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Monday, June 17, 2024

Unending electoral reforms in Sri Lanka – M.S.M. Auyb

There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in the government’s efforts to bring in electoral reforms.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe through a Gazette Notice on October 16 appointed a nine-member Commission headed by former Chief Justice Priyasath Dep to make recommendations on electoral reforms.

The other members of the commission are Suntharam Arumainayaham, Senanayake Alisandaralage, Nalin Jayantha Abeysekara, PC, Rajitha Naveen Christopher, Senaratna Perera, Ahamed Lebbe Mohamed Saleem, Sagarica Delgoda, Esther Sriyani Nimalka Fernando and Vitharanage Deepani Samantha Rodrigo.

However, the President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake on behalf of the President has made some suggestions in the Gazette that have to be given special consideration in the commission’s report.

Enabling a person to contest two elections and to have the opportunity to represent two councils (eg. Parliament and a Provincial Council) at the same time and formulating an appropriate mechanism blending First-Past-the-Post (FPP) voting system with the Proportional Representation (PR) system is two of those suggestions.

Interestingly, two days later, on Wednesday Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena chaired a meeting of political parties to discuss the electoral reforms, independent of the commission appointed by the President.

The meeting had ended without a final decision as Opposition parties rejected the amendment to the Parliamentary election law made by the government.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganesan, All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Rishad Bathiudeen Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and the group headed by Dullas Allahapperuma MP had participated in the meeting, though the Opposition Leader had told Parliament that his party would boycott the meeting.

If the political parties reached an agreement on reforms to Parliamentary elections at this meeting, would it be communicated to the nine-member commission so that it can make amendments only to the laws on the other two levels of people’s representation – provincial councils and local government bodies – is not clear.

A commission without legitimacy!

In a situation where such an agreement is not communicated to the commission, if the commission recommended something different from the agreement reached by the political parties, what would take precedence – the commission’s recommendations or the agreement by the political parties? Now that the Opposition parties have rejected the government’s proposals, the latter wouldn’t face such a dilemma.

Yet, the question remains as to why the Prime Minister had called that meeting two days after the President appointed a commission for the same purpose.

Even if he had not known about the appointment of the commission beforehand he had time to cancel the meeting at least after the gazette was issued.

Another question is whether the Prime Minister would have convened the meeting without the consent or the advice of the President.

Gota and Ranil are on the same boat

Leaders of both governments under Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe seem to consider that electoral reforms, especially those about Parliamentary elections do not come under Constitution making. Hence, during the administrations of both Presidents, mechanisms for Constitutional reforms were initiated or discussed while at the same time taking separate measures to introduce electoral reforms.

For instance, a nine-member expert committee was appointed under the chairmanship of President’s counsel Romesh de Silva on September 3, 2020 – during the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration – to prepare a preliminary draft for a new constitution. Cabinet approval for the appointment of the committee had been given on the previous day after taking into consideration a recommendation by the then Justice Minister Ali Sabry. The Cabinet earlier on August 20 had asked the Minister to take the initiative for the drafting of a new Constitution. Then, following a resolution passed by Parliament on April 5, 2021, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was appointed to identify electoral reforms, under the chairmanship of Dinesh Gunawardena who was a minister then.

Gota’s Commission in the dustbin 

The final report of the PSC was presented in Parliament on June 22, 2022, amidst a chaotic situation in the country. The report recommended the mixed electoral system in general while suggesting the PR system for the PC elections as a way out of the current impasse with regard to PC elections.

Similarly, the current nine-member commission on electoral reforms has been appointed in the backdrop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe having stated “I consider that the creation of a new constitution with new attitudes in order to provide space for youth is one of the main priority tasks” while addressing MPs during the opening of the 3rd session of 9th Parliament on August 3, 2022. The address has to be taken seriously as it was his policy statement.

There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in the government’s efforts to bring in electoral reforms.

The current Parliament is the one that was elected on August 5, 2020, and it was the same Parliament that appointed the PSC in 2021 to introduce reforms in all three tiers of elections under the chairmanship of Dinesh Gunawardena.

Again, Justice Minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to appoint another PSC on the same matter on October 26 last year. However, it was not appointed.

Then again, the leaders of the government planned in December last year to appoint another PSC to recommend amendments to the Local Government Elections Act, including downsizing the LG bodies.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had told our sister paper The Sunday Times that he had discussed the matter with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and the PSC would present its report within two weeks if appointed.

Ironically, Gunawardena himself as the Prime Minister had convened Wednesday’s meeting of political parties to change the Parliamentary election law, while the report he presented to Parliament last year is still valid.

In addition, a nine-member commission has also been appointed to make recommendations to change all election laws.

It is worth reminding that it was Mr Gunawardena who chaired the PSC that was appointed in 2001 as well for the same purpose and the mixed system of FPP and PR systems was agreed upon by almost all political parties in the Parliament of the day, during its deliberations.

The mixed electoral system seems to be the choice of the political parties in the country despite controversy remaining over the ratio between the members elected to the Parliament or other councils under the first-past-the-post system and the PR system.

Opposition parties allege that the Government is attempting to postpone Parliamentary elections by way of amending election laws.

More than a dozen attempts

With more than a dozen attempts by the government including moves to change the local government election law to postpone those elections, their fear is being justified.
It is being further vindicated by the fact that the government after scuttling the local government elections by not releasing funds to the Elections Commission has forgotten all its efforts to change the LG election law.

Many laws including the Constitution in Sri Lanka have been amended on many occasions in the interest of individuals or the political party in power and not in the long-term interest of the country.

Millions or sometimes billions of rupees have gone down the drain in the process while leaving more and more issues for future governments.

The Sunday Times, quoting an audit report said in 2021 that Rs. 158 million had been made available to the ‘nine-member experts committee’ appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Courtesy of Daily Mirror

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