Should there be a change in the electoral system of Sri Lanka ?

The dialogue on a change in the electoral system of Sri Lanka started initially about a decade ago. Yet neither the legislatives nor the governments which ruled the country have succeeded in making this change .But once again discussions are afoot on constitutional and electoral reform.This article seeks to discuss the question- Should the electoral system of Sri Lanka be changed? andtries to look at the areas that should be addressed in the event of making such changes.
The main arguments for the need for changing the electoral system can be summed up as follows-

1. The members of Parliament are not answerable to the public
2. The proportional representation creates conflicts
3. True public opinion is overrun by monetary strength at elections
4 More worthy persons do not seek candidature
5. There is not sufficient representation of women
The main argumentfor electoral reforms is that there is no member of Parliament representing a particular area and answerable to the people of that area. In the prevalent system the people’s representatives who get elected through the party list, although in theory they are answerable to the people in the district, they can easily slide away from being responsible as the votes are widespread and they can woo the whole district at another election. Under this systemit has been proved time and again that some areas remain unrepresented by any member. In a system where a member of Parliament represents a particular constituency since there is a threat of being rejected by the constituency at the next election, if he ignores public opinion prevalent within the area, there is a strong compulsion for the representatives to heed public opinion. Further, the geographical boundaries of a constituency makes it easier for the representatives to work for the development of the area.

From the point of view of the public the constituency system is favourable as they can deny him representation if the representative ignores public opinion.
Should the Member of Parliament be a person who disburses resources?
The need for a member of Parliament to represent a particular area is because provision of common public needs and development of the area and solutions to problems like employment are reached through the members of Parliament. Hence the disbursement of resources to alleviate these problems became a primary function of a member of Parliament from the 1980s. There is a certain truth in this from the point of view of the public. It was a realistic approach adopted during the last few decades. But here the question – Is this the primary function of a Parliamentarian? arises. Isn’t his main function the framing of policies and laws for the economic and socialdevelopment of the country as a whole? Isn’t preparation and passing laws and policies for the fair and equitable distribution of resources for the activities he now performs such as road development, school improvement, school admissions, providing employment and supervising their proper and systematic implementation through the government mechanism a member’s main function? Initiating a dialogue within the country on these issues is a vital need. Although the members of Parliament at present perform the duty of disbursement of resources they have not givensufficient prominence and thought to their primary function of being legislators. If the member of Parliament is primarily a legislator the fact that they do not represent a particular area does not become an issue.

In addition the culture of inviting the memberof Parliament to personal functions like weddings and funerals too need to be changed.

Does the prevailing system create conflicts?

The electoral system that prevails in Sri Lanka is country specific. It is a merging of the system of proportional representation and providing for the choice of your candidate or marking the preference. From a democratic point of view it is an ideal system. It allows the voter to choose the political party and the candidate he favours. Past experiences at elections point to the fact that the members of the same party vying with each other for preferential votes leads to conflicts among them. Yet, in some districts at some elections conflicts have been at a minimal level and in some areas conflicts have not occurred at all. These observations make it clear that the conflicts arise not because of the system but because of personalities and the mode of implementation adopted.
The main issuehere, is the lack of an advanced political culture in our country. It’s only 25% of the candidates at an election who are responsible for conflicts. The conflicting situations occur with the same group at every election, and the reason for conflict is often using people under the influence of alcohol to paste election posters in the night. These factors show that the only reason for conflict is not the preferential system although one cannot overlook the influence of the system to a certain extent. However it is evident that conflicting situations can be minimised considerably by changing the legal regulations and practices while retaining the preferential system. Specially, if the candidates who seek election to Parliament are persons with a sense of self discipline and restraint this situation can be considerably minimised. At least if candidates are selected according to the March 12th criteria this trend can be considerably changed.

If the preferential system is to be changed then what methodology can we adopt in the selection of candidates?

If the preferential system is to be removed it is imperativethat a viable method of selection be crafted. Specially in a country like Sri lank where political parties do not follow transparent democratic values within the party and yet there is an established party system, if the constituency is not given a transparent system of nominating their candidates, all selections will be arbitrarily made according to the wishes of the party leaders. If the party leader wants to see a candidate loose the elections he may nominate him to a constituency that is difficult to groom while if he wants a candidate to succeed he may nominate him to a constituency where the party has a strong hold. If the preferential system is changed the profile of the present national political arena will change. Most of the national politicians will loose their seats. To avoid such a calamity it will be necessary to take into account the number of votes each party had polled and select the members of Parliament and subsequently select the rest from the best losers.

Does monetary strength overrule true public opinion?

Under the present electoral system if a candidate is to be elected to Parliament he has to organise his election campaign to cover a large geographical area. He will have to spend a considerable amountof money for the campaign. A candidate who spends a vast amount of money on his campaign will try to earn what he has spent after being elected. At the same time a wealthy candidate without any proper public support may distribute goods and moneyall over the district to win over votes . This is clearly seen in the expenses borne by some candidates in a number of past elections and the victories they have gained.

A minister from the Kalutara District publicly claimed that he spent 800 lakhs of Rupees at the election. Mr Udayagammanpla who claims to have spent the least amount of money announced that he spent 98 lakhs. According to the Sri Lankan culture if someone receives something one is expected to reciprocate in some way. Candidates with money are able to get that kind of support for themselves.

The reluctance of capable people to face elections

Although it is unacceptable to claim that only erudite and intelligent persons should come forward as candidates, in the present set up the tendency for educated intelligent persons to contest an election is minimal. No new entrants apart from those who are already in the political fold will attempt to step into the political scene due to the immense cost of contesting at an election and the competitiveness it entails.

In addition amajority of persons who earn their money by fair means will not contest an election unless he has expectations of a special position. Such a person will notbe prone to campaign maligning and criticising other candidates and making promises to the people in the district. That will not gain them the media attention and even if they contest they will not succeed in winning a seat.
The results of the last Parliamentary election shows that the voter has given preference to sheer cheap popularity, outward appearance and political campaigns. To change this situation on the one hand the electoral system and on the other hand the voting pattern have to be changed.

Is there sufficient space for the representation of women?

Participation of women in the present electoral system is extremely low. There are many reasons for this.
1. Socio cultural barriers
2. Unlimited cost of elections
3. Difficulties faced in obtaining nominations
4. Intense competitiveness
5. The geographical extent
6.Inability of the present women representatives to show an outstanding difference
7 Voters’ attitudes
8 Inability to identify the benefits of women’s entry into politics and the failure to popularise them in society effectively
Since these reasons have not been properly addressed even if women come forward as candidates it is difficult for them to get elected. In a country where 52% of the population are women representation of women remains at 6%.Sri Lanka is the countryin the Asian region where women representation is minimal. But Sri Lanka is one of the countries which gained universal suffrage very early.(1931)Even in Afghanistan where democratic elections were introduced a mere two decades ago women representation is ashigh as 30%.

The present women representation in Sri Lanka is totally founded on family connections and women politicians who have comeup on their own for their ability and popularity remain very low.

Hence there is hardly any space for women with ability and the will to come forward as candidates. It is essential that women’s’ organisations who work for women and try to involve women in politics move away from their project mentality and act with a single purpose. National and regional women’s’ organisations must get together with one voice and work together to remove all barriers to women representation. But until a long-term foundation is strengthened a quota system should be adopted to ensure higher rate of women representation.

Limitations in electoral reforms- Facts that cannot be ignored.

1. Limiting the number of members of Parliament to 225
2. Avoid sweeping changes in the number of constituencies (160)
3. Not decreasing the number of seats for political parties
4. Increasing the reducing rate of representation for small groups
5. Not reducing the representation rate of parties whose voter base is small but scattered
6. An uncomplicated electoral system
7. Remedying the basic defects in the present system
8 An electoral system that willnot destabilise the country ( a strong government and a strong opposition)
9 An electoral system that will reflect the people’s choice effectively
Among these facts it is important to obtain public endorsement to No’s 6 and 9 and the rest need the consensus of political parties. Hence whatever the form of electoral system that is selected it should be crafted with above facts in mind

There are many other factors that should be considered in in the event of a change in the electoral system.

1. An election calendar
2. Strictures on election campaign expenses
3. An electronic electoral system
4. A method to be adopted for advanced voting for voters who are unable to go to a voting centre to cast their vote-
– Persons living within the country
– Persons living in foreigncountries

5.Automatic voter registration at birth with birth registration
6. A systematic strategy to prevent the misuse of state power and resources at elections

7. Regulations to prevent moving from swapping political parties
8. A stratagem for fair use of media
9. A system for people with special needs to use their vote without complications

An Election Calendar

According to the prevailing system four elections have to be held within aperiod of six years.(Presidential. Parliamentary, Provincial and local government)
During the last two decades there has been an election every year. Specially with reference to Divisional Councils and local government bodies elections have been held on and off in different regions at different times to favour the government in power. Thankfully the Presidential and the Parliamentary elections cannot be held on a piecemeal basis. The main purpose of holding an election is to find out about the public opinion. But holding elections on a fragmentary basis defeats this purpose. It also is a dire waste of resources. Election costs of the department of elections at a general election is estimated between 3000-4000 millions of rupees.Further,120 million working hours of voters are wasted during the time of an election. If two elections are held within one year this waste in money and time will be doubled. The worst part is that if two elections are held within the course of one year ministers and people’s representatives who should be occupied with the development of the country abandon their main functions and work for their political party for almost half the year

Therefore in the event of electoral reforms all avenues open to the rulers to hold elections at different times should be barred in order to prevent a repetition of the present situation. Regulations and laws should be passed to hold Presidential and Parliamentary elections on the same day and to hold provincial and local government elections too on the same day. There are any amount of examples to be quoted on this. What is necessary is to legalise the framework so that the department of elections will be able to make the decisions accordingly.

Restrictions on Election campaigns

The basis or the reasons for most of the critiques on the Electoral system of Sri Lanka is the exorbitant sums of money spent by candidates and issues arising as its consequences. The easiest remedy to check this situation is to limit election expenses. It is a practice prevailing in most countries in the world. A candidate from Bangladesh, a country similar to Sri Lanka economically and socially is expected to spend a sum of only 5 takas per voter in Bangladesh currency. The final expenditure will differ only according to the population of the constituency. If this scheme is adopted in Sri Lanka if the total voter population in the Colombo District is 10 lakhs and each voter is permitted an expense of Rs 50 the maximum amount a candidate in Colombo will be 50 Lakhs. Every candidate should berequired to open a separate account for election campaign expenses. All contributions towards campaign expenses should be channelled through this account and all spending should be from this account. At the end of the Election an audited accounts sheet should be submitted to the Department of elections and furnishing false information should be a punishable offence and the punishment should be the loss of the seat won at elections.

Posters and cut-outs to be produced through the Elections Commission

A system to print posters and cut-outs through the Elections commission should be formulated. Then every candidate will be assured of an equal number of posters of the same size in one colour Special boards to exhibit posters should be installed at specific places and security for the poster boards should be assured. Or the regulations should be changed and a different system need to be worked out.
Stringent laws should be passed to prevent offering bribes to the voter at a time of election. Those who accept bribes too should be punished by disenfranchising them.

Additionally a fine of 10 times the value of the bribe should be imposed on offenders to curb this corrupt practice.

An Electronic Electoral Process

A number of factors contributed to the adoption of electronic election processes in many countries.

1. Acceleratedannouncement of results
2. Establishment of public trust in the process
3.Reduction of expenses to a minimum
4. Better and easy management

The first two factors are not applicable to Sri Lanka.

The Department of elections in Sri lanka has always been able to announce the resultsof any election within 24 hours of holding the elections. The level of public belief in the electronic system of counting remains very low. Yet if an electronic system of counting is introduced it will facilitate the management of elections greatly. It will also help to reduce the additional costs incurred in the manual counting process. In a country like Norway a computer and a single officer can direct all election activity. It will also be a step towards saving the environment. Use of leaves for the production of paper for ballot papers will be saved. New changes in the electoral system should include forward planning for at least the next 50 years. Any changes will inevitably involve a compulsory effort in changing the attitudes of the public in general.

An ‘Advanced voting’ strategy

In Sri Lanka there are two groups who are unable to cast their vote

1. Persons who are employed in ‘essential services’ within the country and those who face practical difficulties in accessing voting procedures.
2. Persons who are temporarily living abroad

A voting strategy for those who are living in the country and are unable to go to the polling station to cast their vote (e.g., nurses, doctors, patients, prisoners, election observers)has to be formulated.

In a country like South Korea provision is made for fishermen to cast their vote from the mid-ocean. Afghanistan which is a newly made democracy provides a system for the prisoners to cast their vote. Since a mobile polling station has been already introduced these voters should be provided a strategy to cast their vote.
In providing access to persons living abroad temporarily, a number of logistical issues may crop up. Since the majority of our foreign workers are engaged as unskilled labour in households it will be a tough task to craft a strategy to include them. But their right to vote has to be acknowledged and assured. The first step in this direction should be the facilitating of voting for persons employed in embassies abroad.

In making changes in the electoral system it is vital to decide on the form of government we hope to adopt first. Whether the form of government is a presidential system or a Parliamentary system with a Prime minister and a Cabinet as the executive, it is essential that the system adopted be one that will ensure a stable government and a strong opposition.

In my personal assessment I believe that a system where a representative is elected for a constituency and the main values enshrined in the prevalent system is preserved while the necessary reforms are affected, we will be successful in crafting a more people friendly electoral system. The voter also gets the opportunity to choose the political party as well as the candidate of his /her Choice.