By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, May 10: At a time when a national debate is taking place on the future of the Sri Lankan Provincial Council (PC) system, another committee has been appointed to recommend electoral reforms.
For the second time in two decades, Leader of the House, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena heads a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) appointed to identify appropriate reforms to election laws and the electoral system and to recommend necessary amendments. This time he heads the 14-member Committee, announced by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena last week.
The other members of the PSC are Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, G.L. Peiris, Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, Douglas Devananda, Wimal Weerawansa and M.U.M. Ali Sabry and MPs Jeevan Thondaman, Anura Dissanayake, Kabir Hashim, R.M. Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Mano Ganesan, M.A. Sumanthiran, Madhura Withanage and Sagara Kariyawasam.
In 2003, a PSC headed by Dinesh Gunawardena was given the same task and the Committee came up with far reaching recommendations on electoral reforms. In its first report, the PSC proposed a mixed electoral system combining proportional representation and first-past-the-post system. Hence, the new PSC will have a fairly easy task, as the work will be limited to updating the original proposals with required amendments to further strengthen them.
The first-past-the-post system, which lasted nearly 50 years since introduction of adult franchise in 1931, was cost effective, less violent and elected a representative of a particular electorate. It meant that if a representative did not fulfill the desires of the people, the people could vote for a different representative at the next election. It also allowed for single party governments, which meant party policies did not have to be watered down. The opposition was equally vibrant in such a system.
However, it was not a perfect system of people’s representation as evident in past elections. For example, in 1970, the SLFP won only 48 per cent of the votes and still acquired 76.7 per cent of the seats in Parliament and in 1977, the UNP won only 50.6 per cent of the votes and acquired 83 per cent of the seats in Parliament. In August 2020 General Elections, the SLPP would have won more than 180 seats, if the Elections were held under the first-past-the-post system.
Acknowledging those shortcomings, the architects of the 1978 Republican Constitution established a system of proportional representation for electing representatives to the Parliament and other electoral bodies. However, the system of proportional representation could not be considered a perfect system of democratic Elections. A massive district is made an electorate where only candidates with huge sums of money can spend on the election campaign. Potential candidates without huge campaign funds are unable to do so.
The majority view of the 2003 PSC favored reforms to the present system leading towards a mixed system with a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems. Concerns were raised in respect of a proposed change of the present system by minority parties and communities of interests who urged the committee to ensure equitable representation in the system that is finally proposed.
The Committee also considered the recommendations of the Commissioner of Elections regarding changes to the present legal regime in relation to recognition of political parties. The Commissioner noted that the recognition of political parties is effected more on the basis of satisfaction of legal criteria and of national compliance rather than on the basis of actual recognition by voters. In the result, the vast majority of recognized political parties do not even directly feature in any of the elections. Having considered the views of the Commissioner of Elections, the Committee recommended that legal provision should be made for a two stage procedure. Firstly, a party is registered, assigned a symbol and permitted to nominate candidates. Thereafter, recognition will be granted only on the basis of voter acceptance. It is also recommended that legal provisions be made for the Commissioner of Elections to rescind registration and recognition of political parties as the case may be, on the basis of specified criteria that pertain to the overall concept of voter acceptance.
Freezing the number of PC members
Contrary to the PSC recommendations on freezing the number of Provincial Council members at the original level introduced in 1988, the membership of local government bodies almost doubled after delimitation of constituencies. In the last local government elections in February 2019, the number of members elected was nearly double the previous number.
The 2003 Committee unanimously agreed that there should be no increase in the membership of each Provincial Council and the number of members should be frozen as at present level. The Committee was also in agreement that it is appropriate to hold elections to all Provincial Councils on a single day.
The Committee considered it necessary that Sections 3 and 22 of the Provincial Councils Elections Act No. 2 of 1988 be amended to provide for the freezing of the membership of Provincial Councils on the basis of the order of the President made in terms of Section 2 of the Provincial Councils Act No. 42 of 1987 and to hold Provincial Councils Elections on a single day.
The 15-member Dinesh Gunawardena Committee of 2003 included many senior parliamentarians such as Karu Jayasuriya, Rajvarothiam Sampanthan, Rauff Hakeem, Gayantha Karunathilleka, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Douglas Devananda and Susil Premajayantha.
The new PSC should also look at the possible ways of democratizing the National List. The 1978 system of appointing National List MPs by political parties was not proper. Nominations in the National List quota gave an undemocratic advantage to influential candidates to enter Parliament through the backdoor. True democrats were aghast when a few candidates who lost the Elections, entered Parliament under the National List making a mockery of democracy. However, most of the parties refrained from appointing candidates rejected in the August 2020 general Elections.
Speaking during an adjournment debate in the House, Dinesh Gunawardena said it was the government’s belief that there should be an electoral system, under which a majority of MPs should be elected under the first-past-the post system and the rest on proportional representation system.
“We have already implemented a mixed electoral system at the local government level in the local government Elections in February 2019. It is essential to extend such a system to Parliament,” he said.
The proposed mixed system is undeniably a welcome change to the electoral system. As this is an issue pending for decades, early steps must be taken to implement the recommendations of the new PSC when it submits its report by November 2021.