In this last lap as it were of my discussion of what should have been comprehensive Reform Agenda, I thought it would be instructive to lay down the Reforms that were pledged in the manifesto on which the President won the election, and to explain how they have been ignored. Amongst these perhaps the most significant was the pledge about Electoral Reform, which read as follows –
Wednesday January 28
An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality
This pledge was totally ignored. No all party committee was set up, and no one seemed to have been entrusted with the task. The issue only came to the fore when the Opposition made it clear that that had to go through as well, if support for the 19th amendment was expected. Discussions then started, but many of those involved, politicians as well as officials, noted that the Prime Minister kept stalling. He ignored the clear information the Elections Commissioner gave about how a compromise formula could be implemented swiftly, and kept insisting that the change could not be made in time for his main ambition to be fulfilled, namely having Parliament dissolved on April 23rd. The constant reiteration of that theme and date by his sycophants in his party made clear that that was what they thought the President’s manifesto was about, not the range of reforms that had been put forward.
Sadly the opposition was not quick enough to make the point about the importance of electoral reforms, and it is still on the cards that the UNP will stall them so that the next election too will have to be held under the present system. The pronouncements of its officials suggest that this is the game plan.
Sadly the parties representing minority interests, both ethnic and political, seem to have been employed as tools to wreck the process. Unfortunately they are not pushing the change that would safeguard their interests while also safeguarding the interests of the country, namely asking for two votes for each elector. One would contribute to deciding who represented each constituency on the first past the post system, the second would be for a party to define the final shape of parliament as a whole. This is required to fulfil the commitment in the President’s manifesto, ‘to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’
Ranil’s cynicism was apparent when I brought up this possibility. He claimed that I was the only one who wanted it, and for a moment I thought no one else would speak. Given that our exchange had been in English, doubtless that was what he hoped for, but fortunately everyone there, except obviously the SLFP representative (and for some strange reason Vasudeva Nanayakkara) firmly noted that they thought two votes each as described above were essential. That after all is the only way minority interests will win votes in areas where their candidates would stand no chance of being elected as individuals – which would lead to voters casting their constituency preference for a possible winner.
While electoral reform is at least now on the agenda, we have a stunning silence about what should have been the first change, namely amending Standing Orders. I believe nothing whatsoever would have been done about this, had I not previously had a proposal tabled in Parliament. The former government had stopped it being taken up, and the Speaker had failed to summon the Standing Order Committee. Only Dinesh Gunawardena had tried to push the matter and, after this government took office, Lakshman Kiriella also proved supportive. My proposal was taken up in Parliament and seconded, and it was then required that it be discussed by the Standing Orders Committee.
I was told however that Ranil Wickremesinghe had not wanted the Committee to meet. He claimed he wanted to consult party leaders, which was a tame excuse, and of course he did nothing of the sort. The Speaker last year had delayed my proposal claiming he wanted to consult all parliamentarians. He at least did this, and received replies from just me and one other. Ranil however has kept sedulously silent, even though the first active pledge in the Manifesto was that ‘The Standing Orders will be amended and, in terms of Proposal 67/10 now tabled in Parliament, Oversight Committees will be set up comprising members of Parliament who are not in the Cabinet and their Chairmanship will be given so as to ensure representation of all parties, after consultation with the leaders of all parties represented in Parliament.’
Despite his ignoring this, at my pressing, the Committee did meet, and it decided positively and productively on most of the matters I had raised. But one important matter was not taken up, because it was claimed that the Prime Minister had suggestions to make.
These had been entrusted to Priyani Wijeyesekera, the former Secretary General who had subsequently been appointed to the Working Committee of the UNP. When I asked her, she said a draft was ready, and gave me a copy. But it was not submitted to the Committee, because the Prime Minister had told her to wait until the 19th Amendment was passed. And meanwhile the Committee has not met, since February, so we cannot move forward.
The consensus we reached would have been forgotten, had Ranil had his way on dissolving Parliament. This is a pity, because we had agreed on mechanisms to strengthen the Finance Oversight Committees and having the Opposition chair them, on introducing an external judicial element into the impeachment process, on ensuring that the Executive responds to recommendations of Parliamentary Committees, of introducing sanctions against Ministers who do not answer questions, all essential if Parliament is to be strengthened.
But clearly strengthening Parliament, which is vital if the overwhelming power of the Executive is to be controlled, is not to the taste of the Prime Minister and his cabal.
It was clear then from the manner in which the Prime Minister and Jayampathy Wickremaratne ignored the vast majority of pledges about reform in the Presidential manifesto that introducing systemic change was not on their agenda. This was bad enough. But even worse was their single minded effort to transfer Executive Power wholesale to the Prime Minister, and the various subterfuges they engaged in for this purpose.
As noted, Jayampathy had announced that there was a plan to transfer powers to the Prime Minister the very day after the Presidential Election if Maithripala Sirisena were successful. He said a Bill to this effect was being prepared and would be made public. He was persuaded not to go ahead with this idea, since it would ensure victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa, but obviously he took no notice of the second argument, that it would be immoral to ask people to vote for one person and then hand over power to another.
And so what Ranil and Jayampathy did, in pursuit of their priority, was to take on themselves alone the task of drafting the 19th Amendment, without the involvement of a representative National Advisory Committee as had been pledged.