Provincial Councils Elections Amendment Act:The end of national politics - Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon
The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) has been one of the most vocal critics of the Provincial Councils Elections Amendment Act which was passed last week. Ceylon Today spoke to CaFFE Executive Director, Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon about the reasons why they oppose this Bill and the manner in which it was passed.
Following are excerpts:
Almost all election monitoring organizations have been extremely critical about the manner in which the government passed the Provincial Councils Elections Amendment Act. However, you had been against this Bill even before it was put before Parliament for debate. What was the reason for this?
A: CaFFE had been aware of the government's attempts to delay elections in any way possible and since the attempts to bring about the 20th Amendment to the Constitution failed, due to judicial and political reasons, we knew that it would use this Bill to accomplish its objective. That is why we warned, a week before the Bill was to be debated, that the government is attempting to postpone the Provincial Council Elections through a proposal during the Committee stage on 20 September.
The government brought about this Bill saying that it wants to increase female representation in Provincial Councils by allocating 30% of the seats in provincial councils for female representatives. However, we realized that something was amiss because the government also brought forth proposals which were not discussed in earlier discussions with political parties. These include the replacement of the proportional representation with a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation system.
The government was very subtle in the way they brought in this Bill. If the government has postponed elections through a Gazette notification, that would have allowed political parties and civil society organizations to seek redress through the judicial system. However, by postponing elections through an amendment at the committee stage, this government has shown that it operates in much more subtle and sinister ways.
The sovereignty of the people has been conferred to Parliament in the expectation that MPs will do their best to ensure the welfare of the public. The people of this country do not expect it be used as a tool to take away their franchise. By attempting to postpone elections by putting forward proposals which come out of the blue, this government is making a mockery of the democratic principles.
You also wrote to the Attorney General, Jayantha Jayasuriya, Legal Draftsman, Deepani Kumarajeewa and Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya asking them to prevent the government from taking the Bill to Parliament?
A: We wrote to Attorney General, Jayantha Jayasuriya, Legal Draftsman, Deepani Kumarajeewa, and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya expressing our displeasure at the attempts made by the government to postpone Provincial Council Elections by making hitherto undiscussed proposals during the debate on the Gazette of the Draft Bill allocating 30% of seats in provincial councils for female representatives.
I wrote to the three officials and informed them that the attempt to bring forth proposals which were not discussed in earlier discussions with political parties, including the replacement of the proportional representation with a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, was an extremely undemocratic practice. I also said that this government came into power stating that they will never attempt to pass emergency Bills in Parliament. And I asked the Speaker to call for a meeting of members who were in Committees that discussed Election Law amendments to Local and Provincial Council Elections and got their opinions on the government's recent proposals.
However all these efforts failed and the government passed the Bill with two thirds majority?
A: It was passed, but it doesn't change the fact that it was one of the most irregular amendments to a Bill in Sri Lankan history. It was passed, violating all accepted democratic norms, transparency and rule of law under the pretext of establishing a mixed electoral system.
For example, the Supreme Court has the power to decide whether the referred Bill is in keeping with the basic law of the land which is the country's Constitution. The SC deemed the said Bill was not keeping with the Constitution on 19 September, however the Bill was ratified with a two-thirds majority through the backdoor. In the history of the Parliament, such an incident has never taken place before. Moreover, certain clauses in the 13th amendment to the Constitution will be affected by the Bill. Thus, this is the first time that the Constitution has been changed through a Bill.
The Bill is also a violation of procedures in Parliament. The submission of a thirty one-page amendment to change a three-page amendment further shows the danger presented by this Bill. Also, there is no connection between increasing female representation in provincial councils and the amendments made.
You also alleged that most of the MPs had not seen the Bill till it was given to them on the day before the debate and that the Elections Commission was not consulted about the matter?
A: Yes, the MPs only saw the amendments to the Bill on 20 September. No other citizen had access to the text of the amendments. Thus, this was a Bill that was not considered in the Supreme Court nor were legal professionals consulted. The Elections Commission officials also saw the Bill on 20 September. Moreover, no member of the Elections Commission or the legal officers of the Commission were consulted. Even the infamous 2012 Bill used the services of officials from the Elections Department. It is against the principles of good governance to prepare and pass a draft Bill without the consultation of citizens, CSOs, and pressure groups.
CaFFE has also alleged that the Bill gives too much power to the party bosses over candidates?
A: This Bill has concentrated complete power to party leaders. The Bill allows the party leaders to appoint 50% of representatives elected from a district. Moreover, this allows the party leader to select all candidates who will be elected under the first-past-the-post system. The ability to hold by-elections is one of the main features of the first-past-the-post system. Allowing the party secretary to fill the vacancies that can arise is extremely undemocratic. This can be used to make party membership slaves of the leadership and allows a small group to control the party.
One of the most controversial things you said about the Bill was that it will ultimately strengthen political parties based on religion, ethnicity, or a particular geographical area and that this would gradually weaken what we now call 'national political parties.' Why did you make this assumption and isn't it necessary to make space for minority/minor political parties?
A: I have always insisted that any electoral reform must ensure that political parties that represent minority ethnic groups, this can be the Tamils and Muslims in the South and Sinhalese in the North and East, should have adequate representation in any governance structure. Also, I am adamant that parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) must have adequate representation. That is why I insisted, during the vibrant debate on electoral reforms in early to mid-2015, that the number of seats in Parliament must increase when a mixed electoral system is introduced.
However, if a Bill increases the divisions we have and discourages collaboration and cooperation between ethnicities, that will be devastating for our future. Already the three ethnic groups are increasingly moving away from each other and when there is distance and separation, automatically distrust and suspicion comes about.
In a bid to get the support of two thirds in Parliament, the government had to cut several deals with minority and minor political parties. To get the support of Rauff Hakeem, Mano Ganesan, and Rishad Bathiudeen, the government changed the first-past-the -post (FPP) and proportional representation (PR) ratio, which was to be 60%-40%, to 50%- 50%. This kind of a split is not seen in any other country because this ensures that half of the councillors don't represent any particular ward. Moreover, it gives party bosses the power to appoint half of the councillors. This is an absurd condition.
Moreover, in the long run, this Bill will strengthen regional or ethnic based parties and weaken the national political parties because now there is much less incentive for smaller political parties to collaborate with national political parties. This Bill will also ensure unstable provincial councils where no party will have a stable hold of the power. This will be showcased more in Central and Eastern Provincial Councils.
But increasing the number of female representatives significantly and holding elections on one day are highly popular and much needed for the country, especially increasing of female representation is vital for ensuring gender equality?
A: As you know, I have been at the forefront of demanding increased female representation in Local and Provincial Councils and Parliament. I have spoken about this for a decade now, and I have always supported any Bill aimed at increasing the number of female representatives.
However, the government has deceived women's rights organizations, civil society organizations, and all interested parties by indicating that the recently passed amendments to Provincial Council Election Laws ensure higher female representation in Provincial Councils.
The stated objective of the amendment is to ensure that 30% of the list of candidates of a political party consist of women. However, there are no provisions in the Bill to make a list of candidates invalid if it does not consist of 30% of women. Thus, the selection officer has no power to reject such a list. It is unfortunate that women's rights organizations and civil society organizations who are silent on the undemocratic nature in which this Bill was passed last week, have not hitherto realized that the Bill does not ensure higher female representation in Provincial Councils.
The other slogan used by those who supported the Bill is that this Bill will ensure that the elections for all nine provinces will be held on one day. Once again, there are no provisions in this Bill to ensure that. Not only that, on close inspection, the Bill shows that the elections will have to be held on a staggered basis (at least on two separate occasions).
The Bill has also ensured that the Parliament will have to debate and come up with provisions to resolve over a dozen technical issues and confusions that have arisen. The government will surely bring in new proposals to 'rectify' issues that arise from things like appointing a new Delimitation Commission outside the existing one. Given what transpired regarding the amendments to the laws governing Local Government Elections, it is difficult to estimate how long it will take for the Parliament to resolve these issues. This can easily lead to a delay in holding elections. This is exactly what the government wants.
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