Five years ago the country was full of promise. I believe that promise could easily have been fulfilled, had government not fallen prey to a few rent seekers. What happened, in particular in the last couple of years, was tragic, and I believe a full study of the triumph and the tragedy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be immensely illuminating.

But that should be undertaken after more reflection. In this series I will look only at a few measures that could easily have been undertaken without controversy, to have strengthened relations between the government and the people. I am sure many individuals had many ideas, but obviously I can only discuss in some detail those I had personal knowledge of. I will therefore in this series look at some of the work I tried to do, which was stymied more through neglect than deliberate policy – except perhaps with regard to one or two individuals, who could brook no rivalry (something from which President Sirisena too suffered). For this purpose I will go through some of the letters and memoranda I sent over the years, with decreasing impact.

To go back to 2010, President Rajapaksa had succeeded the previous year, against what seemed insuperable odds, in eliminating the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Then he had won the Presidential election handsomely, despite the range of support, national and international, received by his opponent, General Sarath Fonseka. He had also won the parliamentary election that followed, with a healthy majority.

Reconstruction was proceeding apace in the North, and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres was moving ahead successfully. The over 4000 suspects, who had been in custody before the conclusion of the war, had been reduced to well under 2000. For this purpose the President had appointed a Committee which I chaired, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and we had received full cooperation from the relevant authorities, the army and the police and prisons officials. And the National Human Rights Action Plan, which had been abandoned during the election period, was being finalized.

I was no longer officially in charge, for I was now in Parliament. The Ministry of Human Right had been abolished and, when I inquired as to what would happen about this vital area, I was told that it would be looked after by the Ministry of External Affairs. But the Ministry was ill equipped for such a task, and indeed it failed to make proper use of my project staff, who had been transferred there. In fact, because of bureaucratic delays, it lost the services of our able consultant Nishan Muthukrishna, and I began to wonder whether the Action Plan was doomed. But then the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, was put in charge. Though he was very busy, he allowed our meetings to be held in his office, and we were able to move swifty and have a final draft approved by Cabinet the following year.

I had expected to receive a Ministry, since there seemed no purpose in having someone who was not a constituency politician, and had no ambitions to become one, in Parliament without other functions. I gather this had been planned, but the delay in finalizing the election results proved fatal, and I was told there was strong opposition to my being appointed by those who disliked my pluralistic credentials and my support for the 13th Amendment. The Swiss Ambassador at the time had told me she had heard I was to become Foreign Minister, but that seemed far-fetched. Education seemed more likely, but then Lalith Weeratunge told Kumar Rupesinghe, who said he had been pushing for this, that they had found someone far more suitable. Bandula Gunawardena was accordingly appointed.

I did not worry about this, for I thought I should in any case learn more about Parliament, and I had assumed, having known Parliament previously from the days when my father was Secretary General, that members could contribute to legislation and policy decisions. That was intended according to the Standing Orders, which I studied because, unexpectedly, I was put on the Committee on Standing Orders. I had not asked for that, or the Committee on Public Enterprises, but these soon became my main areas of concentration.

With regard to Ministry Consultative Committees, I was not put on those for Defence and for External Relations which I had asked for, given my previous work in those areas as Head of the Peace Secretariat. But I was interested enough in some of the others I was appointed to, including Women’s Affairs and Child Development, and also Resettlement. But I soon found that these were not productive bodies, being occupied for the most part with individual constituency concerns.

I tried to change this, and was happy when Manthri, the organization that monitors the work of Members of Parliament, reported recently that I was the most active in this regard of National List MPs, and in the first ten of all MPs. They were able to do this because, after I pressed the matter, the Secretary General decided to publish the proceedings of Committees. These make clear how few members bother to attend, and indeed how infrequently meetings are held. Indeed, in the over five months in which a government supposedly dedicated to strengthening Parliament was in office, just nine committee meetings were held, whereas there should have been one a month for each Ministry, a total of about 150.

Meanwhile the Committee on Standing Orders came to a standstill. We had proceeded swiftly after our first meeting, at which it became clear that not many of the members had much interest in the matter or any great understanding of the issues involved. But they were happy to let those of us who were keen on the matter – namely the Deputy Speaker, Chandima Weerakkody, Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA and myself – to work intensively. We had redrafted about a quarter of the document when all hell broke loose.

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qrcode.31254677I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.

One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.

I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.

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qrcode.31217364I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.

Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.

In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.

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qrcode.31104759After he won election, Jayewardene ignored his own political theories when he found himself in command of almost absolute power following the massive electoral victory in 1977. He was virtually unquestionable for, along with Senanayake, most of those who had held cabinet office in the 1965 UNP government were dead. Jayewardene was more senior than all those who remained and he soon dismissed his only contemporary, a cabinet minister who had been with him in the 1950s.

The fact that he did not implement his proposals was clearly his own decision rather than the result of political compromise. He probably realised that his control of parliament would be enhanced by continuing the requirement that the cabinet should be drawn from parliament. The executive would not be criticised by members of his own party if they were hoping to join it and if its senior members were present with them in parliament. Another reason may have been that he was winning over members of other parties by offering them executive positions. It would have been embarrassing if they had to vacate their parliamentary seats for this new system, in which case candidates would have had to be nominated to the seats by either Jayewardene himself or the party to which they had originally belonged.

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qrcode.31050227By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.

In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually  only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.

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qrcode.31030374I had intended, in what was to be the last article in this series, to look at the question of external security, and how to work towards bipartisan consensus in the conduct of international relations, so that the nation as a whole is strengthened. At present, on the contrary, we seem, while pursuing partisan political agendas, to allow ourselves to become the playthings of other countries.

Instead of that however, in what will be the last article in this series, I will look at what seems an even more vital issue in the context of the events of last week, namely the question of internal party democracy. That question has been raised by others too previously, but the dismissal by the President of two party secretaries off his own bat has highlighted the problem of intra-party decision making.

Those who defend the actions of the President claim that he was under great pressure, both political and emotional, but even they feel that the actions took away from the great reputation for decency that he had established. And in the long run, given the way the results worked out, it has taken away from what would have been his stature in presiding over a national government. It is still not too late to develop a national consensus, but everyone will have to work all the harder for this purpose if we are to avoid confrontational oppositioning.

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qrcode.30986403The last chapter of my book dealt with election systems, a matter of particular concern today, when we are conducting an election under a system that is universally condemned. One of the most serious tragedies of the Sirisena Presidency thus far is the failure of those to whom he entrusted the reforms he had promised to work immediately (as promised in the manifesto) on electoral reforms. It seems he tried his best, but was defeated by the intransigence of the UNP, and its fear of both the COPE Report and possible No Confidence Motions.

First-Past-the Post System

Reform has been an urgency for a long time, for Sri Lanka was singularly unlucky in the election systems it has adopted over the years. Initially it had the first-past-the-post system used in Britain, whereby the country was divided into constituencies which elected members by a simple majority. In Sri Lanka a few constituencies had more than one member. This was designed to ensure representation of different communities where they were mixed up together so that two separate constituencies would not have served the purpose. Thus, Akurana usually elected one Sinhala and one Muslim member, while Nuwara Eliya, which became a multi-member constituency for the 1977 election, had one representative each of the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).

In general, however (as opposed to the few multi-member constituencies) the philosophy was that those who won, by however small a margin, took it all. In Britain, the effect of this is mitigated because there are certain constituencies which always stay with one party, so that a party that loses the election still has substantial strength in parliament. In Sri Lanka, however, where most constituencies are what are termed marginals, that is, a small shift either way changes the result, the two major parties found themselves reduced to very small numbers when they lost an election. Thus, the UNP got eight seats out of 101 in 1956 and 17 out of 157 in 1970, while the SLFP had eight out of 168 in 1977. Conversely, the party that won had a massive majority, even though its share of the national vote was just around 50 per cent.

Both in 1970 and in 1977 these massive majorities enabled the party in power to do virtually anything it wanted, including the introduction of new constitutions that represented their narrow interests, and the extension of the term of parliament. It is conceivable that in 1970 those who perpetrated this injustice actually believed in the slogan that parliament was supreme, in that it represented the people. The constitutional principle that representatives elected by the people for a particular period cannot deprive the people of their basic rights was not recognised by them.

Proportional Representation System

J.R. Jayewardene, who presided over the 1977 government and its majoritarian excesses, understood the need for better representation and more safeguards. In his new constitution he introduced proportional representation. He instituted an election system for the future where voting was according to districts. The quota of seats for the district was divided according to the proportion of votes each party got within that district as a whole. In that system, a majority of two-thirds in parliament would mean the mandate of a high percentage of the population.  The special measures passed by such a parliament would enjoy the support of representatives of well over half the population. However, he passed several measures with the two-thirds majority he had obtained under the earlier system, including a bill to amend the Constitution to extend the term of that parliament by a further six years.

Initially, the system of proportional representation Jayewardene introduced simply required voters to select a party. The seats the party won would be allocated to its candidates according to their position in the party list. However, in the first election held under that system—the election for District Development Councils in 1981—Jayewardene realised its drawbacks. Those who were not placed high in the party list found out that they could not be elected. Sometimes they crossed over to another party, which would place them high in their list. If they remained on the list, they did not bother to canvass for votes.

Jayewardene, therefore, amended the legislation to allow the voter three choices for selecting candidates on the list. In principle, the idea of allowing the voter choice was a good one, but allowing one choice per voter would have been enough. Candidates could then have campaigned in designated areas against candidates of the opposing party. By allowing three choices, Jayewardene ensured, not only that all candidates would campaign actively all over the district, but also that they campaigned against the other members of their own parties.

Though he succeeded in his aim, it was at a great cost to the country. To cover an entire district in active campaigning required a lot of money, and soon it became apparent that those who did not have massive resources had to acquire them, in order to stay in the race. Thus, after an election candidates made it their first priority to recover the  money they had spent. There was greater opportunity for corruption and increased instances of violence. Paid workers of political parties, for instance, who were traditionally plied with liquor, often turned violent in the process of putting up posters or tearing down those of other candidates, especially those of their own party.

Other aspects of the legislation introduced by Jayewardene with regard to elections were also faulty.  One provision was that any member of parliament who ceased to be a member of the party from which he had been elected would automatically lose his seat. The argument was that, since a member was elected only by virtue of a vote for the party, he had no individual right to remain as a representative if he no longer belonged to the party. This provision was, however, implemented even for members of the 1977 parliament who had been elected from constituencies as individuals. However, those who had crossed over from the opposition to his party were retained in parliament through a special constitutional amendment. And even when the system of choices within the proportional representation system was introduced, the provision that candidates would lose their seat if they were no longer in the party was retained.

One reason Jayewardene had introduced the provision of losing a seat upon change of party for that it enabled him to exercise a tight control over his party members. While it could be argued that members of political parties should not be allowed to change sides—Jayewardene had first hand experience of the implications of this, since he had been closely associated with the offering of bribes that brought down Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first government in 1964—the provision entailed that members expelled by their party also lost their seats. Thus, by threatening expulsion against anyone who did not toe the party line, Jayewardene ensured absolute obedience to the party. By the party was meant allegiance to Jayewardene himself as party leader, since there has never been a tradition of internal party democracy in Sri Lankan political parties.

qrcode.30978419One of the promises in the President’s manifesto which was broken was that relating to the Right to Information Bill. The manifesto pledged that the Bill would be introduced on the 20th of February and passed within three weeks. Some sort of leeway was also given, because it was actually a month later, on the 20th of March, that it was pledged the Bill would be passed.

There is no excuse whatsoever for having failed to get this done. True, the Right to Information was incorporated in the Constitution in April, but this needed to be fleshed out through a Bill. Such a Bill was indeed drafted, and circulated at the beginning of April, so I assumed all would be well. I found the draft generally satisfactory, though I suggested some changes to extend its scope, including posting electronically for the information of the public ‘the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million…… Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.’

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qrcode.30889285Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Island in the Sun’ is perhaps the best piece of political satire written in this country. It has graphic desctiptions of the politicians of the nineties, with Sir John Kotelawala for instance being the Rogue Elephant and Dudley Senanayake the Tired Tortoise. J R Jayewardene was the Seethala Kotiya, a description that perhaps would not fit his nephew, familiarly known as ‘Poos’ in the family, a milder member of the Cat family.

But there is another description that fits Ranil well too, given the strange goings on at the Central Bank. Tarzie suggested that R G Senanayake could not move straight even when that was the easiest thing to do. So now we find that, what might have been an understandable – if capital friendly – change of policy was not done direct as a principled man like Eran Wickremaratne might have done. Rather there was clandestine activity which, in a Watergate style operation, has been concealed so that the ugly truth emerges only gradually.

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qrcode.30826356In my book on Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, which Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a decade or so back, I wrote that ‘Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people.’ People needed to ensure their safety from external threats, and they also needed security from others within the community. For the latter they needed laws to govern relations internally, with mechanisms to defend against attacks from outside – though initially these were not subject to law.

Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. So in many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Ministry for this purpose.

The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2015
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