Electoral reforms while elections are on doorstep By M.S.M Ayub

The Cabinet on March 18 approved a proposal to reform the electoral system that will see a hybrid system for parliamentary representation where 160 members would be appointed by the First Past-The-Post system while 65 members would be elected under the Proportional Representation (PR) system.

A statement issued by the Government Information Department said that the proposal made by the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms to instruct the Legal Draftsman to draft legislation to amend the electoral system was approved by the Cabinet.

Interestingly, the statement claims that “it has been found necessary to change the existing electoral system to achieve the objectives of the Regulations of Election Expenditure Act No. 3 of 2023…” whereas the hybrid or mixed electoral system of First-Past-the-Post system (FPP) and the Proportional Representation (PR) system had been recommended by three Parliamentary Select Committees (PSCs) since 2001.

The first PSC was appointed during the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2001, the second was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency in 2006 and the third was in 2021 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was running the country. Hence, the need for shifting from PR system to a mixed electoral system has stemmed from these PSCs long before the Regulation of Election Expenditure Act was passed last year.

An interesting fact in respect of these three PSCs was that they all were headed by current Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who has been a minister under the said three presidents.

National or provincial level

The statement says that a Cabinet Sub Committee has been appointed to submit a report to the Cabinet after obtaining the views of all Party leaders representing Parliament and other relevant Parties for that purpose. They have expressed their concurrence for electing 160 out of the 225 MPs by the voters directly in the respective constituency and to elect the rest 65 MPs at national or provincial level as per the PR system, the statement said.
Accordingly, the Legal Draftsman is to draft legislation to amend the electoral system, “taking also into consideration the recommendations submitted by the Committee appointed under the Chairmanship of Prime Minister.”
This indicates that after deliberations of three PSCs for two decades where members of all political parties had expressed their views on the mixed electoral system, a Cabinet Sub-Committee has again met the members of the same political parties for the same purpose. And then again “taking also into consideration the recommendations submitted by the Committee appointed under the Chairmanship of Prime Minister” (seems to be one of the three PSCs, especially the third PSC appointed in 2021), the Cabinet has decided to instruct the Legal Draftsman to draft the legislation.

Sri Lankan politicians, especially the leaders of the government seem to be suffering from a severe memory loss. When they felt the need to bring in new legislation to introduce the mixed electoral system while perusing the Election Expenditure Act, they forgot, as we pointed out above the three PSCs that recommended the same hybrid system. Similarly, they have forgotten the fact that the concurrence of all political parties representing the Parliament had been obtained by the PSCs, when they appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee for the same.

Then again when they decided to instruct the Legal Draftsman to draft legislation to amend the electoral system, they have forgotten the appointment of a nine-member Commission of Inquiry by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 16, last year under the Chairmanship of former Chief Justice Priyasath Dep to “Formulate an appropriate mechanism blended with the first-past-the-post voting system for the election of people’s representatives, not limiting to the proportional representation system…” among other objectives.

“Blended” electoral system

This Commission has been instructed by the President to present its report to him within six months from the date of its appointment. Hence the report is expected to be so presented before 16th of next month by which time the Legal Draftsman might have commenced work on the legislation to introduce a “blended” electoral system.
A similar scenario was witnessed two days after this Commission was appointed in October. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on October 18 had convened a meeting of leaders of political parties in Parliament to discuss the electoral reforms, independent of this Commission. The meeting had ended without a final decision as Opposition parties rejected the ratio between the number of MPs to be elected under the FPP and PR systems, as suggested by the government. These are scenarios where the left hand of the government doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.

This memory issue is evident even when they find solutions to the ethnic problem and the economic crisis, as we have pointed out in our previous columns.

The government’s haste in drafting laws for electoral reforms gains significance with the demand by the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to hold the Parliamentary election before the Presidential election which, as per the Constitution has to be held between September 17 and October 17, this year. The General election which is scheduled to be conducted next year could be advanced by the dissolution of Parliament by the President which he was authorized to do by the Constitution since February last year. He can do the same after the passage of a resolution on the matter passed in Parliament as well.

Despite the Constitution having already authorized the President to dissolve the Parliament, media reported that he has insisted that he would do so only if the Parliament passed a resolution in that regard. And if electoral reforms take precedence, Parliament election would not be able to be held before the Presidential election, as the delimitation process is involved in the mixed electoral system. This process might sometimes take months or years, depending on the wishes of and manipulations by the government leaders.

The Opposition parties expressed fear that the motive behind the electoral reforms is nothing but postponing the Parliamentary election is not unfounded. The track record of the President’s party, the United National Party (UNP) in postponing elections by manipulating the laws related to the elections prompts such a fear. Two recent cases in point are the legal mess the UNP created in 2017 preventing the Provincial Council elections from being held and the fate that befell the Local Government elections last year.

Female representation

The Party presented a Bill in 2017 to strengthen female representation in Provincial Councils and during the committee stage debate on the Bill its leaders introduced an amendment to it which had nothing to do with female representation. The amendment was a set of provisions to introduce the mixed electoral system, which was then an incontrovertible matter among political parties. The party did not present the amendment as a separate Bill, as it should have been referred to the Supreme Court then for perusal and there was a possibility that some of the provisions of it being ruled inconstant to the Constitution. Thus, the Bill was passed with the amendment having bypassed the Supreme Court.

According to the Amendment, a delimitation report was presented to Parliament but only to be rejected with amusingly the minister who presented it too voting against it. Then a committee headed by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had to present a review report but it never saw the light of the day. Thus, the elections for the Provincial Councils have been postponed indefinitely since 2017.

Similarly, when the Local Government elections were around the corner in 2022 the UNP leaders with the connivance of the SLPP attempted to defer those elections on various pretexts. An attempt was made to amend the Local Government Election Act, a delimitation committee was appointed to freshly demarcate the wards of the LG bodies, Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe requested the Speaker to appoint a PSC for electoral reforms despite the third PSC headed by Dinesh Gunawardena having presented its report six months ago, President Wickremesinghe argued that the announcement of the LG elections is not legally valid in spite of his party having tendered nominations and finally they successfully stalled the elections by withholding funds allocated for the very purpose.

It is against this backdrop that the current efforts for electoral reforms have to be evaluated.