Very recently, my Ministry successfully passed an amendment to the Provincial Councils Election Act. Ever since then, reasonable concerns were raised in respect of the manner in which it was passed. I believe some of these concerns ought to be dispelled before the positive nature of the amendment falls into question.
It is first and foremost important to note the crucial changes to the Act. Firstly, there shall be a quota allocating a guaranteed 25% of the seats to women in all Provincial Councils. In the past, we have seen a very low turnout of women in politics. Only 5.8% of the Parliamentary seats are allocated to women and as of 2013 statistics, only 3.9% of Provincial Councils were comprised of women. Even in the past it has been no different. As of 2004, women comprised only 5% of the seats in Provincial Councils, and in 1999 women comprised only 3.2% of the seats.
It is also important to note that 80% of those women who have been elected to power until now emerge from political backgrounds. Any other woman who seeks to enter the fold of politics is usually deterred and undermined, usually by the media and the patriarchal and politically misogynistic male politicians. Most women prefer avoiding politics in order to maintain a better environment for their families to advance, without having to involve in dirty politics.
However, in this day and age, it cannot be denied that women play a crucial role in politics around the World and their roles have substantially contributed towards political betterment. In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing introduced the suggestion of guaranteeing 30% women representation in National Governments. Today, the Governments that implemented these measures have reached a higher pedestal in politics.
Simply consider Angela Merkel of Germany, Theresa May of United Kingdom, Christina Fernandez of Argentina or even Sheikh Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh among many others. Even in the corporate World, there have been many companies that have thrived with women at the helm. Consider Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, or Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, or Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo or even Sri Lanka’s own Otara Gunawardene, the Founding CEO of ODEL and Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a member of the Constitutional Council now and the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. They have proved over a period of time that women can be excellent leaders.
To those of you that feel that women play an essential role in their respective households, let me point out to you that Sri Lanka has had 24.2% of women headed households. If women can successfully head their own households, what prevents them from successfully leading this country?
Apart from these reasons, women bring many qualities to the table. They are natural caretakers, and their ideas and perspectives on politics may differ from the male perspective. A female contribution is essential to achieve gender parity in politics, law and employment, and together we may uplift Sri Lanka to greater heights.
The Mixed Member Proportional System is undeniably another welcome change to the electoral system we introduced through the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act. This was originally the recommendation of Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena, a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who sits in the opposition, and his Committee. Thence it became a promise of His Excellency President Hon. Maithripala Sirisena through his election manifesto.
The Provincial Council Elections Act seeks to introduce a change to the electoral process by electing 60% of Provincial Council Members through the First Past the Post system and 40% of the members through the Proportional Representation system.
Throughout the history of post-independence politics in Sri Lanka, the citizens have observed the best and worst of the First Past the Post system and the Proportional Representation system. Until 1977, Sri Lanka had the First Past the Post system which was cost effective, less violent and elected a representative of a particular region from a particular region, which meant that if a representative did not fulfil the desires of his people, the people could vote for a different representative at the next election. It also allowed for single party Governments, which meant party policies did not have to be watered down. The opposition is equally vibrant in such a system too.
However, the First Past the Post system had its flaws. Territorial representation meant that there was a possibility of bias and that minorities could be prejudiced. Minority parties, in particular, that do not fully conform to the values of majority parties, would be easily side-lined in such a system. It also leaves a large number of wasted votes. For example, in 1970, the SLFP won only 48% of the votes and still acquired 76.7% of the seats in Parliament and in 1977, the UNP won only 50.6% of the votes and acquired 83% of the seats in Parliament.
The flaws gave rise to the Proportional Representation system beginning from the 1978 Constitution. The Proportional Representation system had its advantages. It ensured minority representation and accommodated smaller parties, which introduced joint policies. There was stronger bargaining power as a result, and votes were rarely wasted.
However, the Proportional Representation system also came with shortfalls. It required greater campaign budgets, and violence escalated between political rivals. There is also a racial stigma attached to it. As we have seen in the recent past, racial tendencies tend to rise under this system. The election expenditure is also significantly greater than under the First Past the Post system.
Therefore, the Mixed Member Proportional system was born combining the best of both Worlds. Most people are in favour of this system, and it is truly in the interests of justice and democracy that I believe this is the way forward.
While I honestly believe the bill carries very positive steps approaching the foreseeable future, there has been significant concerns regarding the procedure followed in enacting the law. The Standing Orders of Parliament make it very clear that it is permissible to pass an amendment during the Committee Stage of a bill.
Standing Order 56 reads, “Any amendment may be made to a clause, or clauses may be deleted or new clauses may be added, provided the same be relevant to the subject matter of the Bill, and be otherwise in conformity with the Standing Orders”.
The additional clauses in respect of the electoral system was added upon a request by minority parties. This is the reason why many of the minority parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, supported this amendment. Although a few people are opposed to this move, it is my belief that those very people are opposed to every positive move emerging from this Government as it would build goodwill among the people.
Certain entities were uncomfortable with the idea of passing it in haste. I wish to comment that it could have been better for us to initiate a dialogue and obtain a consensus prior to bringing in this amendment at Committee Stage dealing with the Mixed Member Proportional System. However, political expediency required the passage of this amendment to introduce electoral reforms. It would not have been prudent to have the Provincial Councils under the Proportional Representation system and the rest after passing the amendment for the Mixed Member Proportional system.
There was no necessity to be hasty, as the procedure was well within the law and a very welcome piece of legislation that would only help this country progress. However, delimitation would require time and effort, and if there is a lesson we have learnt in the recent past, it is what delays in delimitation can cost us.
There is an urgent requirement now to commence a delimitation commission on this subject, and there is also a need to encourage deserving and capable women to participate in politics if this initiative is to be truly fruitful. Now that the requisite changes have been passed in law, we must carry forward the positive efforts without glancing backwards and ensure that our political future is in secure hands.
We must evaluate from the perspective of the Committee Stage Amendment in the interests of democracy, keeping in mind the recommendations of the Dinesh Gunawardena Select Committee report and the pledge of His Excellency President Hon. Maithripala Sirisena who promised that he would introduce the Mixed Member Proportional system to address the prevailing issues under the current electoral system.
[The writer is Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government]