The column on Tuesday 28 June on the ongoing disagreements between civil society and the political class on the Lokpal Law in India and the reflections on the political culture of South Asia has resulted in a number of readers raising questions on the system of election and whether there is a methodology issue – can’t we have a better electoral system to encourage people of honour and good character to enter politics?

The fact that there is a need for change can be established by the fact that in India, as the BBC’s Soutik Biswas says, nearly a third of the members of Parliament, 154 out of 543 in India’s current Parliament, face criminal charges.

There are more than 500 criminal cases against these law makers. It ranges right across the political spectrum, 5% of the ruling Congress party, more than 16% of the BJP and more than 60% of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. At State level in India the situation is said to be much worse on the nexus of criminalisation of politics.

I have not been able to get reliable figures for other south Asian countries but anecdotal evidence puts the figures as equally bad if not higher. Naturally, with this sort of person in the electoral fray, the process gets tainted too.

Take vote buying. In a WikiLeaks US Embassy cable in March, a US Embassy official was quoted as reporting that one Tamil Nadu party inserted cash and a note instructing which party to vote for in the morning newspapers! The Indian Election Commission seized more than six million India rupees in cash in Tamil Nadu is the run up to the State elections in April 2011.

India’s election law requires candidates, as in most other countries, to report election expenses. Independent election watchdogs believe that the vast majority either under report or hide election expenses.

Cleaning up Indian politics

India’s most respected election watchdog, the Association for Democratic Reform, has expressed its views on steps to be taken to clean up Indian politics: “Any person against whom charges have been framed by a court of law for offences punishable by imprisonment or two years or more should not be allowed to contest elections. Candidates charge with serious crimes like murder, rape, kidnapping and extortion should be banned from contesting elections.

“To stop candidates and parties seeking votes on the basis of caste, religion and to stop divisive campaigns, a candidate should be declared a winner only if he or she gets more than 50% plus one vote. (This is in India’s first past the post system). When no candidate gets the required number of votes, there should be a run-off between the two candidates who have got the highest number of votes. There should be legislation against the use of excessive money in elections by candidates. Political parties do not come clean on their income and expenditure. Political parties should be compelled to make public verifiable statements of accounts.”

Enviable record

India has an enviable record of holding free and fair election in the last few years. The reason being an autonomous Election Commission and innovations like electronic voting, automated counting, a ‘cooling off’ period between election day and announcement of the results and the power of the Election Commission over the State administrative machinery in the run up to the elections. India’s Election Commission is a permanent Constitutional body. Originally in 1950, when established, the commission had only a chief election commissioner. Since 1993, there have been two other election commissioners appointed and decision making by majority vote. There were allegations at that time that the independence and autonomy of a single commissioner irked the powers that be, and that the appointment of two others was to make the Election Commission more malleable by the politicians – the infamous ‘divide and rule’ theory – but to its credit the expanded Election Commission has sustained its credibility. The chief and the other two commissioners are appointed by the President; they have tenure for 10 years or up to the age of 65, whichever is earlier. They are allowed to retire, unlike was the case in some other south Asian countries! They enjoy the same status and receive the salary and perks as available to Judges of the Supreme Court of India. The chief and the election commissioners can be removed from office only through impeachment by Parliament. The Secretariat of the Commission has an independent budget, which is finalised directly in consultations between the Finance Ministry and the commission. In the performance of its functions, the Election Commission is insulated from executive interference. India’s Election Commission is in many aspects a model, with the exception of the absolute discretion of the President of India to appoint the commissioners.

Sri Lanka’s electoral system

Sri Lanka has been talking of amending our proportional representational system for elections to Parliament for some time. Some of the criticisms are that the District electorates are too large, there is no discernible link between the voter, a smaller constituency and the elected person, that the costs of district-wide elections are very expensive, which encourage only persons with large resources or wealthy sponsors to contest and leads them to make efforts to recoup their electoral expenses and prepare for the next round, through various unethical means, after they are elected.

The minister who chaired the committee which proposed changes has been quoted as saying that “after 10 months of deliberations the majority of the members of the committee agreed that 150 representatives should be elected first past the post for demarcated electorates and 75 based on proportional representation at district level. For local authorities it recommended introducing the ward system with a small percentage of proportional representation for the whole local government area.”

Important institutional decision

The choice of an electoral system is one of the most important institutional decisions for any democracy. The choice of one particular system has a profound effect on the future political life of the country.

Electoral systems once chosen are difficult to change as political interests solidify and respond to the incentives offered by that particular system, it becomes entrenched by those who discern, sometimes mistakenly, that they benefit by that system.

It is not often that conscious design and transparent deliberation are an integral part of the selection process. Often the choice has been essentially accidental, the result of an unusual combination of circumstances, of a passing trend, a quirk of history or done by a person or persons who feel that a particular system will benefit their electoral base. The influence of colonialism can be seen in the spread of the Westminster model, the French presidential and parliamentary hybrid and the American presidential system with checks and balances. Pressure for change in the electoral system is often present in most democracies, especially by those who feel that the existing system gives them a disadvantage and that a revised system will give them an advantage. When such choices are made, when the opportunity arises for change, lack of basic knowledge and information of different electoral systems can lead to unfortunate choices being made. Conversely, political actors use their knowledge of electoral systems to promote designs which they think will give them a partisan advantage. Such choices, made under these circumstances, may have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. Such choices may not always be the best ones for the long term political, social and economic health of the country; at times they can have disastrous consequences for the country’s future development. Electoral system choice is fundamentally a political process, rather than a question of which independent technical expert can produce a single correct formula for the socio economic context of the country concerned. The fact remains that considerations of political advantage are always a fundamental factor in the choice of electoral systems, in reality sometimes it is the only consideration, while the menu of optional electoral models available may be wide. Sadly the calculation of short term political interest often obscures the long term negative consequences of a particular electoral system and the wider interest of the democratic process of governance.

Representation of women

Representation of women, youth, minorities and economic and social interests, is always an issue in determining electoral systems. Sri Lanka has a reservation for youth at the local government elections. Under the Soulbury Constitution, there was a tradition that one of the appointed MP positions should be for the business community.

In the case of gender balance, efforts to promote and increase women’s participation have taken place all over the world and brought together women from differing political and social and cultural groups with the common aim of reaching the goal of gender equality. In some countries the process of reaching equal representation of women in political institutions and parliament has taken a long time, while in other countries the transition to democracy has contributed to a more rapid development and the overall change in the socio economic system has opened a window of opportunity to aggressively promote women’s participation in political life. No matter what the contextual differences, the battle to reach a higher level of women in Parliament and to permit the women elected to make a greater impact has met stiff resistance and required a strong group of women negotiating for their rights as equal members of society. Women all over the world have mobilised across political lines and from the standpoints of different social and cultural status and ethnic affiliations to strive to reach the goal of gender equality in the political arena. There have been some impressive results, the average number of women in Parliament increased from 11.8% in 1998 to almost 16% in 2005. The Beijing Women’s Conference Platform for Action set a target of 30%; there is still a long way to go for that.

South Asian experience

The downside of these figures is the south Asian experience, as in many developing and developed countries, that initially at the break through stage it is women family members of male politicians, wives, widows and daughters, sometimes belonging to political dynasties that in fact get elected. There are well known examples of this phenomenon in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh. It was amusing to watch on the television news that among the Khmer Rouge accused in Cambodia before the International Tribunal trying the colleagues of Pol Pot (Brother No. 1) was a lady who was the wife of Brother No. 2 or Brother No. 3, who is also in the dock! Nepotism prevailed even under Pol Pot!

CCC proposals

 An effective, representative and fair electoral system is a prerequisite for a country’s economy to benefit from the inclusive participation of all its citizens. In 2006, when the Government called for public representations on the solution to what was termed the ‘National Question,’ the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce submitted proposals, which among other things had the business community’s views on electoral systems. The Ceylon Chamber recommended the German system of elections for Parliament, the Provincial Councils and Local Authorities. In a Parliament of say 20 members, a certain percentage will be elected on the first past the post system of territorial constituencies divided on the basis of population. The balance will elected on the Proportional System (PR System) for provincial and district constituencies. The seats to which party is entitled under the election on the PR system will be filled form the respective lists submitted by the parties for each constituency (Province/District) before the election. Parties will have to adhere strictly to the order in the list and will not be able to change the list after the election. The chamber also recommended the inclusion of a provision enabling 20% or more of the voters who voted at the previous election for a territorial constituency to present a petition to the Election Commission, requesting the recall of the member elected to that territorial constituency. The Election Commission will be required to hold a referendum to ascertain whether the member should be recalled or not. If the majority of the voters vote for the recall of the member, the member is deemed to have vacated office and the next person on the party list will be declared elected in place of the member vacating office. If the electoral system is changed and there is a reversion to single member constituencies, a by-election will be held to fill the vacancy. This provision should apply to elections at all levels (Parliament, provincial councils and local authorities). The power of electors to recall a member can only be exercised after the member has completed at least two years of his term of office. This recall provision proposal is a salutary one, and the only remedy for the pathetic situation in this country of legislators changing parties and completing contradicting the choice of voters of a particular policy, by crossing over for their own personal benefit. Given the present status of the legislation and judge made law on this phenomenon, there is no other remedy for this cancer in the body politic. The chamber also proposed that a provision in the constitution be made enabling the appointment of representatives of the business sector and of the professions to Parliament, provincial councils and local authorities.

Other choices

What other choices are there for reforms in the electoral system to ensure that men and women of honour are elected to our legislative assemblies? One is clearly the imposition of term limits, so that those elected know that they have to revert to normal civil life at a given time, devoid of the perks of office, body guards, escorts and backups, motorcades, a humongous cadre of staff at tax payer’s expense and would condition their behaviour while in office to be able to integrate back into normal life later. Not as now behave as if they and their kith and kin are in the saddle for ‘ever and a day’! It is really pathetic to see them when they are unhorsed! Another would be to ensure that there are sufficient number of women and youth on the lists. This can be by legislation specifying percentage for women and those under 25, say, as compulsory for the list to be acceptable. The law could also provide that the final result of those elected should have a percentage of women and youth, the election commissioner would be required to go down the list until he can collate the required percentage of women and youth on to the results list of those elected. It would be salutary also to define relationships and ban relatives being on the same list to avoid nepotism. Given Sri Lanka’s unique success in access to education, it would be sensible also to require by law that the party / independent group lists should reflect the national proportion of education attainment. Currently this is approximately – Secondary School or below – 35% of the population, GCE / OL 17.5%, GCE /AL or below 7.9%, degree or equivalent professional qualification 2.3%, all other less than 1%. On this aspect it would be useful to ensure that the law also specifies that the final result list should also reflect these percentages. But on other hand if ‘educated’ voters want the ‘freedom of the Mannar donkey (also known as the Wild Ass)’ to choose uneducated representatives to the legislative bodies, what can the law do? These are some ideas on how we can ensure that we elect ‘honourable members’. (The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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