After much wrangling, the United National Party (UNP), the dominant party of the government announced this week that it was against increasing the present number of parliamentary seats in evolving electoral reforms.
In the concept paper presented to the Cabinet, President Maitripala Sirisena has sought to increase it to 255 under the proposed electoral reforms. The parties backing him were supportive of these reforms in essence no matter the public holding a different viewpoint.
Yet, the UNP’s stance, announced publicly through the media this week for the first time; emerged as the death knell of the political exercise to enact electoral reforms in the form of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to revert back to the mix of the Proportional Representation System and the ‘First Past the Post’ .
A new electoral system, departing from the preferential voting, has been the key demand of some parties, including Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to incorporate these reforms into the Constitution before the dissolution of Parliament. The support of the UNP is fundamental for this exercise to become a reality, and therefore the UNP’s indifference is widely perceived as an impediment to the whole exercise.
Of course, the UNP is for a mix of the ‘First Past the Post’ system and the Proportional Representation System in revising the present electoral system. It proposes 125 MPs to be elected from the constituencies, and the remaining 100 from the Proportional Representation System on district basis.
“We are for a mixed system. But, we are against the increasing of seats. It is already high. Ours is a small country and we do not want such a large number of seats in Parliament,” Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella said.
The UNP’s position is backed by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), another ally of the government. Likewise, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a party with the Opposition, is also averse to the increase of parliamentary seats from the present number.
In the light of these developments, the electoral reforms are now unlikely to become a reality prior to the general elections.
But, the parties, clamouring and agitating for it, have not relented. It is learnt that the pressure is exerted on the UNP to compromise on their stand.
Nonetheless, the UNP remains rigid in its position.
The latest effort has been initiated by the National Movement for Social Justice, spearheaded by Ven. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera to make sure that electoral reforms see the light of day before the dissolution of Parliament. The Movement, backed by several other civil society groups, has written to both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to act in this respect rather than leave it upon the next Parliament to be formed after the general elections; probably in September as announced by the President, a few weeks ago.
Actually, there has been a crying need for the departure from the present electoral system which, many believe, is the cause of so many political ills. Particularly, the preferential voting has led to, not only inter-party violence, but also intra-party rivalry, eventually bringing out the worst in human nature. Also, it has become an arduous task to elect stable governments. A public discourse has, of course, been initiated for more than a decade on the need to change the system. But, nothing tangible has taken place in this respect, and many believe that the present Parliament is the best forum to work out something fruitful on the matter.
MS tries to build his team
President Maitripala Sirisena, ahead of the planned general elections, is trying to build-up his own political team with the SLFP members loyal to him at the moment. At the next election, the UNP has affirmed its position that it would contest under its ‘elephant symbol’. Against this backdrop, the President apparently wants to have a solid team rallied behind him ahead of the elections. He has embarked on this mission at a time when most SLFP members have thrown their weight behind former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the next general elections. The appointment of four SLFPers to the Cabinet is a move in this direction by the President to ramp up his political strength.
In the meantime, a novel idea has been mooted in the political circles close to the government. It is that all the political forces that backed President Sirisena at the January 8th election, should contest under the same ‘Sswan Symbol’ at the general elections as well. That is to form a formidable front against the political camp of Mr. Rajapaksa who has announced that he would be the next prime ministerial candidate. Upbeat by the recent political success, the UNP is adamant that it should go for the elections under the ‘elephant symbol’ to get a parliamentary majority. All in all, the idea has been floated.
MR Camp ready for poll
The allies of the UPFA promoting the candidacy of Mr. Rajapaksa, hold regular meetings these days in Colombo and elsewhere to discuss strategies to contest the elections.
The plan is to contest the election under the ‘betel leaf symbol’ of the UPFA. But, President Sirisena is the UPFA Chairman. The President has been categorical that he would not nominate Mr. Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate at any cost. So, for the camp of Mr. Rajapaksa a challenge lies in securing nomination on the ticket of the UPFA. But, the political leaders, backing Mr. Rajapaksa, believe that the ‘betel leaf symbol’ can be secured with the support of UPFA Secretary Susil Premajayantha. Meanwhile, Mr. Premajayantha has not sided openly either with the President or Mr. Rajapaksa.
Therefore, an internal battle is brewing within the UPFA for the determination of its prime ministerial candidate. Mr. Premajayantha has openly been challenged by MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara to declare whether he was with President Sirisena.
In the case of the UPFA not nominating Mr. Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate, the party leaders backing him have their second option ready. Most believe that they would consider the ‘Chair symbol’ of the People’s Alliance (PA). Former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne is its Secretary and Mr. Rajapaksa the President. Mr. Jayaratne’s son Anuradha Jayaratne, a UPFA provincial councilor is with Mr. Rajapaksa in doing politics at the moment.
The appointment of the Constitutional Council (CC) hit a snag yesterday as the political parties failed to reach agreement on the names from civil society nominated to it. There were hours long deliberations at the party leaders’ meeting yesterday. But, the Opposition raised objection to certain names proposed to it.
Representing civil society, Sarvodaya chief Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, former Appeal Court Judge Abdul Waheed Abdual Salaam and Dr. Radhika Kumaraswamy were proposed. One argument was that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had not consulted other party leaders in making nominations.
Also, there were objections to the nomination of two Cabinet Ministers to the CC. Finally, the government consulted the President in this regard. The President finally agreed to adjourn the session for the next day.