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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 62 - The principles behind Electoral Reform

( Created date: 11-Jan-2013 )

The passing last week of the Local Government Elections Bill was a singularly important occasion. It abolished the single most destructive element of our current political system, the preferential system of voting operating over large electoral units. To tabulate the vicious elements of this system, it
  1. Requires candidates to canvas on a massive scale, entailing excessive expenditure

  2. Creates rivalries between candidates on the same slate, leading to violence as well as electioneering at more intensive and expensive levels than are readily affordable

  3. Makes impossible a close link between elected members and constituents on a scale that can ensure responsibility and accountability

  4. Demands excessive spending over a large area to ensure continuing popularity

  5. Entails using supporters on a scale that increases expenditure 

The system then was a breeding ground for rent seeking and corruption. It also took attention away from legislative responsibilities as well as policy formulation. I can only hope then that this initial step will be followed by abolishing this pernicious system for Parliamentary as well as Provincial Council elections.
The urgent need of reform in this regard overcame to my mind the numerous flaws in the bill. I was glad to note that this seemed to be the view of the opposition too, for it did not press the amendments it had suggested, but instead accepted the assurance of government that changes could be made subsequently. 
One exception was the speech made by Sajith Premadasa with regard to changing the provision in the Bill that 25% of the candidates nominated ‘may’ be women and young persons. He moved that 20% should be women and 20% young persons, which is of course the only way of ensuring increased representation of these categories. Indeed I believe this is the first instance of a wish list being included in legislation: while it may be interesting to introduce good ideas in all future legislation (perhaps by tagging on to every new Act the suggestion that we should all love one another, or refrain from criminal actions, or anything else we think desirable), it is more sensible to make laws about what must happen, not about worthy possibilities. 
And of course it was especially silly, if we were only introducing good ideas without insisting on them, that we should have lumped women and young persons together, As I noted, having been asked for my views about potential problems in the Bill, ‘If we are serious about wanting such representation, we should have 20% for each, or 20% for women and 10% for youth. Since there is no complete disqualification if the quota is not properly filled, the objection that obtaining such candidates is difficult is not important.’  
Another area in which it seemed to me that there was conceptual confusion was with regard to what the change in the system was intended to achieve. We all know that the reason initially for getting rid of the First Past the Post system we inherited from the British was that it led to unrepresentative majorities in Parliament. Thus, both in 1970 and in 1977, government had vast majorities based on less or very little more than 50% of the vote. They were thus able to ride roughshod over other viewpoints, with the disastrous consequences for the country as well as for them, if they faced an election under the same system.
J R Jayewardene therefore introduced a system of proportional representation, but initially based this purely on a party list system. When he realized that that created problems with politicians placed low on the list he introduced preferences, but characteristically perverted that modification by allowing not one preference, but three, which led to competition all over the electoral unit. In the universal agreement to get rid of that mayhem however, we should not lose sight of the fact that a representative body should indeed be representative, and should therefore incorporate proportionality.
The best system of allowing for individual representation of discrete units while ensuring proportionality is the Geman system, and this is what the Liberal Party advocated over two decades back. It has been amusing, if tragic, to see various politicians over the years, beginning with G L Pieris in 1995, claiming that they wanted to adopt the German system, while perverting it through adjustments that would have given advantages to their own party, which they assumed would get more of the popular vote in a majority of constituencies than the opposition.
In the present context there seems to be no understanding of the German system – which Prof Pieris and Karu Jayasuriya had, when they were promoting electoral reform – and instead we seem to have agreed that, to introduce an element of proportionality, we will simply include some extra seats on that basis. The current bill incorporates 30% on that basis, calculated on the basis that this would not inhibit a 2/3 majority. It seems to have escaped the notice of those doing the calculations that 30% on this basis means less than a quarter of the whole.
I have been assured however by a member of the UNP that government has agreed to change this figure to 40% which is an improvement. But I should note here what I mentioned in my critique of the bill. Though I kept this confidential because I did not want in any way to seem to argue against the Bill, which I thought an urgent need, I hope that serious consideration will be given to the concepts behind a mixed system, viz ‘The Bill is still stuck in the Party List mentality. When a mixed system is introduced, there is no need for the candidates for wards to be on a list. The best way to have a mixed system is to give the voter two votes, one for the individual and the other for the party. This gets over the need for groups of individuals, which is a contradiction in terms.’


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