The debate surrounding the timing of electoral reforms has gained significant press coverage over the past fortnight. Whilst the SLFP and Ven. Sobitha Thero insist on electoral reform before the dissolution of parliament, the UNP has sought to defer any electoral reforms till after the general election.
There has however been inadequate public debate around which electoral system is appropriate, with the focus being firmly on implementing a mixed electoral system. This ties in, amongst other reasons, with the underlying belief that we should return to individual constituency representation, whilst continuing to ensure a voice for smaller parties in parliament. However, there is little analysis or understanding of the choices within mixed electoral systems and the lessons learnt from international experiences in electoral design, particularly the need for dual voting (explained further below) in a mixed system.
What is a Mixed Electoral System?
There are two principal forms of Mixed Electoral System – Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) and Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM – commonly referred to as the “parallel system”). They both typically provide constituency representation through a first past the post system (FPTP), whilst providing a list based proportional element. The list ensures that parties, which do not have sufficient support in individual electorates, but broader support over larger geographical areas, have the opportunity to represent their vote base in parliament. Mixed electoral systems thereby attempt to provide the best of both worlds.
Fundamental differences exist between both MMP and MMM systems. MMP seeks to compensate for the disproportionate effects of FPTP through a list based Proportional Representation (PR) system. The effect of this compensation is to bring the proportion of seats of each party as close as possible to the proportion of the national vote for a party. MMM however looks at the FPTP and PR List as two separate systems, which through adding together (as opposed to compensating) can result in strong majorities in parliament, but disproportionate electoral outcomes.
MMP for Sri Lanka?
Given Sri Lanka’s desire to reintroduce constituency representation, whilst not wanting to lose the benefits of a fair PR distribution of seats, a MMP system would suit Sri Lanka better than a MMM system. This would particularly appease parties who have grave misgivings towards FPTP, as the last pure FPTP election in 1977 secured 83% of seats for the UNP, despite them only receiving 51% of the vote. Under an MMP system, through the use of one of three principal electoral formulas (e.g. The d’Hondt system), list seat allocations would have altered the 1977 result to bring UNP seats nearer 51%. Shugart & Wattenberg, electoral system experts, recommend that “at least one quarter (25%) of seats should be adjustment (list) seats” which can be used for compensating.
Promisingly, the various hypothetical electoral systems proposed for Sri Lanka in the press have over 30% of their seats committed as proportional seats. It is however essential that these list seats are used in the same compensatory spirit, as is the case in other MMP systems. In doing so, mixed electoral systems use party lists (where the party decides the MPs) for their PR assigned list MPs.
Getting the Ballot Paper Wrong
What is of grave concern is the news that presently, the reforms seek to provide for a ballot paper which only requires the selection of a constituency candidate. MMP systems typically function with a dual vote, one for a local candidate and the other for a party. As the reform discussion presently stands, Sri Lanka will be the only national level single vote MMP system in the world (Taiwan having been the only other example, which has subsequently adopted a dual vote). This will result in voters approaching elections with a FPTP mind-set, as a FPTP single vote encourages people to consider their vote wasted on small parties. This would also incentivise negative campaigning, where you drum fear into small party voters, who would then pragmatically give a vote to a larger party candidate who has a greater chance of winning. A dual vote, for candidate and party will allow a vote for a SLFP candidate to be combined with a JVP party list vote, a practice known as “ticket-splitting”, which would best serve smaller parties who face the distinct possibility of not gaining any constituency seats. Without a dual vote, a single vote MMP can defeat the spirit for proportionality publicly espoused by all parties.
The various configurations of mixed electoral systems, necessitate that electoral reform should not be fast-tracked, without close consideration to the wide body of work on comparative international electoral experiences. In the absence of such considerations, the debate is alarmingly accelerating in a vacuum created by a knowledge gap in electoral design.