Why Not Simultaneous Polls?

(MENAFN- Colombo Gazette) By N Sathiya Moorthy

The nation should thank Commissioner-General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake for clarifying that there is no constitutional provision for any authority to postpone the presidential election. It was becoming an issue after the Opposition, especially the SJB, kept hammering out the idea that President Ranil Wickremesinghe was trying to postpone the poll, due later this year.

As the poll boss has since clarified, the Constitution authorises the minister concerned to advance or postpone local government elections by a year.
What he did not say, of course, was that they have been due for some years now, and nothing has been done about it.

Worse is the case of elections to the nine provincial councils, which first-time voters who had cast their lot in two previous presidential and parliamentary polls do not even know exist. This government at least has had the lame excuse flowing from the economic crisis – but that should stop with circa 2022.

Before that, two governments, respectively under Presidents Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, did not venture out, possibly out of fear that their parties might lose. Gota needn't have worried as much but then there was a genuine reason about Covid pandemic and consequent nation-wide lock-out, and upset priorities, of the rulers and the ruled alike.

That leaves the presidential poll. According to Commissioner-General Ratnayake, going by the fact that President Gota was sworn in on 18 November 2019, there should be a new President by that day this year – or, after five years. Hence, he says, fresh elections would have to be held exactly a month before that day – or, between 18 September and 18 October. By implication, he has declared that no power on earth could change that schedule.

Freebies and more

Then, there are the parliamentary elections. As is known, the Constitution empowers the President to dissolve Parliament two and half years after the constitution of the present House. If the President does not do so, fresh elections are anyway due in the second half of the coming year.

It is here that what the poll chief says matters – even for matters of speculation unavailable in the case of the presidential election. According to Ratnayake, even if President Wickremesinghe dissolves Parliament by the first week of September, the Election Commission is equipped to conduct both the presidential and parliamentary polls close to each other.

Or, the nation could have what is known as 'simultaneous polls', cutting down on costs for the government, and more so for political parties and candidates. More importantly, it would cut down on the drain on the nation's time, as election years distract the nation's focus and compel incumbent governments to do things that they might not want to do in normal times – like announcing more freebies and the like.

Of course, it does not mean that 'simultaneous poll' should be the norm. For that the Constitution may have to be amended – and it requires a two-thirds majority. The chances are that it may not require a public referendum – but then, it is for the Supreme Court to decide in the matter, if approached.

It is anybody's guess how many political parties, their leaders and MPs would be ready for such a course? If not the government, why not the Opposition move a constitutional amendment in the matter, and see what the ruling side has to say? Parliamentarians like PHU's Udaya Gammanpila and TNA's Sumanthiran, otherwise adept at such steps, could consider it, if they feel strongly about electoral reforms.

Two-party system

Nations like the US have all elections, from the highly-prestigious presidential poll down to those for the local governments / councils, and federal congress, senate and corresponding choices for the state legislatures and governors, held on the same day. Better still, all ballots are confined mostly to a single sheet of paper.

That is mostly possible because there are not multiple candidates for most positions, given what effectively is a two-party system. Whatever Americans may claim in support of the greatness of their democracy, their system has ensured that there is no scope for a third political party barring the Republicans and the Democrats, to have a national presence.

Recall what the Republicans and Democrats said after an independent, the late Ross Perot, polled close to 20 per cent of the vote in the presidential poll of 1992, and you will know what:“America will not allow that this does not happen again.” Surprisingly, America's media and liberal academics too echoed the sentiments, even more strongly and fiercely.

They could not wish away Ross Perot for another election. But the businessman's vote-share had shrunk to 8.4 per cent. But this 20 per cent 'non-committed voters', reduced now to eight per cent, was a truth that America could wish away but with its own consequences. All those 'hanging chads' followed not long after.

Four-in-one, here?

The question is this: Can Sri Lanka consider simultaneous polls for all positions that are now vacant and that are going to be vacant this year and the next? After all, local government institutions and the Provincial Councils have not had elections for years now. Combine them with presidential and parliamentary polls, and who knows, maybe, the Election Commission would be able to conduct them all together – why possibly even on the same day.

Yes, there could be logistics hiccups as individual voters may take more time to cast their vote in every election, including the parliamentary poll. That is because of the multi-choice PR scheme, which the Sri Lankan voter however mastered very long ago. Yes, there may be need for more ballot boxes, more polling officials and larger rooms with more tables and other furniture... Of course, all of it will apply to vote-counting, too, as it takes more time than usual.

What then are the advantages? First and foremost, if the system is able to enthuse the voters to turn up in as large numbers as they have been doing for the presidential and a lil' less for the parliamentary polls, then, such high figures could be expected for the other two, too. It is good for democracy.

Yes, there is always the reverse where there could be an overall lower turn-out. Anyway, many anticipate a lower turn-out this time, owing to the economic situation and attendant voter-frustration, rather than voter-fatigue.

More importantly, from the perspective of parties and candidates, there will be an overlapping of efforts and initiatives, from the grassroots-level up, wherein parties can pool their strengths, bottom up and diffuse weaknesses, where found. Considering the current predictions that no known candidate is likely to win a first-round victory in the presidential poll, propping up the ticket through simultaneous poll could be of help – as much top-down as it is bottom-up. Of course, there could be peculiar situations involving political parties and their candidates competing for preferential votes in the parliamentary elections.

Should it happen, how would it pan out, lower down the line, among the support of party candidates in the provincial council and local government elections? Will their preference for a set of preferential candidates impact the overall performance of the party nominee in the presidential elections? In the reverse, if the presidential candidate is asked to choose his list of preferential candidates from each electoral district and the others feel peeved and rejected?

These are problems for the parties to sort out – not for the Election Commission and the electoral system to worry about!

(The writer is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst & Political Commentator. Email: ...)


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