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20th Amendment to the Constitution:

A new battlefield for political parties

With the first step in reforming the Presidency accomplished, political leaders are now locked in intensive negotiations over the provisions of the proposed 20th Amendment that will reform the electoral system.

Polling officers and police officers wait in line as they prepare to go to their polling centres ahead of first provincial polls in 25 years in Jaffna, a former war zone in northern Sri Lanka, about 400 kilometres (249 miles) north of Colombo September 20, 2013. Voters in northern Sri Lanka go to the polls on in a provincial election Pic: Courtesy Voiz.lk

JVP Colombo District Parliamentarian, Sunil Handunnetti said no comment can be made on something that is not in the public domain and that he has not been privy to it as a parliamentarian. He claimed that some of the key political parties as well as the media were yet to see the draft Amendments to the Constitution. “The ‘true’ draft proposal seems to be elusive and everyone seem to be groping in the dark,” he said.

Nevertheless, speculation is rife that the draft 20th Amendment will be presented to Parliament, shortly. The document to be filled by members, elected and selected on a mixed system, was submitted to Cabinet by President Maithripala Sirisena on April 22. The Cabinet however, is yet to give the final nod. The revised draft will be brought before Cabinet once again on May 13.

On Thursday, minor and minority parties and minority members of major political parties met at the Elections Department to discuss their concerns regarding the proposed new law on elections. The TNA, JVP, SLMC, EPDP, LSSP, ACMC and others again met at Waters Edge on Friday to reach a consensus on the proposed 20 A and the up-coming parliamentary elections.

The final draft of the 20 A, which is to be presented before Cabinet on Wednesday and is expected to take on board their concerns that include the reservation of the existing percentage of representation for their members in Parliament.

The main political parties are also heavily divided on the prospect of holding the next parliamentary elections under the new system introduced by the 20 A. While the SLFP, JHU and some leading civil society groups were adamant that the forthcoming election must be held under the new system, the UNP, JVP and others have expressed the opposite view.

With the major players of the Government walking different paths over a crucial decision, in a matter of days people will come to know as to who calls the shots within the Government. The Sunday Observer spoke to a select group of key stake holders and minority parliamentarians for their views on the 20- A and the elections beyond.

Three key issues

PAFFREL Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi said the existing electoral process is one of the most democratic and just systems. The political parties get their fair share of representation in Parliament, according to the percentage of votes they receive. Voters get to select their own party and the candidate.

However, three key issues, the absence of a member accountable for an electorate being on top of the list, came in for heavy criticism.

The other is over the allegation that only the rich and corrupt have an easy ride to Parliament under the preferential system, and the last being that the system lead to intra party rivalry and violence.

Thugs and corrupt business magnates out!

He said these three issues needed to be addressed in any future electoral system.

“I believe there is a problem with the preferential system. But party leaders have a major role to play here.” The parties must nominate those who fulfill, at least, the basic criteria for contesting an election. The nominees cannot be thugs and corrupt business magnates.

There are 64 registered political parties in the country but only about 12 parties are represented in Parliament. These include minor and minority parties.

“We believe their representation in Parliament should be protected, “ Hettiarachchi emphasised.

The new system must study at least three past parliamentary elections and get the average of the minority party vote base and their parliament representation.

Any reform must ensure a continuation of this representation. There can’t be a situation where they obtain the same number of votes but less number of seats.

“We have also suggested that the seats allocated under the best loser category of the Proportional Representation method, should be calculated under the national level instead of the district level to ensure fair play for minority parties.” PAFFREL Executive Director said female representation in Parliament must be increased to at least 25.

The other most important issue PAFFREL has raised is setting a ceiling for campaign financing, need for an election calendar, delimitation to accommodate population growth and the geographical aspects.

“It is not mandatory that the forthcoming election should be held under a new system but 20 A needs to be passed before any dissolution of Parliament and the elections must follow a proper delimitation process.”

He said to make the forthcoming election more meaningful, the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions proposed under the 19th Amendment should be put in place before the polls. Any proposal must have the consent of all political parties and should not have any technical hitch at the implementation stage.

Colombo District JVP Parliamentarian, Sunil Hadunnetti said, “The present electoral system must be changed, there is no question about it.” Voters, however, must have enough time to familiarize with a new system. Political parties are already getting ready for the next election and their campaigns are designed to suit the existing system. He said an electoral process cannot be replaced overnight, with the demand that political parties and voters must follow suit. “There needs to be time to study a new system. The delimitation of electorates too takes time, it cannot be an ad-hoc process.”

President Maithripala Sirisena has given a pledge that after the 100-day program, an election will be called to seek a fresh mandate and form a new government, they must respect that pledge.

“Besides this the 20th Amendment is an elusive document, I have not seen it, have you?”

Wider consultation

SLMC General Secretary Hasan Ali said his party is not for holding elections under a new system. “It is best to discuss it among all parties and have a wider consultation process without taking hasty decisions. These important reforms must be brought in after an inclusive process. A change of electoral system is not confined to a particular community or a political party. It affects everyone.”

It is best to pass the 20-A with a consensus of all parties, irrespective of differences and go for elections under the current system. Besides, there is hardly any time to change the boundaries of the electorates before the next parliamentary election.

The following election can be held under the new system. Parliament is sharply divided on certain issues, a stable Parliament is the need of the hour. It is better to go to the people and seek a fresh mandate.

Huge public outcry

Member of the SLFP Electoral Reforms Committee, Mahinda Samarasinghe said there was a huge public out ry to effect electoral reforms, replacing the old system, which has resulted in intra-party rivalry and politicians being accused across the board of corruption.

He said there is a probability of candidates engaging in illegal activity and unholy alliances. In this backdrop, Parliament is being pressurised to bring in a more accountable, equitable and just electoral mechanism.

Whatever the system that is chosen, it should ensure political stability in the country as well as the interests of the minority parties. The ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic composition of the country must also be preserved.

He said the SLFP’s position is very clear that the next general election should be held under the new system. The UNP wants the next election under the preferential system because they want to go for an early election. Once the 20th Amendment is passed, a couple of months may be needed to implement electoral reforms.

The term of the current Parliament expires in April next year. There is no hurry to dissolve Parliament and go for elections. “The need to go for electoral reforms were felt due to shortcomings in the present system. Then what is the point in holding the forthcoming election under the present system even after the 20th Amendment”, he querried.

Not a major issue

UNP Parliamentarian, R.Yogarajan said the current electoral system can be deemed as one of the most democratic systems. It allows voters instead of parties, to elect candidates of their choice.

The contention about the current system today, is that there is no MP for an electorate. But he said, every party has an organizer for an electorate. Despite getting elected on a district basis, the organisers have in the past looked after the electorates. Therefore, this is not a major issue in reality.

There is general aversion to this system among the people. He said minor parties and minority parties are willing to consider the alternative, if the new system maintains the proportion of current representation for the minor and minority party members in the House.

A hybrid of the pre-1978 First Past the Post (FPP) system and the subsequently introduced Proportional Representation (PR) system. Under the proposed system all parties and groups should nominate individuals at the district level for the election.

There are two categories of candidates in the district list: polling division-level candidates and district-level candidates.

The requirement to use a preferential voting system to appoint MPs through the PR system is no longer needed. The number of MPs in Parliament would be increased to 255 in order to expand the representation of the people.

(When the original 225 seat Parliament was established the number of voters in Sri Lanka was 7.5 million but today it stands at 15 million) As with the present system, the new system too would distribute 196 of the 255 seats to the districts via the Proportionate Representation (PR) system.

Accordingly, the positive feature of the present system of allowing parliamentary representation for minor political parties would be preserved in the new system.

If a party wins a lesser number of polling divisions than allocated under the PR system, 50% of the remaining seats will be filled by the best losers. The remaining 50% will be filled via that party’s district list.

The remaining 59 seats will be distributed among the parties according to the national proportionate as in the existing system via the national list. For a given party to be eligible for a seat or seats via the national list, that party should have obtained at least 1% of the total votes polled.

This is the same as the existing system. Seats would be distributed among those parties that have obtained more than 5% of the total votes for that district.

The important features of the new system which the Sunday Observer obtained from Asoka Abeygunawardana, a member of the team which help shape the original proposals of the 20th amendment, are as follows:

* No reduction in the number of seats obtained by minor parties.

*In most cases, the number of seats obtained by each party will increase.

* Every polling division to have at least one representative in Parliament.

* Abolition of the preferential voting system.

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