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Local elections: New mixed-member method or old PR method?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 9 December 2016 00:10



I was looking forward to voting in local elections under a new mixed member system. Wearing my ratepayer hat, I was attracted to the idea of electing somebody who would be accountable to my ‘ward’ or my neighbourhood in the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) area where I live. If we apply the provisions in the new election law “Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No. 22 of 2012” to the CMC, about 70% of its Members will be directly elected from 47 designated wards. In the current PR system all Members or Councillors in the CMC are elected at-large to represent the local authority area as whole. 

According to news reports, some of the Parties in the Parliament are considering a repeal of the 2012 law so that local elections can be conducted under the old PR system. As a ratepayer I would not be happy with a repeal, particularly because of the accountability part of the new law. However, as a policy analyst, who has had the opportunity to keep track of electoral issues since 2010 or before, I can only see too well the problems with the new law. 

The pros and cons of the PR system are well known. What are the pros and cons of the new mixed-member system as applied to untitled-1local elections? On balance should the government stay with the new law or repeal it to go back to the old PR system? In my opinion, we have been talking for so long about mixed methods. If we finally have a law to implement, let us fix the problems though there are many, and go ahead. 

My opinion is based on a review from two perspectives. First the perspective of you and I as rate-payers with our neighbourhood issues, and secondly as citizens of Sri Lanka who should be worried about the larger picture.

A ratepayer perspective

We have some issues regarding sidewalks in our neighbourhood and the administrators at the Colombo Municipal Council have not been helpful. I had little success in finding a Member of the elected body, the Council, who could speak on our behalf. 

In the pre-1978 electoral system, a municipality was divided into a number of wards and members were returned in first-past-the –post (FPP) contests in individual wards. After the new constitution of 1978 where the Parliamentary elections were changed to a proportional representation system or a PR system, the PR method was applied for local councils as well and the wards were not relevant anymore. 

The new Law gives us a mix of Members – i.e. those who are returned FPP from Constituencies or Wards and those who are returned from Party Lists. The party List Members are included in the Law to make the representation close to the proportion of votes received by each Party. Otherwise, a Party which wins most seats but by less than 50% of votes can get full control of the Council. 

Take the case of the city of Colombo. Currently, there are 53 Members in the Council. In the 2011 election, we were presented with a ballot paper with a list of Parties and list of numbers. First you picked a Party. Then you picked three numbers out of the 53+ numbers listed on the ballot paper. Each number presented an individual nominated by the Party. Frankly I don’t even remember the names I selected at that time. 

Under the new system, the city would have 47 wards, I learnt. In its nomination paper, a Party has to present one name for each ward. There also has to be a list of additional persons who will be selected to fill additional seat awarded on a PR basis. The campaigning by Constituency candidates would be limited to the Ward in which they are contesting. Typically a Ward will have no more than a few thousand votes. At the voting booth, I will be presented with ballot paper with the names of the candidates for my Ward along with names and symbols of the Parties to which they belong. All I have to do is to put a mark against one name and I am done. 

The day after the election, Elections Commission will announce the first-past-the -post winners in each ward. I’d be happy if my candidate of choice had won. I would be curious to know which Party has a majority in the Council and who got elected as a mayor by the Councillors. The devil is in the details of the arithmetic used to determine such matters and implications of the results in the larger political sphere. 

The larger picture

One of major issues about the proposed mixed member systems is that the method for allocating the additional seats on a PR basis is opaque and the results unpredictable. The unpredictability is due to the complex arithmetic that goes into the calculation. For CMC, it is estimated that 47 Councillors will be elected FPP from 47 Wards, 14 on PR basis for the votes of the runner-up in FPP contest. For reasons which I will not go into detail here, the method in the 2012 law is best described as a “mixed member parallel with linkage”. It is as complicated as it sounds. In another complication introduced early this year, an additional set of List seats are created as a reservation for women and the allocation of those seats follow a different procedure. For CMC, this probably mean an additional six seats for total of 67 seats. The unnecessary complexity of this prescribed process is clearly a case of our Parliamentarians and the Parliamentary Research Services not doing their job. 

In addition to the complexity and opaqueness, the mixed member method in question puts small Parties at a disadvantage. For example, in the 2011 election, the JVP got only one seat in the CMC, but, under the new system they will not win any of the 47 FPP seats leaving only 14 PR seats and another 6 for which they can aspire. Our calculations using 2011 election results to simulate shows that the JVP will not get any PR seats either in Colombo MC or in most other local authorities if the new mixed Member method is applied.

Some argue for the benefits of maintaining a two-party system for stability. Others would argue for increasing opportunities for various groups for representation. In Sri Lanka, the PR system has opened the door for representation of small Parties and independent groups. It will be difficult to close that door, but we have to smart about balancing representation and stability. 

MMP alternative

A mixed-member proportional system which has been discussed elsewhere is more transparent and more conducive to representation by small Parties. In 2012, the mixed Member proportional system was not the agenda, because the ruling SLFP coalition probably felt that the complex ‘mixed member parallel but linked’ was better for them. With change of government in 2014, MMP method came to fore and the method under discussion for Parliamentary election today is an MMP method. It is possible to bring in new legislation to have the same MMP method for both Parliamentary and local authority elections. 

Enough talk about mixed methods, time 

to implement?

1. In the final analysis, for all its imperfections, I feel it is time to apply some form of a mixed member method for the next local government elections. I see at least two possibilities:

2. Simplify the formulas in the present ‘mixed-member parallel but linked’ method. Taking CMC as an example, The 47 FPP seats can be topped with 40% of that number returned proportional to the votes received by runners-up in each Party. Instead of a separate list for women, a zipped list can be used (A zipped list is one where every second or third in the list is to be a woman.) Using a simpler formula will give JVP and other Parties a larger pot of 20 seats from which to seek a PR allocation. Bring in new legislation to introduce a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) method which would better results for small Parties

I think it is important to get started with mixed member methods at the local level because accountability of a representative is crucial at that level. Parliamentarians don’t need to be accountable at the level or the intensity with which they are operating – i.e. going around distributing goodies like plastic chairs to local ‘Maranadhaara Samitis’. They should spend more time reading the Bills presented to them before enacting them into law. The sorry state of the present “Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No. 22 of 2012” and follow up amendments is testimony to the inadequacies of our legislators and their support systems. 

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