UNP Constitutional Reforms: The message is right, is the messenger credible?

Vishnuguptha | Published on June 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm

“No matter what message you are about to deliver somewhere, whether it is holding out a hand of friendship, or making clear that you disapprove of something, is the fact that the person sitting across the table is a human being, so the goal is to always establish common ground.” ~ Madeleine Albright

Finally the UNP addresses the Executive Presidency issue

The United National Party has at last addressed the Executive Presidency issue. THey have done this in a somewhat short document, with a

Frenemies? Opposition leader Ranil WIckremasinghe (L) greets External Affairs Minister G.L.Peiris (R) as President Mahinda Rajapakse  and his brother Minister Basil Rajapakse including several other government stalwarts look on.

Frenemies? Opposition leader Ranil WIckremasinghe (L) greets External Affairs Minister G.L.Peiris (R) as President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Minister Basil Rajapakse including several other government stalwarts look on.

preamble whose main thrust has been an all-out attack on the incumbent President and his obvious abuse of powers that were given to him by virtue of the 1978 Constitution which in fact was praised by the UNPers themselves as one for the ages.

Salient features of draft

The new reforms that the document suggests meet the minimum desires and aspirations of the majority of the people of Sri Lanka. While the draft mentions among the most salient features of the reforms:

1. Abolition of the Executive Presidency

2. Reverting to Westminster System

3. Abolition of Provincial Governors posts and

4. Re-introduction of the first-past-the post system

Silent on division of powers and reiterates discriminatory ‘preferred religion’ clause 

It is strangely silent on the division of powers among the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary in specific terms. It also reaffirms the so-called ‘special status’ for Buddhism which in real effect relegates the other religions to ‘not-so-special-status’, thereby continuing the discriminatory nature of such a fundamental feature in Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. If J R Jayewardene did not have the courage to take that particular clause out of the Sri Lankan Constitution, one sees no reason why Ranil Wickremesinghe should do that. It’s quite unreasonable to expect the present Leader of the United National Party, especially in the context of Sinhalese Buddhist euphoria that exists in the wake of the war-victory to antagonize the majority segment of our population who happens to be the key component voting bloc in any election that would be held in the future.

‘Rightful’ place for Buddhism?

In relation to the rightful place for Buddhism in the Sri Lankan polity, some of the most valid and articulate arguments are contained in Dr. G C Mendis’s “Ceylon Today and Yesterday”. Tracing the agitation for a ‘rightful place’ to the Report of the Buddhist Commission entitled “The Betrayal of Buddhism” he writes: “It attempts to diagnose the ailments of Buddhism, prescribes remedies for their eradication, and makes proposals for its rehabilitation and restoration so that it may take its rightful place in Ceylon society as warranted by the number of its adherents… It is clear that those who backed the Report have considerable power and are capable of bringing pressure on the present Government to make it act in accordance with its recommendations.” The pressure groups that existed then and the ones that wield tremendous powers in the current Government circles are so close to each other in spirit and substance; it almost looks like a repetition of history, chapter to chapter, verse to verse and word to word. Against such a backdrop of religious fervor, it is impossible for any Sri Lankan political entity to come to power today without promising the rightful place for Buddhism.

1. Abolition of the Executive Presidency and proposed “Executive” and Westminster System

The new constitution replaces the Executive Presidency with a ‘ceremonial’ Head of State whose powers as enshrined in the following chapters:

Instead of the Executive Presidency, a Head of State will be substituted. The current powers conferred on the Executive Presidency will be divided among the Head of State, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker’s Council. The Head of State would be elected by the people as in the current Presidential Election system.

Option 1: A Prime Minister elected by the people at an election to govern with the Cabinet. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet are responsible to Parliament. When the Prime Minister is elected directly by the people as envisaged in the new constitution, the ‘first among equals’ concept ceases to exist and the Prime Minister becomes not merely the presiding officer of the Cabinet of Ministers, his executive powers as enshrined in the constitution become inherent part of his ‘executive powers’.

This particular piece of law might be a ruse for an easier and more hospitable division of powers, especially in the context of a coalition government. This will be a great tool in the hands of the major partner of the coalition that intends to run the next Presidential Elections. It is beyond any shadow of doubt that if the Rajapaksas are to be defeated at the elections, the UNP voting bloc alone would not be sufficient. In order to muster the minorities, both Tamils and Muslims, in addition to a sizeable segment of the Sinhalese votes, the joint candidate of the coalition’ needs some ‘sticks of carrot’ to be offered to other leading partners. At this time I will resist the obvious temptation to name these leading partners.

Option 2: As a novel system the executive powers will be exercised on apolitical basis and to be subject to checks and balances. This is a remarkable provision rhetorically, yet the proof of the pudding will be invariably in the eating. This is where, next to the very abolition or abrogation of the current constitution and the Executive Presidency, the credibility of the candidate is of utmost and decisive significance.

2.1: To ensure direct exercise of the People’s Sovereignty, the Head of State will be directly elected by the people.

2.2 : The Head of State will be the Head of the Council of State (which will consist of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, the Leaders of the political parties represented in the Parliament and the Chief Ministers of the Provinces), and will act on the advice of the Council of State. Here the UNP proposal becomes murky and ambiguous as to the clear executive powers of the Cabinet of Ministers. The so-called Westminster system is thrown out the window when a separate ‘Council’ consisting of Head of State, Prime Minister and other political heads of the country become part of a supreme council.

2.3 The Council of State shall decide on all political directions and national priorities. The Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister and the Provincial Boards of Ministers shall be responsible for implementation of the decisions of the Council of State.

By virtue of this provision, the Cabinet of Ministers becomes a mere instrument in the hands of a somewhat unwieldy Council. The executive powers that are exercised by today’s Cabinet will disappear and a mere implementation body with limited powers of discretion might play a very retarding role in the very movement of decisions and implementation of those decisions.

2.4 The decisions of the Council of State shall be by consensus. In the event there being no consensus the majority decision will prevail. This will pave the way to practice Lord Buddha’s preaching on governance – peaceful assembly, peaceful dialogue and peaceful dispersion. This surely is an injection of cosmetic value to the appearance of following Buddhist principles, which even the Order of the Sangha does not adhere to in any shape of form,

2. Abolition of Provincial Governors

Today, Provincial Governors are a mere extension of the Executive Presidency. The Governors, although by virtue of the Provincial Council Act of 1987, are enshrined with some inherent powers, they being appointed at the whims and fancies of the President, have become a puppets of whoever the President is. Abolition of the Governor from the provincial government apparatus would undoubtedly enhance the powers of the Chief Minister and his entourage of Provincial Ministers and it would eliminate once and for all the fear factor that is very much manifest in the minds of the Chief Ministers of today.

The required amendments to the Provincial Councils Act 0f 1987 would have to be carefully drafted and crafted so as not to create overlapping of powers, rights and privileges and confusion among the provincial administrators. This would be most applicable in the Provinces of the North and the Easy where the Tamils and Muslims dominate the population numbers and hence the elected representatives.

3. First past the post system

This indeed is the most elector-friendly system that the proposed amendments have introduced. Election of Parliamentarians on a combined basis of proportional representation and the first-past-the post methodology would not only give more meaning to an elected representative to a particular geographic area, his accountability to a given electorate would greatly enhance the value of the voter’s supremacy at the time of elections.

Nevertheless, the whole gamut of constitutional reforms, pledges given by a political party and its leader, the voter’s confidence in the parties and their leaders are all related to one central theme and one central focal factor and that is ‘voter-confidence and trust’. The most difficult task that today’s Opposition has and where it is most deficient is voter confidence. The current UNP leadership is viewed with so much of suspicion and doubt that the behavior of its current leader is very much a part of the whole equation. I dare say that the current leader of the UNP has clearly disqualified himself from this race altogether. His recent actions and reactions to various demands of his own Party have trapped him to such a corner; the voter confidence is the one thing that is totally missing in him.

The unenviable burden on the joint opposition is not merely defining its political platform; it is finding the right messenger/candidate to carry the message. The messenger is no less important than the message. The message seems to be more than right, but is there a credible messenger who can deliver the message?


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Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Rajapakse (R)

UNP Constitutional Reforms: The message is right, is the messenger credible?

“No matter what message you are about to deliver somewhere, whether it is holding out a hand of friendship, or making clear that you disapprove ...