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Friday, June 14, 2024

Reducing MP seats for Jaffna is a political and not a technical issue

”Making a technical argument that the Election Commission in its capacity took only the prevalent delimitation principles into consideration may be valid technically. It is imperative to note that we still do not have reliable demographic data for the Northern and Eastern Provinces as the last all-island census of human population was taken in 1981
by Sumansiri Liayanage
I have read somewhere last week a news item that informed us that the Election Commission had decided to reduce the number of seats in Jaffna Peninsula (District of Jaffna on the administrative map) from 10 to 6 at future elections and the four seats taken away from Jaffna District would be allocated to four districts in the South.

The justification given is that the number of voters in Jaffna Peninsula has reduced in the last three decades or so and therefore the number of seats allocated to Jaffna should be readjusted accordingly.

My first response when I read this news was: ‘Isn’t it premature to take a decision of this nature?” One of the principles on which delimitation is based is the size of the population in the district. Since we don’t have reliable demographic data and the all-island census is scheduled to be held after 30 years in near future, I cannot see any reason for the Elections Commission to take such a decision soon after the local government polls were held in Jaffna Peninsula.

I have no intention here to engage in a hair-splitting argument on technicalities. However, I wish to submit that I totally reject the argument that if we stick to strict technicalities, we would come up with non-partisan, non-political decisions that are value indifferent. This argument was advanced by neo-liberals in order to announce that we are, in this globalized world, entering an era of technocrats. The same argument based on technicalities and mechanics was advanced by a group of university academics against FUTA’s decision to suspend the trade union action.

This note is not to question the technical side of the argument, but to emphasize the flaws of the arguments based on the technical aspect of the issue. Such questioning, I hope, would help us develop a better system of electoral delimitation.

Nancy Fraser in one of her recent books has spoken of three dimensions of social justice, namely, (i) redistribution justice; (ii) recognition justice; and (iii) representative justice (Scales of Justice:

Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, 2009). My submission is that the ‘justice’ perspective is more analytically sound and normatively virtuous than the so-called human-right perspective that as Robin Blackburn has correctly argued neglects almost totally ‘the property question’ (‘Reclaiming Human Rights’, New Left Review, 69. May/ June 2011).

Reflecting on the political discourse in Sri Lanka in the last 75 years or so, one may find an interesting point that the Samasamjists were the first to recognize that the parity of participation would be detrimentally affected by not only unequal distribution of income and wealth, but also misrecognition and lack or inadequacy of representation.

The notion of parity of language and the idea of self-government in the form of Rata Sabha that the Samasamajists upheld in the 1950s highlights this three-dimensional nature of social justice. (Unfortunately, the official Samasamajists and Communists today have forgotten all these.) Of course, one could now argue that the mechanism of Rata Sabha as a form of self-government is not adequate in the current context.

It is through this prism that I propose to look at the proposed reduction of seats in the Jaffna Peninsula. This move will for sure affect negatively the parity of participation of Tamils in social life. It has been suggested that the principal of delimitation of electorates in Sri Lanka is based on three principles,

(i) size of the population in the electorate; (ii) the size of the area; and (iii) the identity of the people (nationality, religion and caste).

However, one may note that the delimitation commissions in the past began to neglect the third principle violating the second dimension of justice.

Making a technical argument that the Election Commission in its capacity took only the prevalent delimitation principles into consideration may be valid technically. It is imperative to note that we still do not have reliable demographic data for the Northern and Eastern Provinces as the last all-island census of human population was taken in 1981.

Nonetheless, most important issue to be raised is this is not a technical issue but a political one. It will reduce by four the number of Tamil Parliamentarians and increase by four the Sinhala parliamentarians in a future Parliament. As it may affect the number of national list members from Tamils, the actual number of seats they lose may even decrease further. Thus, the principle of participation parity will be violated in a big way. This a political issue that is to be taken seriously after ending the 30 year long armed conflict.

In order to ensure parity of participation in the sphere of representation, there is no doubt that we have to proceed on different sets of principles governing the delimitation of electorates/ number of seats in the Parliament. In this note, I do not intend to give a new set of proposals requiring specialized knowledge on the subject, which I do not possess. However, some remarks may be relevant in this regard.

The representational justice in diverse societies invariably contradicts with the principle of majority rule, which may be democratic if and only if it does not go against the parity of participation. So, it should always be subject to the broader principle of parity of participation. Hence, different mechanisms have to be invented to offset the injustices engrained in some of the mechanisms. I am not going to restate my proposals for the second chamber and how it should be elected. (Read my article on the second chamber in A Glimmer of Hope: On recent constitutional discourse in Sri Lanka edited by Sumanasiri Liyanage and M. Sinnathamby).

As far as the representation of the national Parliament is concerned I suggest the following system. Assuming that the number of members of the Parliament (MPs) remains 225 as it is in the current Parliament, I propose that 135 members should be allocated equally to each province. This gives equi-consideration for all nine provinces irrespective of the size of the province or/and the size of the population of the province. Ninety out of the remaining 95 seats should be allocated between provinces on the basis of the population therein.

For remaining five seats, the Parliament in its first session should appoint five MPs representing non-represented social groups like Malays, Burghers, Colombo Chettis, Adivasis and others. I do not claim that the parity of participation in the sphere of political representation can be totally resolved by means of this measure alone. People may come up with more creative and productive ideas. Nonetheless, I believe that our political system needs a great deal of overhauling. This should be one of the major tasks in the post-war situation.


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