Sri Lanka’s parliamentary electoral process explained

File photo of polling booth

ECONOMYNEXT – Barely six months after a decisive presidential election, the people of Sri Lanka will go to the polls once again on April 25 to elect their representatives, this time to the ninth parliament since the advent of President J R Jayawardena’s 1978 constitution.

Though Sri Lanka is often touted as the oldest democracy in Asia, few have an in-depth understanding of the country’s electoral process. Fewer still are aware of the finer details of election laws as laid out in a constitution that has been amended 19 times since 1978.

As always, a total of 225 lawmakers will comprise the next parliament, 196 of whom will be elected through popular vote while the remaining 29 will be picked from the so called National List.

Explaining the process, retired Commissioner General of Elections M M Mohamed told EconomyNext that 36 out of the 196 seats to be elected by vote will be selected as per the powers vested in the Delimitation Commission. This is according to article 95 of the constitution.

These 36 seats will be equally divided among the nine provinces – four a piece – as decided by the Delimitation Commission.

The 36 seats are divided among the nine provinces as follows:

According to Mohamed, the remaining 160 of the 196 seats are mathematically allocated to the various electoral districts. There are 25 administrative districts in Sri Lanka, but only 22 electoral districts. This is because the Vanni electoral district comprises the Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar administrative districts while the Jaffna electoral district consists of the Jaffna and Kilinochchi administrative districts.

Allocation of the 160 seats among the electoral districts is calculated by dividing the total number of registered voters in the country by 160. According to article 98 (4), the result of this division is called the ‘qualifying number’. The total number of registered voters in a given electoral district is then divided by the qualifying number.

According to article 98 (5), each electoral district can return to parliament a number of MPs equivalent to the division of the total registered voters in that district by the qualifying number.

For example, let’s assume that all island voter registration is 16,000,000.

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Dividing 16,000,000 by 160 gives us 100,000 as the answer – or the ‘qualifying number’ as mentioned in article 98 (4). Let’s take the Gampaha electoral district. If we assume total voter registration there is 1,700,000, dividing that figure by the qualifying number (of 100,000) will give us 17.

This 17, plus one from the 36 seats (as per the Delimitation Commission’s allocations), will give us a total of 18 MPs from the Gampaha electoral district.

Former Commissioner General Mohamed explained that though there are more voters registered in Gampaha than in Colombo, the Colombo electoral district will always have one more seat than Gampaha as, in accordance with the Delimitation Commission’s ruling, Colombo gets two seats.

It is for this reason that the Election Commission annually issues an extraordinary gazette upon the completion of the annual voter registration showing how the 196 seats are allocated to each electoral district as written in Article 98 (8) of the constitution.

“When considering the number of total candidates to be nominated for each electoral district, three more are added to the total elected members of each electoral district,” said Mohamed.

For example, looking at the elected seats for the Gampaha electoral district from the above example, the total number of candidates to be nominated would be 18 + 3 = 21.

Each party and independent group contesting the parliamentary elections is required to hand in a nomination list consisting of candidates for the national list before the end of nomination day.

The nomination list can have a maximum of 29 members, but the law does not specify a set number for national list nominations for each party.

“After the official results of the election is released, the Election Commission writes to the parties or independent groups which contested the elections informing them of the number of seats they are entitled to from the national list,” the official said.

For example, assume that party X has received a total of 3,200,000 votes and that the total number of votes cast in the election is 15,000,000. The total number of national list seats party X will get is:

3,200,000 divided by 15,000,000, multiplied by 29, which gives us 6 when rounded off to the nearest whole number.

In its letter, the Election Commission communicates to each party that it can select members for the national list seats allocated to that party either from the national list nominations already submitted to the commission or from among the party members that contested the election.

“This is how candidates who lose in the election are sent to parliament through the national list,” said Mohamed.

In the same letter, the Election Commission states that members for the national list should be selected taking into account the proportional representation of a certain community which could not be achieved with the 196 members elected by vote.

However, this is rarely seen in practice. Even if the party decides to pick members for the national list ignoring proportional representation, said Mohamed, the Election Commission or the Commission Chairman has no power to take action against it.

Mohamed went on to say that generally, the general secretary of the party can make the final decision regarding national list candidates. This may, however, differ from party to party, depending on the party’s constitution.

“But it is the general secretary that should write back to the Election Commission naming the members that the party wants to select through the national list,” he added.

The former commissioner general noted that, unhelpfully, the 1978 constitution doesn’t offer much clarity on proportional representation.

“The constitution doesn’t mention clearly that proportional representation for ‘communities’ is limited to ethnic groups. It could mean women, disabled people or even intellectuals. The 1946 constitution, however, used words to describe communities that were meant to be ethnic groups,” he said. (Colombo/March7/2020)

Edited by Himal Kotelawela

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