In the late 1980s, popular elections were held, in principle at regular intervals, for the office of president, members of Parliament, and positions on local government bodies such as municipal and urban councils, district development councils, and the mandalaya. The Constitution grants the right to vote to all citizens aged eighteen years and over who are of sound mind and have not been convicted of major crimes. All qualified voters have the right to run for Parliament unless they are members of the armed forces, police, or certain branches of the civil service, hold other positions that might result in a conflict of interest, or have been convicted of bribery while serving in a previous term in Parliament within the past seven years. The qualifications for running for president are similar, though there is a minimum age requirement of thirty.
The president is chosen by a simple majority vote. In the election of October 20, 1982, the country was divided into twenty-two election districts (the Constitution provides for a maximum of twenty-four electoral districts). Citizens could mark their ballots for a maximum of three presidential candidates in order of preference. Under this "single transferable vote system," if no candidate received more than half the votes, all but the two candidates with the largest percentages of the total votes cast would be eliminated. Persons who voted their top preference for a candidate who had been eliminated would have their second or third preferences counted if they had chosen one of the top two vote-getters. In the 1982 balloting, six candidates contested the presidency but it was reported that only a small number of voters indicated a second or third preference on their ballots.
The 1946 and 1972 constitutions provided for the election of members of Parliament (or, between 1972 and 1978, the National State Assembly) from single-member constituencies similar to those found in Britain. Consequently, relatively small changes in the percentage of voters supporting a given party caused large variations in the number of seats that party won in Parliament, and majority parties were over-represented in terms of their percentage of the popular vote. For example, in the 1965 general election, the UNP won 39.3 percent of the vote and secured 66 out of 151 seats in Parliament; its share of the vote in the 1970 election dropped 1.4 percent to 37.9 percent, but it won only 17 seats. The 1978 Constitution replaced the single-member constituencies with a system of proportional representation in which the number of candidates returned from a single electoral district is determined on the basis of population. Although this system creates a closer correspondence between vote percentages and parliamentary representation, the equitable nature of proportional representation is diluted by a constitutional provision that grants the party with the largest percentage of votes in each district a "bonus" seat in addition to those gained through proportional representation.
The Constitution stated that by-elections to fill vacancies in Parliament before a general election were not necessary because the political parties themselves could appoint successors. On February 20, 1983, however, Parliament passed a constitutional amendment, the fifth, which provides for byelections if the incumbent party fails to nominate a successor within thirty days of the seat becoming vacant. On May 18, 1983, by-elections for eighteen seats were held.
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