dopey 1It is entirely understandable that the President should indulge his son Namal. Given the manner in which politics in Sri Lanka has been conducted, it is also understandable that he should see him as his eventual successor.

The tradition goes back to the first Prime Minster of Sri Lanka, D S Senanayake, who wanted his son Dudley to succeed him, and appointed a complaisant Governor General, Lord Soulbery, who duly requested the son to take over when the old man died. Later Mrs Bandaranaike took over from her husband, and in time handed over control of the party, and thus the Presidency, to her daughter Chandrika.

A senior Indian journalist told me recently, when I questioned him about Rahul Gandhi, that this phenomenon of family politics in South Asia had produced youngsters who combined arrogance and stupidity in astonishing measure. I objected with regard to Mrs Gandhi herself, but he quickly granted her ability, and noted that she had come up the hard way. To some extent that could be said of both Dudley Senanayake and Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the former certainly is remembered as a good leader. But clearly now the situation has changed, and even basic ability is no longer required, at least in Sri Lanka, for political advancement.

This is to a great extent because of the electoral system we have. In the 1978 constitution, J R Jayewardene introduced proportional representation, given that the first past the post system we had previously had produced lopsided majorities. This was because so many constituencies in the country were marginals that a small swing nationally was enough to give the more popular party a massive majority. However, the pure list system he first introduced led to those low down on the list not working at elections – and indeed sometimes crossing over to the other side – since it was obvious that, on PR, they would not be elected.

Jayewardene therefore introduced a preference system. In itself this might not have been objectionable but, instead of one preference per voter, he granted three. This meant that candidates were obliged to seek preferences in the entire catchment area they represented. Though in theory they were appointed as organizers to particular constituencies within the District, the electoral catchment area, they could not only seek votes in that constituency. Nor could they object to others, from other constituencies, seeking votes in their own particular area.

So elections became a free for all, with candidates evincing greater hostility to members of their own party, their rivals for preferences, rather than to members of the opposing party. Certainly in recent years the vast majority of complaints about electoral violence have been intra-party complaints.

The system has engendered tremendous problems. First, given the vast area in which they have to campaign, candidates require more resources than in the days in which they contested in just a single  constituency. The need for enormous amounts of money naturally leads to corruption. In addition, given the material resources that those holding executive office have, and the opportunity to appoint a large number of staff members who have basically no work except to serve the Minister who appointed them, there is a massive demand for ministerial positions – which in part explains the massive Cabinets we now have.

It also explains the manner in which funds are allocated for development purposes now. For some years, well before the present Parliament was elected, all Members were allocated Rs 5 million, to be spent as they recommended, on projects in particular subject areas. The interpretation of these was however pretty loose, so in the education sector for instance funds could be spent on providing instruments for a school band.  Given the need to win popularity in a wide catchment area, most Members therefore spread their money thin.

How ridiculous the system was came home to me, when one of the Divisional Secretaries in the North told me that I was the only person who spent substantially in his area. And indeed in two Divisions in Mullaitivu, I found that, whereas I had spent 1 million rupees on each, the combined allocation of all other Members of Parliament came to less than1 million in one Division, less than Rs 100,000 in the other, which was perhaps the most neglected Division in the country – and sparsely populated, which explained perhaps the neglect.

As a National List Member, I had decided that I would each year spend half of my money in the South, and half in the North. I cannot take any credit for this, in that I did not need the money to win votes since I had no constituency, and had no likelihood of being nominated, or winning election, from any District. But I did try to spend my money on projects that would have a lasting impact and, in the North, having started with entrepreneurship development workshops for former combatants, I moved on to establishing Vocational Training Centres. These were in schools, to minimize expenditure on infrastructure, and also to develop a culture of continuing education within the school system.

In two years then, I had set up five such Centres in four Divisions in Mullaitivu and one in Kilinochchi, the Districts in which the LTTE had held sway. Despite my urging, way back in 2010, that the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Vocational Training develop Vocational Training in the area, and the Minister agreeing, very little had been done. Planning seemed to have been left to Basil Rajapaksa, who just spent money on buildings. Thus there was a large complex in Mullaitivu town, but it had very few students by 2014. No study had been done of what the people in the area wanted, so there were no courses in for instance the motor mechanics that the fishing industry of the region needed.

In the four other Districts of the area, one had no Centre, two others had Centres that were not functioning, the fourth had a Centre with just 16 students in attendance. My own Centre in the same area had 55. The situation was similar in both Mannar and Kilinochchi, the other two Districts in the North that had suffered most from LTTE domination. And to add to the neglect from which they suffered, Kilinochchi was lumped together with Jaffna for electoral purposes, while Mullaitivu and Mannar were included with Vavuniya in an electoral District known as Wanni.

The whole area then received very little funding from Members of Parliament elected from there. Those Members who represented what was termed the Jaffna District spent their funds there, and only two of them, one from government and one from the opposition, bothered to any appreciable extent about Kilinochchi. In the Wanni, the government Members were all Muslims from the Mannar District and concentrated there on the Muslim areas, albeit neither of them thought much about training – even though one of them, Rishard Bathiudeen, was Minister of Industries, and should have realized the paucity of skilled workers in the area. Ironically, Douglas Devananda, the Tamil government Minister from the North, was Minister of Small Industries, but for him too it seemed that training was a closed book. And the opposition Members, with no encouragement to think of long term development, also did little in the area that could have long term impact.

Perhaps realizing the failure to win hearts and minds through the existing provisions, in the rest of the country as well as in the North, the indefatigable if tunnel visioned Basil Rajapaksa came up with new wheezes in 2014. Previously he had deployed the bulk of funds available for development through the Economic Development Ministry, which indeed commanded the second largest share of the National Budget, following Defence. But there had also been rumblings about this, from Members of Parliament, who finally began to say openly that massive building projects alone were not enough.

So a new scheme was instituted whereby government Members of Parliament elected from the various Districts were allocated Rs 30 million each to devise Projects for their Districts. And then, to frost the cake extravagantly, selected Members were given varying amounts, of 100 million and more, for development of areas where they presided over what were termed Divisional Development Committees.

These schemes made it very clear how desperately the country needed reform of both the electoral system, and administrative structures. As I told the Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee to look into reforms, it was absurd that government should still function in terms of electorates when these had no administrative status, and indeed meant nothing formally for political purposes either. The absurdity of allocating huge sums to all government members elected from a particular District, obviously because they needed to win hearts and mind throughout the District – and in competition with each other – should have made obvious to anyone concerned with executive responsibilities the need to change our electoral system, as had been pledged at so many elections.

For good measure I wrote too to the Ministry of Public Administration to point out that this see-saw between electorates and districts and divisions made clear that we needed to streamline the system for administrative and financial purposes. My view was that now it would make sense to work primarily  through Divisions, the increasing population making that the most practical unit of administration, on the pattern on which some decades back the Province had given way to the District. Coordination of government services, and in particular results based budgeting, seemed best done now at Divisional level, given the number of services which could be coordinated at that level.

But I had little hope of the necessary reforms being considered, given the absence of conceptualizing capacity amongst decision makers. Besides, it was clear by the latter part of 2014 that government was gearing itself for elections, and saw the confusion about units desirable for both allocating funds and avoiding accountability based on clearcut units where popular consultation could play a significant role.

Another consequence of the electoral system from which we now suffer is that simple name recognition is generally enough to ensure election. Often voters, having selected the candidate from their constituency, use their other two preferences on those whose names they know. Obviously posters put up all over the electoral catchment area help in getting one’s name known, but there are other easier reasons too for some individuals to get votes. So film or sports stars do very well at elections, as do those who obtain publicity for other reasons, through eccentric behavior, or even by being jailed, as happened with a relatively unknown character from the opposition in the 2010 General Election.

And of course if one’s father or mother or brother or uncle is already an established politician, then one is more likely to pick up the loose preferences of a large number of the voters. In short, the children of well known politicians start with a built in advantage. Contrariwise, in the past, when candidates were chosen for particular electorates, they had to establish themselves in that area, as individuals with some connection with the constituency they wanted to represent. Now however they simply have to command patronage in order to get their names on the electoral lists. So in recent years there have been increasing numbers of children standing for election, and many of them have done very well. Whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had to prove that he was the most able of his siblings to step into his father’s seat, and whereas he lost elections under the first past the post system and was not in Parliament for several years, Namal had no difficulty in getting nomination for the Hambantota District, and in topping the list there on preferences at the election. And he will surely be able to get enough preferences in any future election to stay in Parliament, even if the SLFP becomes less popular in the District than another party.

Colombo Telegraph 15 December 2014 –