Electoral reforms and the impact on national reconciliation and political culture

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With President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s  announcement that  Presidential and Parliamentary Elections will be held next year, concerned citizens must necessarily focus on the trajectory that the country will take after such elections. This will in turn depend on what the political parties will place before the public by way of policies that they intend to implement if vested with the power to do so at the elections.

It will also depend on the quality of the representation that will emerge after the elections. This will largely be determined by the electoral architecture in place at the time of the election. Despite universal agreement across the political divide that the obnoxious and undemocratic office of the Executive Presidency must be abolished there is hardly any movement in this direction at the moment with only a few disparate voices advocating the issue.

The other critical area that needs to be attended to is the area of electoral reform which is more complex as a result of the competing interests of the different stakeholders. While the Government has appointed a Committee to propose electoral related reforms it is unlikely that such recommendations can be implemented before the next elections because of the time constraints.

However, since currently the discussion on electoral reforms has come to the surface, it would be useful to flag a few of the matters to which attention must be paid in order to minimise the negative impact on governance as a result of the existing systems.

The disastrous economic crisis of the past few years has pushed one of the most critical issues facing the country, namely national reconciliation and national unity, to the back burner. It is likely that the inability or unwillingness of the political parties to frame the national conversation on policy lines, will inevitably push the country to the divisive religious and ethnic rhetoric that characterised the 2019 and 2020 elections.

One of the strategies to promote national reconciliation and national unity must necessarily be to create interdependence of the diverse communities through government mechanisms.

One such mechanism that greatly contributed to such interdependence in post-independent Sri Lanka was the first past the post electoral system. Under this system the voter was encouraged to make his choice based on the political party whose policy he agreed with rather than the community to which the respective candidates belonged. This resulted in many candidates being elected on cross community voting which in turn added value to the quality of the representation.

However this healthy trend was completely reversed with the introduction of the Proportion Representation and Manape system which accentuated and widened the gap between communities both within and without political parties.

This even resulted in candidates completely ignoring voters of other communities when they sought election.

The emergence of identity based political parties made a bad situation even worse.

The Proportionate Representation and Manape system also contributed to the increase in corruption and lack of accountability within the polity.

Experience has also shown that the elimination of the system of bye elections as a consequence of the Proportional Representation and Manape system have greatly contributed to the pollution of the political culture. It has facilitated the crossover of Parliamentarians which tantamounts to a betrayal of  the mandate given by the voter

The provision of losing one’s seat due to cross overs must be reintroduced. In the last few Parliaments MPs have often crossed over and functioned in parties other than the one on which they were elected. Today one finds it difficult to know which party a legislator belongs to at a particular point of time. Compounding the situation is the fact that individuals who are citizens of other countries and even dual citizens are alleged to be members of the legislature.

It is critical that the by election process must be re-introduced. Members of Parliament must have the right and indeed should be encouraged to act according to their conscience and take political stands even if it means crossing over to other parties. They must in turn have the right to go and test the electorates opinion with regard to their actions through a by election.

With elections due next year, the voter will be called upon to cast his vote for candidates who have the interests of the people at heart.

One way of measuring suitability of a candidate is to see how many times they have changed colours. There are some who always crossed over and held positions in Cabinet or been with Government. Changing parties once is understandable but being a habitual must necessarily be a negative point in the eyes of the voter.

However the situation is not totally dismal. There are many in the present Parliament who have remained in the party they started their political journey in despite many temptations which is a plus point.

If one looks at the present Legislature, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya Parliamentarians have stood strong despite attempts at enticement with portfolios and other benefits. For parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Paramuna even considering changing allegiances for personal advantages is unthinkable and is not even an option.(javidyusuf@gmail.com)