Sri Lanka's electoral system: Bogey or asset?

By Dr. Chandra Dolawatte
Published February 14th 2004 in Daily Mirror

In this article, I propose, once again to examine the subject of electoral reforms in Sri Lanka, which even recently became a hot topic of discussion amongst political circles (though apparently not amongst the academics and general voters), having already had a previous fling at it, in my book under the title 'Whither Sri Lanka's Representative Democracy? A People's Manifesto' with a forward by Dr. Gamini Corea, and published by Godage Brothers.

Since 1931, but particularly, after the receipt of independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has had a democratic form of government and it is the need to nurture and strengthen not merely the form but also the practice of democracy in the country that truly constitutes the raison detre for the investigations conducted by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform to which I have also submitted my above book as a memorandum.

Representative Democracy
There is no single word, in the political lexicon that is so frequently mentioned as the word democracy. I wish however, to commence by giving some thought to what this word implies, particularly since it is not seldom that the term is used to justify contradictory actions. Abraham Lincoln's characterization of democracy as 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' is still unrivalled as a concise definition of this word.

Direct democracy practised in ancient Greek city states being impracticable in the present day large polities; there is no alternative to having that form of democracy called 'representative democracy'. A successful representative democracy has two indispensable components one being physical and the other an imponderable.

Democratic structure

Of these two parts, the physical component is the democratic structure. A country's legislature (whether called Parliament, Congress or Assembly) the executive and the judiciary constitute the major parts of the democratic structure, along with the electoral system. In fact, a properly conceived and devised electoral system is an indispensable foundation on which the other above-mentioned parts (which we may collectively refer as the superstructure) of a viable and durable democratic structure that can be erected. If the foundation is infirm and fragile, the superstructure would be unstable and could totter and fall.

The parliamentary select Committee, now sitting is entrusted by Parliament with no less a task than examining the health and quality of the existing foundation discover its deficiencies and weaknesses if any and prescribe cures thereto, while agreeing that the present system which has been in operation for upwards of two decades merits review in the light of its performance and changing circumstances in the polity.

I do, however wish to sound a note of caution, lest in our enthusiasm for refurbishing the electoral foundation, we unwittingly weaken it rather than strengthen it. Since we are dealing with no less a subject than the very foundation of representative democracy in Sri Lanka, it especially behoves on us to view it objectively and with caution, trace erectly where any malaise lies and devise therapeutic measures directly targeted on such weak spots. We ought to desist from adopting inappropriate remedies in the manner of facetious Ayurvedic simile 'paya baravayata pitikara beheth bandinawa' (medicate the back of the neck to cure filiarisis).

I have so far dealt with only one of the two indispensable components of representative democracy, namely its structure and there too, only with its foundation viz electoral system. The foundation of a structure is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end namely the erection and maintenance of a durable and viable superstructure of governing institutions. If the foundation is such as to provide a firm basis for the superstructure, its job is done, so to say. If anything goes wrong in the superstructure or the manner of its functioning, that fault cannot justifiably be attributed to the foundation. If the superstructure, however well-founded, fails to deliver the expected service or goods, whatever remedial measures we take will have to be targeted on the deficiencies there and not on the foundation.

If, however, the various governmental institutions that constitute the superstructure, too turn out to be flawless and well attuned to the goal of generating the expected democratic outcome, but still the latter fails to materialize, then the obvious inference would be that the fault lies with the second of the above noted major components of democracy, i.e. the imponderable part.

Democratic Spirit

This imponderable is nothing other than the all too easily forgotten democratic spirit. It is the democratic spirit of toleration and compromise that infuses life into the democratic structure.

It is also absolutely essential that all political operators in a democracy realize the fundamentality of the principle of trusteeship i.e. that those who wield power do so only as the trustees of the people who are the fountain of all governmental power.

On this reasoning, the success of a representative democracy depends not only on how well-attuned its structure or its constituent parts or institutions to its ideal functioning but also on how much its operators have imbibed the democratic spirit of toleration of opposing views and readiness to compromise. Peaceful debate, openness and transparency of government and freedom of expression are the lifeblood of democracy and constitute the only viable way of realizing the maximum long-term public welfare.

Two corollaries follow from this consideration. The first of these is an obligation on the part of everyone to facilitate and accept the freely arrived verdict of the people at an election (Here I emphasize the word free) without in anyway seeking to distort or obstruct its manifestation. The second corollary is that no amount of constitution or electoral reform would be of avail, in the absence of the democratic spirit and attitudes. Reforms, whether of the constitution or of the electoral part of it, in such a milieu, I am afraid, run the risk at best of being fruitless and at worst having the contrary effect of accelerating the collapse of the democratic system by diverting public attention from the basic malaise.

Even the most perfect democratic structure including the electoral system is only as good as those who operate it. Moreover even a quite beneficial principle or idea, if badly implemented, could easily become the subject of public apathy or outright condemnation thereby depriving the society of valuable benefits that principle could otherwise have yielded. I am afraid to say that, judging from what is now being heard, from almost every quarter (apart from an occasional dissentient voice), that is more or less the fate a useful innovation like the valuable principle; of preference, a principle that has worked so successfully in a multi ethnic society like the USA runs the risk of succumbing too. In the demonization of this principle politicians of all hues, seem to have for understandable reasons, played no small role.

Electoral Reforms of 1981 and 1983

Having thus cleared the preliminaries I shall now turn my attention to Sri Lanka's democratic foundation, i.e. the electoral system. Reforms introduced thereto in 1981 and 1983 changed the hitherto existing electoral system almost beyond recognition and for reasons dealt with at some length especially in chapters 1 through 5 in my book referred to above, did contribute to a marked strengthening of the democratic foundation of Sri Lanka in that they enabled a more accurate reflection of the electoral will of the people in Parliament and subsidiary legislature bodies in the country.

As one who has had substantially long periods of residence in the UK and the US and has had the opportunity to gain familiarity with the electoral systems in those countries, I must confess to a feeling of disheartening at the readiness of some influential political circles in Sri Lanka to lay the blame for a multiplicity of ills, actual or imagined, ranging from violence at election booths, forcible stuffing of ballot boxes and molestation of election officials, candidates and voters to intra-party rivalries and problems of securing mandatory 2/3 majorities for constitutional amendment, at the door of the electoral system.

But deeper and dispassionate analysis of these phenomena would reveal their intrinsic character as social ills and not as electoral ills. In other words, they are either law and order problems or political problems rather than electoral problems. The existence of such ills or difficulties, as the case may be, cannot, realistically or logically, be construed as resulting from faults in the existing electoral system anymore than the occurrences of robberies in banks could be attributed to faults in the financial system. Intra party rivalry arguments against the preference system is a particular example of fallacious reasoning. As I have pointed out in para 2 of chapter 4 of my book those who argue for the abolition of the preference system on the alleged ground that it causes conflicts and mayhem among adherents of the same political party, will also have if they are to be logical, to argue for the abolition of the entire electoral system on the patent ground that elections of whatever sort leads to conflicts and mayhem between adherents of different political parties. I am only mentioning here this logical imperative only to highlight that both arguments are based on an identical fallacy and hence should be discarded.

While, however, rejecting instances of spurious causality, such as the above, adduced by some critics of the existing electoral system, I do readily admit that it is far from being perfect and that it does have certain important deficiencies that should be addressed by the Parliamentary Select Committee now sitting.

However, I must hasten to add that such defects do not at all warrant its total jettisoning lock stock and barrel or even its radical reform for that matter, based as it is on the democratically unimpeachable principles of proportional representation and voter preference among candidates.

What is rather required is the selective introduction of well thought out reforms targeted on its weak spots and so calculated as to advance the frontiers of democracy rather than in the reverse direction towards authoritarians of a by-gone era. It is in this spirit that I formulated my electoral reform proposals in part III of the study.

The fundamental premises that underlie the argumentation in my treatment there of the subject of electoral reform may be listed as follows:

a. The ultimate sovereignty in a democracy is inherent in its people and this fact should be explicitly recognized both in word and deed by all political operators.

b. On the political plane, the only goal that is sacrosanct is the of the maximization of the sum total welfare of the entire population: every other consideration should be treated as subsidiary and deriving its validity and acceptability only in so far as it contributes to the attainment of that overarching goal.

c. Those who have, for the time being, been delegated (through the electoral process) the task of exercising governmental power do so only as trustees of the people).