Archbishop of Colombo

Last week the Social and Economic Development Centre of the Catholic Church arranged a discussion on ‘A Free and Fair General Election to strengthen faith in Parliamentary Democracy’. The A Team, who spoke first and then answered questions, consisted of Susil Premjayanth, Minister of Education, Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Leader of the UNP, and Somawansa Amerasinghe, Leader of the JVP. We then had a moving intervention by the Archbishop of Colombo, after which the B Team, Wijedasa Rajapakse of the UNP, Mr Sumathiran representing the TNA, and myself, made our presentations, with more questions to follow.


The conceptual framework of the discussion was set by the Moderator, Fr Tirimanne, who pinpointed four aberrations with regard to fair elections. I thought he was unerring in his diagnosis, because he noted the instances in which the people at large have felt grossly cheated, and which constitute the principal arguments against any complacency with regard to the electoral process in Sri Lanka. 

The most appalling example of this was of course the Referendum of 1982. Fortunately we now hear no one who defends this, but I suspect the full enormity of what occurred has not yet sunk in amongst the votaries of the UNP in Colombo. That was after all the first example in this country in which the wishes of the people were clearly traduced on an enormous scale.

Certainly there had been electoral malpractices before, as we see from the numerous examples of election petitions that were successful. On the whole however, though probably in all instances there was manipulation that affected the national vote too, this was never to an extent that exceeded a couple of percentage points. In practically all cases then the voters accepted the results with equanimity.

The principal exception to this, which still rouses some indignation, was the Wayamba Provincial Council election of the late nineties. In that case, the ruling party at the time is still condemned for what occurred, but thankfully that example was not followed in succeeding Provincial Council elections. If indeed the leadership of the party was responsible at national level, it seemed to have learnt its lesson, and the results of the elections that followed were not thought dubious – not even when the victory was narrow, as when two mutually acknowledged gentlemen, Mr Premjayanth and Mr Jayasuriya, led the opposing forces for the 1999 Western Province Election.

The other exception is odd because the chief beneficiary of abuse was not considered responsible for what occurred. I refer to the 1988 Presidential Election, which Mr Premadasa won very narrowly, in a poll that was ruthlessly disrupted by the JVP. The UNP was however in power, and its campaigners were well protected, whereas the SLFP and its allies were killed in profusion. Though the UNP almost certainly took advantage of this phenomenon, to intimidate voters and so on (polling was lowest in areas which traditionally supported the SLFP, being in single figures for instance in Hakmana), the country at large did not hold Mr Premadasa responsible, and his tenure as President was not seen as illegitimate.

Mr Amerasinghe it should be noted made a valiant effort to defend the JVP tactics of those days, talking about a virtual Civil War situation, which he applied also to 1971. But he is an intelligent man, and managed to indicate that even he now grants that the JVP behaved appallingly in those days, for he talked about the self criticism they had indulged in and asked the audience to note the fact that the record of the JVP had been much better since 1994.

I would argue then that by and large we have kept faith in this country with democracy, and that the people have got the government of their choice. However, the fourth aspect that Fr Tirimanne noted is I believe the main reason for concern now, because it lies at the heart of the general impression we all have, that there is much wrong with the electoral process in Sri Lanka.

He referred, as I do now, to the Preference System introduced by President Jayewardene when he realized that the Proportional Representation System he had introduced in 1978 created animosity against the party hierarchy. That was a pure list system, with those placed at the top of the list by the party getting preference over those lower down, when the number of seats to which each party was entitled in any district had been decided. This meant that those the party placed low down on the list either crossed over before the election, or else failed to campaign, since they would not get elected whatever they did.

President Jayewardene’s remedy was simple, and characteristic of the man. He transferred any potential animosity to the party to the candidate’s peers. So we now have a situation where, in any District, the greatest rivalry is between members of the same party. Their efforts at publicizing themselves may lead to a larger vote for the party, but the main purpose of many of them is to ensure that they will be amongst those elected through preferences.

This requires massive spending. The very rich advertise in the electronic as well as the print media, others have to content themselves with putting up posters in a whole District. All this requires resources on a scale previously unknown in Sri Lankan elections. It also requires manpower, and we know that men engaged in electioneering are more volatile than most. So we have clashes, inter-party and intra-party, we have the accumulation of resources to overcome all potential rivals, and we have the development of obligations to those who assist on the large scale, obligations that have to be met after elections as well as before.

I recall my father telling President Jayewardene, who always did things his way, but required validation for his actions through the approval of the few people he respected, that he was making robbers out of barons. President Jayewardene was not amused, but I think my father’s assessment of the corrosive effect on politicians of the systems President Jayewardene introduced, and then tinkered with to increasingly worse effect, was quite accurate.

Fortunately, as Minister Premjayanth made clear, government is determined to change the electoral system after the forthcoming election. He noted that the main recommendation of the Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Minister
Dinesh Gunawardene, to restore constituencies, would be followed, but that the President had stressed the need for ensuring adequate representation for the minorities and smaller parties through compensatory mechanisms.

Such requirements are satisfied by the German System, albeit it may need modification in terms of our particular situation. This system has indeed been accepted in principle by several Parliaments, but they have all failed to act. Indeed I recalled in my presentation that, when Mr Jayasuriya had told me, way back in 2003, that a change was being prepared, I had urged him to act immediately. Unfortunately there was delay, and before he knew where he was, Parliament had been dissolved.

This time round, I hope there will be no delay. The country simply cannot afford more elections on the present system. Apart from the financial and moral cost, it also contributes to a decline in faith in our Parliamentary Democracy. Even though the nation recognizes that, in the last few years, we have got the governments the people want, we need to promote more positive perceptions both of politicians and the system.