Paul Scott, the British writer I admire most of those active in the second half of the last century, was adept at exploring how people let each other down. In one of his novels, he refers to the various betrayals his protagonist engaged in.

I was reminded of that in thinking, as we reach the half way point of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, of the various betrayals he has been forced into. I do not say he has perpetrated these, for I still see him as a passive onlooker, but that does not absolve him of responsibility. After all he was elected President, and he should have worked towards fulfilling as many as possible of the promises he made in his manifesto. Instead he has allowed the country to sink into more corrosive corruption than ever before.

Last week I wrote about perhaps the most expensive mistake he made, namely allowing an exception to the pledged constitutional change to limit the size of the Cabinet. He, or rather those who make decisions in his government, have now exploited that provision with the utmost cynicism, so that we have 45 Cabinet Ministers apart from the President, and another 45 State / Deputy Ministers.

Each of them is entitled to private staff, many of whom have little to do, and little understanding of what should be done beyond expanding the influence of the Minister. They have innumerable vehicles and personal security, and they all have offices, many of which have been redecorated at vast expense.

I remember being told, when I became a State Minister, that my predecessor had had I think 11 vehicles at his disposal, many of them new. I said I only needed one, though this decision was changed at the insistence of my staff who thought there should be two in case of emergency. I also upset my coordinating secretaries – five of them – by saying that there was no need for each of them to have a vehicle, which they were entitled to. I felt they could share a couple between them, and this worked perfectly well – not least because all of them worked a full day in office, to the surprise of my Secretary, who tried indeed to keep them on after I resigned, given that they were a cut above the general run of Ministerial personal appointments.

But one reason I could concentrate on my work was that I did not have to worry about electoral considerations. Unfortunately our present system of elections means that politicians have to spend excessive amounts of time and money in keeping large electorates happy. Whereas under the constituency system they had to concern themselves with a limited number of clientele, and do this in competition with generally only one serious rival, rarely more than two, now they have to worry about a whole district and multiple rivals, from their party as well as from other parties.

President Sirisena recently acknowledged the contribution of the electoral system to increasing corruption, given the massive expenditure that getting elected under this system entails. But even before he registered this publicly, he had made clear his commitment to electoral reform. I do not think he was being hypocritical when he told the UPFA Parliamentary Group way back in April 2015 that he would push through electoral reform before dissolving Parliament.

Unfortunately he did not ensure that that too became part of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Had he stood firm on that, it would have happened, given how desperate the leading members of his government were to reduce the powers of the Presidency. But he let that opportunity pass, while assuring the UPFA that, if they supported the 19th, he would make sure the 20th soon followed.

But he did nothing of the sort. Discussions about electoral reform dragged on, being sabotaged with great skill by the Prime Minister, who was determined that the next election be held under the old system. The Elections Commissioner indeed told us that he had worked out a formula that would, if not satisfy everyone, avoid great dissatisfaction on the part of anyone, but he felt the Prime Minister would not allow this to go through. He proved correct, but it is also sad that the President, having assured all of us of his commitment, did nothing to take it further.

Instead he allowed himself to be dragooned into dissolving Parliament. As was indicated to me by some on the President’s staff who had been led to believe he would put off dissolving Parliament (and he had assured the Leader of the opposition of this too), he was precipitated into a disastrous decision after meeting foreign envoys. I have no doubt that they pushed him on behalf of the Prime Minister, because the latter felt threatened by the impending COPE report and wanted Parliament dissolved and the COPE Committee stripped of its authority, before it made clear the fraud that he and Arjuna Mahendran had perpetrated.

Last week, when I met Dr Saravanamuttu in a transit lounge, and said that I was sad he and his ilk were simply concentrating on war crimes, and others on punishing the previous regime, with no one concerned about the structural reforms that were so essential to prevent continuing abuse of power, he acknowledged my argument about why Parliament had been prematurely dissolved. Given his closeness to foreign envoys, I have no doubt he knew what was going on in June 2015 when they used their clout to save their man.

But then they then abandoned any pretence of caring for Sri Lanka, and I believe also let down the President, who had I think been threatened with a tough time in Geneva if the country did not have in place a government on which the West could rely. Sirisena acquiesced, and then, having also ended up sabotaging the UPFA campaign, put his neck in the yoke – after which Mangala proceeded to tighten it through an appalling resolution, forbidding our envoy in Geneva to negotiate better terms. Recently I was told that the resolution had been in fact drafted in Colombo by the Brits working together with the Prime Minister. If this is true, Sara, who exercises much influence with young Dauris, must have contributed to the text. Certainly the new reliance of the West on his report suggests that this is an alliance that will run and run – with this government obviously not going to investigate the sources of funding Sara gets, something the last government culpably failed to look into.

Sara granted the necessity of electoral reform, but obviously he does not pursue this with the same passion he brings to bear on retributive justice with regard to the war. I suppose that is understandable for he like Mangala is amongst those who believes the war should not have been brought to a conclusion. But what is sad is that even those who are more concerned about the corruption that will soon make this country irrecoverable do not push for the reforms we need, reforms the President promised, reforms which would be easy to push through if only there were commitment.

Unfortunately the debate on electoral reform begins and ends with concerns about self interest on the part of a range of parties. It should instead begin and end with considerations of equity, along with practicality to ensure that no one is deprived unfairly of representation.

We can begin on the basic principle that constituencies are best because they limit expenditure and allow for concentration on particular responsibilities by their representatives. There is however a strong negative factor in that the votes of many will be ignored, if a member is elected on the strength of a simple majority.

The answer obviously is to count too the votes of those who did not vote for the winning candidate, and put them to work in terms of a system that will ensure proportional representation. This can be done by doubling the number of representatives, and then allowing for those who do not represent constituencies to be allocated in proportion to the total vote. So, if for instance the UNP got 40% of the vote but only 20% of the seats (since the UPFA with 45% got 60%), the UNP would get enough seats from the least to get to 40% of the total whereas the UPFA would get fewer from the least and get 45% of the total. At its simplest, if there were 100 constituencies and the UNP got only 20 with 40% of the vote, it would get 60 of the remaining 100, to end up with 80, while the UPFA got 30 more to add to the 60 it had, to end up with 90.

So if the JVP got far fewer seats than its proportion of votes deserved, it would get more from the list. If the TNA got far more seats, because of concentration of votes, that its proportion deserved, it would get far fewer from the list. The Muslim Congress would be both beneficiary and victim, given concentration in some areas and diffusion in others, but the final allocation would balance things out.

Of course there needs to be fine tuning, and in particular a decision as to whether voters should cast one vote (in which case there will be a tendency to ignore minor parties) or two, one for the preferred candidate and one for the preferred party. I believe the latter is fairer, since then parties that are preferred will receive votes without the voter thinking that voting for their candidate is a waste. The voter can thus choose the preferred one of those likely to win, while also favouring a party that seems to have no chance of winning the constituency vote.

Major parties might not like this, but this is where the Courts could perhaps rule through enforcement of the principle of equity and ensuring the value of the franchise. But in order to get the discussion thus far, we need strong leadership. Whether President Sirisena will rescue both his party and his presidency by providing this remains to be seen. But whereas I have long tried to be optimistic – and was provided a fillip when he had the courage to get rid of Arjuna Mahendran – I fear that once more he has retreated into his little cocoon of comfort and will no longer confront the dragons who lie in his path.

Ceylon Today 25 April 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19705

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