Hon. Karu Jayasuriya our Chief Guest, Distinguished Guests: A warm welcome to you all on behalf of the Election Commission. We are here to celebrate 85 years of our Donoughmore Heritage. It is indeed a great achievement. It is natural to celebrate such sturdy accomplishments; to be proud of them.
I have just returned after attending two international meetings. Our participation endorses and affirms our continued commitment to our democratic traditions. First, the important meeting of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, or IFES, to observe the US Elections. And second, the Commonwealth Electoral Network’s Steering Committee or CEN meeting where Sri Lanka represents the Asian Region. I am happy to report that we were selected to host the next of our series of CEN Biennial Meetings. It will be held around May 2018; here in Colombo. It was made apparent to us at the meeting that this choice recognizes the respect we have justly earned as a democracy. Sri Lanka will chair CEN from that meeting until the next meeting in 2020. The Commonwealth wanted a credible voice for CEN; a respected spokesperson’s voice. Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya’s name figured prominently in this choice. It did so because the Commonwealth Observation Team saw first-hand the drama that unfolded before them on that eventful night of 8 January 2015.
Enough, now, on our achievements! However good we might be, we can always be better. Recognizing this, CEN and IFES together seek to share our pool of best practices. Every democracy from around the globe – big or small, strong or weak – has contributed to these best practices, practices that we all innovate and share. This sharing helps us expand on and reinforce our Donoughmore Heritage. I therefore wish to share here some of the practices that others employ which we can benefit from; practices I learnt of, practices I learnt from, on this trip. I have chosen to elaborate on four of these that struck me as very relevant and important to us here in Sri Lanka.
First, voter registration. We have been doing this for years in ways similar to those of many other countries. We therefore think we have perfected this. Annually our Grama Niladris – our Kirama Sevahars – go house to house in the month of June and register voters. Two deficiencies in our methods were, rather forcefully, brought to my attention: those who turn 18 a little after June 1 will not be able to exercise their franchise until they are really 19. Mind you, the constitution gives each citizen the right to vote upon reaching the age of 18.
Our Commission has been aware that we fail our youthful voters badly in this. It has been deliberating on what we can do. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, advocates registration, particularly as an election is just ahead of us; not periodically at fixed times. They also suggest that our use of public servants as temporary employees seconded to the Commission for this exercise, makes our voter rolls questionable. They say the loyalty of public servants may lean towards the party in power. That opens to question the credibility of our voter rolls. They suggest using people from the private sector as well. We must certainly think about this.
Second: The US Elections saw 30% of the electorate voting well before polling day; which technically is only the last polling day. To preserve the secrecy of the ballot, two envelopes are used. An outer envelope verifies the validity of the voter’s registration. Inside that envelope is a secrecy envelop containing the actual, marked ballot. It has no marking. It is pooled with all others and opened at the time of counting. Is this not the means to three useful things? – a) avoiding long lines at the polls that discourage voter participation, b) increasing through enhanced convenience, the participation of emergency workers and people who must travel long distances on polling day and therefore cannot vote; and c) restoring the right to vote of our Diaspora. After all, the Diaspora are guaranteed the right to vote as citizens in our constitution. But we deny them that right. They bring in valuable foreign exchange. We cannot – we must not – fail them.
Third: Quotas for women are now increasingly used globally to enhance the participation of women in governance. In Sri Lanka, with over 50% women both in the population and enrolled in our universities, we have had only 13 MPs in Parliament since the year 2004; even fewer before. The worldwide average is 21.9%. There is reluctance to engage in serious discussion on this. It is now common wisdom that when quotas are used, women get in. Given such opportunity, women then prove their mettle.
Rwanda with under 12 million people is a trail-blazer. It is a beacon to us all. It is in an anomalous situation with 800,000 people killed in the genocide of 1994. That man-made disaster, that enormity, has left behind a population with 70% women. Although a quota of 30% women was imposed, it resulted in a parliament of 64% women, the highest anywhere. We may be sure that, now that these women have been elected, they are already growing into their shoes. This is just like what African Americans did in the United States. Surely, we in Sri Lanka can give justice to our own women without having to engage in a massacre of men!
In neighboring Bangladesh, a Muslim country where 87% of women are said to face domestic violence, it is reported that as of the year 2013, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition and the Foreign Minister were all women. India and Bangladesh have used quotas to realize massive gains in getting women into local government – over one million in India alone. With our superior social indices, why is Sri Lanka so far behind?
We here in Sri Lanka have since Jan. 2016 imposed a quota of 25% for women in Local Government. We must congratulate our government for this. Going by the experience elsewhere, this is the right way; the only way. Quotas! The remaining question is this: why not quotas for parliament too?
That brings me to the fourth shared good practice that I wish to tell you about. Everyone must be able to plan and strategize for elections. It needs time. Therefore, a wise and good practice, shared and encouraged by the Commonwealth, is to never make changes to the system too close to an election. A period of two years was suggested as a target – of course when an election has to be suddenly declared, it may not be possible. But we must always work with this target. When we can avoid it, we should never tinker with the system close to an election. We see the consequences in the recent redrawing of district boundaries here. Periodic redistricting is necessary. But not when elections are overdue as here. To embark on delimitation when we have not had elections in some places for four years past the due date, is simply bad practice. It allows the indefinite postponement of elections. It questions our credentials as a democracy. The same bad practice is seen in another matter. I refer here to the imposition of 25% quotas for women in local government. It is a good thing.
Nevertheless, not when elections have not been held for years. Further, the ongoing delimitation is a further barrier to holding timely elections; indeed, delimitation must finish for us to know how many wards there are and how many seats. Without knowing the seats, we cannot implement the law to have 25% women. It becomes another reason to deny people their democratic right to elect their local bodies. It becomes a means of avoiding the people’s verdict on how our representatives are faring in governing us. It is to undermine our Donoughmore Heritage which we celebrate today. If I may paraphrase Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s wise words about marriage almost 500 years ago, electoral change is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.
These then are the four best practices that are on offer by our democratic fraternity for us all to share. It is absolutely necessary to learn from the best practices of our friends and neighbours, and learn from each other. If we had done so, we would not have the current mess of being unable to hold elections because we embarked on delimitation and introduced new laws about women’s quotas in the middle of a time when elections are years overdue.
There is no question whether Sri Lanka is a strong democracy capable of credible, periodic, decisive elections. January 8th 2015 is proof that we are. The international community has acknowledged this our strength in inviting us to host the next CEN Biennial Meeting. To rest on our laurels, however, is vanity. Let us through the sharing of the world’s best practices continue to strengthen our Donoughmore Legacy. Today, let us rededicate ourselves to that legacy which we now celebrate.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you.
*S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, Member, Election Commission – Speech delivered at the BMICH on 30 Nov. 2016 at the Election Commission’s Celebrations on the Eighty-fifth Anniversary of the Donoughmore Constitution which brought Universal Adult Suffrage to Sri Lanka in 1931.