What the US Results tell Us about Different Electoral Systems: Ladduwahetty

Neville Ladduwahetty, in The Island, 15  November 2016,  “Democracy: Direct vs Representative”

The outcome of the recently held Presidential Election in the US and the Referendum in UK demonstrate the gulf that exists between Direct Democracy that operates on the direct vote of the People, and Representative Democracy that operates on the vote of elected representatives. The outcomes in the US and UK were based on Direct Democracy because issues were determined directly by the People, even though in the case of the US Direct Democracy was expressed through the Electoral College.

In the US and UK the predictions of the pollsters, analysts and media were so completely off-base that the world was stunned by final outcomes. In the case of the US, the Republican Party was searching for alternative candidates because they were embarrassed by the positions taken and expressed by Donald Trump on several issues. Notwithstanding this divide, the fact the Trump was elected demonstrated the stark disconnect between Party hierarchy and the People who voted for him.


Similarly, in the UK 3/4th of the UK Parliament was for remaining within the European Union. However, the fact that the British People voted to defy their elected representatives reflects a disturbing disconnect between all those associated with the political establishment including the elected representatives and their People, thus projecting a shocking breakdown in Representative Democracy.

What is alarming from outcomes in the US and UK is that if such disconnects prevail in so called advanced Democracies how appropriate and relevant are the decisions taken by their elected representatives in the name of the People in these countries, not to mention the decisions taken by elected representatives in less advanced Democracies.

Referring to the vote on Brexit, an article in The Washington Post stated: “The gap between the people and their representatives has never before, at least on an issue of this significance, been so wide. You do not speak for us, voters said. And we hold you in some contempt for your failure to represent, or even understand our concerns” (June 26, 20160. As in the UK referendum, the US Presidential election also demonstrated that the political establishment in the US also failed to “even understand” the concerns of the majority within each state.


LESSONS for SRI LANKA: The Preamble to the 1978 Constitution commits Sri Lanka to the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY. In addition the Constitution requires several Articles that define the core values of Sri Lanka to be amended with the consent of the People, thereby recognizing that special instances exist that require both Direct and Representative Democracy to operate.

The opportunity for Direct and Representative Democracy to operate was presented when the 13th Amendment was introduced because it was a radical departure from the centralized governing structure of the State to one where certain defined powers were to be devolved to peripheral units. Due to an abdication of responsibility by the Supreme Court to come up with a single determination, the Court issued multiple determinations, thus giving Parliament the opportunity to delete the requirement for a referendum by the People. To deny the opportunity for the People to participate in an issue that so dramatically altered the political structure of the State and to constitutionally recognize the Province as a political unit for the first time, was treacherous.

Since then, the opportunity for the People to participate in a referendum presented itself when the 19th Amendment was tabled. This was avoided by deleting all the provisions in the 19th Amendment that would have required a determination by the People at a referendum. The expectation now is that the Constitutional reforms currently underway would require the People to express their opinion at a referendum. However, whether the Government would resort to the subterfuges resorted to by former Governments and avoid the need for a referendum citing the supremacy of Parliament coupled with a flawed interpretation of what constitutes a mandate, is any body’s guess.

It is thus evident that the People never had the opportunity to determine whether a majority of them would accept or reject devolution. Consequently, no Government is aware whether People would endorse devolution as a governing concept or not. Despite this ignorance attempts have been made and are being made on the assumption that People accept devolution as a concept of governance.

Such assumptions may come as a rude shock as it did in the US Presidential Election and in the vote on Brexit. If it does, it would confirm the gap in the perceptions between elected representatives along with their chosen experts and the People. The outcomes in the US and UK demonstrated that gaps existed because the people who were supposed to assess the concerns of the People were so remote from the People that they got it wrong. If the experts and the elected representatives currently engaged in Constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka are as remote from the People, they too would get it wrong.

CURRENT APPROACH;  The current approach is focused on meeting the concerns of the Tamil community. This is reflected in the comments made by the President during the course of an interview reported in the Daily Mirror of November 12, 2016. To a question whether the new Constitution would meet the “call from the Tamils for Federalism”, the comment of the President as reported was:

“People of the South are scared of the word ‘federal’. People of the North are scared of the word ‘unitary’. What we should do is not fight over these two words. We should come up with a formula that is acceptable to all. It takes maturity to understand devolution. We cannot satisfy the extremist elements in the North or in the South. We have to do what is good for, and acceptable to the majority of the people”.

The issue is: Acceptable to which majority? Is it the majorities of the North, the South or the collective majorities in the North and the South? The majorities in the US and in UK were the disenfranchised white People. The lesson from the US and the UK is that the concerns of the majority are seldom heard. This is so in Sri Lanka too because opportunities for that majority to express their concerns have been denied. What is heard instead is the voice of the leaders of the Tamil community, and national and international experts. They all say unitary and federal are mere words. What they do not understand and therefore fail to understand is that to the South words such as unitary have dimensions far beyond being mere words.

To the South, unitary and territorial integrity are words that embody their sense of security and felt security to their unique civilizational identity as to who they are as a People. Consequently, the South sees both words from an emotional perspective because security and palpable threats to security coupled with identity, cannot be explained in terms of law or political science. To them, devolution represents a threat to a territory they identify with, and no matter with whatever degree of maturity one attempts to understand devolution, one cannot explain an emotionally felt threat. Therefore, it would have been more productive if the question is asked and answered as to whether the people are for or against devolution, before engaging in a journey of Constitutional reform.

The opportunity to test this out during the entire period that the 13th Amendment has operated in, was never attempted. This means that no one knows what the outcome would have been had it been tested. Without assuming that devolution would be acceptable, had the Constitutional reform process started out to know the pulse of the South through a referendum, the ongoing efforts would be based on fact and not on conjectured assumptions.

CONCLUSION: The outcomes of the Presidential Election in the US, and the Referendum in UK whether to leave or stay in the European Union, demonstrated the gulf that exists between the opinions of the silent majority expressed through Direct Democracy and the opinions and predictions of a vocal minority and their elected representatives in Representative Democracy. Whether such gulfs exist or not in Sri Lanka with regard to devolution has never been tested.

Without knowing the pulse of the People, the Constitutional reform process in Sri Lanka is being driven based on opinions of experts both national and international in the hope of addressing the concerns of the Tamil minority and fulfilling political obligations of elected representatives. If the intention is to address the concerns of the Tamil minority at the expense of the concerns of the majority, the process pursued would be untenable because they defy all norms of natural justice.

It appears that the experts have convinced the political establishment that words such as ‘Unitary’ and ‘Federal’ have no material significance. Such perspectives reflect the gulfs that exist in Sri Lanka. What these experts fail to realize is that to the majority, words such as Unitary and Territorial Integrity define the parameters of their security and felt threats to their distinct civilizational identity as to who they are as a People. Consequently, to them such words contain within them notions that cannot be explained legally or understood no matter one’s maturity. The inability to appreciate such emotions reflects the gulf that exists in Sri Lanka between the opinions of the political establishment influenced by their experts, and the silent majority who have never had the opportunity to express their deep seated concerns. This gulf is no different to the shocking outcomes demonstrated in the US and UK recently.

  Neville Ladduwahetty, November 14, 2016

ALSO NOTE the argument explaining how the first-past-the-post electoral system coined in Westminster terms  for Sri Lanka resulted in skewed results in the structural circumstances of a peculiar demographic distribution of ethnic populations in space.  As this dawned on the political parties even the principled Left abandoned planks of parity  and leaned towards the majoritarian weight of the Sinhala population–thereby consolidating the implicit and/or explicit tendency for some Sinhalese to equate the concept “Sri Lanka’ with the concept “Sinhala”  (in the fashion of Anagarika Dharmapala, one of the patron bodhsatvayas of the 1956 revolution. This argument is spelt out inMichael Roberts: “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation”, Modern Asian Studies, 1978, 12:353-76. Note that the detailed clarification of the electoral processes in the period 1948-1970 deployed in this article was/is derived from the exemplary studies in books and/or articles  by Robert N. kearney, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Urmila Phadnis and others.

GERALD PIERIS has challenged two of my off-the-cuff statements:

(a)  The FPP system “resulted in skewed results in the structural circumstances of a peculiar demographic distribution of ethnic populations in space”.  NO, it resulted in 1970, for the first time, in a skewed distribution vis-a-vis UNP and the SLFP (and its allies). The replacement of the FPP system with the PR system did not have a significant impact on the configuration of ethic representation in the legislature.
(b) As this dawned on the political parties even the principled Left abandoned planks of parity  and leaned towards the majoritarian weight of the Sinhala population”
The two main ‘left parties’ in parliament abandoned their ‘parity of status’ stance in the official language issue, not because of of a realisation that the FPP system produces skewed result in the distribution of seats in parliament. They did that quite sometime earlier when they realised that that despite the supposedly liberal stance they took in the language dispute, they were unable to garner any electoral support from the Tamil speaking areas. The only semblance of support they had in the North was in the immediate aftermath of independence in the form of votes for the CP contestant Kandiah got in the Pt. Pedro electorate.  That had virtually vanished by the mid-1950s. Since about the mid-1960s the left parties were also losing ground to the more ‘revolutionary leftists, partly, it was believed at that time on account of their ‘language policy’.

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