. A fortnight ago, Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faizer Musthapha said that the government and other party leaders have reached consensus to change the electoral system for local government elections to one in which the ratio between members elected under the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system would be 60:40 from the earlier proposed ratio of 70:30.
Minister Mustapha also said the government would be in a position to hold local government polls within this year after passing much delayed Amendments to the local government electoral system. However, instead of acting on its words in regard to the conduct of the local government elections, the government has now decided to postpone the provincial council elections which were due to be held this year. Elections were to have been held for the North-Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Councils this year when their terms end on October 1. The Cabinet approved a proposal seeking to conduct the elections to all nine provincial councils on the same day, under a new system which will change the present proportional system to include a mix of the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system.
Under the latter provision, the provincial council election law would be amended to make way for the new system according to which 60 per cent of members would be elected on the first-past-the-post system and 40 per cent on the proportional representation systems. The problem in the electoral reform process has been that getting agreement between all parties on the proposed reforms has been most difficult. The UNP and SLFP, which are the biggest parties, prefer having more emphasis on the first-past-the-post system where the candidate who gets the largest number of votes in a particular electorate is the one who gets elected. But the smaller parties prefer the emphasis to be on the proportional system as it guarantees them some representation even when they are unable to obtain a majority of votes in even one electorate.
The government has given three reasons, and not just one, for the postponement of the provincial council elections. Each of these reasons has its own validity. The first is the need to amend the provincial council law to make it follow the same basis as the revision in the local government law with regard to the electoral system. The second reason for the postponement of the provincial elections is to facilitate the incorporation of a women’s quota into the provincial council system as already introduced into the local government system. The government proposal is to amend the provincial council law to make it binding on all political parties and independent groups to field at least 30 per cent female candidates in provincial council elections. This is on the basis that the government has taken a policy decision to increase the female representation in all political decision-making bodies.
Last year amended the local government law to include 25 percent quota for women at the Local Government elections through a reserved list for women who will be elected outside of the open list of candidates. However, the government also stated that no similar quota will be provided at the parliamentary level and that the expectation appeared to be that increased women’s representation in higher levels of governance will take place through the upward mobility of women from the local level. The representation of women in local government is only about 2 percent, in provincial councils it is only about 4 percent and in parliament it is about 6 percent. While there is a recognition in Sri Lanka today that a peaceful and just society requires multi ethnic and multi religious representation in decision making, there is still inadequate recognition that men cannot, and should not, seek to represent the interests of the entirety of society, when more than half of the population of Sri Lanka are women. Therefore bringing in a quota for women at the provincial council level is a positive development.
The third reason that has been given for the need to amend the provincial council law is that holding all the provincial elections on a single day would save the government a lot of money. Conducting provincial elections on different dates, as and when the terms of the provincial councils ends, means that the election machinery has to be utilized on a large number of occasions. As there are nine provincial councils, it is conceivable that each five years would see nine separate elections that are held at different times. This is close to what the previous government did. The previous government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa held provincial council elections and other elections whenever they wished to show the people and the international community that they continued to retain the people’s mandate.
During the period of the Rajapaksa government, whenever they were on the back foot due to international pressure regarding human rights violations, the government held an election. They concentrated their forces, both in terms of strong-arm and financial resources, to ensure that they would score a thumping victory and adduce this as evidence that they enjoyed the wholehearted support of the local population. Holding all provincial elections on a single day would put an end to this practice and to the massive expenses associated with it. Such a reform would also reduce the pressure on government leaders to be on constant election campaign mode, and therefore make it more possible for them to give their time and effort to engage in problem solving as befits their role in the polity, rather than in electioneering.
However, these justifications for amending the provincial council law and postponing elections needs to be balanced against the importance of holding regular elections which are the lifeblood of democracy. Regular and free and fair elections facilitate the rejuvenation of the polity which could otherwise become moribund and corrupt. It was the electoral process that finally undid the former Rajapaksa government that acted as if the victory in the war against the LTTE had given them the right to rule as sovereigns with impunity. It can only be in extreme circumstances that elections are postponed. Such extreme circumstances do not currently prevail in Sri Lanka. The electoral process ought to recommence rather than being put on indefinite hold. The postponement of elections needs to be subjected to a strict deadline rather than being permitted to drag on indefinitely as the local government elections have been.
There is one extenuating circumstance for the government. The constitutional reform process has neared the stage of a draft new constitution. The constitutional reform process should be permitted to reach fruition. The formation of a government of national unity between the UNP and SLFP offers the real possibility of constitutional change that can overcome the failures of the past. Holding local or provincial elections at this time will pit the political parties in the government against one another, which is the unstated reason to postpone the elections until the constitutional reform takes place. However, this postponement should be subjected to a strict and accountable deadline. An open ended delay on the grounds of inability to reach consensus on the reform of election laws and the constitution would be detrimental to democracy. The government will be seen to be a meandering one, which is not engaging in constructive actions. It has to show movement. Constitutional reform is a necessity. The process has been going on for two years. The government needs to see constitutional reform to its end.