The fiasco over the UNP nominations list for Moneragala, hugely entertaining though it is, should also one hopes be the last nail in the coffin of the current electoral system. It is quite preposterous that a political party should claim that the nomination paper handed in on its behalf is a forgery, and at the same time not want, or be unable to do anything, to prevent an election that is based on this forgery taking place.

Underlying this absurdity is the fatal collectivism introduced by the Jayewardene constitution into the mechanism through which the people elect their representatives to the legislature. Because of the all or nothing approach engendered by the list system, individuals cannot generally be held to account for abuses (forgeries or electoral malpractices or whatever), because any disciplinary action would have to deal with the whole list. This would not only be unfair on individuals, it would also upset the whole democratic process, inasmuch as the people would then be left without any real choice. 

The consequences of the collective punishment that is the only remedy for blatant malpractice became obvious when the UNP engaged earlier in one of its forging exercises, and managed to have its whole list for the Colombo Municipal Council election cancelled. The result was the ridiculous emergence of the trick cyclists – whose very existence, in the form of a list that was submitted as a form of insurance or whatever, also shows how preposterous the whole system is.  

But if the lunacy of the system is most obvious when abuses take place, we should not be blind to the basic absurdity of whole districts being represented by groups rather than individuals. The fundamental principle of representative democracy is that the people should have individuals to represent them, and those individuals should have a close relationship with the areas and the interests which are their primary responsibility.

Now, under the current system, everyone in a district has to represent everyone. Since they also therefore have to develop their popularity amongst everyone, they have to spend enormous amounts of time and energy dealing with parochial problems over a large geographical area. This is not easy to do without additional resources, which is why members of parliament so anxiously seek executive office too. How else can they provide jobs as members of parliament are expected to do, or expedite remedies for the problems that befall their vast range of constituents?

This came home to me vividly, when I found many years ago that almost all the security guards at the Southeastern University in Oluvil came from the Galle District. The Minister of Education at the time was Richard Pathirana, and this was the easiest way in which he could satisfy pressing needs. I thought this bizarre, but then the guards informed me that the Galle port was full of people from the Oluvil area, Mr Ashraff then being in charge of Ports and Shipping. Thus it was understandable that Mr Mangala Samaraweera should have given up the Foreign Ministry, when asked to choose between his portfolios, so he could hang on to Ports and Aviation, precisely because that gave him room for patronage. Though quixotic enough to resign soon afterwards in support of his previous and current friend Mr Anura Bandaranaike, he had been severely practical previously – and it is absurd to blame him for this, because how else was he to secure his preferences? 

Obviously then patronage has become much more important than previously, and with the precedent of over 100 Ministers established in the eighties (in a much smaller parliament), the thirst for office is insatiable. Conversely, if Members of Parliament were responsible only for constituencies, and only one individual exercised such responsibility, patronage could be exercised more discriminatingly, without any need for additional executive powers. A decentralized development budget could be used to kickstart area specific schemes, for which the individual member of parliament could take all credit.

Returning then to a constituency system obviously makes sense though, as the President has made clear, this should not lead to deprivation for the minorities or for smaller parties. Thus a return simply to the old first past the post system, which led to such unbalanced parliaments in 1970 and 1977 – leading to dissent bursting out in violent insurrections in both North and South, when the latter parliament was extended well past its shelf life – would be unwise. Nor would it do to supplement it with a simple percentage that would also allow entry for defeated candidates.

Rather, a compensatory procedure, to approximate to actual proportionality, would make sense. This requires a list and it could be objected that the candidates on this list would be dependent only on the party hierarchy for selection to fill vacancies. But that is precisely what the current National List is about, and the principle involved has not been criticized, as opposed to comments about a few individuals appointed through the list. Indeed, on the contrary, generally there is praise for the system adopted by the JVP in seeking election through District lists. Unlike with other parties, in the JVP list party discipline prevents internal competition, while after the results are declared, it is those the party designates who actually get into Parliament.

An ideal system then would have about a hundred constituencies, instead of the current 160, with members who could devote themselves to the welfare of their constituents. They would be supplemented by a hundred others, chosen by parties from the lists they submit. Party discipline with regard to these list members could, and should, be rigid, whereas individuals elected to constituencies should have some leeway, with the possibility of by-elections if they wish to change allegiance. Such flexibility would also allow for the weather vanes that kept earlier governments on their toes, whereas now Parliament has been reduced to a static body, without the dynamism that the occasional by-election engendered. 

If to such a principal chamber of Parliament we added, as the President has pledged, a Second Chamber based on regions, we would have a truly representative body, that could act as a sounding board for all aspirations. Obviously the directly elected First Chamber would have paramountcy with regard to legislation, but a Second Chamber would allow for advice both creative and cautionary, which would avoid the hasty and impractical legislation that we have seen so often in the past, and in particular with regard to the several amendments that made an already appalling Constitution almost entirely abhorrent.