Electoral reforms are sticky things to implement at the best of times. While most would agree that the preferential system does not reflect the will of the people, the recent steps by the Government to introduce fresh procedures does give a chance at promoting democracy, provided that it is done in the right way.
It was reported over the weekend that the Government has named five members to the National Delimitation Committee (NDC) that is entrusted with making recommendations for the division of each local authority area into wards, under the amendments introduced to the Local Authorities Elections laws recently.
The appointment of the NDC is the first step towards enforcing the changes to the Local Authorities Election Ordinance approved by Parliament last October, which will see the change in the election laws for the first time in 30 years. It ends the Proportional Representation (PR) system of electing members at future local Government elections.
However, opposition parties have criticised the Government’s move to dismiss the “first past the post system,” saying that the reforms do not address larger issues within Sri Lanka’s tangled election system. They point out that election campaigning on State funds, using Government development programs to gain political mileage, using public employees to campaign and gain votes, as well as a plethora of other unethical and illegal activities have not been addressed through the reforms.
Opposition parties have also condemned the Government for not establishing an Elections Commission, as was made possible by the 17th Amendment and for not providing space for a similar empowered authority in the subsequent amendment. Moreover, they charge that the 18th Amendment, which removed the two term limit for an executive president, will affect elections above and beyond and reforms made possible by the new legislation.
Legislation that provide an independent police, public servants and make it mandatory for candidates to declare their election expenses, promote independence of media, especially State media are a few other issues that have not been addressed. Financial transparency during polls is especially necessary since public funds are often mixed up in the jumble. Little is also done to investigate and press charges against violent candidates despite regular lists being published by the media at every election like cricket scorecards.
The Commission is entrusted with making recommendations, taking into consideration the ratio and ethnic composition of the local authority concerned, with equal representation for each ethnic group in the area, the geographical area and its physical features, the population of the local authority area and the density of its population, and the level of economic development of the area.
The Committee can also recommend the creation of multi-member wards. The Committee has been given till 31 May 2013 to submit its report to the Minister of Local Government, after hearing representations from the public, as well as political parties and other interested organisations.
Regardless of the larger shortcomings, here is at least a chance to get political and ethnic representation right. In an atmosphere where political rights are necessary to preserve the hard won peace, it can only be hoped that all stakeholders take this opportunity to ensure that fairness enters the country’s electoral system.