New mixed electoral system, best of both, FPP and PR - Election Commission member Prof.Ratnajeevan Hoole | Sunday Observer

New mixed electoral system, best of both, FPP and PR - Election Commission member Prof.Ratnajeevan Hoole

Election Commission member Prof.Ratnajeevan Hoole says, despite fine efforts for a comprehensive Election Act, it has been observed that there was no deterrent punishment in the new laws for polls violators, and it is still a possibility for big fish to escape the legal net while the small fries are caught up in legal battles.

Calling the new mixed electoral system the best of both the First Past the Post and Proportional Representation, he said, yet some fine tuning will be necessary before the General and Presidential Election in the coming years.

The excerpts of the interview:

Q. The Elections Commission is poised to hold one of Sri Lanka’s biggest elections under a new mixed electoral system. What are the plus points of this new electoral system?

A. In the old system (First Past the Post, FPP), say e.g. Party A has 40% support in every electorate and Party B 30%. Then Party A will get 100% of the seats. Under Proportional Representation (PR),A will get only 40% of the seats. So under FPP big parties will be over-represented in Parliament. Small parties will get wiped out unless they have enclaves where they are in majority. Under PR, Party A will not be able to form a government except with our system of bribing MPs to crossover. Under FPP we contest in our own electorate where we know most voters. So campaigning is cheap. PR is feasible only with a large district as the electorate. So we campaign in places where we are strangers. This is expensive. It is possible only for rich candidates or those who are bought over by special interests.

This system combines the best of both systems.

Q. Any shortcomings in the new system? Can the Election Commission make fine-tuning recommendations before the provincial and parliamentary elections?

A. Yes, but we are only at the beginning of the elections. My chief complaint is that the courts have allowed us to reject nominations based only on a list of trivialities ignoring larger violations. Thus when an authorized person handed in nominations from his party with his lawyer, as reported by CA Chandraprema, he handed in one set, and the lawyer handed in the next. What the lawyer gave was rejected because he was not the authorized agent. In my mind what my lawyer does for me is done by me, especially with me by his side. On the other hand, courts have denied us the right to reject, obviously inadmissible papers – fictitious women being included because a party could not find women. This included the wife of our own Assistant Commissioner; neither he nor his wife knew. We have been allowed to reject on technicalities – like a JP dating his papers using the year 17 for the date 15, making the date fall after nominations closed.We have failed to argue based on the Constitution’s Article 104B(2) that the Commission’s duty is to “secure the enforcement of all laws relating to [elections].” With this interpretation, we could have rejected people who we knew to be ineligible. Now voters will waste their franchise voting for those who will be disqualified after being elected. Thus, we fail in our constitutional duty to safeguard voters’ franchise defined in the Constitution’s entrenched Article 3.

Q. There are concerns that minor and minority parties are disadvantaged under the new system. Is there a basis to this?

A. As I said, the law was a compromise to get the best of FPP and PR. We note that the JVP too voted for it after the PR proportion was raised to 40%. The ITAK too is a minor party but because its base is geographically concentrated and not distributed as the JVP’s, it is not as affected as the JVP in reducing PR to 40% from 100%.

Q. The preferential system of voting, which is considered the most democratic, has been removed. In that backdrop how can electors use their vote wisely?

A. PR is still there at 40%. On the ballot paper we will mark only the party. Our ward’s candidate for our party will get that vote and it will be useful for the party’s PR list candidates. So we are really voting for a candidate and a party. However, if there is a competent candidate from our ward who does not belong to the party we support, it is worth looking at voting for his party since the work on local councils is services and not policy-making.

Q. It was hoped that the new system, sans rivalry over preferential votes as well as extravagant campaign funding, would induce professionals to take to politics. Will it?

A. I hope so. A local government representative makes some Rs.30,000 a month. So we do not see many professionals. In Parliament, however, being an MP gets good money and perks. Hopefully, professionals will give up their jobs and contest. But be aware: it is also the professionals in Parliament who have been involved in bribery and corruption. Professionals have competency;they do not guarantee clean government.

Q. People are highly concerned about the new LG members numbering 8,352, a twofold increase from before. Some say, this number should be reduced. Any discussions?

A. Not yet, but discussions will begin when we realize that the present local government chambers cannot accommodate the 8,352. But I think bringing dispossessed groups into government is good. Women are coming in now.

Even when the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs addressed a meeting at the Commission on the inclusion of women on grounds of inclusivity, all five speakers were Sinhalese. When questioned, one weakly claimed she was married to a Tamil and another claimed her mother was Tamil. But neither spoke Tamil. They represented the phenomenon where minorities are disappeared. The battle to empower dispossessed minorities will triumph only when all minorities join forces and speak for each other.

Q. What minorities?

A. Oppressed castes and Indian Tamils, for example. Seeniaar Gunasingham, an activist, in a speech described Pon. Kandiah, a CP Moscow MP in 1956. Kandiah had asked for jobs for the oppressed castes in Parliament. GG Ponnambalam retorted that the oppressed castes had the best jobs in Jaffna.

SWRD Bandaranaike was incredulous and asked what jobs. “Tapping toddy. It makes them very rich,” said Ponnamablam.

Today we are not as brazen as Ponnambalam, and have learnt circumlocution, maintaining mildly that we do not discriminate.

The reality is that today’s Northern Provincial Council includes only 2 oppressed caste members among 38. Ignorance fuels this discrimination.

Q. Are there any signs that polls-related violence under the new system is down?

A. Mostly,these elections so far have been far less violent than before. However, there has been increased violence against women.

SLMC candidate Rinoosha has faced threats from a police invasion of her home following a 119 call saying she had arms in her house.

The police party with no woman, ransacked her home and seem not to know who called, although the number was probably registered.

Manjula Pathmanathan in Puthukudiyiruppu was kidnapped and prevented from signing her nomination.A Muslim cleric has a video where he blackguards women candidates and insults their husbands.

He adds that in Islamic teaching, no society administered by women ever prospers. He obviously has not heard of Queen Victoria under whom the British Empire was at its mightiest.

In Batticaloa, a female UNP candidate had her photo-shopped picture with another man going viral.

She had to defer her meeting with me because she was crying and suicidal, requiring a counsellor to be sent to Batticaloa.

Q. What are the new security features and new procedures to be followed during counting votes and announcing results?

A. Counting is at the polling center, requiring little movement of boxes. Otherwise, it is as before.

Q. What led you to the decision to put the security forces on standby on election-day reversing a former decision to deploy only the police?

A. That information is wrong. The armed forces will not be deployed. In a few places where there is a threat of violence, the STF (who are policemen) will be deployed with normal policemen.

An example is a place where an alleged drug lord who did not get nominated, getting his son in. Rival gangs we fear may disrupt.

Q. The next general election will also be held under the new mixed electoral system. There is perception that PR introduced in 1978 has been a direct cause of hung parliaments, without stable governments. Are there any safeguards in the new system to prevent this in the future?

A. That Bill to extend the mixed system to Parliament is not passed yet, but it is the stated intention.

I hope it happens. With bribed crossovers, we have had no hung parliament.

Q.What is the Election Commission’s most crucial observation in the run up to elections?

A. The Commission itself has made no formal observation. However, my own impression is that there is rarely any serious deterrent punishment. The police close files after a sloppy investigation.

They charge culprits without presenting the hard evidence available to the judge, resulting in dismissal of charges.

When big-wigs violate laws, the Commission is reluctant to act fearing being ignored, thereby making us ineffective.

This means we can come down hard only on the small fry.

An example is the Sasundoya Program launched on December 5 building 1,000 temples using state funds.

This is the criminal offence of “treating.” Another is the promise that so-called war heroes will never be “hauled before an international criminal court or war tribunal”.

Surely, it is hate speech to dismiss very serious charges without an inquiry, thereby treating minorities killed in 2009 as nonpersons.

On the other hand, boys pasting election notices are arrested.

Q. Various interest groups have begun announcing pre-poll surveys where they claim that certain parties are ahead in people polls. This is specifically prohibited by election law. What action does the Election Commission propose to stop these? Can we list out parties with most incidents to least incidents?

A. Under our media guidelines, pre-poll surveys are fine so long as their scientific basis is detailed with the results.

The internal complaint reports I receive are not detailed. My impression is that the major parties violate rules a lot, but the JVP has so far run a clean campaign. In the North too, the ITAK alone had a clean record till Wednesday when they progressed through Jaffna with even police bodyguards in attendance.

Those controlling Archaeology Department have given 30 security guard appointments in Jaffna.

The Ministry of Industry and Commerce has issued 16 appointments, mainly to Mannar Muslims. This name come up repeatedly.