One of the main promises in the government’s election manifesto was to effect far reaching constitutional change to ensure good governance. The government pledged to bring in constitutional amendments within 100 days to make the presidency more accountable to parliament and to the judiciary, and also to change the electoral system. The major political challenge at the present time is to effect both of these changes within the 100 day time frame.
While the government’s promise to the people to change the constitution in 100 days is important, the changes that are made need to be just by all sections of the population. The existing electoral system which is sought to be changed is based on proportional representation, which leads to each political party receiving seats in parliament that are proportionate to their share of the national vote. In practice this has been favourable to the small parties and enabled them to have a voice and power in parliament.
However, after more than three decades of experience, the disadvantages of the proportional system used in Sri Lanka have become manifest and there is a consensus about the need to amend the system. What is being envisaged is a mixed system, in which some MPs are elected on the first-past-the-post system of constituency based voting, and others are elected on a proportional system. This mixed system was based on the recommendations of the select committee headed by the former minister Dinesh Gunawardena. However, the interim report was dropped due to the strong protest of the minority parties. It was expected to have a negative impact on the minority communities, minority parties and particularly on women’s political participation.
While the National Peace Council is in agreement about the need to reform the existing electoral system, we caution that the reforms need to be made in agreement with the smaller political parties. This includes the ethnic minority parties, both Tamil and Muslim. We call on the government and major opposition party to ensure that the views of the smaller political parties on the issue of electoral system are taken into consideration in preparing the constitutional amendment. In practice it is necessary to arrive at a compromise which is acceptable to all political parties. We are mindful that the ethnic conflict was aggravated into a three decade long internal war due to the feeling among the Tamil polity that the Tamil representatives were marginalized in the central government and in the national decision making process.
The National Peace Council also notes that electoral reform is not the only way to ensure fair representation for the minorities. We believe the ethnic and religious minority political parties should be represented in the central government as well as in the provincial councils to strengthen the sense of national unity. There have been suggestions for a Second Chamber where the representatives are drawn from the provincial councils. The new constitutional proposals envisage a Council of State above the Cabinet. If this proposal is to take effect we suggest that the ethnic and religious minorities should be included in such Council in discussion with the Tamil and Muslim political parties.