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Electoral reforms should not be left to politicians

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 15 June 2016 00:00


Electoral reforms are back on the political agenda. By all accounts, the present proportional representation (PR) system is to be changed to a ‘mixed member’ proportional representation (MMPR) system where seats in the Parliament are allocated to Parties as before, but a mixed system is used to return individuals to fill those seats. The mix here refers to about 60% or so Members returned on the basis of their wins in first-past-the-post (FPP) in smaller constituencies and other 40% or so Members nominated by the Party. This method allows Sri Lanka to maintain the proportional representation more or less, but get rid of the much maligned ‘Manapa-pore’. The accountability of FPP Members to their constituency is also seen as a plus.dfh

Like any other reforms, these reforms are to be debated and decided by the Parliament, but electoral reforms are unique in that the present Parliament of 225 Members and six or more Parties or Alliances intent on re-electing themselves at the election are to decide the process of elections for the next so many years. 

Electoral reforms were high on the agenda during the heady 100+ days that followed the defeat of the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the election of Maithripala Sirisena on 8 January 2015. Noting the lack of any systematic analysis in the electoral reform debate some of us ventured to fill the gap and we were able to push the MM-PR method – a method used in Germany, New Zealand and many other countries – to the fore as a method suitable for Sri Lanka. A Bill to change the electoral system that was gazetted in June 2015 as a 20th Amendment to the Constitution (Bill-20A-2015) indeed was based on MMPR. The bill expired with the dissolution of the eighth Parliament on 13 July 2015. It was just as well, because that bill was hastily crafted document.

However, as a result of past efforts, the policy arena is now more prepared to entertain the MM-PR method with more insight and it is good to see the Government getting the assistance of a foreign expert through the efforts of the Centre for Policy Analysis. What is proposed is not yet publicly available, but from what I have seen, it is an attempt to implement the MMPR system, beginning with the fundamentals. 

This column is an attempt to point out some of the technical as well as political issues. 



At the Presidential election of 2015, both Maithripala Sirisena, the winning candidate receiving 51.28% of the votes and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the runner-up candidate receiving 47.58% of the votes, promised to replace the present PR system of elections with a mixed-member system. In essence, the electoral mandate is nearly 100% for the electoral reforms. 

Electoral reforms are not new to Sri Lanka. The Constitution of 1978 transformed Sri Lanka from a ‘Parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial President’ to a ‘Parliamentary democracy with an Executive President’. The electoral system was changed at the same time from a majoritarian or first-past-the-post system (FPP) typical of a Westminster style government to a proportional representation (PR) system. 


Present PR method

In PR, voters typically get to select from a closed list of candidates submitted by each Party. The electoral contest may take place at different levels of representation –i.e. national, provincial or district level. By definition, the distribution of seats among political Parties in a Parliament elected by a PR system of elections is more or less proportionate to the votes received by each Party contesting the election. Bonus seats if awarded to the wining Party, the method of calculating proportionality, and the tier or level at which the calculation is carried out may cause deviations from proportionality.

The 1977 Parliamentary election, the last majoritarian election, involved 160 polling divisions of which five were multi-member divisions. With the new Constitution enacted in 1978, Sri Lanka opted for a radical change to a PR system with electoral contests held across 22 electoral districts distributed across the nine provinces. The largest remainder method was used to allocate seats to Parties in proportion to the votes received by each Party in each electoral district. Voters had to choose from a ‘closed and ranked’ lists of candidates presented by each political Party. A threshold of 12.5% was used to qualify contesting Parties. Each party receiving the most votes in a district received a bonus seat. 

Subsequently, ‘open and unranked’ lists where voters mark their preference for three candidates from a list submitted by each Party replaced the ‘closed and ranked’ list. The qualifying threshold was lowered to 5%. The first Parliamentary election under the new system was held in 1989.

Open Party lists and preferential voting gives the voter more choices, but in the Sri Lankan context, it has led to intense intra-party rivalry and violence, escalating cost of electioneering and other ills. Lack of constituency-level accountability by elected MPs has also been a concern. 

In the Parliament elected in 2015, six Political Parties or Alliances are represented with the number of seats received by each roughly being proportionate to the total number of votes received by each, except for Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK). The JVP receives a lower percent of seats than its percent of votes received because its supporters are dispersed across several districts. ITAK receives higher than its share of votes because of its strength in the two electoral districts in the North. All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMK) which was close seventh, did nto receive ny seats. 

The 22 bonus seats, which are awarded to each Party carrying a particular district, are expected to give the winning Party a boost to achieve a simple majority in the Parliament. However, in the 2015 election the bonus seats were divided across the three Parties UNP, UPFA and ITAK as 11, 8 and 3, respectively. UNP, the winning Party received a meagre three seat advantage and fell seven seats short of the 113 seats required for a majority. In fact, the present PR system has not yielded a majority government except in 1989 and 2015.


Proposed Mixed-Member PR System

In a typical Mixed System, a voter may have two votes, one to for a Constituency candidate and a second for a Party. There are two basic types of Mixed Systems – Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) and Parallel. The Sri Lankan version of a Parallel system is discussed elsewhere.

In MM-PR methods, the allocation of seats in the Parliament to each qualifying Party is determined by first returning all FPP (First-past-the post) winners. Next the number of total seats for which a party is entitled through proportional representation is calculated using the number of votes received by each Party. Next, the number of Additional Members is established by subtracting the FPP seats from the PR allocation of each party. Overhangs may result if a Party wins more FPP seats than its PR entitlement. 

This MM-PR method first proposed in Bill-20A-2015 is more acceptable to political Parties, minority Parties in particular, because the result is proportionate or near proportionate to the votes received by each Party. Small parties and ethnic minorities still had many concerns about the apportionment and delimitation process and their implications which are being sorted out though discussions. 


Simulation of an MM-PR election result

To illustrate the method we use a simpler system where proportionality is calculated at the national level and the additional seats are allocated as a block to each Party. We assume that a mechanism for a fair distribution of these additional seats back to the districts or provinces can be worked out. We use the results of the 2015 election to simulate. 

The results of general elections in Sri Lanka are typically reported according to 160 historical polling divisions. Some of these polling divisions do not make sense given present day population distributions, but for illustration purposes, we note that if there were FPP contests in the 2015 election, the FPP outcome would have been distributed across UPFA, UNP and ITAK as 74, 68 and 18 seats, respectively. Since ITAK’s wins are concentrated in the North and the East, and UNP and UPFA wins are almost all limited to the other seven provinces, with some assumptions, we can extrapolate the result to 145 FPP seat scenario. For argument sake we make a rough estimate to determine that under MM-PR, the distribution of FPP seats across UNP, UPFA and ITAK would be as 62, 71 and 12, respectively.          

If the total number of seats in Parliament is 237 as proposed in Bill-2015-20A, a simple PR calculation using the largest remainder method will give a PR result which distributes the seats across the five parties UNP, UPFA, JVP, ITAK, SLMC and EPDP as 110, 102, 12, 11, 1 and 1, respectively. Compared to the FPP result it shows an overhang situation, or a case where PR result is less than the FPP result for any one Party, only for ITAK with the Party receiving 12 FPPs when its PR entitlement is only 11. 

There are several accepted methods to overcome this problem. Using what is well-known in the literature as Sainte-Laguë method, we can assign the Additional seats to other Parties avoiding a negative number for ITAK. The additional members are assigned to the UNP, UPFA, JVP, ITAK, SLMC, EPDP and ACMK as 47, 30, 12, 0, 1, 1, 1, respectively. The Party will name the persons to be returned as Additional MPs, depending on the stipulation in the law. One option which was discussed in the past is to return a mix of (1) best-runners-up from FPP contests and (2) those ranked and listed in the nomination papers as additional candidates.

As we can see, The MMP method gives a better representation for the JVP, which now receives 12 seats as opposed to the six received in the current Parliament. ITAK’s historical share of seats is reduced from 16 to 12, and it is a matter for further consideration. As for governability by the winning Party, the winning Party is still 10 seats short of the 119 seats required for a simple majority.


Issues for consideration MM-PR

Issues that need to be considered in any method which involves a PR component are the level or tiers at which electoral contests take place, the nature of the Party Lists, the method of calculation (Highest remainder, Sainte-Laguë, d’Hondt or other) and the qualifying threshold for small Parties. In Mixed Member methods, additional issues (1) number of votes per voter and (2) the modes of returning Additional Members also need to be considered. 

Apart from the above methodological issues, any election method has to be evaluated in terms of the proportionality of the result, representation for various communities and the decision-making ability of a government formed. In the context of Sri Lanka, the impact of electoral reforms on social harmony, both short term and long term, is a fourth concern that needs to be addressed. Wider civil society participation in these issues is needed. The writer will continue to post pertinent literature at https://sujata.wordpress.com/electoral-reforms/ to facilitate a these discussions.


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