At talks last Monday, Sirisena took part in his capacity as leader of the SLFP. The UNP team was headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and included Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, General Secretary Kabir Hashim, and Working Committee member Karu Jayasuriya.
Sirisena told the UNP delegation that he had met Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya and the Surveyor General P.M.P. Udayakantha to determine how long it would take for delimitation work related to carving out electorates. Both had said it could be done within weeks.
Hence, the President told them to prepare their own reports and meet him on March 18. Thereafter, constitutional and resultant legislative changes for electoral reforms could be formulated, Sirisena said. He said it would thus be possible to bring both the Constitutional changes and electoral reforms together. UNP Chairman Samarawickrema described the meeting as a “very cordial discussion.” Another senior UNPer said the party was even willing to allow a week or two more if such time was needed to present the reforms and have them approved. However, he said the UNP hoped President Sirisena would dissolve Parliament thereafter and go for elections. The meeting also saw a short discussion on an unexpected issue — matters at the higher level management of the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE).
The UNP delegation was in favour of the constitutional and electoral changes coming together since the party believed the changes would still be within the deadline of April 23 or immediately thereafter when Parliament has to be dissolved. However, there are increasing doubts whether that would become a reality. In such an event, what the UNP’s next move would be has not been made clear officially. A senior member said that the only option left would be to quit the Government and remain in the Opposition until the polls are held. That would obviously mean that an SLFP Government would be in place during that period
President Sirisena briefed his party’s parliamentary group on Thursday about his meeting with the UNP delegation. He said Premier Wickremesinghe had agreed to his proposal to introduce both constitutional and electoral changes together. It was decided to appoint a committee to study and report on the SLFP’s draft constitutional changes. As revealed last week, it was presented at an SLFP-UNP meeting by Opposition Leader de Silva. The party wants to retain the presidential system but with less powers. Whilst reducing the term of the presidency from six to five years, the draft also seeks to “restrict immunity in respect of official acts, but challenges should be confined to alleged violation of fundamental rights.”
The committee will be headed by President Sirisena and will include Opposition Leader de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, G.L. Peiris and John Seneviratne. President Sirisena told his party MPs that the electoral reforms would be based on the recommendations of a 32-member Parliamentary Select Committee which was chaired by then Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The committee’s interim report recommended a hybrid of “first past the post” and “proportional representation” system of elections. This is whilst retaining the existing 225 seat Parliament. Some of the committee’s recommendations in respect of local authority elections have already been introduced.
Here are some of the highlights of the report:
• Creation of 140 polling divisions (constituencies) based on the “first past the post” system. Those elected to be referred as ‘Constituency MPs.’ A District “proportional representation” to be in place for the selection of 70 MPs. Number of National List MPs to be fixed at 15. The report recommends that Sri Lanka be divided into 140 single member constituencies to return 140 MPs to Parliament on the “first past the post” system. This system requires a fresh delimitation to re-demarcate 140 polling divisions.
•Seventy District MPs are to be selected on the basis of a ‘district proportional representation’ system based only on the votes polled by the “other candidates” who contested but did not qualify under the “first past the post” system.
The basis for district “proportional representation” system would be as follows:
•Out of the total votes polled for each district, the votes polled by the winning candidates of the respective political party (under the “first past the post system”) for each constituency within the district will be eliminated for apportioning District seats.
•The votes polled by the “other candidates” of all the electorates within the district to be totalled and divided by the total number of “District Proportional Representation (DPR)” seats allocated for the respective district to ascertain the “qualifying number.”
•The party entitlement of seats under the DPR will be determined according to the number of votes received by each party for the district through “other candidates” having divided the aggregate by the “qualifying number.”
•Out of the candidates who contest elections from one party within a district the candidate to be elected under the DPR would be the one who receives the highest percentage of votes from each of the electorate.
The number of DPR seats to be allocated for each respective district may be determined on a 2:1 ratio (Example: 10 “first past the post” seats equal 5 DPR seats). However, the report cautions that “this ratio may vary according to circumstances prevailing in each district. The area, population and ethnic diversities of voters in each district may be taken into consideration when determining the number of district MPs to be elected for each respective district.
For the national list of 15 seats, each party will be required to submit a list of candidates at the time of nominations. The list could contain names of those contesting (for constituencies) as well as non-contesting candidates. The report recommends that five seats from the national list be allocated to the party securing the highest number of valid votes at the elections (bonus seats). Out of the balance ten seats, it says, three seats should be reserved for unrepresented minor parties who have polled a national vote exceeding the natural cut-off point but have not qualified for the seat under the “first past the post” and /or “district proportional representation system.” In the event none of the parties succeed in qualifying for these seats, they will remain as national list seats. The balance number of seats will be apportioned based on the strength of the votes each party receives at the national level. Candidates to be appointed based on the proportionate allocation will be decided by the Secretary of the party. The report also recommended that every third candidate nominated by a party secretary from the national list shall be a woman candidate.
President Sirisena told SLFP parliamentarians that after the reports from the Commissioner of Elections and the Surveyor General, a document setting out the electoral reforms would be circulated to the partners in the Government. He said that he expected the final document to emerge from consultations with them. Similarly, the SLFP’s proposals for constitutional changes will be studied by the committee and later adopted by the party. It is thereafter that partners would be given copies. The UNP has begun work on its own draft for constitutional changes. Premier Wickremesinghe discussed the subject with his party seniors on Friday at the Parliament complex.