Will the Rainbow Government succeed in implementing electoral reforms?

Thursday, 26 March 2015 01:52 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  Though the Government was able to arrive at a consensus regarding the trimming of powers of the executive presidency, the controversy over electoral reforms has still not been settled, with the Government and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) continuing to reiterate their stances on this subject. In this backdrop, President Maithripala Sirisena has also expressed his displeasure regarding the prevailing electoral system while emphasising on the need to change it. According to reports, the political parties are discussing the introduction of a mixed system consisting of the Proportional Representation (PR) system and the First Past the Post system. President’s stance President Maithripala Sirisena recently told party leaders that he was of the opinion that the Preferential Voting System should be changed and that moves were underway to introduce a new system as promised in the election manifesto. “Entering politics through financial power and abusing the preferential voting system has led to the deterioration of politicians. People’s opposition has been drawn at present on the preferential voting system in the same manner agitations were conducted against the unrestricted powers of the executive presidency. My personal opinion is that the preferential voting system should be changed and replaced with a mixed electoral system,” he said. At this meeting the President also directed the party leaders to appoint a subcommittee regarding changing the electoral system if necessary to take the matters forward with inputs from the Elections Commissioner and the Attorney General. The President also emphasised that all politicians must centre their vision on a philosophy and not on financial values in order to enhance their image while the Dinesh Gunawardena Committee Report which proposes a mixed electoral system was also discussed. UNP backpedalling Nevertheless, although the President is eager to change the electoral system, the United National Party (UNP), which is a major part of the rainbow coalition Government, states that due to time limitations of the 100-day program, electoral reforms cannot be implemented and only clipping wings of the Executive Presidency can be done. This was UNP’s first excuse. However, to most people’s amusement and surprise, later they came up with another excuse stating that if a new electoral system were to be implemented, there wouldn’t be enough seats in Parliament to accommodate members appointed by the new electoral system. This is a foolish and ridiculous remark similar to saying the Sri Lankan Parliament could not proceed because the canteen was closed, and, as expected, this statement of the UNP was criticised by many groups of people, including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). SLFP stance Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva told the media during every press conference in which he participated in the past few weeks that curtailing powers of the Executive Presidency and the introduction of the new electoral system should go hand-in-hand and that the UNP should not oppose this as civil organisations and other political parties had taken this stand too. Later he revealed that the SLFP joined the National Government to make the 100-day program a success and to push for the crucial and much-needed constitutional and electoral reforms while claiming that SLFP is still part of the Opposition. “The SLFP and UNP have two different identities and we will not become one. The decision of entering the National Government was taken to make the 100-day program a success and to push for the Government to implement the highly-necessary constitutional and electoral reforms. Now we can present the SLFP views in a better manner within the Cabinet and push the Government to make these changes in the country. The President has given us the freedom to criticise any of the Government policies or decisions. Therefore the SLFP is still the main Opposition party,” Silva explained. Before the SLFP decided to join the Government, Silva at another press conference explained the SLFP stance on electoral reforms. “Our loyalties are with President Maithripala Sirisena and not with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. We believe that there should be a wide public discussion on the matter before presenting it in Parliament. Delimitation under the new electoral system could last at least for three months. We had a long discussion on the proposed electoral system with the Prime Minister and with the Elections Commissioner. At this meeting the UNP brought in various arguments. However, we stood our ground and said that it was necessary to go for a new electoral system before the Parliamentary election,” Silva said. Demarcating polling divisions According to reports, there are 160 polling divisions; in some polling divisions 27,000 people could elect a member, whereas in some polling divisions a member is elected by 127,000 people. There is an anomaly that needs to be resolved here. How this new system will affect small parties and minority representation is a question that has been lingering in the political circles for some time now. Nevertheless, sources said that after discussions on how to demarcate polling divisions, it was suggested that 125 would be elected under the First Past the Post System and 75 members would be elected under the district PR system and that there would be 25 National List MPs. The Elections Commissioner too had said that the delimitation of polling divisions could be completed in three months. JVP stance Meanwhile, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) recently criticised these attempts of the Opposition while claiming that the SLFP only wanted to postpone the election and was insisting on electoral reforms at present to protect its majority in Parliament and protect SLFP politicians involved in corruption cases. JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva at a press conference held in Colombo said: “We are in agreement concerning the amendments that have been gazetted. This Government cannot go forward without the help of the SLFP. Therefore the Government is not taking any action against the corrupt SLFP members and this can only remain when the SLFP has the majority in Parliament. However, the excuses given by Nimal Siripala are unacceptable, specially concerning bringing the constitutional amendments as an urgent bill, because when they brought the 18th Amendment which is a disastrous amendment Nimal Siripala did not ask for time saying a debate should be created about it. Therefore Nimal Siriplala should be ashamed because these are selfish political reasons.” Commenting further, the JVP General Secretary added that President Sirisena should dissolve Parliament and go for a general election after 23 April as it was promised by him in the run-up to the presidential election and seek a fresh mandate for the Parliament. “The people have a right to appoint a Parliament that they wish. Therefore, an election should be held. However, we accept that a new, proper, democratic, scientific and fair electoral system should be introduced and it should not be a system which satisfies the selfish political needs of certain people and a system which is advantageous to them. Nevertheless, during the presidential election, the President said that the executive presidency should be abolished and no one spoke about the electoral system. Therefore the President should work towards abolishing the executive presidency completely,” he added. Meanwhile, soon after the appointment of the 26 SLFP Ministers, JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake criticised the Government saying that the Government does not have the same eagerness to implement constitutional and electoral reforms and the RTI or to punish corrupt politicians in the country similar to how it is appointing ministers. “To give positions they are ever-ready, but unfortunately not to do anything else. Therefore it is clear to us that now this team has ignored the needs of the people and is only focusing on personal political gains and needs,” Dissanayake told the media. JHU stance In this political drama, minority parties too are divided on the subject of electoral reforms and having their own fights. Soon after the notion of a new electoral system was announced, some minority parties expressed their displeasure on this while some started to criticise those parties. A minority party which played a huge role to bring President Sirisena into power, the Jathika Hela Urumaya recently had a seminar in Colombo under the theme ‘Preferential voting system should be cancelled and promises should be kept’. At this conference JHU Western Provincial Councillor Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe said that the reason behind the present corrupt political culture was the prevailing electoral system and therefore immediate steps should be taken to change it. “However, we will not allow any constitutional conspiracies to take place, because the authorities are not acting in a transparent manner or according to the agreements they have entered regarding constitutional amendments. Democratic constitutional amendments should take place, but they should not happen according to the personal selfish needs of different politicians. We agree that extreme powers of the executive presidency should be trimmed, but we do not want to create an extreme executive prime minister either. We are not ready to take back what we gave from one hand from the other hand. That is why we insist that these constitutional amendments should happen in a transparent manner and a fair and democratic electoral system that would represent everybody should be established; this system could be a mixed system,” he said. Commenting further, Warnasinghe added that though a disciplined country should be created under a mixed electoral system, this crucial change could not be accomplished just through the changing the country’s electoral system and that the political parties had to play a bigger role and not permit criminals and people involved in corruption and wrongdoings to contest elections. “According to the 100-day program, on 28 January the preferential voting system should be changed. If the Government is talking about the 100-day program they should do the work in this program properly and it is only after completing the work in the 100-day program that they should go for an election. However, if Premier Wickremesinghe is not giving the required leadership to complete these things, then we will have to appoint another prime minister inside the Parliament. Therefore we warn this Government not to act according to their selfish political agendas or try to fulfil their personal political needs, because if so we will take to the streets against this Government,” Warnasinghe warned. A proper pickle indeed With the SLFP also becoming partners of the rainbow coalition Government, the Sri Lankan Government has turned into a proper pickle today. While many things are happening on the political front as we speak, the Government is content to go forward at snail’s pace with regard to implementing the major promises given in the run-up to the presidential election. Only time will prove whether or not this ‘Achcharu Government’ will succeed in changing the country’s electoral system and all we can do right now is wait and see how things unfold in the days and weeks ahead.