Amendment 20 to the Constitution sought to introduce a mixed member method of electing parliamentarians. Few people seem to be aware that we already have a mixed member electoral system in place for local government.

An Act to amend the local government elections using a mixed member method was passed in 2012, largely away from the eyes of media and civil society. The January 2016 election may give Sri Lankans their first taste of a mixed member election, since, as we just found out, the upcoming Parliamentary election is to be held under the present PR system with preferential voting.

It is just as well, because if the present 20th Amendment was approved in a hurry, it is very likely we would have ended up with more MPs than we need.

225-to-237-to-255 and beyond – the numbers game

During a public meeting held on March 2nd to discuss various options in electoral reform, we learned that the original 140+70+15=225 formula with a limit of 225 seats proposed in 200t interim report of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms would be difficult to implement in the short time frame envisaged at that time. As reverend Sobitha Thero very eloquently put, we had to cook the reform roti while the 100-day pan was hot.

However, once the seat limits were relaxed, it became this floating number with no limit. The Cabinet may have compromised at 237, but, the behind the scene negotiations to implement 20A at any cost seem to be heading towards 255 or beyond.

Can we really afford to have more MPs?  What is the minimum need and what for?

How many MPs for what?

Candidate Maithripala Sirisena has promised a member for every electorate, but, let’s face it, what do people really want from MPs? What people really mean by an MP is a job-agent who will create more government jobs or interfere with hiring processes in government in order to bring government jobs to them. As somebody mentioned, a second important function is to hijack loved-ones from police custody and a third is to serve as conduits of wasteful handouts from government. All these impose additional costs on tax payers and compromise the governing process. The true role of a parliamentarian is to pass legislation and approve and exercise oversight over the budget, foreign treaties and the functions of the executive and the state departments and agencies.

A local government based solution

As somebody who has been working with local government for the last seven years, I have watched with dismay the centrist attitude of most policy analysts and policy makers. If we apply the subsidiarity principle to the Sri Lankan context, only what cannot be done by local government and the provincial councils should be delegated to the higher levels.  By implication, the type and the size of the layers of government should be determined from the bottom up.

If the voters really want a representative to call their own, the new mixed member system for local government has increased the number of local council members from 5000 to 7000 for 345 local government authorities, at a rate of one council member for little over 2000 voters, and one chairman for 43,000 voters. In addition, the 450 or so provincial councillors lead to one provincial representative for 30,000 voters.

It is irresponsible to play numbers games with the size of the Parliament without considering the true functions of a parliamentarian and representation at the other levels of government.

So it is just as well that 20A gets delayed because the delay allows us to correct for the hitherto centrist approach to constitutional amendment and discuss the optimum ratio of Parliamentarians to Provincial Councilors and Local Council Chairman within a power pyramid with a wide base of 7000 local councilors. A starting point for a discussion could be a long term goal of 350 local chairpersons to 250 provincial councilors to 150 parliamentarians, for example.

Beyond the parliamentary election

At this point when the same old ‘Manape pore is shaping up for the upcoming election to be held on August 17th, the first priority for civil society is to ensure that the Pore is minimized and upcoming election is as civilized as possible.  The March 12th movement is a good start but other modalities need to be worked out.

However, if you are interested in electoral reforms, you need to keep an eye on the local election to follow and play a role in shaping the form and the implementation of the relevant Act and Section 22 therein in particular.