It is not likely that the President will be awakened swiftly from the enchantment cast upon him by his closest advisers. However, if and when he does realize that a change is essential if he is to preserve not just his legacy, but even perhaps his Presidency, he has some obviously desirable remedies to hand.
For though the Parliamentary Select Committee has thus far achieved nothing, it has had some very sensible proposals brought before it by moderates within government. The Liberal Party made suggestions made on its experience of acting as a link between successive governments and representatives of Tamil parties, but even more important were the suggestions made by Vasantha Senanayake on behalf of a group of young politicians and professionals. Subsequently the Liberal Party, after studying the proposals, wrote to the PSC endorsing them.
Vasantha was the scion of a great political family. His great grandfather D S Senanayake had been Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, and his great uncle Dudley had been elected Prime Minister three times. Both had presided over Cabinets with representation from popular Tamil political parties.
Vasantha however had left the United National Party, which his great grand father had founded, and now sat in Parliament as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to which the President belonged. He, like many other promising youngsters, had been sidelined by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had, on the pattern of his mother’s cousin, J R Jayewardene, wanted absolute control of his party, and thought ability less important than personal loyalty.
Vasantha’s promise had been recognized soon after the election by embassies seeking to expand their influence in Sri Lanka, and he had been in effect the leader of groups of young Members of Parliament taken on study tours of both Britain and the United States. The former visit had involved meetings with the diaspora, and after their return the group, the Young Parliamentary Leaders Forum as it called itself, had produced a position paper on promoting Reconciliation.
This was ignored by the President’s Office but on the basis of that, and further discussions with young professionals, Vasantha had put forward a set of suggestions to the PSC. These had been welcomed by the few members who bothered to attend the PSC, but unfortunately they had not taken matters further. An interim report putting forward recommendations for immediate implementation might have given a new lease of life to the PSC, but unfortunately its membership seemed unlikely to act unless on the specific instructions of the President.
The strength of Vasantha’s proposals lay in their addressing the many political problems the country faced by seeking primarily to assuage the fears felt by either side. At the same time, they tried to lay down principles of efficiency and accountability that would improve governance and thereby get rid of efforts on all sides to increase power at the expense of all other stakeholders. One vital principle in this regard was the separation of powers, given the manner in which executive authority had turned in Sri Lanka to being primarily a vehicle for winning elections, through patronage and uncoordinated expenditure.
The proposals also sought to use principles in the existing constitution to overcome the deadlock caused by each side trying to be master. So they emphasized the importance of the clear statement in the constitution that National Policy on all matters belonged to the Central government. So, while the Constitution mentioned that land and police powers belonged to the Provinces, Vasantha noted that with regard to these
National land policy to be developed prior to passing of new legislation at any level with regard to land. The National Policy shall clearly set out the mechanism of central government monitoring the implementation of the policy and ensuring corrective action if the policy is breached. Foreign ownership of land shall be approved directly ONLY by the president.
Law and Order:
The Provincial police force shall come directly under the Provincial Police Commission. National Policy on Police powers shall be developed prior to the assumption of the police powers by the Provinces. The National Policy shall clearly set out the mechanism of central government monitoring the implementation of the policy and ensuring corrective action if the policy is breached.
With regard to Provincial Councils, the proposals took note of the fact that they were widely seen as white elephants, with unnecessary expenditure on elections and a host of members who simply added another layer of patronage, without contributing to policy making or to coordinated development. They suggested therefore that the Councils should be elected indirectly, from the Local Government bodies in the Province.
This had been mooted previously, by President Premadasa, but it had been rejected by the Tamil parties since it would take away from the prestige and authority of an elected Provincial administration. But Vasantha’s proposals overcame that objection by having the Chief Minister elected direct by the Province. This was appropriate given the great powers wielded by a Chief Minister – but the proposals also helped him to exercise those powers effectively by allowing him to choose professionals rather than politicians with their own agendas for his Cabinet.
Significantly, the recently elected Northern Province Minister, himself a former Judge rather than a professional politician, had shown the way forward by appointing a doctor and a professional educationist as Ministers of Health and Education respectively. The initiatives they put forward soon after taking office testified to what technocrats might achieve, in contrast to the politicians who occupied these positions in other Provinces.
The relevant sections of the proposals were as follows –
The Provincial Council:
The Provincial Council shall consist of the Chief Minister; and one member elected by every Local Government institution within the Province to the Council. This can be done through amending the Provincial Councils act.
Chief Minister shall be elected directly by the people and along with the 5 Board of Ministers appointed by the Chief Minister approved by the PC shall exercise executive power for the province. Members of the Board of Ministers shall not be Members any other legislative elected body, and shall not undertake any other employment. Any Member of such an elected body who assumes duty as a member of the Board of Ministers shall cease to be a member of such body.
This last provision applied also to the Cabinet of the country. Vasantha thus addressed a fundamental problem in the Constitution imposed by Jayewardene, namely that it combined an Executive Presidency with the Westminster model of the Cabinet, which confined the Cabinet to Members of Parliament (and without the provision other Westminster type constitutions have of providing for talent to enter Parliament through a Second Chamber).
Such an arrangement does not occur with any other serious Presidential system in the world, and the fact that this anomaly has not been explored by academics in Sri Lanka says much about the generally passive nature of universities and what passes for political analysis. The fact that a Presidential system needs supervision and monitoring by the legislature, and that this is impossible if the most prominent members of the Legislature are part of the Executive, has been ignored in the literature on the subject, beginning with the shameful apology for Jayewardene penned by a supposedly distinguished academic, Prof A J Wilson, in The Gaullist Constitution of Sri Lanka.
Typically, the sycophantic Wilson later ended up a strong supporter of the LTTE. Conversely, those opposed to the Presidential system kept parroting that we should return to the Westminster system without recognizing that, as party control of parliamentarians increased, it was increasingly difficult to ensure supervision by the Legislature of the Executive. In Sri Lanka it was well nigh impossible, since the head of the Executive, whether President or Prime Minister, was able to stifle dissent by offering Cabinet membership.
In bringing our Presidential system in line with those in place in the United States of France or Russia, Vasantha also emphasized the need for accountability to the Legislature –
Cabinet of Ministers:
Members of the Cabinet shall not be Members of Parliament or any other elected legislative body/council, and shall not undertake any other employment. Any Member of Parliament or other elected body who assumes a Cabinet portfolio shall cease to be a member of such body.
Members of the Cabinet of Ministers shall be accountable to the Parliament and shall
a. attend the consultative committee of the Ministry he is responsible for, held once in every month
b. answer any question raised by Parliament on the matters related to his Ministry
c. present financial estimates at such committees and answer and discuss such estimates and accounts at these meetings.
He also limited the size of the Cabinet, a measure that is essential even if the present system continues or if the Westminster system is restored. This particular provision is so important that he has currently proposed an amendment to the Constitution on these lines –
The Cabinet shall consist of not more than 25 Ministers.