Electoral reforms: Never be in an indecent hurry!

The JVP has lashed out at the government for an alleged move to present electoral reforms to Parliament without the concurrence of the other political parties. The Proportional Representation (PR) system and the Executive Presidency, the JVP has said, are twin evils and one cannot be eliminated to the exclusion of the other. The Mahinda Chinthanaya contains a pledge to scrap the executive presidency, the JVP points out.
Whether the government will present electoral reforms to Parliament, knowing well that it cannot ensure their passage on its own steam, as it lacks the required two-thirds majority in the House, remains to be seen. But, if the PR system were to be scrapped by any chance, the first casualties of the country’s return to the first-past-the-post system would be the small parties, like the JVP, which cannot win electorates, as their votes are confined to small pockets of support scattered all over the place. Therefore, to them, the PR system should be a blessing rather than an evil.
However, the campaign for the abolition of the PR system is gaining support from some quarters, as the present system prevents the main parties from securing clear majorities at elections. Therefore, those who seek shortcuts to political stability want either the PR system to go or the executive presidency to stay on. Their argument may look tenable on the face of it but even if the PR system were to be scrapped, there would be no guarantee of political stability. In 1960, it may be recalled, there were two general elections, one in March and the other in July, though the country had the first-past-the-post system at that time. And the executive presidency that was created to bring about stability paradoxically led to political instability during the 2001-2004 period, when the rivals of the then executive president had control of Parliament. The President and the Prime Minster were busy conspiring to engineer each other’s downfall.
Today, the incumbent President’s party is in power in Parliament but he has had to engineer defections from the Opposition to keep his government on an even keel! This, the government is doing at the expense of an agreement between the SLFP and the UNP to co-operate on national issues! Those who ascribe stability to the executive presidency make the mistake of thinking in terms of the JRJ government (1977-88), which had a five-sixths majority obtained under the former electoral system. The late President Premadasa managed to maintain political stability to some extent even under the PR system, (until the breakaway of the Lalith-Gamini-Premachandra trio), thanks to the JVP terror that had facilitated the rigging of the 1989 general election—just like the presidential polls—in his favour.
The ethnic minorities are well disposed towards both the executive presidency and the PR system. For, the PR system ensures their representation in Parliament in keeping with their numerical strength and the presidency makes main parties dependent on them to win a presidential election and therefore their bargaining power goes up. An executive president, they believe, because of his or her dependency on them, has to look after their interests. But, wasn’t it under the present presidential system that the on-going war broke out? If the executive presidency has stood the minorities in good stead, why are those communities still seeking redress of their grievances?
True, Mahinda Chinthanaya promises the abolition of the executive presidency, which has helped rulers rise above the law and undermine the authority of Parliament by manipulating that institution, according to their whims and fancies, through their parties. For our leaders, the executive presidency has become something like a razor in the hands of a mad monkey. The people have to live in eternal fear of not only the insane monkeys but also the cutting instruments that they wield. Hence, the popular demand for the abolition of the presidency. The SLFP and the JVP played to the gallery at the last presidential election by promising to scrap it. But promises are like babies: They are easy to make but hard to deliver. We see the Rathu Sahodarayas taking great pains to deliver, but in vain, while the eponym of Mahinda Chinthanaya is obviously getting ready for a second term!
As for the electoral reforms, the PR system has its flaws but it will be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bath water. The interests of the small parties must not be sacrificed on the altar of political stability, as that is the least democratic solution to the problem. Nor can the first-past-the-post system be rejected lock, stock and barrel though it paves the way for steam roller majorities much to the detriment of democracy. The way forward seems to be a combination of the two systems like in Germany.
The JVP has got one thing right. There cannot be piecemeal electoral reforms to be implemented haphazardly. They will only compound an already bad situation. The government ought to adopt a holistic approach to the problem with a view to formulating a package of constitutional reforms. However, its implementation will be contingent upon a consensus among the main political parties. Perhaps, the biggest problem we are faced with is neither the PR system nor the executive presidency. Instead, it is the absence of a political consensus, which is the best antidote to political instability.
The issue of electoral reforms, we believe, has not yet been discussed adequately. It needs further discussion as part of a bigger package of reforms. If the government is planning to present electoral reforms to Parliament, in a hurry, as the JVP claims, it must hold its horses. It has to take the views of the Opposition on board, if it is to avoid a shameful pratfall in Parliament like the one that former President Kumaratunga had in 2000, when she presented her draft Constitution without the concurrence of the Opposition.


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