By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
The franchise (suffrage) is an entrenched right in our Constitution. Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to grant Universal Adult Suffrage (or franchise). Many countries imposed restrictions, in particular excluding females. This led to the “Suffragettes” movement in Europe, demanding that women too should have the Vote.
Historically, the concept of representation must have originated and evolved through centuries, in line with the complexities of governance and the growth of population, when it became impractical for all to interact directly. It then finds some means of representation. The obvious method of choice was universal suffrage. Some modification was necessary by way of some further groupings, dividing the total electorate into geographical regions or into manageable units as wards, electorates or “Electoral colleges”.
A noteworthy feature is the care taken to ensure the secrecy of the balloting process. Elaborate measures are adopted to ensure “secrecy”, up to even our providing “booths” with cardboard partitions.
Unfortunately, the ballot paper is so designed as to prevent the true exercise of a “free will.” It requires the voter to first pick the Party of his choice. He thereby, in effect partially or critically, disenfranchises himself. Once committed in this fashion, he is restricted to the persons who have been selected by the Party Leadership. It will take time for the voter to vote out any Party for making wrong choices for nomination. Until then, he is compelled to pick not the best available who may belong to a different party, but in effect to choose the “least worst” in his party candidates list. So, choice of Party is a crucial judgment.
In the existing circumstances, it is quite unfair to “blame” the electors, when the choice has been by the Party Leadership, not infrequently on criteria that are less than honourable, and far removed from much desire for quality and diversity. Suppose, one finds that the best candidate belongs to a party different from his choice at Step One on the ballot paper? Bad luck, “free choice” has flown out of the window! Is this by accident or by design? It is a wonder that this confusing or contorted system does not result in a larger number of spoilt votes than what it is!
An even more mysterious element is the jettisoning of the virtue of confidentiality, when it comes to the crucial finale of the vote in the House, for example on the all-important Annual Budget. The open display of how the voting went (including by a hideously expensive electronic marvel), may perhaps help in exposing those who have been bribed or offered places in the hierarchy, yet chose to exercise some semblance of “a Conscience”. If the voting is to be merely on Party dictates, why bother about the pantomime of “debates” at horrendous cost? Or of “qualified” candidates, when all that is required is an uplifted hand or a pressed button. Was Tarzie Vittachi right when he declared that “communication without transformation, is gossip”? At the conclusion of a somewhat “soporific” Budget speech, a “Tea Party” and a further repast at the end of a usually drab “Budget Debate”, complete the circus. One may believe that a “secret ballot” would be most important in ensuring that the vote reflects the true free will of the people, through their elected representatives and who, having attended and followed the debates can make an informed choice. Not so, we are told, but draws on the traditions and conventions of the British House of Commons, where it is apparently permitted only in the election of the Speaker.(who ironically speaks least!) If so, are these not oddities that ask for abandonment or correction? We did get Independence seventy two years ago, did we not?
I believe that the argument that it follows convention or tradition elsewhere is feeble. As long as the idea of the “Party Whip” remains, so also will a skewed and purposeless exercise continue. A “conscience vote” it would seem, is at best an irrelevant abstraction.
It defies logic that confidentiality is zealously guarded at the periphery of a system while abandoning it on the way to a decisive centre! Maybe, it is a vain search to seek logic as a defining quality of politics!.
On a broader basis, are our citizens really ready for “universal franchise?” I think they are not. Is a Party system really meaningful? Again I think not. I believe that in both instances, the Average voter goes according to a “Personality Bias”. The voter’s choice of both Party and Candidate, revolves around persons rather than a measured evaluation of what they stand for. In fact, both criteria are “woolly.” Let us face it – competence, merit, integrity, education, performance records and vision do not drive voter’s choices. “Kepuwath Kola/Rathu/Nil”, about sums up the lack of any objectivity or judgment – mere sentiment, person or habit inspires the vote. The pithy “Unuth Ekai, Munuth Ekai” just about sums up the lack of sensitivity or objectivity in the electoral process. Are we really ready for universal franchise or does the “Cahoot Theory” go beyond all else?