What is best for Her, Sri Lanka must decide


An interview with Kare Vollan by Maheen Senanayake

Kare Vollan is a constitutional expert. He was in Sri Lanka recently on invitation by the Centre for Policy alternatives (CPA) to help political parties in Sri Lanka understand the best electoral system for Sri Lanka; whether this decision will be made for the benefit of the people or the benefit of those elected by the people. I understood that Vollan’s visit to Sri Lanka was packed with barely any time for rest. I met him that evening at the Renuka Hotel on Galle Road, following the first day of an intensive workshop. I found him relaxed and focused and well aware that his Norwegian origins may trigger ghosts of the past.

Is this your first visit to Sri Lanka?

Yes it is.

How has it been so far?

Very interesting. Really interesting. It is obviously a move for electoral reforms together with other reforms.

What is the area of expertise that you are bringing to this exercise?

Among other things it is electoral reforms.

Tell me about other things.

Well, (he hesitates for just a moment) I do work on post conflict situations, power sharing; but I am here for electoral reforms.

How did the Norwegians keep you hidden for so long, given their engagement in Sri Lanka for so long?

He laughs out loud. It’s not that the Norwegians suggested that I come. It’s really the CPA (Center for Policy Alternatives) that invited me.

But we had very interesting situations in Sri Lanka including power sharing?

Yes yes. There were other people working on that. I wasn’t. I was working in Somalia and some other countries during that time frame.

Norway, Africa, Nepal, these are very different countries even climatologically. Do you find common ground across these continents?

Yes and no. Of course some of the issues are the same. If you take for example representation for the minorities, the problems are the same.

What do you think is the most critical constitutional issue in Sri Lanka?

That I am not able to say. I have not had the time to study the constitution in detail to be able to answer that question. I am here only for the elections and hence electoral reforms.

So are you familiar with the prevailing electoral system?

Yes. Of course.

What do you see as its greatest flaws?

The prevailing system in broad terms is quite public when it is constituency based PR (Proportionate Representation). And then there is National (list) slate on top of that. It does give some extra seats to the big parties. And when you have a national count over PR, Normally that would be so-called compensatory seats; which means that when you add up the results in constituencies, the result will not be proportionate. There will always be an advantage for the bigger parties. So the idea of the National slate would be to take the results back to nation wide proportionate system. For the smaller parties it is not like that. It does allow the smaller parties to win some seats. And this doesn’t necessarily make this a flaw. So, the main issue here is that many people believe that the manner in which the proportionate system is implemented here is disadvantageous to the smaller parties. When you take open lists, voters can’t choose candidates within the party, but the intention is not really that – candidates of the same party shouldn’t compete against each other. The idea is that each candidate in a party should campaign for the party. But the way it works here is different and that is, I believe, one of the things that many people want to change.

So (do you have) any suggestions at this very preliminary level?

Well, the most obvious solution is to close the lists. I mean close the lists for the voters. Then you will be voting for the party and the party will have a ranked list that is fixed. These are number one, two three, four, five…. .

So does that mean that based on the number of votes, seats won are allocated in the rank order in the list?

Yes. And I must say that this too is a very common system. But many people don’t want that. That is why I am here. There, however, seems to be broad agreement in the problems prevailing in the existing system.

A subjective question, going back to a party ranking of candidates; how would one rank candidates? What could a possible basis be?

This has to be made in the backdrop of an internal democratic system within the party. They would have village sections, then they would have district sections, and the district section would come together at a general meeting and it is the local section of the party who decide on the rank, and I don’t think that is common here.

Wouldn’t that give power to the grassroots of a party?

Yes, that would. If it is a politburo decision one other thing you would look for is inclusiveness. If you have PR, first past the post does not require you to be big, you could with so many percent of the vote win a seat. In other words, in PR every vote counts whereas in the First Past the Post, the votes beyond the required percentage have no real effect.

Let’s say you have a mixed district where you have Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils. It would be good for the party to be inclusive because they want all the votes. So if it is even a small party with a Sinhalese dominance, that constituency will require that the Tamil votes are garnered. So the party will most likely field a candidate of the most important ethnicity- lets say a Tamil candidate to attract those votes. This is inclusiveness. And then we have the same thing with gender.

Let’s talk about gender inclusiveness. What is your position on gender?

Perhaps you would tend to have women who can attract the female votes thereby showing a high level of inclusiveness within the party.

We have detailed records of elections including statistics and narratives. The discourse is out there. Have you had time to study politics and elections in Sri Lanka post-independence?


What is your impression on this discourse?

I don’t think I want to comment on that. Let’s not do that. Let’s concentrate on the elections.

I am only asking you this question from the perspective of elections. You have changed the system a number of times. And we have several layers of government. So is that not a worth study?

Absolutely. I haven’t done that yet. I am merely looking at the electoral system for parliament. The change to the proportionate system was carried out for a particular system because they are more inclusive; first past the post has a bigger bias towards the bigger parties. Right now the discussion here is of a mixed system – one part with first past the post and one part with PR. You have this in Germany, Sweden, Scotland, so a number of countries have adopted this system. On the other hand if a person wants to vote for a person and if that person cannot vote for a person then that vote will not come in. That would be a non starter. Then compare it with PR, particularly mixed member proportionate, which will produce a proportionate result. So for the parties, it will be a proportionate result. It will be given a mix of FPTP and PR.

What would be your personal prescription for Sri Lanka?

What I am trying to do here is to listen to the political parties and the various stakeholders and help them arrive at a solution most appropriate system for Sri Lanka. For instance if the parties decide to go for a mixed system, I will show them the best way forward.

Have you had time to look at the 19th Amendment Bill?

I know about it but I haven’t yet had time to study it.

You mentioned earlier that you have met various political parties in Sri Lanka. How many have you met so far?

I have had meetings with civil society and several of the parties.

What are civil society sentiments on the electoral system?

Well we have had very good discussions and I can say that the need for reforms has come out very clearly. And one of the things we are discussing now is how to make Mixed Member proportionate more relevant to Sri Lanka. Because that will provide a proportionate result and you need a system of doing that that is simple enough, logical enough.

I yet believe that the need for electoral reforms sprang out of a need to empower the smaller parties. What are your sentiments on this aspect?

The mixed system is a proportionate system. That would favor the smaller parties. It will give the smaller parties what they are entitled to from a national result.

So your role here is to…?

Give some advice.

Finally Can I ask you for an example and narration of the Electoral + PR system in comparison with the PR systems?

Yes. Let me first begin by giving you the following facts:

• FPP combined with PR

• PR seats are used to top up the FPP result to achieve a fully proportional overall result (compensatory seats)

• Germany: 299 FPP and 299 compensatory PR seats. Two votes. Nationwide proportionality. PR seats filled from lists in 16 states (Länder). May increase number due to overhang. Sainte-Laguë

• New Zealand: 70 FPP and 50 compensatory PR seats. Two votes. Nationwide proportionality. PR seats filled from national lists. May increase number due to overhang. Sainte-Laguë

• Scotland: 73 FPP and 56 compensatory PR seats. Two votes. Regional proportionality. PR seats filled from lists in eight regions. Fixed number of seats. d’Hondt (bias in favour of larger parties)

Let us now take a look at a live scenario. Let us say that a given state has an election and the following are the results based on a PR system. Then

• In this example, it is assumed that a parliament has 201 members, 101 elected by first-past-the-post (FPP) and 100 are proportional (PR) seats. (The method may be used at province or district level as well).

• Columns 2 and 3 show the accumulated result for each party across the country.

• The next column shows the ideal proportional results, applying the share of the vote to all the 201 members of parliament. Party A has 35 % of the votes and wins 71 seats out of the 201, etc.

• The next column shows a summary of the number of seats won in the constituencies. Normally the largest parties win more than their proportional share, and small parties do not win any.

• The last column shows how the PR seats are distributed as so-called compensatory seats. A party wins the number of such seats equal to the number they are entitled to in total, minus what they have already won in the constituencies. Party A will win the ideal of 71 minus the 48 they already had secured, giving them a balance of 23. Party F is supposed to have six seats and since they did not win constituency seats, all six will be PR compensatory seats.

• If a party wins more compensatory seats than their proportional share, they will keep the constituency seats and the compensatory seats will be distributed among the rest of the parties according to clear procedures.

The effect of the two systems is clearly articulated in the graph below.

Kare Vollan is an internationally renowned expert on electoral systems from Norway. He serves as an advisor to the Venice Commission and has worked in Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Fiji and a number of other countries. Since 2008 he has made regular visits to Nepal to assist the Constituent Assembly and the Elections Commission in developing an inclusive electoral system for the country. His visits were sponsored and facilitated by the Embassy of Norway in Nepal and he worked closely with several international organizations in the country including UNDP’s Support for Participatory Constitution Building in Nepal (SPCBN) program, which was headed from 2010 to 2014 by Rohan Edrisinha a founder Director of CPA.

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