In a forceful critique of attempts to amend the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Secretary General of the Liberal Party, Kamal Nissanka, also made no bones about the fact that the current Provincial Council system had many flaws. Though the Liberal Party has always been in favour of devolution, we have also noted that there are several things about the 13th Amendment that need improvement. However we believe that this is best done through comprehensive discussions and consensus, certainly not through contentious piecemeal adjustments.

But while several structural changes are desirable, Kamal also noted a very practical problem that I had not seen highlighted before. He wrote that the system ‘had become a method  of wielding power  by  the same people  who enjoyed  power in the centre.  Close relatives of leading politicians were promoted to stand for provincial councils making it a political extended family.’

This indeed makes a mockery of the idea that Provincial Councils should provide the people with an alternative mechanism to address their concerns. Given that the current structure entails several overlaps, the duplication of authorities which have the same perspectives means that in essence the senior partners will lay down the law.  The Provincial Councils then become a sort of rubber stamp for the central government.

Kamal did also very perceptively note that ‘this situation arose as a result of the district propositional electoral system that included a preference system.’ This is another aspect of the destruction wrought by that system. If we had a constituency system, then each party would have to select individuals with connections to a constituency and a track record of service. But since the election is now a free for all, with a requirement to include on the list more candidates than there are constituencies, it becomes very difficult for a party to turn down the requests of its stalwarts who already hold office.

In addition, since the criterion of electability by voters who know the record of the candidate has given way to a general ability to win votes in a vast area, the name recognition of the senior partner in the family counts. Thus there is a built in advantage for relations. Jayewardene’s pernicious decision to allow three preferences rather than one also contributes to this, since this leads to relations coming high up on the list, having garnered random votes from those who are familiar with them, but are only commiteed to voting for just one or two other names on the list.

And that in turn allows them to stake their claims for executive office. Fortunately, since there is a statutory limitation on the number of Ministers in each Province, these claims are not always satisfied. But given also the support of their more powerful relations, they are more likely to be indulged when it is possible. So we find that even the Board of Ministers is more likely to second guess the Cabinet, and unlikely to take initiatives which might detract from the power and prestige of the Cabinet, even in areas in which central government concerns are minimal.

Can this problem be overcome? I think it unlikely unless the President actually realizes how this system leads to greater inefficiency, simply because it stops him from selecting the best people to both serve the people and ensure continuing popularity for this government. Though obviously rent seeking will continue, and those expert in manipulating the system will obtain advantages from those politicians who do gain office, the vast majority of people feel increasingly left out. This will inevitably lead to adverse reactions as has happened so often in the past.

I have long advocated that the logic of an Executive Presidency demands an Executive chosen from outside members of Parliament, ie an Executive for which the only criterion is technical or professional capacity. This requires radical rethinking in Sri Lanka, though it is standard practice in every other country that has an Executive Presidential system. If professional politicians wish to hold Executive office, then they must give up any legislative position they hold.

This will save the President from the problems he now faces in having to give politicians good at electoral politics Executive positions for which they have neither the professional skills nor the objectivity required for effectiveness

In the same vein, it is necessary to think outside the box into which Sri Lankan reliance on outdate British practices has places us if we are to ensure effective local government. Instead of relying on gifted amateurs to take charge of what requires technical expertise, we should allow the professional politician who becomes the Chief Executive of any local body the freedom to select the most competent to serve him rather than making him dependent on other professional politicians who have their own agendas.

In theory this happens in local bodies, but the Chairman often finds himself under siege by other professional politicians who want to take his place. It would be better I believe to release him from this burden and, while having a directly elected Chief Executive for local bodies, constitute the legislative body that supports him with technocrats. To do this, we should make membership of an Advisory Council for local bodies open to professionals who continue with their work and, without being paid anything except an allowance for attendance, provide advice on technical matters without simultaneously pursuing their own political ambitions.

My suggestion, in short, is that the political direction of a local body is left to politicians who compete against each other for election on a one-to-one basis. Their Council will then consist of professionals, who must, without any political agendas, provide objective advice about the various issues regarding which such Councils take decisions. We would thus eliminate what Paul Johnson called the scourge of the 20th century, the professional politicians who had only a political agenda.

Colombo Telegraph 15 July 2013