How ‘inclusive’ can democracy be?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Appearing before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), headed by Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardena, who is also the new Education Minister, veteran minister and constitutional expert, G L Peiris, reportedly argued the case for all sections in the nation being given a stake in poll politics – and thus, political administration.  In particular, he was opposed to the forgotten first-past-the-post  (FPP)system, as those sections with limited numeral representation end up losing out.

Prof Peiris’ is the commonly-accepted view for long. It led to the emergence of the current ‘composite scheme’, which is a combination of the FPP and the proportional representation (PR) systems. The unanswered question of the past decades then arise, if the existing scheme, which is not a wholesale FPP has worked to everyone’s satisfaction. If it were so, there would not have been any need for a PSC to go into electoral reforms, one more time.

The taste of the pudding is in the eating. In a nutshell, successive governments have trampled upon the spirit and purpose of the PR scheme by using the delimitation commission to ‘re-balance’ respective community presence and representation, through the decades. Translated, it means that motivated and meaningless de-limitation exercises have made an otherwise dominant ethnicity in an electorate lose their numeric dominance in the new electorate. The case of Upcountry Tamils is a pointer.

National List or ‘notional list’?

Then, there is the use, misuse and abuse of the ‘National List’ by parties, both in government and opposition. People were witness to how and how far the UNP, still the nation’s GoP, delayed the nomination for the lone seat that the got in Parliament, that too under the ‘National List’ until they were left with no choice other than former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Was it how the framers intended the selection to be made?

Even without it, questions have been raised from time to time – and muted with equal ease – how the PR scheme has been treated by political party bosses. The National List nomination of Basil Rajapaksa is another example. His ‘foreigner’ tag was removed when he too surrendered  his US citizenship like his brother Gotabaya R did before successfully contested the 2019 presidential polls. But the controversy surrounding Basil R’s National List nomination had other, unaddressed grounds.

Again, these are only two of the most recent examples. They were procedural flaws, you can argue. But the more basic issue relates to the concerns expressed by Prof Peiris before the PSC. How many of the National List nominations are made actually to give representation to the so-called underdog communities that could not win even a single parliamentary seat under the FPP system?

In context, the suggestion of one such ‘unrepresented’ parties before the PSC could defeat the purpose even more. Representing the Liberal Party, general secretary Kamal Nisanka wanted the National List expanded to provide for 65 MPs in a House total of 225, against the existing 29. Unless there are iron-clad guarantees can be incorporated to ensure that they actually represent the unrepresented classes and communities, it would prove as farcical as the existing scheme.

Ruling the self or what

All of it goes only to prove that the ingenuity of individuals and leaders to browbeat the system is what all of it has boiled down to. It is like the Tamils’ still demanding a federal system, so as to ensure that their voices will be heard and they will have the power to ‘rule ourselves’. They should have learnt by now, that again is an utopian idea that has no meaning in real politic.

The case of incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa not bothering to ‘waste’ his time campaigning in Tamil areas on his way to winning the presidency should be an eye-opener. Successively since post-war 2010 presidential polls, the Tamils voted against the winner, and very openly so, in two of the three elections, 2015 being the exception, where victor Maithripala Sirisena won only because of the Tamil and Muslim votes, so to say.

There is the other question flowing from this situation. Granted that the Tamils have their federal system in Northern Province (as also erstwhile in the country) and the Sinhala majority elects another Gota in their time, there will be incongruity in the functioning of the two governments. No one is arguing that the federal Tamil Province should have over-riding powers on subjects under their care. If that is not the case, then the entire purpose of a new Constitution (under construct) and electoral reforms would be defeated from within – all over again, to conclude.

So, what is the way out? It is not in changing the system, one after the other, as the nation has tested and tired itself out already. The solution is in working with whichever system that a nation chooses and/or inherits, and definitely with some contemporary modifications as our times indicate and demand.

Forgotten report

Power-sharing for the Tamils, for instance, fits in there. And so do it for other ‘minorities’, including Muslims and Upcountry Tamils. No one is going to wish away either, despite trying and failing in the case of the other two for decades – and opening up on the Muslim front in more recent times.

No one should be surprised if in the existing situation, post-Easter blasts, the nation’s Christian community, at times cutting across ethnic identity too seek political power and electoral stakes of their own. Though the community cannot blame the Sri Lankan State or the majority Sinhala polity for the blasts.

The indifference of the Executive, from top to bottom, now or earlier, to the blasts investigations – or, at least as the Catholic Church has been saying – is not unique to the Easter blasts investigations and prosecution alone. Criminal cases, though of not similar magnitude, where the majority Sinhala community was the target (be it from within or not) has been no exception.

It is here that the forgotten report of the Tissa Vitharana Report on power-devolution, put up during the war-time government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now prime minister, made the difference. Unfortunately, the leadership that commissioned it, dumped it without trace.

Worse still, the Tamils and Upcountry Tamils who stood to gain from its various recommendations, including the institution of ethnically rotatable two vice-presidents and a upper house of Parliament, dumped it, too. They were worried more about the credit for finding a political solution to the ethnic issue going to the Rajapaksas.

Women reservations

It’s important to note that Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi has since proposed some kind of accommodation for women in electoral politics – particularly for them to get elected. Neighbouring India, the world’s largest democracy, has been struggling to reserve one-third of all elected legislative positions in parliament and state legislatures (equivalent to Sri Lanka’s provincial councils, if only in form), but without much success.

India now has women reservations at the level of local councils. Sri Lanka need not begin there, it can straightaway go all the way up to Parliament, too. How to do it should engage the PSC on electoral reforms and more so the government’s advisory committee on a new Constitution, headed by former Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris.

Anti-defection law

If the time has come for the nation ensuring women reservations in its electoral bodies, the demand for a stringent anti-defection law is equally welcome. So is the suggestion from another minor party (as different from minority party) to mandate elected members, or even electoral candidates, to submit their assets and liabilities list every year, to the Election Commission (EC). Such documents should be available in the public domain for perusal by the voters.

Another addition could be to add to the list, the criminal record of individual candidates. There should be compelling provisions for elected members, especially to update their ‘record’ each passing year – both in the EC and the Parliament Secretariat. There should be no exception. Maybe, instead, a mechanism outside of the legislative body (including PCs) should be created for seeking corresponding updates and status reports from the police and the office of the prosecutor-general, if not the Judiciary.

Yet, all these, even if implemented with the seriousness that they deserve, would only be a beginning. It’s a beginning worth attempting, but a beginning which would possibly be never made. But these are procedures for making the nation’s democracy ‘inclusive’, where the socio-economic lower segments would still remain unrepresented as a class – for politics and political parties have already hijacked their cause as their own agenda, but have failed them all the same!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: