A prelude to polls postponement
Posted on April 11th, 2018

It looks as if the government were all out to put off the Provincial Council (PC) polls again owing to its seemingly intractable problems, both internal and external. The unfolding drama in the yahapalana camp is like the political version of the Night of the Long Knives. The UNP is all out to purge what is known as the ‘unity’ government of the SLFP ministers who voted for the no-faith motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the other day. President Maithripala Sirisena, who made a determined bid to remove the PM, albeit in vain, and went so far as to strip the latter of control over the Central Bank and disband the Economic Management Committee, has now changed his tune. However, rapprochement between the UNP and the SLFP doesn’t seem to be within the realms of possibility.

All signs are that the government will come out with some excuse to postpone the PC polls. President Sirisena has suddenly awoken to the realisation that the new electoral system is riddled with flaws; he has lamented the massive increase in the number of local government members to more than 8,000 from about 4,000.

The President has got it right; there are far too many local government members and the current electoral system is a disaster. If he had heeded mavens’ prescient warnings and taken action to obviate those flaws while the electoral reforms were still on the anvil, the present chaos could have been avoided. However, better late than never!

The preferential vote or manape as it is popularly known, is one of the main reasons, cited in justification of electoral reforms. It has been made out to be the fountainhead of election violence and corruption. Contrary to this much-publicised claim, manape is a salutary feature of the proportional representation (PR) system in that it enables an elector to vote for the candidate/s of his or her choice without allowing the leader of the party concerned to make arbitrary decisions. In a situation where there is no preferential vote, a party leader can overlook even the most popular candidate who attracts the highest number votes and appoint someone else from the PR list. The self-righteous leaders of all main parties have abused the Additional List to appoint candidates who are their favourites, including some of the candidates, defeated at the Feb. 10 local government polls

The manape has come to be considered synonymous with violence and corruption because party leaders nominate political dregs, including criminals, to contest polls. It may be recalled that the JVP has been free from manape battles because its candidates put the party before self and conduct themselves properly. Newly-elected Polonnaruwa Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman P. Munasinghe, representing President Sirisena’s party, the SLFP, has been arrested and remanded for assaulting two traffic policemen. If political party leaders, the President included, cared to field decent candidates, all elections would be peaceful with or without the preferential vote system. Abolishing the manape as a remedy for election violence and corruption is like banning potent painkillers because they are abused by druggies.

It is heartening that President Sirisena has admitted that the number of local government members must be drastically reduced. Even the previous number was too high, in our book, and it doesn’t make any sense to allow the number of members to exceed that of wards. The ‘hovering’ members are a bunch of freeloaders.

Flaws in the new electoral system can be rectified if some remedial measures are adopted urgently. The Additional List appointments should be limited to about 25% of the total number of members and the winning party given two bonus seats each, which can be used to boost female representation, where necessary, and help form stable administrations. Most of all, the cut-off point has to be reintroduced to prevent even political parties/independent groups which fail to poll enough votes to save their deposits securing seats. The elimination of the cut-off point is largely responsible for the present chaos.

Civil society outfits are reportedly trying to solve the issues associated with the new electoral system. The blame for the chaotic situation due to harebrained electoral reforms should be apportioned to them in that they were instrumental in introducing the failed hybrid system.

Parliament ought to decide, as a matter of national priority, to hold the next provincial council elections under the PR system until a better electoral system is put in place. The government must not be allowed to postpone the PC polls on the pretext of rectifying errors in the new system, because an electoral reform exercise is bound to take a month of Sundays. One is justified in arguing that the President’s criticism of the electoral system, at this juncture, smacks of a move to postpone PC polls again.

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