Success for Proportional Representation in Sri Lanka

Posted by Tenneh Dukuly on August 28, 2015

On August 17, 2015, Sri Lanka held its parliamentary elections. The incumbent United National Party (UNP) won 106 of the 225 seats in the parliament, and was able to form government in partnership with members of the opposition alliance, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is loyal to the sitting president, Maithripala Sirisena. The recent election was notable because it continued Sri Lanka’s path to a stable and strong political system, and because its electoral system delivered fair and proportional results. Additionally, the UNP government has recently been discussing the potential for electoral reform at the national and local levels.

Stability Preserved

Sri Lanka’s recent history has been marred by civil war. After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority simmered and erupted into civil war in 1983. The Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organization, assassinated many government officials, including the president of Sri Lanka in 1993. Under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the civil war came to an end in 2009, with some Sri Lankans lauding him as “an almost mythical warrior king” for his role in ending the war.

Despite his success in ending the civil war, Rajapaksa narrowly, and unexpectedly, lost the 2015 presidential election in January 2015 to Sirisena by a margin of 48 to 51 percent.The August 2015 parliamentary election was an important test for Sri Lanka’s new found stability. Rajapaksa had hoped to regain some power and take on Sirisena by ascending to the prime ministership.

The central question of the 2015 parliamentary election election was whether Rajapaksa’s Freedom Party (in alliance with other members of the UPFA) would win a majority of seats (and thereby propel Rajapaksa into the PM spot). The question was answered in the negative, with the UPFA winning only 95 seats.

The Sri Lankan Electoral System

Sri Lanka uses an open list proportional system to elect its parliament every five years, in which voters may choose to vote for a party or a candidate within a party. Of the 225 seats, 196 are elected in multi-winner districts with 4 to 19 members. The remaining 29 national seats are used to ensure that the number of seats each party wins is proportional to the number of votes they won.  For example, if one of the parties running won 5% of the vote relatively evenly across the nation, they probably would win four or five seats in the multi-winner districts. However, because this is not approximately 5% of the parliament, the party would receive extra seats from the 29 national seats to bring them up to 5% representation in the parliament.  This is fairer since 5% of people voted for them so they should be represented.

Because Sri Lanka’s electoral system is proportional (and there is no minimum national threshold), there is an abundance of parties competing for election. In this multi-party environment, political parties form coalitions, or “alliances”, to provide for stable government. There are four main alliances. The United National Front for Good Governance (of which the UNP is part) and the UPFA are the biggest, and they tend to compete for control of the parliament. The United National Front for Good Governance tends to be  a pro-capitalist, center-right alliance, and includes a Sinhala nationalist and small Muslim party. The UPFA alliance, which tends toward the left, brings together over 10 different parties, including several center-left parties, a communist party, a Tamil party and a Sinhala nationalist party.

The Sri Lankan system is a sharp contrast to the U.S single-winner district winner-take-all system. The American system encourages two-party dominance and noncompetitive elections. Because a candidate has to win the most votes (usually over 40%) to win, typically only candidates from the two major parties contest an election. Furthermore, most districts are safe and parties know most of the seats they are likely to win. They tend to cater only to their voters in those winnable seats, with policies shaped to mobilize and reward their voters. The minority group in each district has little reason to care about the election, because there will be no point in voting when they know who is going to win already. This may also result in lower voter turnout.

A more proportional system, using fair voting methods, would be better for the United States.


*This blog post was written by high school student Tenneh Dukuly during her internship at FairVote.

Photo Courtesy: Nader Daoud

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