The 20th Amendment to the Constitution to bring in much- awaited electoral reforms in Sri Lanka seems to be now in its final lap before reaching Parliament.
While the number of seats that should constitute the new Parliament, whether it should be 225, 237 or 255, remains the main issue among the political parties, the minority and minor parties strongly opposed the draft proposals approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on Monday. It was submitted by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and called for a 225 seat parliament.
Their voice compelled the Government to call a hurried cabinet meeting on Friday and approve a revised draft increasing the number of seats to 237 – to elect 145 Parliamentarians under the first past the post system, 55 under the district proportional representation system and to select 37 from the national list. It still fell short of the 255 seat parliament sought by the minor and minority political parties.
The Sunday Observer spoke to a number of the minor and minority parties last week as to their aspirations and concerns regarding the proposed electoral system. The following comments were made prior to the Cabinet decision on Friday. Later most of the parties said they welcomed the revision as a positive sign but refused to come down from their original demand for a 255-seat parliament under the 20-A.
Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader, Mano Ganesan: There has been a school of thought that minority parties are blocking the 20th amendment from becoming a part of the Constitution of the country. This is a wrong assumption. We also want the electoral reforms to do away with the preferential voting system. We too want MPs to represent specific electorates. But don’t ignore the positive side of the current PR system.
The formula in the original presidential document is FPP 165+ DPR 31+ NPR 59 making a total of 255. The minorities were assured that new single member and multi member electorates will be carved out by the delimitation commission. We thought we had arrived at a consensus on a system which will do justice to minor and minority parties. But suddenly to the surprise of all of us the formula changed on Monday evening at the special cabinet meeting. A new formula was introduced. The new formula is FPP 125+ DPR 75+ NPR 25 to a total of 225.(since Friday it has been revised to 237 seats)
The FPP 125 dismisses all hopes because with 125 FPP seats we cannot create new electorates. The high point for us is the delimitation process. The last delimitation held in year 1976. The population of the country at that time was 7.5 million. Now after 40 years, we have passed 20 million. We were hoping on the delimitation commission to be established through 20A. We are yet to get the presidential assurances over the de-limitation process that it would be conducted impartially. It is another subject. But we are worried that de-limitation commission cannot perform with this 125 FPP seats even if it wants to perform impartially.
TPA is looking forward to meet the president. the new formula is nothing but suicidal to the minor parties.
An increase of 30 seats is necessary to accommodate the overhangs in the new system proposed by the president.
National Organiser, JHU, Nishantha Warnasinghe: From the inception, JHU was the only minor party that welcomed electoral reforms to replace the much criticised Preferential system. Subsequently, all minor and minority parties in consultation with the main political parties agreed on a basic structure for the 20A where the number of seats were to be increased to 255. Even the Elections commissioner opined that it is not feasible to reduce the number of electorates due to many factors.
Here in the proposal by the Prime Minister, it calls for a reduction in the existing number of electorates.
In 1978, when the present electoral system with 225 seats was first introduced, there were only 7.5 million voters but today it has exceeded 15 million.
We oppose this move by the Government, which shows complete disregard for the aspirations of the minor and minority parties. Once the Bill reaches parliament, we will fight it and get the necessary amendments pushed in. We feel that the UNP is trying to sabotage the entire process by submitting a set of proposals that no one can agree.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader R.Sampanthan We are unable to respond with any certainty because we do not know what exactly the 20A entail. A copy of the paper submitted to the Cabinet have not been made available to us up to date. So we do not know quite exactly what that proposal is.
Reduction of seats
The TNA is primarily concerned with the possibility of the reduction of seats in the North and East, especially in the Jaffna electoral district where on account of a large number of deaths and physical displacements the voting strength has been reduced.
We think that the people who have been displaced and who are now prevented by the armed forces from returning to their land should be able to resettle in their lands and until then the status quo should prevail in regard to the number of seats in the Jaffna electoral district. We are also concerned with the position of the minority people, particularly the Tamil, the Muslims and the Indian Tamils outside the North and East, we would like to ensure that their representation in parliament is proportionate to their electoral strength.
The proposed reduction in the number of constituencies, is a matter of concern and what exactly the primary shape of the electorate is not very clear still, so all these matters will have to receive our attention before we can take a final decision and act.
Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Leader Prof.Tissa Vitarana The 20th Amendment what was presented to the Cabinet is basically not the document which we discussed and the agreed on.
The agreement reached was that it should be increased to total of MPs to 255 and this would enable the Delimitation Commission to make a detailed study and get the reaction of the people and the politicians and re-demarcate constituencies in a reasonable manner that would be fair for the voter. The population has doubled since the number of 225 was fixed so there has to be a larger number and it was agreed on. What we said was within that limitation, the number of seats should be kept as far as possible close to 160. I am very sorry to say that the decision taken by the UNP dominated Cabinet is not the decision that various parties and Party Leaders discussed among ourselves. Therefore this should be reconsidered.
Communist Party Leader D.E.W. Gunasekara We are broadly in agreement with the draft presented to the Cabinet by the President. We may not agree with it 100 percent. This is a matter where all the parties should agree and reach a compromise. A draft cannot be formulated where just one party is agreeable.
The acceptable features are 165 seats from the First Past the Post System and other number of seats from District Proportional and National Proportional Systems. If we take all districts, each party has gained more MPs. These are the three main features. The delimitation is done to accommodate all ethnic, cultural and national interests of the people. In Galle district, the Karandeniya seat has been removed and amalgamated either with Balapitiya or Ambalangoda. The people will come to the conclusion that they have been completely neglected.
JVP Colombo District Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti The JVP agrees to effect changes to the present electoral system. Our stand is that the preferential system should be done away paving the way to elect qualified people to Parliament. We have already presented our proposals to the government. Our main concern is that proposed electoral reforms should be brought into the implementation level as early as possible through the consensus reach upon with other political parties. This should not be further dragged on wasting time. Even though these electoral reforms are made, the next election can be held under the existing system. First, we would like to know whether two main parties, the UNP and SLFP have reached a compromise on these electoral reforms.
by Manjula Fernando and Uditha Kumarasinghe