The news of the cabinet approval of the 20A raises 3 key questions Q1. Are small parties protected? Q2. Can the small party problems be solved? Q3. Do the present reforms adhere to international best practices?
I will show that small parties are not protected, that the reforms fail to adhere to international best practices and I will then provide the solution in the way of a dual vote mixed electoral system, which preserves the essence of PR whilst guaranteeing constituency representation.
Are small parties protected?
No. The 20A will give voters a single vote for their constituency MP. This causes a strategic voter dilemma. This is where a voter realises that the contest in their electorate is between two main parties (UPFA / UNP) and if they vote for their favoured party (e.g. JVP) they may end up with their least favoured UNP candidate. Therefore, they are best off voting for the UPFA candidate, as it will ensure they get the lesser of two evils.
An example of strategic voter patterns was seen in the 2010 presidential election. Citizens of the northern province did not yearn for Gen. Sarath Fonseka, but strategically voted for him because of their dislike for President Rajapaksa – with Fonseka as the only credible challenger. It was a lesser of two evils. They could have voted for Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, who would have been viewed as a far more appealing candidate, but he had no chance of winning. This same logic will apply for smaller parties at an electorate level in a general election.
What is the solution to this problem?
There is only one mixed electoral system that can protect small parties and still give the people their constituency representatives. This system is called mixed member proportional (MMP) and every single MMP in national parliaments across the world have a dual vote.
A dual vote MMP solves the problem by allowing voters to exercise greater choice. In addition to voting for a candidate, a citizen also gets to vote for a party. Both choices need not conform with one another. You can therefore exercise your strategic voter dilemma vote for a UPFA candidate in the electorate and then vote for the JVP as a party. The important point is that the final composition of parliament is determined by the latter party vote and the PR seats are used to top up any party which hasn’t achieved their vote share through electorate seats alone.
Are the reforms in conformity with international best practices?
No. Every MMP in the world has a dual vote. The commonly discussed examples of Germany and New Zealand and the Asian example of Taiwan, all use dual votes. President Sirisena’s advisors had championed a MMP-LK, but this was fundamentally flawed as it did not have a dual vote and therefore amplified the strategic voter dilemma.
The championing of MMP-LK also highlighted another key fact, the present reform agenda is on course to establish a two party system, but politicians are either unwilling or unable to articulate this problem of electoral design. As a result, it is easy to be fooled by the presence of 75 PR seats. The presence of PR seats does not make a system proportional – it is the manner in which the PR seats are allocated that preserves proportionality. If the PR seats are not used to top up the party seat share to represent its party vote share (on a dual vote ballot), proportionality – which we equate to fairness in Sri Lankan elections - cannot be preserved.
It is for the government to tell us why we are not getting a dual vote MMP, in line with every other mixed electoral system in the world that preserves proportionality. In the absence of this explanation, every member of the public who champions the 20A must ask why they are championing a system that doesn’t adhere to international best practices, but more importantly doesn’t adhere to a Sri Lankan understanding of fairness.
We must not have reform for reforms sake, especially when it risks destroying the country’s political diversity. Whilst we don’t need the current manape (preferential voting PR) system, neither do we need the 20A in its current guise. We need a dual vote mixed system – which preserves proportionality (MMP) and improves representation and voter choice.
Do you agree with the need for a dual vote? Or despite its deficiencies, can the 20A in its current guise lead to a positive change for citizens and political parties in Sri Lanka? Share your thoughts and questions at www.manthri.lk/en/blog; over Twitter @manthrilk, or by text to the manthri.lk hotline: 071-4639882.