Sri Lanka changing its electoral system?

Two news items sent to me by Rob Richie of Fair Vote suggest that Sri Lanka may be in the process of dropping its open-list proportional (OLPR) system and returning, at least in part, to first-past-the-post (FPTP) rules (which were used for about the first three decades of statehood).

One item, from the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, states:

Government attention is being directed towards abolishing the preferential vote system. A committee has been appointed for this purpose with Minister Dinesh Gunawardena as its chairman. Minister Professor G.L. Peiris stated this at the cabinet press briefing held in Colombo today. The Minister said the preferential vote system has even caused problems within parties.

Even within the parties. Well, how about that? Candidates competing for votes is such a problem!

The Minister said the system will be changed with the objective of creating a better relationship between the voter and the representative.

It is certainly questionable whether FPTP, which obviously means only one party can represent a district and only one candidate is nominated per party, can actually create a better relationship.

The second item is in the Sri Lanka News. Again quoting Minister Peiris:

Minister Peiris noted that the present voting system had many flaws and brought the worst in human nature within the political parties themselves. “It was found that the preferential vote system has many negative aspects that impact negatively on the public as well as political parties themselves. There is no direct link between the public and elected member of the party. Thus, the system should be changed for the favour of the public,” he said.

However, this news item implies a mixed-member system of some sort:

Initially a balance between both the First Past the Post system and the Preferential voting system should be implemented at the Pradeshiya Sabha and Urban Council elections.

“During the Pradeshiya Sabha and Urban Council elections the new electoral system balancing 70 per cent of the First Past the Post and 30 per cent of the Preferential voting systems will be implemented,” Minister Peiris said.

Although it does not say, one might presume that this is a proposal for MMM (FPTP and list seats in parallel) rather than MMP (compensatory list seats to retain proportionality). I hope someone might have some further information.

If it were mixed-member of either type along with open lists, it would be a first at the national level (and maybe also a first with provincial/state electoral systems included). Other cases of preference votes within the list tier of MM systems (Lithuania, Bavaria) are flexible lists,* as far as I know.

Sri Lanka’s current system, as of the 2004 election, has twenty-two districts with magnitudes ranging from 4 to 20, and a mean around 9. Due to high thresholds and regional strongholds of parties, only one district has more than three parties with representation, and most have just two. On the intraparty dimension, the mean number of seats won in a district by the largest party is 5.3, with a maximum of 9. I can see the potential validity of poor connections between voters and representatives under OLPR in cases where there is excessive fragmentation, on either dimension: either very large numbers of 1-seat parties or high numbers of candidates elected by the major parties (in both cases, referring to the district level).** However, it does not seem like this charge would apply to the Sri Lankan system.

Any proposed changes in Sri Lanka’s electoral system would require a two-thirds vote in parliament and apparently also would be submitted to a referendum.

* As always at F&V and in my academic work, “open” lists refer to systems in which the order of election from within a list is determined entirely by preference votes obtained. “Flexible” lists have preference votes, but a party-given rank prevails except in the case of a candidate having obtained some stipulated quota of preference votes sufficient to vault others with higher party ranks. In practice, the latter tend not to be very flexible, and perhaps should be called “semi-closed” instead.

** As in Brazil, for example.

One thought on “Sri Lanka changing its electoral system?

  1. Always rather (grimly) amusing when the big-party power brokers deliver their prepared lecture on how SMCs deliver local members who have to work hard to get elected on their personal merits, whereas PR means fixed party lists and hacks who are handed safe seats by the party machine… then, when someone points to PR systems that actually offer each voter a wider choice of candidates within their own party (STV, open/ free/ flexible lists), they quickly backtrack and warn that this creates “problems for the parties”!

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