Testing the new hybrid election system | Sunday Observer

Testing the new hybrid election system

7 January, 2018


Usually an election tests the fortunes of political parties and politicians, but come February 10, much, much, more is at stake when Sri Lankan citizens vote to elect their local government bodies throughout the country. A whole new – and complicated – election system will be tested for the first time: a hybrid voting system, the simultaneous election of all local government bodies on a single day, a compulsory 25 per cent minimum quota for women candidates and, an expanded platform of local government bodies.

Following changes in the election laws, for the first time over 15 million registered Sri Lankan voters will be offered the opportunity to vote in their local political representatives to 341 local government bodies in a single polling exercise. With the expansion of the number of local government bodies and, the registration of a new generation of voters thereby adding to the voter constituency, February 10 is expected to see the largest election exercise ever in this country.

The hybrid voting system itself is a necessary structural refinement that will enable better popular representation on the one hand and, possibly reduce the intensity of political competition and, thereby, lessen the violence and corruption that has come to characterize this country’s elections. Having first experienced government based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting method during the early post-colonial decades, the country shifted to the proportional representation (PR) voting method with the second republican constitution adopted in 1978. Now, after much hard work in systems design by experts, officials, civil society activists and, politicians, we are poised to try out, for the first time, a hybrid voting method that combines the FPP and PR methods.

But, will the average voter, the citizen, understand the new, complicated, voting method enough to exercise her/his franchise in the proper way in order to ensure the election of his/her representative of choice? Will the 300,000 plus government servants implementing the election exercise be conversant with the new technicalities to ensure an accurate poll?

Already, polls monitors are raising issues of voter education. While the Government and the bureaucracy must ensure that every effort is made to educate the voter on the new system, civil society and concerned non-governmental organisations should also step in to support the exercise for the sake of strengthening our democratic system. The news media, too, must play its role in educating the voter population in all parts of the country about the new voting method.

A number of new institutional mechanisms, including the new, multi-member ‘Elections Commission’, headed by the Commissioner of Elections, will oversee and support the implementation of the new election system. Many lessons of the past have been learnt and the new mechanisms are meant to avoid or reduce the many ills of the current system: candidate manipulation, voting fraud, internal discrimination by political parties in candidate selection, election propaganda violations and news media manipulations and, political violence.

The news media now comes under the purview of a newly set up ‘Committee of Permanent Representatives of the News Media’ functioning alongside the Elections Commission during the election cycle that will attempt to enforce a better observation of media ethics and inclusive political reporting during the election cycle. Most scrutinized will be news media behaviour that is slanted in favour of some electoral candidates and parties to the detriment of others.

Typically, lesser known, and poorer, political parties and candidates receive less attention in the news media than do the big names. Such news media biases – whether based on media owner preferences or commercial market dynamics – undermine the fairness of the election process and could lead to under representation of marginalized social constituencies. As decades of insurgency, rebellion and rural discontent have taught us, the whole society suffers when marginalized and small constituencies fail to be adequately represented in governance.

One marginalized social group that is being given a chance, at long last, to make their presence felt in governance are women. Under the new system, it is hoped that Sri Lanka will finally move out from the very bottom of the list among South Asian countries for the political representation of women. After decades of parliaments and lower tier governing bodies having barely 2 per cent as women members, the new election system compels contesting parties and groups to ensure that a minimum of 25 per cent of their candidates are women.

Reports that in some areas certain groups are actively propagating public attitudes against voting for women candidates only emphasizes the urgency for the civilizing of our political culture to ensure that women are given due respect as equal political actors. Women’s organizations across the country must be supported as they help and encourage a new breed of aspiring women legislators.

Once more, polls monitoring groups will be asked to play a valuable role in surveilling the polls throughout its entire cycle.

Another task for citizens is to ensure that our fragile natural environment is not polluted with millions of metres of plastic political bunting. Hopefully, the new telecommunications technology has provided us with more powerful communicational and mobilizing tools that will reduce our dependence on plastics for attention-grabbing.

The next few weeks leading up to the local government hustings will be a period of learning and testing as our country enters a new era of political life.