Last week the Marga Institute held a discussion on several sets of proposals that had been forwarded to the Parliamentary Select Committee looking into ‘Political and Constitutional Measures to Empower the People of Sri Lanka to Live as One Nation’. After much animated discussion, it was decided to work with the set of proposals put forward by Vasantha Senanayake, and a couple of groups have been established to flesh these out.

Senanayake is perhaps the brightest of the young Members elected newly in 2010, a factor noticed by several embassies that have sent him on delegations of young Members to visit their countries. These proposals sprang from his work with the One Text Initiative which had seen him spearhead a group of Parliamentarians, representing government as well as different opposition parties, who had interacted with members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, both Sinhalese and Tamil, in Britain. They had sent a report on their visit to the President, though there has been no response to the interesting ideas and suggestions they put forward.

Vasantha had worked together with a group of young professionals to put forward the proposals which included some startlingly innovative ideas. Perhaps the most important of them is not however new, because it was one of the principal elements on which three recent documents on constitutional reform agreed, namely those of the Liberal Party, the UNP and the group led by Rev Sobitha. This was the need to get rid of the present system of elections, and I think it would be useful to return to this now, since the last set of elections to Provincial Councils made crystal clear – again – how destructive the current system is.

In the first place, as the bulk of complaints about violence makes clear, the system leads to massive intra-party rivalries. Secondly, it encourages, perhaps even necessitates, massive expenditure – which, as one of my staff who hails from Kurunagala said, will inevitably lead to efforts to recoup the expenditure, not always through savoury or honest means. Thirdly it leads to those who do well on preferential votes demanding recognition of this through elevation to executive authority – whereas the skills needed to govern are not the same as those needed to win preferences. In turn, those appointed to the executive see their positions mainly as tools to enhance their electoral appeal. Hence endless jobs for their constituents, and not just from constituencies but from whole Districts.

I should add that this is one reason why the North has been neglected with regard to human resources development, a factor I hope government will at least now recognize is essential. Since job procurement is targeted at those whose votes are desired by the various Ministers, the North has been left out of such development since the days when G G Ponnambalam was Minister of Industries. And though large scale infrastructural development is desirable, it must go hand in hand with carefully targeted training for jobs and investment to ensure these, which has sadly not been seen as a priority.

Despite the various reasons that seem so obvious for doing away with the current preferential voting system, it transpired that Dayan Jayatilleke was in favour of continuing with it. His view was that, without it, Justice Wigneswaran and Dayasiri Jayasekara would not have so easily emerged as Chief Ministers, and instead the position would go to yet more representatives of political dynasties. Dayan’s own diagnosis of a major problem the country now faces, an emerging younger generation that relies entirely on the reputation of its elders to get elected, clearly applies however to the preferential system, so I was astonished that he continues to uphold it.

Candidates such as Wigneswaran and Jayasekara would obviously do well under any system, and indeed the proposal Vasantha had made, to have Chief Ministers elected directly by the people, as the President is, would admirably suit such outstanding personalities. The problem with the present system is that voters have three preferences, and they generally give their second and third (if not the first too, when they have no particular predilections and the local candidate is weak) to those whose names they know for various reasons. This is why relations of established politicians do so very well, and also those who manage, for good reasons or bad, to have their names in the news, through appearing on television or being jailed.

At the very least then, if preferential voting on a pure PR system is to go on, the number of preferences should be reduced to one. But given the continuing need to collect votes all over the District, the link that should exist between Member and Constituency is necessarily weakened.

Going hand in hand with the need to change the present system was another area in which Vasantha took up what the three previous comprehensive proposals for constitutional reform had advanced, namely reduction of the size of the Cabinet. Now unfortunately, in complete contravention of the ethos behind an elected Executive President, the Cabinet is seen as simply an extension of Parliament. Indeed many of my colleagues see no reason to be in Parliament unless they have an executive position, which is one reason the Cabinet continues to expand, and why they now seem, if the opposition media is correct, to be pushing for the creation of yet another tier of Ministers.

The problem with this belief is that it does in fact make Parliament a useless institution, being a Member of which makes no sense if one does not hold office. Whereas in other countries Parliamentarians contribute to Consultative and Oversight Committees, in Sri Lanka only a handful of my colleagues bother about these, except to raise parochial issues pertaining to their constitutuents at Consultative Committee meetings. Vasantha’s proposals would therefore help to give teeth to ordinary Parliamentarians, instead of them only hankering after executive office – and achieving it, to the detriment of Cabinet government.

Friday, October 4, 2013 –