The Parliamentary system of government was introduced to Sri Lanka 63 years ago. During this period, voters have elected members to represent them in parliament 13 times. Once again, they go to the polls on Thursday, April 8 to elect 196 members to be their representatives in the 225-seat august assembly.
There have been changes aplenty during this period. The population has increased, Parliament has expanded, political parties have grown, the voting age has changed and the mode of selecting members of parliament (MPs) has been amended.
Looking back, when the country’s first general elections were held in August 1947 to elect 95 members to the House of Representatives (Lower House where elected representatives sat as against the Upper House, the Senate, comprising 30 nominated members), just 361 candidates contested. This was the first time that candidates contested from political parties. About half the candidates (180) were from nine parties while the rest came forward as independents. There were three million (3,052,814) registered voters of whom 61.6% cast their vote.
|The first cabinet
The candidates used 24 symbols which were distributed not on a party basis but for individual candidates. Another feature was that there were several candidates contesting from the same party. In Polonnaruwa, for example, five of the six candidates were from the United National Party (UNP).
Until the 2001 General Election, the number of parties contesting remained around nine to fourteen.
The formation of a 'peramuna' (Front) was first seen in the third General Election in 1956 when three opposition parties -- the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Viplavakari Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) and Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) under the leadership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who left the United National Party to found the SLFP.
Their combined strength saw the UNP getting routed after being in power for nine years. The 1956 election saw the recognition of the political party system with the allocation of a symbol for each party. Although candidates could still contest as independents, numbers began to drop. Of 249 candidates at the 1956 polls, only 64 were independents.
Following the recommendation of a Delimitation Commission in 1959, the number of electorates was increased to 145 (returning 151 members: with five multi-member constituencies) from the previous 89 electorates (returning 95 members). The March 1960 General Elections were held on this basis.
The banning of posters, flags and other display materials in public places dates back to 1960 along with a ban on the transport of voters who had to either use their own vehicles or public transport. As is still the practice, candidates could post election literature to their electors free of charge (one letter per voter) between Nomination Day and one week prior to the election. Propaganda meetings had to end 24 hours before the election. Prior to 1960, polling was held at least on three days. For the first time the March 1960 elections were held in one day. The practice has not changed since. The introduction of poll cards by the Elections Department indicating the registered number, electorate and the place of voting, and the postal voting facility for members of the armed forces, public servants on election duty or those serving in the postal and railway departments were other features introduced in 1960.
The increase in the number of constituencies saw an increase in the number contesting. A total of 898 candidates from 22 political parties and 167 independents handed over nominations for the March 1960 elections. The numbers drastically dropped at the next general elections held four months later following the defeat of the Government in Parliament. Only 393 candidates including 40 independent candidates contested. The number of political parties dropped to 13.
The over-18 vote
The general elections of March 1965 were significant in that all those above 18 years of age were eligible to vote. Since the grant of universal adult suffrage in 1931, only those over 21 could vote. As a result, the number of voters rose to 4.7 million (4,710,887) and the number of polling stations was increased to 4,771 from 3,664.
Indelible ink was used for the first time in accordance with a recommendation by a Select Committee as a measure to prevent impersonation. The practice continues to this day.
The Senate was abolished in October 1971. In 1972, a new Republican Constitution was adopted after the members of the House of Representatives had formed themselves into a Constituent Assembly. The House of Representatives gave way to the National State ssembly. The Governor-General was replaced by the non-executive President as Head of State.
A Delimitation Commission (1974) had recommended the increase of electoral districts to 160 returning 168 members. The 1977 General Election was held on this basis when 756 candidates from six political parties and 295 independents handed in nominations. There were 6.6 million (6,667,589) registered voters and the turnout was a record 93.6%.
With the UNP securing a landslide victory winning 140 seats, an Executive Presidency was created and Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene was sworn in as the President of the Republic of Sri Lanka on February 4, 1978. A new constitution -- the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (DSR) was promulgated on September 7, 1978 and the National State Assembly was superseded by the First Parliament of the DSR.
Proportional Representation (PR) whereby the voter first gave his vote to a party of his choice and then to three candidates nominated by that party was introduced at the 1989 General Election replacing the 58-year old system where the candidate securing the largest number of votes in a constituency got elected. Twenty two electoral districts were demarcated electing 196 members. Of this number, 160 were allotted according to the resident voter ratio among the districts in a province and the balance 36 among the provinces, each getting four. For a party or group to be in the contest it had to poll 5% of the valid votes cast, which was the cut-off point.
Additional safeguards to prevent instability in the Government were provided through MPs selected from a National List which each party had to submit on Nomination Day and bonus seats for the winning party. At the counting of votes, the party or group that polled the highest number of votes in a district was awarded a bonus seat and the balance was awarded in proportion to the votes obtained.
The number of registered voters passed the ten million mark at the 1994 election.
In 2010, 7,620 candidates from 36 political parties and a record number of independent groups (301) are trying to fill the 196 places in Parliament. The number of registered voters has risen to 14,088,500 and the Elections Department will set up 10,875 polling stations for them to vote.