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Political Implications of Elections System Mechanics

by C.A.Chandraprema

The long awaited date of the parliamentary election has been announced and the beleaguered Elections Commission has been able to somewhat vindicate itself. The August 5 date is not too far off nor too close for more accusations to be hurled at the EC. Up to the time of writing, we have not heard anyone complaining about the poll date. That is a victory of sorts for the EC which had been under pressure from both sides of the political divide. The statement made by the Chairman of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya in making the announcement of the poll date was a resounding indictment of the yahapalana government’s obsession with avoiding elections. Just replaying Deshapriya’s words can serve as a campaign advertisement for the SLPP.

In announcing the date for the parliamentary election, EC Chairman Deshapriya denied any involvement of the Elections Commission in the delay of the local government elections by nearly three years between 2015 and 2018 and he made the quite correct claim that if the Elections Commission had not gone ahead and Gazetted 93 local government institutions for the poll to be held, there would have been no local government election up to now. He said that the EC was not responsible for the complete absence of the provincial councils either and said that all members of Parliament were responsible for that.

Even though he blamed all members of Parliament for the disappearance of the provincial councils, everyone knows that the provincial councils election law was amended in September 2017 by the yahapalana political parties despite stiff resistance from the Joint Opposition. However as the Elections Commission, they cannot call a spade a spade and say that it was the yahapalana government that made the provincial councils disappear, so they lay the blame on all 225 Members of Parliament. But anyone familiar with the sequence of events will know what happened. Be that as it may, now that the election date has been announced, there are certain realities that the parties contesting this election will have to take into account.

Four instead of three

Usually, outside the North and East, only three political parties count at a parliamentary election – the two main political parties and the JVP. It was only at the parliamentary election of 2004 that a fourth group appeared – the Jathika Hela Urumaya and they disappeared soon afterwards. At the 2015 parliamentary election, only the UNP led alliance the UNF, the UPFA, JVP and TNA won significant parliamentary representation. The EPDP won one seat in the Jaffna district and the SLMC won one seat in the Batticaloa district. Thus only six political parties obtained parliamentary representation. If the TNA, EPDP and SLMC which are mainly based in the North and East are left out, that leaves just the UNP, UPFA and JVP in the rest of the country. At this election however, there will be four political parties, the SLPP, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the UNP and the JVP all vying for the vote. The appearance of the UNP rump as a fourth element bodes ill for the JVP because of the way the elections system works. The JVP has managed to survive as a political party with parliamentary representation only because of the proportional representation system. They would not have had a snowflake’s chance in hell of making it to Parliament under a first past the post system. Now however, the very system that enabled them to win representation in parliament may push them out into the wilderness because of the appearance of the UNP.

The 225 Members of Parliament are made up of 29 national list MPs and 196 MPs elected from the various electoral districts. The 196 elected MPs includes the bonus seats allocated to the winner in each electoral district. The way the 196 seats are divided between the 22 electoral districts is as follows: Colombo – 19, Gampaha – 18, Kalutara – 10, Mahanuwara -12, Matale – 5, Nuwara Eliya – 8, Galle – 9, Matara – 7 Hambantota – 7, Jaffna – 7, Vanni – 6, Batticaloa – 5, Digamadulla – 7, Trincomalee – 4, Kurunegala -15, Puttalam – 8, Anuradhapura – 9, Polonnaruwa – 5, Badulla – 9, Moneragala – 6, Ratnapura – 11, Kegalle – 9. Total = 196.

The way candidates are elected under the proportional representation system is as follows: After the total valid votes in each electoral district are counted, the recognized political party or independent group which has polled the highest number of votes in any electoral district will have the candidate nominated by it, who has secured the highest number of preferences, declared elected. That is the bonus seat which goes to the winner. After the declaration of the bonus seat, every recognized political party or independent group polling less than 5% of the total votes polled in any electoral district is eliminated from the race. The votes polled by the disqualified parties and independent groups, are then deducted from the total votes polled at the election in that electoral district to arrive at the ‘relevant number of votes’.

The ‘relevant number’ of votes is divided by the number of members to be elected for that electoral district reduced by one, to arrive at the ‘resulting number’. Thereafter, the number of votes polled by each recognized political party and independent group beginning with the party or group which polled the highest number of votes are then divided by the resulting number to arrive at the number of MPs that the relevant party or group is entitled to. The individuals who will get these seats will be decided on the basis of the number of preference votes polled by the candidates on that party list.

If after the election of MPs in this manner there still are one or more members in that district to be declared elected, the remaining seats will be allocated to the various political parties contesting that district on the basis of the number of residual votes lying to the credit of those political parties after the division of the total number of votes polled by that party by the resulting number.

Hence the hindmost is in danger if a competitor appears on the scene. It should be borne in mind that getting more than 5% of the valid votes cast in each district does not guarantee a party a seat in Parliament. If you get more than 5% of the vote all that it means is that you are in the running to get a seat. If you get less than 5% you will be out of the race altogether. At the 2015 Parliamentary election, the JVP got more than 5% in the following districts but got no MPs elected from those districts. Anuradhapura (6.04%) Galle (6.05%) Matara (7.38%) Moneragala (5.18%) Polonnaruwa (5.71%)

The reason why this happens is that the number of seats available to that district are apportioned on the basis of the resulting number and the residual votes left over from that division as explained above. We see from the results of the 2015 parliamentary election that the JVP got 7.38% of the vote in the Matara district but failed to win a seat whereas they got a mere 5.51% of the vote in the Kalutara district and got one MP elected.

The total number of valid votes cast in the Kalutara district at the 2015 Parliamentary election was 697, 635. When the votes of those who failed to get less than 5% of the vote is deducted from this number, the relevant number of votes is 687,510. When this relevant number of votes is divided by the ten seats that the Kalutara district is entitled to reduced by one, (i.e. nine) we arrive at the resulting number of 76,390. The UPFA won the Kalutara district at that election, so the UPFA starts with one seat already in its pocket. When the resulting number is set against the 338,801 votes polled by the UPFA, we see that they are entitled to four more seats bringing their total up to five. When the resulting number is set off against the 310,234 votes received by the UNP, we see that they are entitled to four seats.

One more seat remains to be filled and it will be filled on the basis of the highest number of residual votes belonging to each political party. After setting off the resulting number against the total number of votes polled by the UPFA, the UNP and the JVP, each party is left with a residual number of votes as follows: UPFA – 33,241, UNP – 4,674 and

JVP – 38,475. The JVP could not come even close to the resulting number so all their votes are residual votes. The JVP had the highest number of residual votes in the Kalutara district, so they got the remaining seat.

Winning seats on leftovers

If one works out the numbers in this manner one will see why the JVP got more than 5% of the votes in certain districts, but failed to win seats in that district. Until the UNP appeared on the scene after being ‘hollowed out’ by the breakaway of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the JVP had a monopoly of the leftovers. Now however, they have a competitor in the form of the UNP rump. This places the JVP in an unenviable position. At the last Presidential elections, they got only 3.16% of the vote, which is much lower than the 4.19% obtained by Rohana Wijeweera at the 1982 presidential elections. Even when they had reached a highpoint in 2015, after having successfully participated in the ousting of the Rajapaksas from power, they obtained only 4.87% of the vote at the 2015 parliamentary election. Today they are not riding high and with the appearance of the UNP as a direct competitor for the bottom of the pile, the JVP is in grave danger of being pushed out.

The JVP has been in a joint political enterprise with the UNP for well over a decade, since 2009. They have become even in public perception a fellow traveler of the UNP and the distinction between the two political parties has become blurred. When the JVP first began contesting elections and getting into parliament in 1994, they were seen as a Marxist outfit that was distinct from all other political parties in the country – even the other Marxist political parties like the CPSL and LSSP. After they began collaborating in what can loosely be called the yahapalana project from 2009 onwards, with political parties like the UNP, TNA, TPA and SLMC and ACMC, their separate identity has been compromised. Political parties like the TNA, TPA, SLMC and ACMC will always remain distinct from the JVP because they are ethnicity and religion based political parties.

However, when it comes to the UNP and the JVP which are both Sinhala based political parties, the distinction is now blurred. This situation has been exacerbated by the JVP abandoning its red clolour and bell symbol in favour of a different colour and compass symbol and contesting elections as a coalition of political parties. At this election in fact even the names of the JVP led coalition and the coalition led by Sajith Premadasa sound the same with Sajith’s outfit being called the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the JVP led coaltion having the name Jathika Jana Balawegaya. After being in a joint political enterprise for over a decade, they are beginning to look and sound like one another. The UNP, its breakaway SJB and the JVP are all vying for the votes of much the same constituency. Instead of the ideological camps that we had earlier, what we have now is a yahapalana ideological soup.

When the yahapalana government was in power, the JVP did try to make a pretense of maintaining its separateness by criticizing the Central Bank bond scam but when it came to the survival of the UNP led government, the JVP closed ranks with the former. The manner in which the JVP went out of its way to back the UNP-led government when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament in November 2018, is a case in point. After backing the UNP led government in that manner, it will be futile for the JVP to expect the general public to attach much credence to their criticism of the Central Bank bond scam. Furthermore, there was little difference between the JVP and the UNP when it came to the policy on the draft Constitution. The UNP and JVP collaborated in changing the system of elections to the local government bodies and the provincial councils in August-September 2017 and they were on all fours with the UNP in putting off elections to these bodies. Even though the JVP did not formally join the yahapalana government they have for all practical purposes been a part of it. The advantage of such an arrangement is that this leaves room for those who were in the UNP to be able to shift their allegiance to the JVP, because the latter would be seen as fellow travelers and a sister political party. It works the other way around too where voters of the JVP will see the UNP as a political party that espouses the same cause. The reason why the JVP shed the red colour, the bell symbol and all Marxist rhetoric at the last Presidential election was probably in the hope that voters of the UNP would find them an attractive alternative.

As we know, that’s not the way things worked out. When the border is open, people migrate from the weaker to the stronger. If the UNP and the JVP espouse the same cause, why be in the JVP? They might as well all shift to the UNP. In any event, the mechanics of the elections system may have the effect of the UNP rump crowding the JVP out of the bottom end. When they were at their strongest at the 2015 August parliamentary election, the JVP managed to get over 5% of the vote in nine districts. They managed to get MPs elected in four districts. But it was only in two districts – Colombo and Gampaha – where the JVP managed to obtain more than the ‘resulting number’ of votes of that district. Even in the Hambantota district, the JVP was not able to come anywhere near the resulting number even though they got nearly 10% of the vote in that district. They won a seat in the Hambantota district because they had a large number residual votes. There is a distinct possibility that at this parliamentary election, the JVP may suffer its biggest setback yet, as a result of blurring the distinction between themselves and the UNP and its offshoots.

Courtesy:Sunday Island