By Mirak Raheem
On October 10th 2012, the Government is expected to put forward a bill in Parliament to amend the existing Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill. While there is a general consensus among political parties that changes to the existing electoral system are required, there are also concerns, including from within the UPFA Coalition, that the Government will put forward a bill that is problematic. The Government attempted to pass a bill on Local Government (LG) electoral reform in late 2010 but this was met with opposition from both within the Government and outside it. Since then, it has promised to ensure that Bill would be amended to address concerns already raised, however there is no amended bill that has yet been put forward.
Looking at the public debate on the LG electoral reform it is clear that there is a significant level of confusion on the content of the Bill but also on what it can achieve. For a start, it would be useful if the Bill is made public, but having a public debate on policy is clearly not in the interest of the Government, who would prefer the discussion to be reduced to whether electoral reform is required or not and to rush it through as an Urgent Bill.
Basically the Bill in its overall aim is positive but if it is the un-amended version of what was presented in 2010, then there are a number of problematic areas that needs to be fixed. Given that there is no Bill publicly available to discuss, it is imperative that political parties and others are clear as to what principles need to be enshrined in the Bill, while demanding a debate on the Bill in order to make amendments.
The LG Bill has multiple implications, including electoral reforms of the provincial and parliamentary systems which the Government is expected to introduce once it is done with the LG Bill. Once Parliament has approved the LG Bill, it will be difficult to argue against the same principle being applied in the electoral system for parliament. Furthermore, given that municipal councils, urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas play an important role in the daily lives of Sri Lankans it is imperative that steps are taken to amend a problematic Bill and ensure a fair system.
The Bill is being sold as the panacea to address a range of problems that are blamed on the current electoral system, including election-related violence, limited accountability of politicians to their electorates and political instability resulting from parties being unable to secure majorities due to the current system. While the Bill can partially address some of these issues, for instance reduce or even eliminate violence between candidates from the same political party during campaign periods, this Bill cannot be expected to address the larger problem of a violent political culture. To deal with this issue of election-related violence a whole series of steps need to be taken by a variety of actors including political parties becoming more responsible and taking action against members involved in violence, regardless of how popular or powerful they are, and citizens who need to stop voting for candidates who are thugs and criminals.
The main change being proposed is to shift away from the proportional representation (PR) system where representation to an elected body is decided by the proportion of votes secured by a political group within the local authority and to move to a hybrid system which would be a mix of PR and First-Past-the-Post (FPP). Simply put, under a completely PR system if a party wins 40% of the votes in a local authority it could expect to get a similar proportion of seats.
Prior to introduction of the 1978 Constitution, Sri Lanka used the FPP system where the local authority was divided into electoral wards, where the candidate who wins the highest number of votes in a ward secures a seat in the local authority. One of the main advantages of the FPP system is that candidates are directly elected from small constituencies so, theoretically at least, are more accountable to their voters than under a PR system. In a PR system candidates contest from larger areas such as an entire local authority as opposed to sub-units within that authority (wards).
The PR system ensures greater representation of opinions and groups across the political spectrum, including minor parties, which are more unlikely to win seats through the FPP system. The FPP can produce results where parties obtain more than two-third majorities in elected bodies though they may have obtained barely 50% of the vote. The PR system makes it more difficult for a single party to be an outright winner, resulting in coalition politics, hence is seen to be more unstable.
The advantage of a hybrid system is that it seeks to promote the benefits of both systems while limiting the problems they bring with them. The particular hybrid model proposed through the Bill allocates more seats under the FPP system, i.e. ensuring greater political stability. Hence, it is important to ensure that the issue of representation is addressed.
Problems in the Bill
The Bill is crafty; while it does seem to embody key principles including ensuring wider representation, greater accountability and a more stable electoral politics, the devil is in the detail. It should not be too much of a surprise that many who did have a cursory glance of the initial Bill (2010) thought it was positive and did not pick up on its problems some of which are listed below. Even among political parties who are likely to face negative repercussions, including losing representation, they have taken little serious action to seek clarity on and make amendments to the proposed Bill.
Not a fixed FPP: PR system: The magic formula of 70% for FPP and 30% for PR has been spoken of by some of the proponents of the Bill, when the Bill itself does not contain a provision for a fixed system. To simplify the proportion above – if there were 10 seats in a local authority and there was a 70% for FPP: 30% for PR system – the authority would be divided into a maximum of seven wards each which would elect a member and three members would be decided through examining the totality of votes in the entire authority. The Bill actually sets a maximum of 30% of seats for PR but this proportion can reduce if the losing candidates do not poll enough votes. The net effect is that the system does not advantage political groups unlikely to win through the FPP/wards, which effectively makes it more difficult to ensure representation from across the political spectrum in local authorities. At the very least, the PR:FPP proportion should be fixed at 70%:30%.
" The advantage of a hybrid system is that it seeks to promote the benefits of both systems while limiting the problems they bring with them. The particular hybrid model proposed through the Bill allocates more seats under the FPP system, i.e. ensuring greater political stability. Hence, it is important to ensure that the issue of representation is addressed "
More challenges for Minor Parties: The switch from a PR to a mixed system does make it more difficult for minor political parties, especially those which lack strongholds and rely on gathering dispersed votes from across a local authority to win representation. Minor parties include minority political parties and other small political parties including the CP and the JHU. Minority political parties such as the TNA, SLMC or CWC will continue to win seats in areas where they dominate but in other areas where the communities that they represent are a minority, it will be more difficult. The JVP in particular could lose representation as a result of the switch in the system. Given Sri Lanka’s experience of violent conflict, it makes sense to have political groups within the system so that they have some voice, rather than outside the democratic and governance structures.
Furthermore, the Bill has provisions, carefully hidden away in the seemingly complicated calculation section of the Bill that would make it even more difficult for minor parties. One such aspect is that the Bill has a cut-off point of 5% at the level of the ward i.e. if a candidate polls less than 5% in a ward, those votes are discounted. The Bill should be amended so that the cut-off point operates at the level of the local authority, not the ward.
High Costs for Independent Groups: The Sri Lankan political context is a difficult one for independent groups who find it difficult to break in even at the local government level. This Bill makes it all the more challenging by increasing the amount that a candidate from an independent group needs to pay for nomination from Rs 250 to Rs 20,000. By comparison a candidate from a political party will have to pay Rs 5,000. It needs to be noted that any contesting groups has to file nomination papers including names of candidates for all wards and for 30% of the number of all seats available through the wards. While the rationale for increasing costs may be to make it more difficult for political parties or others to put up front groups and thereby confuse voters, it makes it extremely costly and difficult for the genuine independents who get into politics with the aim of making a difference at the local level. The cost of nomination for independent groups needs to be reduced to Rs 5,000.
No quota for youth and women
Sri Lanka has the unenviable record of having one of the lowest proportions of women in elected bodies at the local government level (2%), even in comparison to our South Asian neighbours, with Pakistan at 33%. While there are multiple reasons for this, a key step that has been taken in a number of countries including those in South Asia, has been to establish a quota system where a number of seats are reserved for women. A more conservative approach would be to reserve slots in the nomination papers submitted by political parties and independent groups.
This is what is being proposed by a number of women’s groups but this has not been included into the Bill. Despite policy statements calling for increased female representation, including Mahinda Chinthanaya 2005 which calls for at least 25% candidates nominated for local authorities to be women, there has been little positive improvement over the years. The existing legislation has an obligatory 40% quota for youth in the nomination which was introduced to promote youth involvement in democratic politics. The proposed Bill seeks to make the youth and woman quota discretionary, so political parties can easily ignore both these sectors of society when choosing candidates. There should be compulsory provision to ensure 20% in the nomination papers are youth and 20% are women.
Politicised Delimitation Process
The Bill lays out a process for establishment of wards, including suggesting a number of committees (a national level committee, district level committees and an advisory committee) to advise the relevant Minister on demarcating wards. The Bill provides significant power to the Minister, including leaving it to the discretion of the Minister to appoint the committees and to make the final decision on boundaries. Given that the delimitation process will have significant implications for political, ethnic and social representation the process needs to be transparent and consultative. A number of improvements can be made to the Bill with regard to this issue including in making it obligatory for the Minister to establish these committees, ensuring the district committees are more representative and introducing a Parliamentary Oversight Committee instead of the advisory committee.
Maybe it is too much to ask but it would be ideal if political parties, including those in Government, make the effort to demand to see the Bill, review it and suggest improvements, and not just blindly approve it. Or else we will all lose yet another opportunity to make positive contributions to legislative changes that will have significant implications for democracy and governance in Sri Lanka.