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qrcode.30986403The last chapter of my book dealt with election systems, a matter of particular concern today, when we are conducting an election under a system that is universally condemned. One of the most serious tragedies of the Sirisena Presidency thus far is the failure of those to whom he entrusted the reforms he had promised to work immediately (as promised in the manifesto) on electoral reforms. It seems he tried his best, but was defeated by the intransigence of the UNP, and its fear of both the COPE Report and possible No Confidence Motions.

First-Past-the Post System

Reform has been an urgency for a long time, for Sri Lanka was singularly unlucky in the election systems it has adopted over the years. Initially it had the first-past-the-post system used in Britain, whereby the country was divided into constituencies which elected members by a simple majority. In Sri Lanka a few constituencies had more than one member. This was 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 elected 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 United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).

In general, however (as opposed to the few multi-member constituencies) the philosophy was that those who won, by however small a margin, took it all. In Britain, the effect of this is mitigated because there are certain constituencies which always stay with one party, so that a party that loses the election still has substantial strength in parliament. In Sri Lanka, however, where most constituencies are what are termed marginals, that is, 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 eight seats out of 101 in 1956 and 17 out of 157 in 1970, while the SLFP had eight out of 168 in 1977. Conversely, the party that won had a massive majority, even though its share of the national vote was just around 50 per cent.

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 their narrow interests, 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 recognised by them.

Proportional Representation System

J.R. Jayewardene, who presided over the 1977 government and its majoritarian excesses, understood the need for better representation and more safeguards. In his new constitution he introduced proportional representation. He instituted an election system for the future where voting was according to districts. The quota of seats for the district was divided according to the proportion of votes each party got within that district as a whole. In that system, a majority of two-thirds in parliament would mean the mandate of a high percentage of the population.  The special measures passed by such a parliament would enjoy the support of representatives of well over half the population. 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 term of that parliament by a further six years.

Initially, the system of proportional representation Jayewardene introduced simply required voters to select a party. The seats the party won would be allocated to its candidates according to their position in the party list. However, in the first election held under that system—the election for District Development Councils in 1981—Jayewardene realised its drawbacks. Those who were not placed high in the party list found out that they could not be elected. Sometimes they crossed over to another party, which would place them high in their list. If they remained on the list, they did not bother to canvass for votes.

Jayewardene, therefore, amended the legislation to allow the voter three choices for selecting candidates on the list. In principle, the idea of allowing the voter choice was a good one, but allowing one choice per voter would have been enough. Candidates could then have campaigned in designated areas against candidates of the opposing party. By allowing three choices, Jayewardene ensured, not only that all candidates would campaign actively all over the district, but also that they campaigned against the other members of their own parties.

Though he succeeded in his aim, it was at a great cost to the country. To cover an entire district in active campaigning required a lot of money, and soon it became apparent that those who did not have massive resources had to acquire them, in order to stay in the race. Thus, after an election candidates made it their first priority to recover the  money they had spent. There was greater opportunity for corruption and increased instances of violence. Paid workers of political parties, for instance, who were traditionally plied with liquor, often turned violent in the process of putting up posters or tearing down those of other candidates, especially those of their own party.

Other aspects of the legislation introduced by Jayewardene with regard to elections were also faulty.  One provision was that any member of parliament who ceased to be a member of the party from which he had been elected would automatically lose his seat. The argument was that, since a member was elected only by virtue of a vote for the party, he had no individual right to remain as a representative if he no longer belonged to the party. This provision was, however, implemented even for members of the 1977 parliament who had been elected from constituencies as individuals. However, those who had crossed over from the opposition to his party were retained in parliament through a special constitutional amendment. And even when the system of choices within the proportional representation system was introduced, the provision that candidates would lose their seat if they were no longer in the party was retained.

One reason Jayewardene had introduced the provision of losing a seat upon change of party for that it enabled him to exercise a tight control over his party members. While it could be argued that members of political parties should not be allowed to change sides—Jayewardene had first hand experience of the implications of this, since he had been closely associated with the offering of bribes that brought down Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first government in 1964—the provision entailed that members expelled by their party also lost their seats. Thus, by threatening expulsion against anyone who did not toe the party line, Jayewardene ensured absolute obedience to the party. By the party was meant allegiance to Jayewardene himself as party leader, since there has never been a tradition of internal party democracy in Sri Lankan political parties.


Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2017
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