Local Government Elections & New Electoral System by Niluka Prasadini

The recently concluded Local Government Election was the first to be held after the present government came into power in 2015. Also referred to as ‘Punchi Chandaya', or 'Game Chandaya', the Local Government Elections gained much attention, as it was the first island-wide election that was held since the 2015 General Elections, and was marred by various controversies in relation to the new electoral system introduced in the run up to the elections. Most importantly, this was the first instance that the elections were held under the new electoral system, as introduced under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The new Mixed Member Proportional Election System was introduced following the decade-long demands, made by various quarters of the society, for a new electoral system that overcomes the flaws of the existing proportional system, which was introduced by the 1978 Constitution of the Republic.
The new mixed electoral system was introduced by the Local Government Election (Amendment) Act No 16 of 2017 and is only applicable to Pradeshiya Sabha, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils in the island. Under the former Proportional Representation Method candidates were made to contest for the entire province, resulting in the unfair election of members from a specific area within a province, in contrast to zero members being elected from certain other areas in the same province. The new system introduced a divisional method, in which electoral divisions were formed by combining two or more Grama Niladari Divisions based on the population ratio of the province. This resulted in the creation of 4,919 divisions, 24 Municipal Councils, 41 Urban Councils and 276 Pradeshiya Sabha. A total of 8,486 candidates are elected under the Proportional System derived from 40% of the votes and through the Division System which amounts to 60% of the votes. There is also a mandatory quota of 25% female candidates introduced through the mixed electoral system. It was expected that 1,986 female candidates would be elected to local government bodies owing to this.
The new electoral system was expected to reduce political violence stemming from competition for popularity-based preferential votes. Moreover, the voters were given a better chance of electing a representative for their respective division. The format of ballot papers were also simplified much more, as there is now a simple method of selecting candidates for the division by voting for the  party of your choice.
Another characteristic of the new system was that the candidates were able to carry out an inexpensive election campaign without unnecessary spending or creating an inconvenience to the public. The campaigns became more personalized as the candidates individually visited the voters of their areas, which forged a more personal relationship between the two. There was also a larger responsibility on the part of the political parties and independent groups in issuing nominations for suitable candidates, thus making the pre-nomination period crucial. The parties were encouraged to make cautious choices in nominating honest, active, educated, intelligent candidates from both genders that are able to address the key issues of their particular areas.
While the new electoral system features certain positive characteristics, relative to the proportional representation method previously used, many scholars have also pointed out that there are a number of shortcomings in the new system. One such problem is that, when deciding the number of council members, 60% of the votes are taken from the divisional system whilst the system of proportion accounts for the remaining 40%. The appointments are made by the number of valid votes cast to the political party or the independent group. The issue here is that the party or the independent group that is defeated obtains more members than the party or the independent group which receives a majority of the votes, due to the merging of the two percentages. As such, this creates a scenario where the number of members elected by the proportional list is reduced for the party holding the majority, solely on the basis that it had received a majority of the votes. Under the previous system, the party or the group receiving a majority of the votes was also eligible for two bonus seats in the house. However, this too has been abolished under the new system.

In relation to the multi-member constituencies under the simple representation system, candidates who receive a higher proportion of votes are elected. Accordingly, no other party or group other than the winning party will be eligible for seats under the new system. The new electoral system is formulated in a way that the party or the independent group receiving the majority of the votes will be qualified to get the full amount of seats allocated to the multi-member constituency. The rationale for creating the number of seats in a multi-member constituency depends on its population and ethnic composition. Moreover, the political instability that exists, due to the proportional representation system, continues in the new electoral system as well. This creates a tendency for coalition governments to be formed over single party governments, requiring the support of other minor parties. Such flaws erode the ability to create a strong and stable government, even at the local government level.
In comparison to the proportional representation system, the methodology of voting is more simplified under the new system, though the selection of council members has become complicated. Both candidates and political parties find it challenging to grasp the complex process used to appoint members to a governing body. This has particularly affected the appointment of female members under the 25% quota system. In a situation where no female candidates are selected for office in a given local governing body, the establishment of a government in that respective body becomes complicated, due to the compulsory female representation. At the same time, the number of councilors appointed to local government bodies has also increased. Under the new system, a total of 8,486 members have been elected to local government bodies, whilst under the previous system only 4,486 members were elected. This has increased the cost incurred by the taxpayer for the maintenance of local government bodies and their representatives. The cost of running these authorities, inclusive of wages to members, would go up to Rs.34 billion, as compared to a previous amount of Rs. 21 billion.

The introduction of a new mixed member proportional system that differs from the existing mixed electoral systems, practiced in countries such as Germany, New Zealand and Latin American states, have created some unique issues for the practice of such on the island.  The above mentioned countries have adopted the mixed electoral system after tailoring it to suit their local needs and their political environment. In such countries, dual voting is practiced as part of the mixed electoral system, allowing for the voters to cast their vote for the candidate and the political party separately.  Dual voting also allows for the avoidance of complexities faced when forming coalition governments. Such a system makes it possible to strengthen women's representation in local government bodies by allowing for the practice of the ‘Zebra Method’, which lists female and male candidates alternatively when selecting members to represent at the government body.

In conclusion, the new electoral system could be commended for the benefits it can bring about. Advantages such as the reduction of election related violence, improving female representation, minimizing unnecessary campaign expenditure and the introduction of a less complicated vote casting method could be used as grounds to further improve on the system introduced. For this purpose, a comprehensive study on the electoral systems in Germany, New Zealand, and Latin American states, which use a similar electoral system, could be further studied and used to draw inspiration from when introducing the new electoral system at the pre-regional and national elections level. Greater consultation and coordination between governmental and non-governmental actors could also be encouraged in this regard, with the public kept aware through a transparent process of information and implementation. The potential of the new mixed member proportional system to change Sri Lanka’s political culture and enhance democracy should be seen as a welcoming step towards creating better public representation in the island.

Niluka Prasadini is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) and is a graduate of Political Science from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Her views do not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka. 

Edited by Shakti Sri Devapura, Research Assistant at INSSSL