Last week Parliament debated an Adjournment Motion introduced by Mr Yogarajan, one of the more thoughtful members on the government side of the house. He wanted more consultation of political parties and interested groups with regard to electoral reform.
This is an admirable idea, but it is significant, sadly so, that he should have proposed this only in June. As I have pointed out previously, the President’s manifesto said very clearly that on Wednesday January 28th ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’
Nothing of the sort was done, so it was surprising to hear the gentleman who seconded the motion claiming that the government had fulfilled almost all its promises. In essence, the process of consultation that the minor parties are pushing for now is something they should have urged as soon as the government was elected.
I would suggest that Anura Kumara Dissanayake also was lax in not pushing the matter through the National Advisory Council. But he seems, as Ranil had perhaps anticipated, to have adopted the view that consultation means everyone concentrating on their own particular interests. So he had worked on the Code of Conduct, and given in a draft swiftly. But then he seems to have given up, and pressed neither for that nor for anything else. He contented himself with bemoaning the fact that the Council hardly met, and himself did nothing to revive it – and now, as Rajitha Senaratne admitted, it no longer functions.
Anura could claim that he bears no responsibility for the President’s manifesto, but that is not the case with those in the government who kept sedulously quiet. Rishard Bathiudeen, who waxed eloquent about his determination to oppose the 20th Amendment, which he wanted withdrawn, does not seem prepared to engage in discussions to amend it to incorporate some of the sound points he made. Such determination is unusual in someone who acted like a mouse during the time the last government was in power, and who has done the same under his new master, while his empire expands at the expense of poor Jayawickrema Perera. The conclusion is inescapable that the mouse is now roaring because he feels this is what the new master wants.
What the new master wants is obvious from the fact that he stymied the efforts of the President to satisfy the concerns of the minor parties. The initial draft of the 20th Amendment had a figure of 255, which it seemed was needed if the representation of minorities was to remain at current levels. I should note that the figure struck me as excessive, but I thought it should be accepted since any change should not be, or seem to be, at the expense of the minorities. However Ranil was not prepared to accept this, and got the Cabinet to accept the current figure of 225.
He knows perfectly well that this will upset the minorities. He also knows that the Elections Commissioner said it would be very difficult to cut down constituencies from the current 160 to 125 as he proposed. He ignored the compromise suggested by the Commissioner of 140, just as he tried to ignore the principle of two votes, which would also have assuaged the worries of the minorities. Indeed he went into a state of denial when I proposed this, and claimed only I wanted this, whereas others had supported in the discussion. Fortunately the spoke up when I objected to his sweeping statement, and only he and Nimal Siripala (and for some strange reason Vasudeva Nanayakkara) wanted to stick to just one vote.
That I think would be the best way of satisfying the fears of the minorities, that voters would feel obliged to choose a candidate from the major parties, even if they preferred another party. This fear is justified, and would lead to a distortion of the final composition of Parliament, since it would increase the share of the major parties.
But at the same time I do not think what Rishard Bathiudeen seemed to claim is true, that the major parties would not nominate minority candidates. He mentioned Borella, where we know that for years the UNP had M H Mohamed as its, usually victorious, candidate. And giving each voter two votes, one for a candidate to represent the constituency, and the other for a party to determine the final composition of parliament, would also enable the major parties to choose the best candidate possible, without worrying about sectarian considerations, since those would be taken care of by the party vote.
I should note here the objection raised by the JHU, which has now come out strongly against two votes, that that would contribute to a proliferation of sectarian parties. I do not think that would happen, since we have by and large moved to a more inclusive vision of society. At the same time, we must cater for areas where such interests are dominant, which is precisely why reducing constituencies to 125 is not sensible.
All this should of course have been discussed in the all party committee that was supposed to have been set up in January. Certainly the discussions when the issue came to the fore were generally productive. But this happened only during the last couple of months, after the UPFA made clear that its support for the 19th Amendment was contingent about the 20th too being passed. This is a coherent position, because a weakening of the Presidency should lead to a strengthening of the role of individual Parliamentarians.
The President, who has a more sincere commitment to the promises he made than the instruments he chose to fulfil them, shared the view of the UPFA and said he too believed electoral reform is essential. It is entirely because of his determination that we have a draft on the table. He has also shown himself willing to compromise on the details while remaining firm on the principles, which is how he ensured that the 19th Amendment was passed with near unanimity.
What seems to me commitment to essentials within a culture of compromise is what makes me continue to hope that he will turn out an exemplary President, whose vision of comprehensive reform is fulfilled effectively. But for that he needs partners who share that vision, and are committed to consultation. It is crystal clear that this is not the style of the Prime Minister, as even his Chief Whip has admitted.
I hope then that the President looks again at his manifesto, sees the other areas – including the Code of Conduct – where swift action is both necessary and possible, and takes steps to ensure that his commitments are fulfilled.