Britain’s ‘broken’ democracy Vs Sri Lanka’s system


One of the complaints about Britain’s ongoing process of picking its next prime minister is that the “system is broken”. The cliché is meant to sum up the unrepresentative nature of the process, which is underway right now and basically pitches the two finalists selected by members of parliament (MPs) of the governing Conservative Party – to the party’s couple-hundred-thousand membership out in the country.

This is true. Britain’s next prime minister is the country’s choice, but only metaphorically speaking. The real choice lies in the hands of anywhere between 140,000 and 200,000 Conservative Party members, who are mostly male, white, over 57 years old and resident in London and the south of England.

But the lament about the broken system is also meant to speak to the unrepresentative nature of parliamentary democracy. The head of government (or British prime minister) is chosen by MPs belonging to the governing party. People often say that this first-past-the-post system of electing MPs (who go on to choose the head of government) does not sufficiently give leverage to small parties. Britain, critics always remind everyone, is one of the few European countries to not have a proportional representation system. With proportional representation, everyone gets a chance to have a say in everything.

Yes, but…Sri Lanka.

As in Sri Lanka today, July 20. The bankrupt, beleaguered country got a new president today, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was elected to the post by directly elected MPs belonging to the Conservative Party. But Mr Wickremesinghe’s legitimacy has come into question. As a man who has served as prime minister six times over, not only does he symbolise Sri Lanka’s traditional ruling class, he is also seen to be overly close to the reviled Rajapaksa political dynasty that has been forced to quit high office by months of street protests.

But Mr Wickremesinghe’s most important disqualifier is said to be the fact that he is a beneficiary of Sri Lanka’s proportional representation (PR) system. He was not directly elected to represent his constituency but managed to squeak into parliament via the list system operated under PR. He is his party’s only MP.

This raises a lot of questions about the democratic legitimacy of someone who enters a legislature by means of PR. Parliamentary democracy is not perfect and the current British ‘contest’ for prime minister is even more suspect, but PR is not necessarily a panacea.