The national priority ought to be reviving the economy, getting the production process underway, and distributing the costs of debt repayment in an equitable way among the rich and poor. Only those who are unscathed by the economic collapse would consider the national priority to be reform of the electoral system. With presidential elections due in less than a year President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken it upon himself to embark upon a course of electoral reforms of major proportions for which he has appointed a presidential commission of inquiry. He appears to have done so without consultations with opposition parties or civil society. A group of senior lawyers issued a statement which highlights the irrelevance and duplication inherent in this initiative. The Lawyers Collective said that, “according to the Constitution, the Elections Commission is already mandated to issue guidelines to the media and political parties for the proper conduct of elections. It has also prepared numerous reports on many of the matters outlined in the Gazette Notification.”
The Lawyers Collective also noted that “the Commission of Inquiry has been appointed without any prior consultation, even with recognized political parties in Parliament and expressed its concern “about the timing of this particular proposal. There is an apprehension that these appointments might be intended to stall the electoral process in the country, especially when, according to the Constitution, the Presidential Election is just 11 months away and is set to be conducted between September and October 2024.” Disregarding this and other expressions of concern by political parties and civil society groups, the president has now gone ahead and appointed the presidential commission of inquiry, further expanding its mandate and bolstering the number of commissioners from nine to ten.
According to the notification published in the government gazette, the primary tasks of this commission encompass a thorough examination of existing election laws and the formulation of recommendations for their improvement. The Commission of Inquiry has been called upon to “examine all existing election laws and regulations and make necessary recommendations for the amendment of election laws to suit current needs, giving special consideration to following factors as well. These include securing an increased women and youth representation; providing an opportunity for electronic voting using modern technology instead of printed ballot paper; providing facilities for voting by Sri Lankans overseas.
The commissioners have been tasked with a large and varied list of subjects, numbering more than 15, for which they have been given a tight time frame of 6 months. The subjects set for the commission include those that have been at the periphery of public interest or not contemplated in the general discourse of the electorate, such as enabling a person to contest elections for both provincial councils and parliament for the selection of people’s representatives and have the opportunity to represent provincial councils and parliament at the same time if elected. The commission is also tasked with providing voting opportunities for those who are living in foreign lands, such as expatriate Sri Lankan workers. In the context of Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, this is going to be a difficult and expensive task with an estimated million persons leaving the country in the past two years.
The commission is also tasked with going into the controversial and hitherto unresolved issue of formulating an appropriate mechanism blended with the first-past-the-post voting system for the election of people’s representatives, not limiting to the proportional representation system, but taking into consideration the plural nature of society and reflecting such plural characteristics. The debate over this matter has been going on for several years without a solution. In fact, the re-demarcation of electorates for provincial council elections are now in their fifth year and has outlasted two governments that sought to address the problem.
Even the re-demarcation of the much smaller local government electorates has proved to be a task beyond the capacities of the government. A recent news item states that State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Janaka Wakkumbura said that the report of the National Delimitation Committee chaired by former Election Commission of Sri Lanka Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has not been published because many political parties were not in favour of it. The preliminary draft of the report was handed over to Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena by the committee chairman on 11th April 2023 and the final report was handed over to the President subsequently. Now over six months has elapsed and there has been no further progress with getting the re-demarcation of electorates ratified by the political parties and parliament.
It is therefore apparent that the presidential commission of inquiry appointed to accomplish a large number of difficult and complex tasks is unlikely to be able to complete its task in the six months given to it or before the presidential election falls due. The commission has been tasked with finding solutions and making recommendations in respect to all levels of elections which would be the local government, provincial council, general and presidential elections. If the electoral system for the provincial councils should have taken as many as five years and that too without a successful resolution of the outstanding issues, it can be imagined that reaching agreement on all four elections will be like waiting for Godot. The result of a failure on the part of the government to be able to hold elections when they fall due is likely to severely erode the legitimacy of the government and put into jeopardy its efforts to resuscitate the national economy and assuage the sufferings of the masses of people who are day by day seeing their living standards deteriorating.
The priority for any government that seeks to engage in problem solving in a situation of extreme crisis would be to strengthen its legitimacy and not erode it. In a democracy, legitimacy comes by holding free and fair elections on time and prevailing. If the government does not appear keen to hold elections when they are due, it leads to the conclusion that those leading the government are only concerned with being in power, and not in solving the people’s problems. A mandate from the people enhances the legitimacy of political reforms even if they exact a price from the people at this time. Having a democratic mandate ensures that changes are made with the consent and approval of the citizens, reinforcing the democratic principles of governance. Elections that provide this mandate are needed at the present time in order to clear the decks for the reforms to come. It is not the other way round.
Obtaining a mandate helps in minimizing potential social unrest and instability by demonstrating that the government is acting in accordance with the wishes of the majority. A mandate ensures that the majority of the population is on board, reducing the potential for social unrest or division that might arise if changes were imposed without popular consent. Political fortunes of one party or the other cannot be subservient to the conduct of regular elections which is the bedrock of democracy. In Sri Lanka in view of its record as a vibrant democracy and the constitutional provisions that exist, the president will serve his interests better if he focuses on creating peaceful conditions during the next few months, which will facilitate holding free and fair elections on time. Renewing the people’s mandate will also enhance the newly elected government’s credibility on the international stage and open the door to the flow of international resources to a government that has the people’s backing.
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