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FeaturesElectoral Reforms: Some Critical Reflections – Jayadeva Uyangoda

Electoral Reforms: Some Critical Reflections – Jayadeva Uyangoda


Sri Lanka’s current debate on electoral reforms seems to be heading towards a politically inspired deadlock. Some powerful sections of the SLFP seems to be using the idea of electoral reforms either as a bargaining tool for some short-term political gains, or to checkmate the constitutional reform initiative aimed at changing the executive presidential system.

Besides the politics and politicking unfolding in relation to the theme of electoral reforms, there are some major shortcoming in the way in which the issue is approached by the political parties, the election commissioner, and civil society groups. This article aims at a critique of this dominant approach to electoral reforms and then to suggest some alternatives.

Normative Goals

First of all, it needs to be noted that the dominant approach to electoral reforms lacks a normative perspective. Normative goals of reform are necessary to foreground, because without them the entire exercise of electoral reforms can degenerate into a technical exercise, towards which it already appears to be heading at present.

In any democratic society, the primary normative objective of electoral reform should be to broaden democracy. That entails a framework of other values and goals that should include making representation more inclusive and more reflective of the diversity of society. In other words, electoral reforms should aim at further democratizing democratic representation at all levels – national, regional and local.

Sri Lanka’s debate on electoral reform has often highlighted the need to further democratize the existing structures and processes of electoral representation. The demand by women for some measure of equality in representation by providing a quota for women is an example. Another example is the argument advanced on behalf of small minorities for increased representation while recognizing their territorial dispersion. The concern among several non-dominant and subordinate caste communities in Sinhalese as well as Tamil societies for the accommodation of their group specific interests in the electoral process is no less democratic in relation to representation. This demand originated in the early 1930s and continues until now in a variety of forms.

Crisis of Representation

Meanwhile, the public debate on electoral reforms began in the 1990s and later gathered momentum in a context which can be described as the crisis of Sri Lanka’s representative democracy. It is a crisis evolved as specific to Sri Lanka, and is independent of what political theory describes as ‘crisis of representative democracy.’ The latter refers to the negative consequences for democracy arising out of the separation of the elected from the electors, once an election is over.

Sri Lanka’s crisis of representative democracy evolved out of two sources, the executive presidential system and the system of proportional representation, established with the 1978 constitutional change. The executive presidential system created a powerful office of the president as the head of the executive as well as the legislative branches of the state, and the president was to be directly elected by the people. This totally undermined the powers, position and authority of the legislature, the core institution of representative government, whose members were also directly elected by the people.

Thus, the popular will came to be represented and expressed at two parallel branches of the state, thereby introducing a great deal of confusion to both the theory and practice of representative democracy in Sri Lanka. This conflict is observable in other political systems too where the President as the head of the executive and then a legislature are elected directly by the people and are deemed to represent popular sovereignty.

PR System

The PR system, the second source of the current crisis of Sri Lanka’s representative democracy, has had a mixed political record. When the system was conceived in the minds of J. R. Jayewardene and his junior colleagues in the late 1970s, they linked it to their larger project with two essential components, namely, to accomplish political stability for a strong state by altering the composition as well as powers of parliament, and to secure the dominance of big political parties in parliament by eliminating smaller parties. Actually, the initial cut off point of 12.5% for any party to even qualify for parliamentary representation was meant to perpetuate the hegemony of the dominant two-party system in Sri Lanka.

In both these aspects, the crisis of representative democracy that has been rooted in the 1978 constitution was a product of the authoritarian intent of the executive presidential system as well as the PR system.

Meanwhile, the PR system went through a radically important shift in the latter part of the year 1988 when the cut-off point to qualify for representation was reduced to 5%. Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, seeking a broad coalition to garner support for his presidential bid in December 1988, was instrumental in this change. He actually responded to a request made by Mr. M. H. M. Ashraff of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

That change, as demonstrated in subsequent parliamentary and other elections, took the intent of the PR system radically away from what JRJ and his cohorts had earlier conceived. It enabled the smaller and ethnic minority parties to secure representation in parliament and other elected assemblies at provincial and local levels in a manner akin to, or even better than, the previous first-past-the-post system.

Without the PR system with 5% cut off point, parties such as the JVP, JHU, SLMC, Upcountry People’s Front, PLOTE, and Democratic People’s Front would not have obtained on their own the numbers of legislative seats – even one or two at times — they did in the elections held in and after 1989. Its benefits went to new political entities that emerged from Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Plantation ethnic communities.

The only option they would have had under the previous system was to enter into coalition mergers with the UNP, SLFP or Federal Party, the three big players in the electoral party politics.

Thus, the opening up of greater space for several smaller and ethnic minority parties for representation is one of the unintended consequences of the PR system with a low cut-off point. It actually took away the most undemocratic feature of the original PR system, introduced in 1978. More importantly, it enabled ethnic, social, political and ideological diversities of our society to find representation in all legislative assemblies.

Two Sides of PR

The method of preferential voting built into Sri Lanka’s PR system is the other feature of the electoral system that has received a great deal of flack for justifiable reasons. Experience shows that it spawns corruption, broods violence, and leads to severe infighting even among candidates of the same party list.

As critics correctly point out, the system of preferential voting has negatively personalized the electoral process, even undermining the role of political parties as the primary vehicle for democratic will formation among citizens.

However, there is another side — a positive one — to the preferential voting, combined with the PR system, which has led to further democratization of representative democracy in Sri Lanka. It refers to the opportunity it has successfully offered to ethnic and social minorities –the latter are caste groups — to elect representatives from their own identity communities, within the framework of existing political parties, to parliament, provincial councils as well as local government bodies.

In this too, the PR system with preferential voting, has contributed to democratization of representation, beyond the capacity of the first-past-the post (FPTP) system.

How did it work? It worked in the combination of three factors specific to Sri Lanka’s PR system – proportionality, preferential voting and the district as the unit of representation rather than an electorate of relatively small size with small populations. There is an interesting dimension of political geography also working here. Most of the small ethnic minorities — particularly Muslims, Up-Country Tamils and the Tamils in the Western Province – are territorially dispersed. In political theory, they are called dispersed, or non-territorial, minorities.

To reap benefits of the FPTP system of representation, minorities had to be territorially concentrated so that their candidates could poll majorities in conventional electorates.

Thus, the FPTP system with representation confined to relatively small electorates, did not favour non-territorial minorities.

In contrast, the PR system with preferential voting enabled voters of dispersed ethnic minorities within districts to focus on a few candidates and maximize their chances of winning. Districts are not only much bigger than conventional electorates in geographical terms; they often have small minority and caste communities dispersed throughout, across many electorates.

That is how several social minorities — particularly karawa, durawa, slagama, bathgama and wahumpura communities in Sinhalese society – too benefitted from the PR system with preferential voting in parliamentary, provincial council and local government elections. This was reflected in electoral outcomes in Kegalle, Kurunegala, Matara, Galle, Ratnapura and Kalutara distrcits, and even in such an urban, relatively industrialized electoral division as the Gampaha district.

I assume that this has been the case in the Tamil society too.

Not just Things of the Past

Some who are engaged in electoral reform discussions appear to believe that caste and ethnic identity are basically anti-democratic legacies of the past and therefore, any scheme of representation need not accommodate these two identities as foundations of representation. This does not reflect a correct understanding of the sociology of democratic and electoral politics in Sri Lanka.

Any report of past delimitation commissions will show us how much significance these two minority identities have received in the commission deliberations. Similarly, it is an open secret how presidents and prime ministers have always accommodated ethnic and caste-specific demands for cabinet representation during the difficult task of distributing spoils in the form of ministerial positions. In preparing electoral lists, party secretaries are always overwhelmed by caste and ethnicity-specific pressures for inclusion of what has been conceptualized in administrative discourses as ‘special interest groups.’ Rather than disappearing, ethnic and caste identities as domains of immensely valuable political capital have thrived under electoral democracy, particularly under the PR system. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is an eminently democratic way of how representation should work. Since electoral democracy arouses aspirations for emancipation as well as power among all communities, representation to be democratic should include the excluded, bring the marginalized to the centre, and open up new space for representation so that the social, ethnic and cultural diversities, with their renewable energies, find their concrete expression in the electoral and legislative arenas.

Thus, any move towards demarcating electoral districts and divisions anew entails, and demands, sensitivity to social and political geography of representation. That is why the best approach to electoral reforms should not only be a technical exercise. The technical aspect of it should be informed by social and political sensitivity to new representational needs.

Inclusion and Diversity

It is exactly this normative element of inclusion and expressing diversity that is ignored in the current debate on electoral reforms. To give an extreme example, the proposal for the mixed system of elections calls for the re-demarcation of electoral districts/constituencies. Some have argued that this re-demarcation can be done quickly, within just a few weeks, since the google maps and the GPS technology are easily available. This is a technical approach to electoral reforms, which ignores political, ethnic and social geography of voter concentration as well as dispersal, and also the current needs for continuing inclusion and representation of diversity.

The debate has also effectively ignored the demand for a 1/3 quota for women in parliament as well as other assemblies of representation. Recognition of diversity and facilitating pluralism and inclusion in representation is important to deepen democracy. What we need is an inclusivist, not exclusionary, system of representation. The point then is that if the current proposals are accepted to reform Sri Lanka’s electoral system, it would certainly be a reform in the politically wrong direction. It will not either deepen or broaden Sri Lanka’s electoral democracy.

It is most likely to perpetuate the politics of exclusion, promote discontent among ethnic and social minorities, and enhance the ethnic and social majoritarian politics as well as the dominance of major parties in democratic politics.

Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda / CDN

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