NMSJ Proposals for a New Constitution – IV Electoral Reforms
By Dr. Sujata Gamage, Policy Analyst
The 1978 Constitution devotes several pages to detail the process to elect a Parliament consisting of 225 members. It is fitting that we conclude our proposals for a new Constitution with proposals for electoral reforms.
The Parliament of Sri Lanka appointed a Select Committee on Electoral Reforms in April 2021. At this point, we need to take a moment to contrast this initiative with the President’s action to appoint a committee of lawyers hand-picked by him to draft a constitution and note that the latter is not a legitimate process, and one that is even contrary to his manifesto.
The Parliament appointed a select committee for electoral reforms previously in 2003. Dinesh Gunawardena, who was the chairman of that committee is also the chairperson of the present Committee. As stated in the 2007 Interim Report of that committee, it aimed to find solutions to the (1) Violence, overspending, and misuse of state resources by candidates and (2) The distance between the elected representatives and the voters. The objectives of electoral reforms have not changed since then.
It is indeed widely believed that the main reason for violence and overspending is the elevated level of competitiveness among the candidates in the present preferential voting system, where candidates need to campaign across large areas of land to collect votes. The areas in square kilometres, covered by the present 22 electoral districts, range from 699 in the Colombo District to 7,179 in the Anuradhapura District. Competitiveness among candidates from the same party is particularly detrimental to the health of the political party system.
The idea of a mixed-member system, as a solution, has been on the agenda since 2003. In a typical mixed-member system 60 percent or so of the total number of members are elected in ‘first-past-the-post’ or FPP contests from smaller constituencies. One major concern about the mixed-member system is the fact that communities of interest, whether ethnic, religious, or ideological, have little chance of winning these FPP seats. In response, there are arguments for maintaining the present PR system, but taking steps to change the behaviour of candidates, make electoral districts smaller, or devise numerous ways of assigning smaller areas of responsibility to elected members. The focus of our proposal is on the mixed-member system, but with a view of making it more effective and equitable.
NMSJ devoted several of our weekly Kathikawa series or public discussions on current topics to the topic of electoral reforms. We also held multiple roundtable discussions with key stakeholders. We summarise our findings under the following headings.
1. An independent Election Commission
2. A positive change in the political culture
3. Proportional Representation
4. Ability of the winning party to govern
Independent Election Commission
Essential elements of an electoral process – from (1) delimitation (1) setting of election dates, especially for local government and provincial council elections, on a fixed schedule (3) acceptance of nominations, to the (4) release of results, should be governed by an independent Election Commission. All appointments to the Election Commission and other Commissions relevant to elections must be made in a manner that ensures their independence.
The current practice of an executive President single-handedly appointing the members of the Election Commission subject only to the “seeking of the observations of a Parliamentary Council” is not acceptable. The recent swap of a Commission Membership with the governorship of a Province illustrates the arbitrariness of the powers of the President. A new Constitution as proposed by NMSJ would put a stop to these practices.
Positive change in political culture
There are two types of changes. Changes that require Constitutional amendments or a new Constitution are (1) changing the electoral system to a mixed-member system with smaller polling divisions, (1) enabling by-election provisions to deter violations of election laws, and (3) introducing a women’s quota to Parliament or to the election process to elect Members of Parliament.
Representation of women in Parliament is not just a women’s issue but an issue of national importance. Challenges faced by Sri Lanka and the world in the near future require a major reorientation of how we organise ourselves as societies. Sri Lanka’s Parliaments, since we received universal suffrage in 1931, have had less than five percent representation of women. While we cannot attribute all social ills to a male-dominated legislature, it is an imperative of the times that we bring new perspectives to our government, especially the perspectives of women who constitute 51 percent of the population.
Other changes such as (1) enforcing election spending restrictions (2) making asset and liabilities information available to the public on the internet (3) making public also biographical data of candidates including details of candidates’ education, careers, and information on criminal charges against them and (4) setting minimum criteria for the internal democracy of political parties do not require changes to the Constitution. These issues are discussed further in the section on modifications to election laws short of a new constitution.
Since 1989 Sri Lanka has had proportional representation with preferential voting to elect members of Parliament, and fittingly so for a country with a diverse population. As a starting point for a discussion on changes, we propose a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) method with the present number of members remaining at 225 with 140 of those to be elected first-past-the-post from the same number of electorates. Variants of our initial proposal are open for discussion, but we wish to emphasise that whatever variant is adopted must provide a proportional result.
The local government election of 2018 was the first time a mixed-member proportional system was tried out anywhere in Asia. Unfortunately, we do not have a good bipartisan analysis of the election. According to a report of the Local Government Electoral System Review Committee of the State Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government, the increase in the number of seats in the local government system from the previous 4,386 to 8,719, and the fact that the ‘winning’ party did not get a majority of seats in the councils have been identified as the main issues of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system used in that election. The increase in the number of seats is indeed a problem. But the argument that a party that wins most seats FPP, with whatever percentage of votes, should receive a majority of the seats in a council is erroneous.
In the 2018 local government election, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) polled 44.65 percent of the votes, while the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) polled 8.94 percent and 4.44 percent respectively, island wide. The total percentage of votes received by these three parties or alliances adds up to 58.03 percent of the votes. Since these three parties previously contested elections under the single banner of the UPFA, the reason the SLPP, the party with the most votes, was not able to gain a majority of seats in the local councils, had more to do with political division than the electoral system. It is unfortunate that a committee appointed by a Ministry endorsed a common misperception among the public and even among the major stakeholders instead of educating them.
Overall, we do not endorse the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government’s proposals to change the mixed-member ratio to 70:30 or compensate for overhang seats of the winning party, by reducing share of seats of other parties to ensure a majority for the winning party, because such measures violently distort proportional representation. Overhang seats are constituency seats won in an election in a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system which are over and above a party’s share of the seats due to the proportion of votes it received. The occurrence of overhang seats is a problem in the MMP systems. There are other methods to address that problem.
Ability of winning party to govern
The optimal result in any electoral system is a simple majority for the winning party so that they can get on with the business of governing, but it should not be at the expense of other parties. The best way to achieve stability in a multi-party democracy is to award a limited number of bonus seats to the winning party, as has been the practice in Sri Lanka for decades, or promote a culture of consensus politics overall. Distorting the proportional electoral system or dependence on an all-powerful President is not in accordance with the representative democracy that we aim to achieve through elections. In that regard, we propose to do away with district bonus seats at the district level and award five bonus seats to the winning party at the national level. We also propose to mandate the return of a minority candidate through those bonus seats if minorities are not represented in the winning party.
Modifications to election laws
The 2003 Parliamentary committee for electoral reforms presented an interim report to Parliament but it was not able to propose an enactment. The sticking point presumably was the key feature of the mixed-member system: The need to redistrict the present 22 electoral districts into 140 electorates. In our detailed recommendations, we propose to make delimitations more transparent and less contentious by using the existing local government and/or divisional secretariat division boundaries as the starting point for delimitations. Ensuring representation for minorities is also addressed. Ensuring representation for parties representing minorities is more difficult in an MMP system, we find.
More importantly, hidden in the 2003 committee report as an annexure are seventeen proposals to change the election laws which were unfortunately abandoned along with the specifics of the contentious method of election. These changes include what we propose under changes to the political culture. Learning from the experience of the 2003 committee, we propose that electoral reforms should be addressed at two levels, as Constitutional changes and regular legislation. Changes that require simple legislative changes should receive the immediate attention of civil society.
Obtaining fresh mandate unavoidable requirement
by Jehan Perera
The government’s plans for reviving the economy show signs of working out for the time being. The long-awaited IMF loan is about to be granted. This would enable the government to access other loans to tide over the current economic difficulties. The challenge will be to ensure that both the old loans and new ones will be repayable. To this end the government has begun to implement its new tax policy which increases the tax burden significantly on income earners who can barely make ends meet, even without the taxes, in the aftermath of the rise in price levels. The government is also giving signals that it plans to downsize the government bureaucracy and loss-making state enterprises. These are reforms that may be necessary to balance the budget, but they are not likely to gain the government the favour of the affected people. The World Bank has warned that many are at risk of falling back into poverty, with 40 percent of the population living on less than 225 rupees per person per day.
The problem for the government is that the economic policies, required to stabilize the economy, are not popular ones. They are also politically difficult ones. The failure to analyse the past does not help us to ascertain reasons for our failures and also avoids taking action against those who had misused, or damaged, the system unfairly. The costs of this economic restructuring, to make the country financially viable, is falling heavily, if not disproportionately, on those who are middle class and below. Fixed income earners are particularly affected as they bear a double burden in being taxed at higher levels, at a time when the cost of living has soared. Unlike those in the business sector, and independent professionals, who can pass on cost increases to their clients, those in fixed incomes find it impossible to make ends meet. Emigration statistics show that over 1.2 million people, or five percent of the population, left the country, for foreign employment, last year.
The economic hardships, experienced by the people, has led to the mobilization of traditional trade unions and professionals’ organisations. They are all up in arms against the government’s income generation, at their expense. Last week’s strike, described as a token strike, was successful in that it evoked a conciliatory response from the government. Many workers did not keep away from work, perhaps due to the apprehension that they might not only lose their jobs, but also their properties, as threatened by one government member, who is close to the President. There was a precedent for this in 1981 when the government warned striking workers that they would be sacked. The government carried out its threat and over 40,000 government officials lost their jobs. They and their families were condemned to a long time in penury. The rest of society went along with the repression as the government was one with an overwhelming mandate from the people.
The striking unions have explained their decision to temporarily discontinue their strike action due to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s willingness to reconsider their economic grievances. More than 40 trade unions, in several sectors, joined the strike. They explained they had been compelled to resort to strike action as there was no positive response from the government to their demands. Due to the strike, services such as health, posts, and railways were affected. Workers in other sectors, including education, port, power, water supply, petroleum, road development, and banking services, also joined the strike. The striking unions have said they would take up the President’s offer to discuss their concerns with the government and temporarily called a halt to their strike action. This would give the government an opportunity to rethink its strategy. Unlike the government in 1981 this one has no popular mandate. In the aftermath of the protest movement, it has only a legal mandate.
So far, the government has been unyielding in the face of public discontent. Public protests have been suppressed. Protest leaders have been arrested and price and tax hikes have gone ahead as planned. The government has been justifying the rigid positions it has been taking on the basis of its prioritization of economic recovery for which both political stability and financial resources are necessary. However, by refusing to heed public opinion the government has been putting itself on a course of confrontation with organized forces, be they trade unions or political parties. The severity of the economic burden, placed on the larger section of society, even as other sectors of society appear to be relatively unaffected, creates a perception of injustice that needs to be mitigated. Engaging in discussion with the trade unions and reconsidering its approach to those who have been involved in public protests could be peace making gestures in the current situation.
On the other hand, exacerbating the political crisis is the government’s continuing refusal to hold the local government elections, as scheduled, on two occasions now by the Elections Commission and demanded by law. The government’s stance is even in contradiction to the Supreme Court’s directives that the government should release the financial resources necessary for the purpose leading to an ever-widening opposition to it. The government’s determination to thwart the local government elections stems from its pragmatic concerns regarding its ability to fare well at them. Public opinion polls show the government parties obtaining much lower support than the opposition parties. Except for the President, the rest of the government consists of the same political parties and government members that faced the wrath of the people’s movement a year ago and had to resign in ignominy.
The government’s response to the pressures it is under has been to repress the protest movement through police action that is especially intolerant of street protests. It has also put pressure on state institutions to conform to its will, regardless of the law. The decisions of the Election Commission to set dates for the local government elections have been disregarded once, and the elections now appear to have to be postponed yet again. The government is also defying summons upon its ministers by the Human Rights Commission which has been acting independently to hold the government to account to the best extent it can. The government’s refusal to abide by the judicial decision not to block financial resources for election purposes is a blow to the rule of law that will be to the longer-term detriment of the country. These are all negative trends that are recipes for future strife and lawlessness. These would have long term and unexpected implications not to the best for the development of the country or its values.
There are indications that President Wickremesinghe is cognizant of the precariousness of the situation. The accumulation of pressures needs to be avoided, be it for gas at homes or issues in the country. As an experienced political leader, student of international politics, he would be aware of the dangers posed by precipitating a clash involving the three branches of government. A confrontation with the judiciary, or a negation of its decisions, would erode the confidence in the entire legal system. It would damage the confidence of investors and the international community alike in the stability of the polity and its commitment to the rule of law. The public exhortations of the US ambassador with regard to the need to conduct the local government elections would have driven this point home.
It is also likely that the US position on the importance of holding elections on time is also held by the other Western countries and Japan. Sri Lanka is dependent on these countries, still the wealthiest in the world, for its economic sustenance, trade and aid, in the form of concessional financing and benefits, such as the GSP Plus tariff concession. Therefore, the pressures coming from both the ground level in the country and the international community, may push the government in the direction of elections and seeking a mandate from the people. Strengthening the legitimacy of the government to govern effectively and engage in problem solving in the national interest requires an electoral mandate. The mandate sought may not be at the local government level, where public opinion polls show the government at its weakest, but at the national level which the President can exercise at his discretion.
Sing-along… Down Memory Lane
Sing-alongs have turned out to be hugely popular, in the local showbiz scene, and, I would say, it’s mainly because they are family events, and also the opportunity given to guests to shine, in the vocal spotlight, for a minute, or two!
I first experienced a sing-along when I was invited to check out the famous Rhythm World Dance School sing-along evening.
It was, indeed, something different, with Sohan & The X-Periments doing the needful, and, today, Sohan and his outfit are considered the No.1 band for sing-along events.
I’m told that the first ever sing-along concert, in Sri Lanka, was held on 27th April, 1997, and it was called Down Memory Lane (DML), presented by the Moratuwa Arts Forum (MAF),
The year 2023 is a landmark year for the MAF and, I’m informed, they will be celebrating their Silver Jubilee with a memorable concert, on 29th April, 2023, at the Grand Bolgoda Resort, Moratuwa.
Due to the Covid pandemic, their sing-along series had to be cancelled, as well as their planned concert for 2019. However, the organisers say the delayed 25th Jubilee Celebration concert is poised to be a thriller, scheduled to be held on 29th April, 2023.
During the past 25 years, 18 DML concerts had been held, and the 25th Jubilee Celebration concert will be the 19th in the series.
Famous, and much-loved, ‘golden oldies’, will be sung by the audience of music lovers, at this two and a half hours programme.
Down Memory Lane was the brainchild of musician Priya Peiris, (of ‘Cock-a-Doodle-Do’ fame) and the MAF became the pioneers of sing-along concerts in Sri Lanka.
The repertoire of songs for the 25th Jubilee Celebration concert will include a vast selection of international favourites, Cowboy and old American Plantation hits, Calypsos, Negro Spirituals, everybody’s favourites, from the ’60s and ’70s era, Sinhala evergreens, etc.
Singers from the Moratuwa Arts Forum will be on stage to urge the audience to sing. The band Echo Steel will provide the musical accompaniment for the audience to join in the singing, supported by Brian Coorey, the left handed electric bass guitarist, and Ramany Soysa on grand piano.
The organisers say that every participant will get a free songbook. There would also be a raffle draw, with several prizes to be won,
Arun Dias Bandaranaike will be the master of ceremonies.
President of the Moratuwa Arts Forum, Melantha Perera, back from Australia, after a successful tour, says: “All music lovers, especially Golden Oldies enthusiasts, are cordially invited to come with their families, and friends, to have an enjoyable evening, and to experience heartwarming fellowship and bonhomie.”
Further details could be obtained from MAF Treasurer, Laksiri Fernando (077 376 22 75).
CATCH 22 for
‘Ranpota’ hitmaker Nimal Jayamanne has got a new outfit going, made up of veteran musicians.
The band is called CATCH 22 and they, officially, started performing at The Warehouse (TWH), on 2nd March 2023.
The members are Nimal Jayamanne, R. Sumith Jayaratne, Duminda Sellappruma, Keerthi Samarasekara and Sajith Mutucumarana.
Says Nimal: “I took this name (CATCH 22) as a mark of respect to the late and great Hassan Musafer, who was the drummer of the original Catch 22.
You could catch Nimal in action, on Thursday evenings, at TWH, from 7 pm onwards.
Till recently, Nimal, who underwent a cataract operation, on his left eye, last week, was with Warehouse Legends, and has this to say about them:
“Thank you Warehouse Legends for letting me be an active member of your team, during the past year and 14 days. I wish you all the best.”
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