Proportional representation is the key for a permanent people’s government

Saturday, 25 July 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Peace-loving, civic-minded citizens desperately yearn for the replacement of the current corrupt, deceitful and disgusting system of ‘confrontational’ politics by a genuinely professional and decent system of ‘consensual’ politics; a system that breeds no political rivalry; a system that is fair and equitable and also a system that is cost effective and productive enough to deliver a peaceful and a prosperous Sri Lanka – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


By Bernard Fernando

A recent article in the press by an eminent columnist recommending the re-introduction of the hackneyed Westminster ‘First-Past-the-Post’ system, to remove the present maladies in our electoral process, compelled me to pen this article.

At the outset, we as peace-loving, civic-minded citizens desperately yearn for the replacement of the current corrupt, deceitful and disgusting system of ‘confrontational’ politics by a genuinely professional and decent system of ‘consensual’ politics; a system that breeds no political rivalry; a system that is fair and equitable and also a system that is cost effective and productive enough to deliver a peaceful and a prosperous Sri Lanka.

Having experienced the dismal failure of the ‘Yahapalana’ Government to deliver the much-needed ‘electoral reforms’ despite the transformation of the entire Parliament to a ‘Constitutional Assembly,’ we are strongly of the view that the civil society or the sovereign voters as the ‘principals’ should form the nucleus of any future effort to formulate a system of representative governance through electoral reforms that best suit our small country. 

Politicians as the ‘representatives/agents’ of the sovereign voters should not lend themselves to situations of ‘conflict of interest’ which they are found guilty of many a time. Therefore, their role would be to serve only as facilitators/Intermediaries who would take up the final proposals from the civil society vetted by an eminent group of Retired Judges and the Elections Commission for approval by the Parliament.

This article is based on the following fundamental principles to achieve the aforesaid civilian aspiration.

1. The very concept of electing representatives to the national Legislature or the Parliament through voter franchise, demands that the system be constitutionally fair and equitable. For this purpose, it is imperative that every valid vote cast by a person at an election is given an equal value, whether it is cast in the south, north, east or the west. 

Towards this end, the entire country should be construed as one national electorate in order to elect representatives proportionately from the contesting parties to the National Parliament. The voter decisions shall be mainly based on the national policy framework (manifesto) put forward by the respective contesting parties to develop and manage the country as a whole. 

Under the First-Past-the-Post or the Westminster system, the MPs were elected by the people voting from small, unequally populated electorates which distorted the ‘equal value’ of the vote and the overall aspirations of the nation. 

The 1970 and 1977 election results which glaringly exposed the shortcomings of that system, paved the way for a more democratic and a fairer Proportionate Representation (PR) system combined with district lists of candidates fielded by the contesting parties arranged in merit order instead of the present alphabetical order. Unfortunately, this simple and cost- effective PR system was later subverted by annexing the optional ‘Preference Voting’ (PV) system, the abolition of which became the main plank of late Ven. Sobhitha Thera’s campaign at the Presidential and General Elections in 2015. 

Further, the selfish opportunity given to MPs to ‘crossover’ by an unfortunate court decision has led to a mockery of a five-year valid voter decision made through a tedious high cost election process, a meaningless exercise in futility. The original PR system armed with the ‘District Merit list’ mechanism, envisaged, preventing half- way changes in the balance of power through so called ‘back stabbing’ by paid MPs as ‘agents’ who decide to betray their ‘principals’ mainly for personal reasons and kick-backs.

2. Under the PR system, the much larger district is the electoral unit. As a result, it encourages the 225 district MPs to confine their role to more academic ‘law, foreign policy and national budget making and monitoring’ from the Centre rather than engaging in voter canvassing efforts such as grass root level developments, issuing MPs’ chits, distributing goodies, attending funerals, weddings, birthdays, etc., at electorate level. 

The failure of the decentralised political administration system spearheaded by the ‘Provincial Councils’ can be traced to the stubborn refusal of MPs in the Central Parliament to loosen their grip on the local voter for the fear of losing the ‘preference vote’.

3. The original PR system attempted to mitigate the incidence of ‘hung’ or ‘unstable’ parliaments by introducing ‘bonus seats’ and also created a ‘National List’ system with the dual objective of bringing in ‘Wise men’ (In the absence of the Senate) and striking an ethnic balance in the Parliament. 

The glaring prostitution of the ‘National List’ system and the not-so-democratic nature of the ‘bonus seat’ concession have led the more democratic, country loving citizens to believe that only a pure, PR system can sustain the equal value of all votes throughout a given period, where every vote is represented up to the top cabinet level. Such a system will surely alleviate the existing ‘confrontational’ attitude amongst both voters and politicians and promote a true ‘Sri Lankan’ identity.

4. In our view, a ‘fair and equitable’ voting system should be in place before we discuss the structure or the type of governance that we desire to have.

Ingredients for simple and productive electoral reforms

Having understood the fairness and the advantages of the most democratic PR system and also recognising the irreversible existence of a decentralised political administration system (Provincial Councils, Municipalities, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas) that has come to stay, we exhort on the contesting parties/alliances to include the following simple and productive measures under ‘electoral reforms’ in their respective manifestos in order to form a permanent ‘people’s government’ as it is the ideal time to strike a ‘new normal’.

a) Abolish optional ‘preference voting’ system, National List farce, bonus seat concession and ‘crossover’ mockery and re-introduce the simple and non-violent ‘district party merit list’ system which was an integral part of the original PR system, to Parliamentary and PC Elections. Please refer item ‘c’ below for details.

b) All contesting parties as corporate bodies should legally register their election/policy manifestos on the nomination date in order that they can be contested in courts for non-implementation. This is a sine-qua-non as the voter decision has to be guided mainly by the party policies enshrined in the respective manifestos.

c) Give legal teeth to minimum eligibility criteria for those candidates at Parliamentary and PC Elections as they are not only competing for well-paid jobs with fringe benefits but also being ranked by the party in merit order for voters to assess their ability and competencies to steer and bring the party manifesto to fruition as a team at Parliament and other levels. 

Towards this end, the parties as professional corporate bodies should select their best district team players through a robust process of screening and structured interviews allowing the voter decision to be conveyed by a single ‘X’ mark against the party symbol of his choice based on the manifesto and the quality of the players in the district merit list. 

With the advent of district merit lists of political professionals, the ‘National List’ and bonus seat concession become redundant. The ‘crossover’ mockery will not materialise as party defectors will lose their seat and be replaced by the next candidate in the respective ‘district merit list’. Also, with the resulting removal of the ‘preference vote’, from the ballot paper, the Elections Department will save an enormous cost, time and energy spent on separating and counting such votes and the full election result can be released before midnight.

The entire election campaign should be handled and financed by the party head office, thereby allowing the Elections Commission to easily monitor the campaign funding of the respective parties.

d) Constitutional provision to be made for an ‘all party’ cabinet of 30 parliamentary members to be formed by applying the same PR arithmetic now being used to select National List MPs. As a result, the existing ambiguous provision to increase the number of cabinet portfolios by five can also be repealed.

The executive president shall hold only the portfolio of national security and defence. He would appoint the other ministers in consultation with the party leaders. By this method, the PR system brings about a permanent ‘win-win’ situation where all citizens including the politicians would forget their party rivalries after the elections and forge ahead as one truly democratic nation.

Since our broad economic, social, cultural and foreign policies are now very much in place, we would at most be electing the party who in our opinion can more effectively steer the country forward, through an ‘all-party’ cabinet of ministers which includes smaller parties like the TNA and JVP. 

In particular, the inclusion of TNA in the cabinet will help to remove the perpetual suspicion they harbour about a so called ‘Sinhala Government’ and satisfy the promised 13+ component too. The entire election process would thereafter turn out to be a routine, five yearly, peaceful exercise, sans fan- fare and extravaganza which an emerging country like ours can ill afford.

e) As the decentralised administration has come to stay with the long existing Provincial Councils flowing down to the local Government machinery, strengthen them to derive maximum returns from that huge Investment under the aegis of the President, thereby leaving the Parliamentarians at the centre to play their exclusive role as aforesaid. Under this new scenario, the number of MPs too can be reduced drastically.

f) Arising from their role rationalisation, review the five-year pension scheme, abolish duty free vehicle facility and decentralised budgetary allocations for MPs.

g) Salaries and fringe benefits of MPs to be recommended by an independent committee comprising work study and productivity experts in order to save the MPs from allegations of ‘conflict of interest’.

h) Amend or remove all the publicly preferred obnoxious provisions, if any, governing the present executive presidency.

i) After his /her election by the people, the executive president should remain neutral and act as a ‘statesman’ looking after the entire citizenry of the country without engaging in any political party campaigning. 

j) Fix the date constitutionally for holding future Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. If executive presidency continues, a more rational voter decision as well as a huge cost reduction can be achieved by having both Presidential and Parliamentary Elections on the same day.

k) Similarly, fix a date to hold Provincial Council Elections too, after relevant amendments.

l) Local Government Elections should be depoliticised allowing people to elect independent, acceptable, genuinely social-minded, honest individuals in the locality in keeping with the ‘Grama Rajya’ concept where people need to be assisted sans any political affiliations and inducements. The existing number of members should also be rationalised.

Future executive presidency

Last but not the least, if the concept of running the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary as three independent institutions is to be continued in its true spirit, the Presidential Elections should be contested by non-political, independent candidates qualifying under a specific set of criteria. In our view, the ‘preference vote’ option at Presidential Elections becomes meaningful only when the candidates are independent.

We as concerned, peace-loving citizens fervently hope that sanity would prevail and the new Government would capture this golden opportunity of making ‘consensual politics’ a reality by effecting the aforesaid electoral reforms/constitutional changes without any further delay.