The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is facing rough weather and it will have to be amended before getting the approval of the provincial councils. Some provincial councils have opposed it and the government plans to amend it and seek approval from those provincial councils. There is also some uncertainty with regard to the two-third majority in Parliament as a section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have already opposed this.
There is no doubt that a single-day election is more democratic than staggered elections. We have seen in the past how the entire power of the governing machinery could be used to ensure victory in a single province when the elections are held in isolation.
While there is an imperative need for electoral changes to make the system more democratic and representative, it is not pragmatic to pass such important amendments in a rush. Representation of women is also something that needs to be addressed. Although Sri Lanka produced the first woman Prime Minister more than five decades ago, the representation of women in Parliament is a mere 5% today.
Even the countries that gave voting rights to women long after us have increased the representation of women in their legislative bodies. Last week, in India, a female Defence Minister was appointed, breaking another glass ceiling. The Indian media hailed the decision to appoint Nirmala Sitharaman as Defence Minister. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an unprecedented six women in its Cabinet of 27 ministers, including two external affairs ministers, Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in the most powerful Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The other female ministers in the Cabinet are Maneka Gandhi, Smriti Irani, Uma Bharati, and Harsimrat Badal.
Representation of womenin elected bodies
Although Sri Lanka can be happy about the appointment of a female Minister of Justice recently, we cannot be complacent about the overall representation of women in elected bodies. While there are 12 female Members of Parliament, the ratio in the Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas, and Urban and Town Councils is even less. One of the reasons could be the rapidly deteriorating political culture, but with proper electoral reforms, this could be rectified.
Any amendment should give priority to the need for a reasonable representation of women (who make up 50% of the population). The government needs to ensure that the general public don’t get the impression that the primary objective of doing this is to postpone elections.
In a recent paper, activist Dr. Sujata Gamage listed some reasons as to why women have a hard time getting nominations for elections. She is of the opinion that creating a separate list for women would not solve the issue. If women are retained on the basis of votes received by each party (like the National List), women might not get the opportunity to contest in elections in constituencies because they have their own list.
The recently amended Local Government Elections Act would give 25% of the seats in a council to women through a list dedicated to women. There are alternative suggestions such as making the Proportional Representation List on a 50:50 ratio to ensure greater representation of female candidates. If such amendments are made, there will be no need for a separate women’s list and hence no need to increase the size of the local authority by an additional 25% to accommodate women.
Already, two gazette notifications have been issued with regard to 20A. The first gazette notification proposed the setting up of a Delimitation Commission to decide on new constituencies in order to implement the new electoral system comprising 60:40 ratio of election of members based on the basis of constituency under the first past the post and proportional representation on district basis respectively. Accordingly, it was proposed that the number of Members of Parliament should be increased to 237.
The second gazette notification proposed to hold the Provincial Council elections on a single day. This will result in the postponement of the Eastern, North Central, and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections as these three provincial councils are due to complete their terms between 6 September and 1 October 2017. On 26 July, the Cabinet approved the proposal to amend relevant provisions in the Constitution and the Provincial Council Act to enable elections for all provincial councils to be held on the same day.
The Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya earlier gave the assurance that he would issue the notification for the elections for the Eastern, North Central, and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils on the 2nd of next month. However, the proposed amendment says that, “section 10 of the Provincial Councils Elections Act, No. 2 of 1988 is hereby amended in subsection (1) of that section, by the substitution for the words and figures from “within one week” to “an election to such council,” of the words and figures “within one week from the date specified in terms of Article 154DD of the Constitution, the Commissioner shall publish a notice of his intention to hold an election to all provincial councils.” Hence, if the 20th Amendment is passed, elections for nine provincial councils cannot be held until the expiry of all the provincial councils. The last one elected was the Uva Provincial Council and its term will end in September 2019. If 20A becomes effective, the people in the Eastern, North Central, and Sabaragamuwa Provinces will have to wait for two more years.
Northern Provincial Council
The Northern Provincial Council opposed 20A and stated that it would be an infringement of the powers vested in provincial councils under the 13th Amendment. Eminent Constitutional Expert, Lal Wijenayake stated that 20A has not proposed any curtailment of provincial council powers. However, the fact remains that 20A would prevent people from deciding the fate of their respective provincial councils. The proposal states, “the election of members to all provincial councils shall be held on the same date and the Parliament shall determine the date on which all the provincial councils shall stand dissolved, provided that such a specified date shall not be later than the expiration of the term of the last constituted provincial council.”
With all these diverse viewpoints, the question arises as to whether there is a need to rush these electoral reforms. If we are serious about a new Constitution, all these electoral reforms need to be incorporated into it. However, that should be done after a very careful study as the people do not want the new Constitution to be amended.