By P. K. Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, December 13: Elections to the Provincial Councils (PC) in Sri Lanka have not been held for many years because of moves to amend the representative system to make it more minority-friendly.
However, the polls are likely to be held soon. And in all probability, they will be held under the old system of Proportional Representation. Simultaneously, efforts to formulate a new and more representative system will continue.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told the newly formed Election Commission that he wants the PC elections to be held at the earliest. He also asked the Commission to look into the possibility of holding them under the old Proportional Representation system if the new mixed system will take time to be put in place.
The members of the Commission agreed and said a Parliamentary Select Committee should be appointed to make changes in the existing laws to suit a new system. The prime minister said he had already asked the Speaker to appoint such a committee. Meanwhile, Mahinda Deshapriya, former Chairman of the Elections Commission, has been appointed to the Delimitation Commission (DC). The other members of the DC are Jayalath Ravi Dissanayake and P.H.G.Premasiri.
Need for PC polls
Being a hard-boiled politician, Prime Minister Rajapaksa feels the need to create and activate institutions which will train and bring up a second and third line of leaders and political activists for his party. The Provincial Councils are structures which groom such leaders. This is the reason why the Ministry of Provincial Councils was given a large allocation in the 2020-2021 budget, perhaps next only to defence.
The prime minister is very keen that the PC elections are held at the earliest also before the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government begins to feel the heat of anti-incumbency.
While Sri Lanka is doing better in pandemic control than many other countries, there is no knowing as to what lies in store for it, in the months to come. Therefore, while the going is good, the SLPP would like to hold the polls. As per the economic forecast, in 2021, the Sri Lankan economy will recover as restrictions ease and foreign demand rebounds. The economy is expected to grow by 3.4% in 2021. A vaccine for COVID could also enter the market in 2021 to boost the economy and generate incomes. Therefore, the first quarter of 2021 would be a good time to hold the PC polls.
It is the anxiety to hold the PC polls that is making the prime minister make moves to settle the cremation issue of Muslim COVID victims. He has asked the Technical Committee in charge of the matter, to come up with a solution quickly. The idea is to assuage the feelings of the Muslim minority. The prime minister is only too aware that his government was able to get two thirds majority to pass the crucial 20th Constitutional Amendment because of the defection of some Muslim MPs from the opposition.
Problems in delimitation
As stated earlier, it was delimitation of electorates that had delayed the PC elections. A Delimitation Commission was set up in November 2015 mainly to give a fair representation to the minorities. The five-member committee headed by retired Surveyor General Kanagaratnam Thavalingam, had as members, retired Assistant Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Professors S.H. Hisbullah and Sangara Wijeyasandiran, and retired Assistant Election Commissioner Premathilaka Siriwardena.
The Commission recommended 50% of members be elected by the First-Past-the-Post system and the balance 50% by Proportional Representation. The report dealt with the demarcation of electorates and key issues highlighted by the stakeholders, including representation of minorities, multi-member electorates, naming of electorates and adequacy of the number of members.
But in August 2018, Parliament rejected the Provincial Delimitation Commission report with all those present voting against it, while 86 MPs, including those of the JVP who supported the report, being absent at the time of voting. Minority community ministers Mano Ganeshan and Rauff Hakeem opposed the report saying it violated the rights of minorities.
Both the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Joint Opposition leader Dinesh Gunawardena said it should be possible to hold the PC elections under the already existing Proportional Representation system.
Delimitation is a tough task as demands from various communities and interest groups are not only many but tend to contradict each other. The Delimitation Commission suggested various methods of representation to meet the demands of all communities, including those who were dispersed. But many of these were issues outside the mandate of the commission.
Despite the failure, the exercise will continue. But it is unlikely to succeed. It is generally accepted that the existing Proportional Representation system has fairly adequately served both the majority and the minority communities in Sri Lanka, though much may need to be done to make it more representative.