Electoral reforms must come first –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha


Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, a distinguished academic and political analyst told the Sunday Observer, that a mixture of the proportional representation system based on constituencies plus a ‘national list’ will be ideal to select members to Parliament. He said the electoral reforms, a second chamber and proposed parliamentary advisory committees should precede a new constitution.

Prof. Wijesinha had earlier served as the Director General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) and later as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights prior to his appointment as a National List MP to the new Parliament, by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last month.

Q: Your entry into Parliament where your father served as a Secretary General for long years must have been an emotional experience. Can you define your future role as an MP?

A: The most important thing is that, we now have an opportunity after 33 years to restore the dignity of Parliament. It was destroyed by the constitution and the practice of President Jayewardene. The Parliament has three functions, passing of laws, budgeting and the control of finances to ensure money of the executive is spent properly, and the representational function.

With regard to the representation – this is a job easier on the national list MPs. We don’t have to ask for votes. But the district MPs have a terrible job, they have to represent a whole district. If they don’t they may not win a re-election.

I think this whole electoral system has to be changed completely. Instead of working for the district the MPs should be able to work for a confined constituency where you could show results. The results are yours only, but if you work for a district the results may not clearly reflect your efforts.

The worst J.R. Jayewardene did was to create an executive from well over 100 people in a 140 member Government representation. He had Ministers, Deputy Ministers, non Cabinet Ministers, he had district ministers. This gave rise to the idea that being just an MP was a joke.

We need ‘two things’ to change this, one is a strong sensible president – which we fortunately have today- and somebody who claims a majority in parliament who allows you to do this.

Today we have about 80 people in Parliament with ministerial portfolios. The other 60 don’t feel idiots, because there are so many of us. We will have a particularly defined role to play. That role was very clearly given us recently. The President plans to have advisory committees on major areas of concern. I think this new role should be included in the constitution. It should also be emphasised that those committees should not be chaired by Ministers. But they should be initiated by the Government to ensure that proper action is forthcoming.

This setup must incorporate a system where the Government and the Opposition can work together, not to criticise the executive but to bring to its attention the things that it can’t see by itself. Of course we need a sensible and a sane Opposition for that. I have to admit that I worry if such a set up is possible with Mr. Wickremesinghe.

He was the ultimate victim of J.R. Jayewardene. He came to parliament at the age of 27. He was immediately given an executive position. Of course he was an able person but there were better parliamentarians who were overlooked. So he got this idea in his head that ‘I need office’. He had never functioned as a simple parliamentarian in his life. He had either been a minister or functioned as the Leader of the Opposition.

Unfortunately after he lost he could not come to terms with it, so the rest of his life had been an exertion to return to power. Therefore, he does not understand the cooperative, active and sensible role of the Opposition.

Q: But the existing electoral system paves the way for the academics like you and the intellectuals to enter parliament through the national list and the preferential system also gives the freedom of choice?

A: There is an argument that the preferential system allows people to choose whom they send to parliament. But you and I know very well that in practice given the size of the electorate, you actually have a situation where any party will usually nominate people with a lot of money. Therefore, even the most intelligent, sensible and capable candidates can only get elected through money.

There may be few exceptions like Champika Ranawaka or Karu Jayasuriya, etc, etc. But for that you have to be an exceptional personality, must possess an established reputation and be invited on the television often. The majority can’t do that. And I don’t blame them.

Many people respect some people on the national list. The president did a fantastic job with the national list despite tremendous pressure. And also many deserving people lost the election, for example Mrs. Ashraff who did an excellent service during her tenure.

The people respect political parties that chose good people. And the simple fact about the constituent system, you could not nominate just anybody to run for election as in the case today because that man is the focus of attention of all the people of the constituency.

Political parties used to do a pre-selection to select their candidates. This individual has to win the election against ‘the best person’ nominated by the opposition. This will result in sending best representatives to elections. Therefore I see the 1977 system as a tragedy.

I think what we need is a system of constituency together with a national list which will then ensure proportional representation. Because everyone will agree that we need proportionality ultimately.

Otherwise the system will not be fair. Which were the two most unpopular governments we had, the 1970 Government which came to power with a massive majority and the 1977 Government which had a mandate even bigger.

I think a proportional system based on constituencies plus a ‘national list’ will be ideal.

This would also allow you to get over one of the biggest dangers we have now – crossovers. The National list is totally under the control of the Government. But with regard to constituency, there should be provision for by-elections. If a man loses the party from which he was elected, he can’t stay on and support the Opposition but he can appeal to the voters in a by-election.

These are the areas we need to fine-tune the electoral system to get rid of the problems like, expenditure on elections which is outrageous, the uncouth nature of battle for elections, the readiness with which people cross-over without any proper sanction or principle. All these can be dealt with electoral reforms that is essentially a mixed system, very proportionate but with the power of the party over the national list and with the power of the electorate over by-elections to govern their MPs.

Q: Coming back to my original question, what impact would you be making in Parliament?

A: It depends. I mean the concomitant pressure…. If the election had been settled on the 8th itself there wouldn’t have been so much pressure and appeals on the national list. The president stood firm. There is a general sense in the UNP that the national list is unfair. This is not the case with us. Certainly, there are disappointed individuals. But no one can challenge the principle by which the President and his party made their decision.

We have to wait and see how things work out. Because of all this pressure, the role of parliamentarians has not been defined as yet. Obviously we will be expected to play an advisory role with regard to legislation. The President has already indicated this to us.

Q: You had been very active in the Foreign Affairs front, fighting for the rights of the country and restore its dignity, especially during the LTTE war. Can we expect a continuation of this role?

A: I should emphasise that my work was not in foreign affairs per se, but in the human rights field of foreign affairs which was the mandate of our ministry. There are two areas in which I would like to contribute, one is human rights, of course. A lot of ground work has been laid through the Disaster Management Ministry, particularly for reforms in this sector.

Q: Will you be able to serve people better as a parliamentarian than a Secretary of a Ministry?

A: I would think so for the simple reason that as an MP you can work in a lot of areas. During the past 30 years I have contributed in the field of Human Rights, constitutional reforms, educational reforms both at secondary and tertiary level and Foreign Affairs. This will be further highlighted in my role as an MP.

I am extremely pleased that the President took up the decision to chair the G-15. There were also points of view that suggested that he should not take it up since it wasn’t an important group. There is also this slight mindset that the West is the dominant force.

But the West is only being dominant because we allow it to be so. I am fond of the West but there are occasions that they do wrong. Their policies are unnecessarily confrontational. We must fight it. And to do so we must work with others who supported us in times of need without being swayed by electoral concerns.

The President will go to Iran this month to take up that position.

Q: There is a talk that the Government is aspiring to extend the tenor of the Executive Presidency by another term. What have you got to say about this?

A: I only read that in the Daily Mirror. I don’t know how true the story is. I personally think that the Executive Presidency has number of good points. But you need to reform it. For that you need a stronger parliament.

Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where you have a directly elected president outside parliament but with the entire Cabinet in Parliament. A.J.Wilson wrote a celebratory account on J.R. Jayewardene’s constitution called the Gaulish…. Constitution.

He pointed out that JR in asking for the mandate for Presidency said that the executive will be outside Parliament so that parliament could fulfill the role of criticising the executive. He never questioned why JR put the whole executive in Parliament.

Q: So you will be supporting the extension of Executive Presidency, provided it comes with reforms?

A: That is a matter which the government parliamentary group should discuss. That will be an issue of principle. So I may go along with the decision of the Government.

I think many people will realise, that the tremendous achievements of the President in the last four years were possible because he was holding the office of Executive President. I don’t think it would have been so easy for a Prime Minister or the Westminister model to have done such an excellent job.

Q: Are we really in need of a new constitution?

A: I would prefer a new constitution in time. But I would certainly agree that many things should be done immediately without a new constitution.

I think three things the President has pledged- electoral reforms, second chamber and a system of involvement of MPs in committees should be done immediately.

This should go hand in hand with the constitution. This will give distinct responsibilities to MPs and an ability to work, a committee within the constituencies within which they can operate. Then they don’t need a portfolio to work for their people.

Q: There was a second chamber before 1971, but it was abolished by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike?

A: The reason it was abolished was because it was entirely useless.

The problem was that again we swallowed the whole British second chamber, which used to be a totally irresponsible institution. It was the House of Lords. It was totally an outdated concept.

Source: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/05/02/pol04.asp