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Junius Richard Jayewardene - 2nd President of Sri Lanka. In office February 4, 1978 – January 2, 1989.

Election systems

Sri Lanka has in fact been singularly unlucky in the election systems it has adopted over the years. Initially we had the first past the post system used in Britain, whereby the country was divided into constituencies, which elected members by simple majority. There were just a few constituencies which had more than one member, a system designed to ensure representation of different communities where they were mixed up together so that two separate constituencies would not have served the purpose. Thus Akurana usually returned one Sinhala and one Muslim member, while Nuwara Eliya, which became a multi-member constituency for the 1977 election, had one representative each of the UNP, the SLFP and the CWC.

In general however the philosophy was that the winner, by however small a margin, took all. In Britain, the effect of this is mitigated in the country at large in that there are certain constituencies which always stay with one party, so that the party that loses the election still generally has substantial strength in parliament. In Sri Lanka however, where most constituencies are what are termed marginals, ie a small shift either way changes the result, the two major parties found themselves reduced to very small numbers when they lost an election. Thus the UNP got 8 seats out of 101 in 1956 and 17 out of 157 in 1970, while the SLFP had 8 out of 168 in 1977. The party that won conversely had a massive majority, even though its share of the national vote was just around 50%.

Both in 1970 and in 1977 these massive majorities enabled the party in power to do virtually anything it wanted, including the introduction of new constitutions that represented only their own desires, and the extension of the term of parliament. It is conceivable that in 1970 those who perpetrated this injustice actually believed in the slogan that Parliament was supreme, in that it represented the people. The Constitutional principle that representatives elected by the people for a particular period cannot deprive the people of their basic rights was not recognized in those days.

J R Jayewardene however, who presided over the 1977 government and its majoritarian excesses, understood himself the need for better representation and more safeguards, and in his new constitution he introduced proportional representation. For the future he instituted an election system whereby voting was by district, with the quota of seats for the district divided according to the proportion of votes each party got within that district as a whole. On that system a majority of two thirds in Parliament would have represented a high proportion of the population, so allowing certain measures to be passed by such a majority would have been based on their having the support of representatives of well over half the people. However he passed several measures with the two thirds majority he had obtained under the earlier system, including a bill to amend the constitution to extend the life of that parliament by a further six years.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2010
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