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Playing ducks and drakes with electoral system Four decades of constitutional folly and failure – 3

parliment 2

By C.A.Chandraprema
(Courtesy of The Island)

The electoral system as regards Parliament originally laid out in the 1978 Constitution was very different to what we have today. Before the Fourteenth Amendment, there were to be only 196 MPs and not 225. There was no National List. There was no preferential vote system. Some features of the elections system were the same as what we have today. Each Province was to have four seats distributed among the electoral districts in that Province. The total number of seats to be allocated in this manner was 36 (4 X 9 Provinces). Each province got four seats irrespective of its population, land mass, and number of electoral districts.

Then, as now, 160 seats were to be apportioned among the various electoral districts in accordance with the number of registered voters in each of them. The total number of voters registered in the Electoral Register of the country was divided by 160 to arrive at the ‘qualifying number’. The total number of voters registered in each of the electoral districts was then divided by this qualifying number to arrive at the number of MPs that each electoral district was entitled to return. Any leftover seats would be allocated to the districts with the highest number of residual votes. (It should be noted that seats are not allocated to the districts on the basis of their population but on the number of registered voters.)

The original Parliamentary elections system in the1978 Constitution did not have a preferential vote system. Each political party or independent group was to submit one nomination paper for each electoral district setting out the names in the order of priority that the candidates should be elected. The number of nominees on each nomination paper would be equal to the number of Members to be elected for that electoral district, increased by one-third. The party or group that gets the highest number of votes in that electoral district was to have the candidate whose name appears first in the nomination paper declared elected.

Thereafter, the parties or independent groups that polled less than one-eighth (12.5%) of the total votes polled in that electoral district were to be taken out of the race. The votes polled by these disqualified parties and independent groups, would then be deducted from the total votes polled in that electoral district to arrive at the ‘relevant number of votes’. The ‘relevant number of votes’ was then to be divided by the number of members to be elected for that electoral district reduced by one. (The reduction of one seat being the one that was allocated to the party that got the highest number of votes.) The number resulting from the division of the ‘relevant number of votes’ by the number of members to be elected for that electoral district reduced by one, is the ‘resulting number’.

The number of votes polled by each party and independent group that got more than 12.5% of the votes in that district beginning with the party or group which polled the highest number of votes, is then divided by the resulting number to arrive at the number of MPs each such party or group was entitled to in that district.

Under the original system laid down in the 1978 Constitution, political parties were to have the right to change the order of priority of the names in the nomination paper even after they had been declared elected and to substitute the names of other persons in place of those who have died or ceased to be members of such party. Thus, this was a system that gave the political party complete power over its MPs. This system was never implemented.

The 14th & 15th Amendments

The Fourteenth Amendment, which was introduced, in May 1988, before any Parliamentary election was ever held under the 1978 Constitution, introduced the preferential vote system whereby voters were entitled to indicate up to three preferences for candidates of the party they voted for. Thus, it was not the political party hierarchy that would decide who would get a seat in Parliament but the voters themselves. This was undoubtedly a more democratic way of doing things, but the preferential vote system gave rise to a number of other problems such as candidates having to canvass for preferential votes across an entire district, some constituencies ending up without an identifiable representative in Parliament, big spenders unsuited to hold public office being able to skim preferential votes off the entire district to get into Parliament, and the institutionalization of corruption due to the heavy expenditure involved in getting elected.

The Fourteenth Amendment also increased the number of MPs in Parliament from 196 to 225 by the addition of the National List of 29 seats, which were to be apportioned among the parties contesting the election on the basis of the proportion of votes they polled nationwide.

Perhaps, in recognition of the difficulties involved in obtaining preferential votes from all over an electoral district, the 14th Amendment, provided for electoral districts entitled to return more than 10 members to be divided into two zones and those entitled to return more than 20 MPs to be divided into 3 zones. Since there are no districts entitled to return more than 20 MPs, two zones would have been the maximum per district. Many districts would not have had zones at all because they were not entitled to return more than ten MPs. Each zone was to be a combination of two or more of polling divisions (constituencies/electorates). The number of MPs each zone was entitled to return was to be determined on the same basis as apportioning seats to each electoral district as outlined earlier.

In December 1988, the Fifteenth Amendment changed the system of elections yet again and the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to divide some districts into zones, was abolished. The most far reaching and damaging change in the elections system introduced by the Fifteenth Amendment was the reduction of the district cut off point from 12.5% to 5%.

This enabled many small ethnicity and religion-based political parties to proliferate and has undermined the ability of the national political parties to form stable governments. The reduction of the cut-off point was not a well thought out matter of policy but a part of the political horse trading that went on before the 1988 December Presidential elections.

The Fifteenth Amendment was signed into law just 48 hours before the Presidential election of 19 December 1988 so that President Premadasa could obtain the votes of the then newly formed Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

In the 30 years that has passed since this system of elections came into operation in 1989, it has given the party that wins the Parliamentary election a clear majority only on two occasions in 1989 and 2010. There have been calls for electoral reform including the reintroduction of a constituency based system so that each constituency will have an identifiable representative in Parliament and for the abolishing of the preference vote system. The need to canvass throughout a district in order to get elected has also come in for much criticism as this has increased the costs associated with an election campaign and the costs associated with maintaining the MP’s presence among the constituents and given rise to endemic corruption.

The best thought out proposal for reform of this electoral system was put forward by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform headed by Dinesh Gunawardene in 2007 after several years of deliberations. This PSC was first set up under the UNP government in 2002. According to the proposal put forward by the Dinesh Gunawardene Committee, Parliament was to have a total 225 MPs as at present. Of this, 140 MPs were to be elected directly from constituencies on the first past the post system. Another 70 MPs were to be elected on the district proportional representation system as follows: Firstly, the votes polled by the winning candidates in the constituencies within the district will be eliminated. Then the votes polled by the ‘other candidates’ of all the electorates within the district were to be totaled and divided by the number of proportional representation seats allocated for that district to arrive at the ‘qualifying number’. The number of votes received by each party for that district through the ‘other candidates’ would be divided by the ‘qualifying number’ to arrive at the number of seats that party was entitled to on the proportional representation quota. The candidate to be elected to Parliament under the district proportional representation system would be the ‘other candidate’ who has received the highest percentage of votes from his electorate (the best losers among those who contested the constituencies).

*Dinesh Gunawardene PSC recommendations

* The 15 National List seats were to be allocated as follows: Five seats would go to the party securing the highest number of valid votes at the election as bonus seats. Out of the balance, three seats were to be reserved for unrepresented minor parties that polled more than 5% nationwide but have not qualified for a seat. If there are no such parties, these three seats will be allocated in the same manner as other national list seats on the basis of the number of votes polled by each party at the national level. This is the best proposal for electoral reform that we have on the table at present. The only drawback is that this system requires a new demarcation of constituencies/ electorates to reduce the present number of 160 constituencies to 140.

Dr. Sudantha Liyanage, who designed the system that was modified and adopted by the Dinesh Gunawardene PSC, is skeptical that the delimitation process would be able to go off without a hitch, because some districts would have to bear the brunt of the reduction in the number of seats. Even though there is around one year till the next Parliamentary election, nobody is recommending electoral reform at the Parliamentary level at this stage due to the fear that the delimitation process may not be completed in time. The only real chance for the implementation of this system is if the political parties manage to come to an agreement on the delimitation of constituencies before the Bill to amend the section on Parliamentary elections in the Constitution is introduced. Not that this is impossible. An agreement between the two main political parties will suffice for that purpose. The two main political parties did cooperate with one another when the Dinesh Gunawardene Committee recommendations were passed into law for the local government level in November 2012.

The system that was put into place in 2012 for the local government institutions was never implemented. In 2017, it was changed again by the present government, introducing a pure proportional representation system which is now reviled by everybody including the political parties that promoted it. The 2018 local government election was held under this new system leaving everyone disgruntled. The UNP government of the late 1980s played ducks and drakes with the system of elections and, today, we have another UNP government doing the same thing. The next government will have to take up electoral reform as a matter of priority. Nobody wants the long delayed provincial council elections held under the elections system introduced in 2017.


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