It should be said to the credit of the intelligence and ingenuity of the Sri Lankan voter that he has adapted to all forms of electoral reforms, which has remained more complicated than the earlier one. It will be no different this time round, when a new election process is set in motion, based on the recommendations of the Dinesh Gunawardene Committee recommendations.
In a way, the average Sri Lankan voter has displayed his comfort levels with the existing scheme of ‘proportional representation’ (PR). It is the political class that is uncomfortable with the same. Maybe, both will get adjusted to the new scheme but then the trickle-down effect of Third World democracies would dictate new situations, for which the Sri Lankan scheme would have to – and, possibly would — find new solutions.
To begin with, there was nothing wrong with the first-past-the-post scheme. Nor was the PR system any different when it came to the question of which party would win majorities and which party or leader would rule the nation. The inconsistencies and irregularities involved in the first were very much present there in the second scheme, too. It came to be felt with years of exposure and experience. It’s doubtful if the new scheme would change all that, now or later.
Now, the nation is moving away from a wholesale PR scheme to a ‘district proportionate representation’ (DPR) system, which will form a part of the promised one. The voices of the otherwise unrepresented groups will be heard clearer, if not louder than in the past, we are being told. It was similarly said when the PR scheme came into being. It was even more so when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, adopted universal adult franchise as far back as 1931, under the Donoughmore Constitution. It was the first country to do so in Asia as a whole. So, the expectations and hopes were higher still.
The question is if one should cut the cloth for the man, or the other way round. Still, there is the larger and more pertinent question of the sanctity of institutions in democracies. The election process, and thus the democracy process, as a whole are thus involved. To separate one from the other, and expect equal respect for both could be a fallacy.
It is much different from the dynamic constitutional processes that the needs and circumstances of developing Third World countries demand. The latter is about causing social re-engineering through the constitutional processes, particularly concerning societies where customs and traditions have addressed these issues, maybe even more effectively, in the historic past, near and distant.
The societal commitment to support the Sangha through the offering of alms to the bikkus and other religious initiatives from a hoary past is only an instance of the kind as far as Sri Lanka, particularly the Sinhala-Buddhists are concerned. Tamil literature and society have had similar traditions from time immemorial. So have the Muslims and Christians. This should not be confused, hence, with a theocratic State. That is where modern-day Sri Lanka is yet to get the balancing act together.
Whatever the electoral scheme the country has followed, the ‘national problem’ had remained in the past. It is so now. This owes to the realistic nature of the issues concerned and the half-hearted attempt of the Sri Lankan State to address the ‘ethnic issue’ effectively and meaningfully. The ‘effect’ of the State initiatives has had a negative impact, leading to war and violence. The ‘meaningfulness’ of the effort, and hence the effect’ has remained meaningless.
Be it in 1949, 1956, 1977, or now in 2011, elections have not erased the ethnic divide.
Instead, they only drew the ethnic dividing-line even deeper. It also owed to the geographical contiguity of the Tamil-speaking areas on the one hand, and even those of the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, otherwise. Even the denominational differences among the Tamils have only widened, with intricate internal divisions getting thrown up every now and again.
It is no different in the case of the Sinhala majority, either. Independent of the professed political and ideological distinctions, the inherent class and caste differences too get often reflected in the electoral process. Rather than rendering such deep-seated social antipathies redundant, democracy has only been used to widen the process. To the extent that the autocracy of the JVP insurgents and the LTTE in the past sought to bridge the gap, the latter has outlived the former.
If under the DPR scheme today, you will have parliamentary representatives for minor groups whose voices cannot otherwise be heard in the Legislature, questions will still remain as to the political positions that these worthies will be taking on policy issues affecting those groups and communities. Experience in the matter has not been encouraging, for the electoral scheme to be amended, for the purpose.
In the post-war Sri Lanka, where migration(s) of Tamil-speaking people of all hues have altered the demography of the North and the East, where no head-count was taken over four long decades, Census-2011 could throw up challenges. Readjustment and delimitation of electorates in the Provinces under the new scheme should not introduce an element of further division.
Nor can perceived ‘colonisation’ of poor Sinhala-Buddhists, from which again the ranks of the armed forces have been drawn, a solution. It is a problem, instead, if one understood the rationale and philosophy of the two JVP insurgencies. The JVP militancy may be in the past, so is the LTTE terrorism, but the causes that they sought to address, albeit through wrong methods, remain.
Be it the first-past-the-post system or the PR scheme or the new one, the trickle-down effect of socio-economic deprivation, both real and imaginary, would find their own voices in a democracy. Sri Lanka is past the militant phase of self-assertion by various class and social groupings. While care and caution need to be applied continuously, yes, the cure should not end up being the ailment – or, worse than the ailment, still.