As hectic moves are underway to present the 20th Amendment before the impending general election, it does not appear that political parties and stakeholders have paid adequate attention to preventing the criminalisation of politics – one of the negative offshoots of the existing electoral system.
The District-based Proportional Representation system with a preferential voting facility may appear as the most democratic form of election because, in this method, the will of the people is proportionately represented in Parliament and the voters have the choice to elect the candidate they prefer. But the biggest drawback is that this system has opened the doors for corruption and the criminalisation of politics.
Unlike the pre-1978 first-past-the-post system, where candidates did not have to spend a fortune on their campaign within their electorates, the PR system places a heavy financial burden on the candidate because the area to be covered is much larger than the electorate. The candidates contesting under the district-based PR system have to be filthy rich. If not, to sustain their campaign over a month throughout the district, the candidates will have to sell their property, take a loan or find rich sponsors -- often unscrupulous businessmen, drug dealers or persons with plenty of ill-gotten wealth -- on a quid-pro-quo basis. Once elected, most candidates’ objectives are to earn back not only the money they spent on their elections, but also the money required for their reelection. Such huge amounts of money can only be earned through corrupt activities. Besides, they have to look after the sponsors also. Didn’t we see during the last regime a letter being sent to the Customs from the Prime Minister’s office requesting the release of a container that carried a record haul of heroin?
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a gesture endorsing PAFFREL’s March 12 declaration holds a large document containing key points of the declaration. Pic by Pradeep Pathirana
Besides, campaigning throughout the district requires the support of criminal gangs as it is they who have the capability to carry out a poster war, run party offices and intimidate rival supporters of not only opposition parties but also one’s own party. These gun-toting gangs give their services at a price, thus adding to the financial liabilities of a candidate. Not only that, as the connection between the national level politico and the criminal gangs grows, the gangsters themselves become politicos at local council level with the patronage of the national level politico. It is no secret that many local council chairmen and members have been involved in serious crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and running illegal breweries or brothels. Starting from the Pradeshiya Sabha level, criminals graduate to the provincial level and eventually to the national level. And, who knows, one of them can even become the president of this country. Simply put, it is the muscle and money power that controls democracy under the PR system -- and the situation in Sri Lanka appears to be worse than what prevailed in post-war Italy, where the Mafia colluded with political parties, funding their campaigns in return for protection from prosecution.
To prevent lawmakers becoming lawbreakers, the 20th Amendment must also focus on how to decriminalise politics. Doing away with the preferential voting system will eliminate intra-party rivalry, but it will not close the door to criminals entering politics. A party’s nomination board can still insert a criminal or two into its district or national list.
How can we keep criminals away from politics? On March 12 this year, the People’s Action Front for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) got the main political parties to sign a declaration that calls on them, among other things, not to give nominations to those who have served a jail sentence or a suspended sentence, those who have been found guilty of bribery or corruption, those who are involved in trades such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, casinos and prostitution and those who have abused political power.
Denying nomination to those convicted of a crime is good, but in a country like Sri Lanka, where the politicisation of the judiciary was a major concern, an incumbent government can get opponents sentenced by a court on trumped-up charges and prevent them from standing for election. Notwithstanding such abuse, the PAFFREL declaration is a step in the right direction.
We can also learn a lesson from India on how to decriminalise politics. As far back as 1998, the Elections Commission of India (ECI), which is regarded as one of the robust independent bodies that uphold democracy, called on the government to debar persons facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections. Irked by the government’s lack of action in this regard, a civic action group – the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) – moved the Delhi High Court. In a landmark judgment, the court ordered that the Elections Commissioner must provide voters with information about the criminal antecedents of candidates, and assets possessed by them, among other details, so that voters could make an informed decision.
The government petitioned the Supreme Court against the ruling. But the apex court affirmed the Delhi High Court’s decision. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the SC ruling, the government amended the Election Law of 1951, diluting the strict criteria imposed by the court.
The ADR again petitioned the Supreme Court, contending that the amendment was intended to defeat the disclosure requirements ordered by the SC. In its ruling on March 13, 2003, the court ordered that information on not only past convictions, but also all pending cases, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications had to be furnished by the candidates. (See more on this in ‘Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’ by S.Y. Quraishi, published by Rainlight/Rupa in 2014.)
In spite of this, according to ADR, a third of the previous parliament were alleged lawbreakers. The ADR’s website says that in the 2014 parliament, more than 80 per cent of MPs are involved in a criminal case. The group says politicians with a criminal record are more likely to be elected than those with a clean slate -- because, they have more illicit funds with which to buy votes.
In neighbouring Pakistan, in a bid to prevent criminals from entering politics, a law was passed in 2008 to make only those possessing a university degree qualified to contest the parliamentary elections. But reports say at least 54 candidates in the previous parliament had submitted bogus degree certificates, most of them from religious universities.
A university degree may not be the right solution for Sri Lanka. Besides, such a requirement will block honest people with vision, but without a university degree, from serving the country as lawmakers or heads of state. Some civil society activists call for a code of conduct for elected representatives to keep politics clean. But the code will not prevent criminals from entering politics. Instead, we can try out an entrance exam for candidates to test their knowledge of political theories, democracy, law and economics.
If these measures could also be considered for reforms, Sri Lanka will be well on the road to become not only a model democracy but also a developed economy.