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I had intended, in what was to be the last article in this series, to look at the question of external security, and how to work towards bipartisan consensus in the conduct of international relations, so that the nation as a whole is strengthened. At present, on the contrary, we seem, while pursuing partisan political agendas, to allow ourselves to become the playthings of other countries.
Instead of that however, in what will be the last article in this series, I will look at what seems an even more vital issue in the context of the events of last week, namely the question of internal party democracy. That question has been raised by others too previously, but the dismissal by the President of two party secretaries off his own bat has highlighted the problem of intra-party decision making.
Those who defend the actions of the President claim that he was under great pressure, both political and emotional, but even they feel that the actions took away from the great reputation for decency that he had established. And in the long run, given the way the results worked out, it has taken away from what would have been his stature in presiding over a national government. It is still not too late to develop a national consensus, but everyone will have to work all the harder for this purpose if we are to avoid confrontational oppositioning.
The last chapter of my book dealt with election systems, a matter of particular concern today, when we are conducting an election under a system that is universally condemned. One of the most serious tragedies of the Sirisena Presidency thus far is the failure of those to whom he entrusted the reforms he had promised to work immediately (as promised in the manifesto) on electoral reforms. It seems he tried his best, but was defeated by the intransigence of the UNP, and its fear of both the COPE Report and possible No Confidence Motions.
First-Past-the Post System
Reform has been an urgency for a long time, for Sri Lanka was singularly unlucky in the election systems it has adopted over the years. Initially it had the first-past-the-post system used in Britain, whereby the country was divided into constituencies which elected members by a simple majority. In Sri Lanka a few constituencies had more than one member. This was designed to ensure representation of different communities where they were mixed up together so that two separate constituencies would not have served the purpose. Thus, Akurana usually elected one Sinhala and one Muslim member, while Nuwara Eliya, which became a multi-member constituency for the 1977 election, had one representative each of the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).
In general, however (as opposed to the few multi-member constituencies) the philosophy was that those who won, by however small a margin, took it all. In Britain, the effect of this is mitigated because there are certain constituencies which always stay with one party, so that a party that loses the election still has substantial strength in parliament. In Sri Lanka, however, where most constituencies are what are termed marginals, that is, a small shift either way changes the result, the two major parties found themselves reduced to very small numbers when they lost an election. Thus, the UNP got eight seats out of 101 in 1956 and 17 out of 157 in 1970, while the SLFP had eight out of 168 in 1977. Conversely, the party that won had a massive majority, even though its share of the national vote was just around 50 per cent.
Both in 1970 and in 1977 these massive majorities enabled the party in power to do virtually anything it wanted, including the introduction of new constitutions that represented their narrow interests, and the extension of the term of parliament. It is conceivable that in 1970 those who perpetrated this injustice actually believed in the slogan that parliament was supreme, in that it represented the people. The constitutional principle that representatives elected by the people for a particular period cannot deprive the people of their basic rights was not recognised by them.
Proportional Representation System
J.R. Jayewardene, who presided over the 1977 government and its majoritarian excesses, understood the need for better representation and more safeguards. In his new constitution he introduced proportional representation. He instituted an election system for the future where voting was according to districts. The quota of seats for the district was divided according to the proportion of votes each party got within that district as a whole. In that system, a majority of two-thirds in parliament would mean the mandate of a high percentage of the population. The special measures passed by such a parliament would enjoy the support of representatives of well over half the population. However, he passed several measures with the two-thirds majority he had obtained under the earlier system, including a bill to amend the Constitution to extend the term of that parliament by a further six years.
Initially, the system of proportional representation Jayewardene introduced simply required voters to select a party. The seats the party won would be allocated to its candidates according to their position in the party list. However, in the first election held under that system—the election for District Development Councils in 1981—Jayewardene realised its drawbacks. Those who were not placed high in the party list found out that they could not be elected. Sometimes they crossed over to another party, which would place them high in their list. If they remained on the list, they did not bother to canvass for votes.
Jayewardene, therefore, amended the legislation to allow the voter three choices for selecting candidates on the list. In principle, the idea of allowing the voter choice was a good one, but allowing one choice per voter would have been enough. Candidates could then have campaigned in designated areas against candidates of the opposing party. By allowing three choices, Jayewardene ensured, not only that all candidates would campaign actively all over the district, but also that they campaigned against the other members of their own parties.
Though he succeeded in his aim, it was at a great cost to the country. To cover an entire district in active campaigning required a lot of money, and soon it became apparent that those who did not have massive resources had to acquire them, in order to stay in the race. Thus, after an election candidates made it their first priority to recover the money they had spent. There was greater opportunity for corruption and increased instances of violence. Paid workers of political parties, for instance, who were traditionally plied with liquor, often turned violent in the process of putting up posters or tearing down those of other candidates, especially those of their own party.
Other aspects of the legislation introduced by Jayewardene with regard to elections were also faulty. One provision was that any member of parliament who ceased to be a member of the party from which he had been elected would automatically lose his seat. The argument was that, since a member was elected only by virtue of a vote for the party, he had no individual right to remain as a representative if he no longer belonged to the party. This provision was, however, implemented even for members of the 1977 parliament who had been elected from constituencies as individuals. However, those who had crossed over from the opposition to his party were retained in parliament through a special constitutional amendment. And even when the system of choices within the proportional representation system was introduced, the provision that candidates would lose their seat if they were no longer in the party was retained.
One reason Jayewardene had introduced the provision of losing a seat upon change of party for that it enabled him to exercise a tight control over his party members. While it could be argued that members of political parties should not be allowed to change sides—Jayewardene had first hand experience of the implications of this, since he had been closely associated with the offering of bribes that brought down Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first government in 1964—the provision entailed that members expelled by their party also lost their seats. Thus, by threatening expulsion against anyone who did not toe the party line, Jayewardene ensured absolute obedience to the party. By the party was meant allegiance to Jayewardene himself as party leader, since there has never been a tradition of internal party democracy in Sri Lankan political parties.
One of the promises in the President’s manifesto which was broken was that relating to the Right to Information Bill. The manifesto pledged that the Bill would be introduced on the 20th of February and passed within three weeks. Some sort of leeway was also given, because it was actually a month later, on the 20th of March, that it was pledged the Bill would be passed.
There is no excuse whatsoever for having failed to get this done. True, the Right to Information was incorporated in the Constitution in April, but this needed to be fleshed out through a Bill. Such a Bill was indeed drafted, and circulated at the beginning of April, so I assumed all would be well. I found the draft generally satisfactory, though I suggested some changes to extend its scope, including posting electronically for the information of the public ‘the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million…… Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.’
Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Island in the Sun’ is perhaps the best piece of political satire written in this country. It has graphic desctiptions of the politicians of the nineties, with Sir John Kotelawala for instance being the Rogue Elephant and Dudley Senanayake the Tired Tortoise. J R Jayewardene was the Seethala Kotiya, a description that perhaps would not fit his nephew, familiarly known as ‘Poos’ in the family, a milder member of the Cat family.
But there is another description that fits Ranil well too, given the strange goings on at the Central Bank. Tarzie suggested that R G Senanayake could not move straight even when that was the easiest thing to do. So now we find that, what might have been an understandable – if capital friendly – change of policy was not done direct as a principled man like Eran Wickremaratne might have done. Rather there was clandestine activity which, in a Watergate style operation, has been concealed so that the ugly truth emerges only gradually.
In my book on Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, which Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a decade or so back, I wrote that ‘Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people.’ People needed to ensure their safety from external threats, and they also needed security from others within the community. For the latter they needed laws to govern relations internally, with mechanisms to defend against attacks from outside – though initially these were not subject to law.
Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. So in many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Ministry for this purpose.
The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.
In the second section of chapter 8 of my book on this subject, I look at how the initially peaceful agitation for devolution turned to violence. This was despite a measure of autonomy finally being granted to elected bodies at local levels during the eighties.
District Development Councils and their Shortcomings
In the 1970s, the various Tamil parties came together to form a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). They fought the next election by asserting the right of Tamil-speaking people to self-determination, with reference in particular to the northern and eastern provinces. Initially, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the party of the Indian Tamils who worked on the plantations in the centre of the country, was also part of the TULF. The TULF won an overwhelming majority of seats in the north and the east in the 1977 election, and emerged as the major opposition party. The constituent parties of the USA, having parted company in 1975, were decimated.
Seeing all the posters asserting that ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen was murdered, I was struck by the similarity to the allegations made when Chandrika Kumaratunga was President regarding Batalanda. The Sunday Leader in December 2001, soon after the UNP won the election she had called, wrote
‘The legacy of evil that Kumaratunga has left behind is so rich that she is driven to defend her turf with all the tenacity she can muster. This is in part the genesis of her evil rhetoric in recent days, with talk of murders, plots and killing’.
The Sunday Times had the same idea about President Kumaratunga, and highlighted three occasions on which she came out with very harsh allegations about her then great enemy, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In August 2010 it noted that ‘Even those with short memories will recall that it was only a few weeks prior to the presidential election in December 1999 that the Batalanda Commission report was released to the media’.
That report was very hard on Ranil Wickremesinghe, but President Kumaratunga did nothing about it. This may of course have been because of the terrible injuries she suffered at Tiger hands just before the election. But by the time of the parliamentary election in October 2000, she was ready to resume the charge. In August of that year the Times reported the return of Douglas Peiris who had given evidence against Ranil as follows – ‘The ‘arrest’ of Peiris will surely be a prelude to major onslaught on Ranil Wickremesinghe linking him to the alleged atrocities committed at the so-called torture chamber in Batalanda.
The language is interesting. I have no idea whether Ranil was responsible in any way for what happened at Batalanda and would prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing how readily Chandrika jumped to conclusions and then found evidence to support her prejudices. One has only to remember her claim that it was the UNP that killed Vijaya Kumaratunga, which paved the way for her to enter into an alliance with the JVP, an alliance that now seems to have been renewed, though the common enemy now is the SLFP rather than the UNP. But even assuming as I would like to do that Ranil was not guilty of the atrocities at Batalanda, there is no doubt that atrocities did occur there, the death of Wijeyadasa Liyanaarachchi being only the most prominent amongst many horrors.
An ambassador who seems to understand this country well said recently that he thought the greatest mistake this government had made was to let me go. I have to admit though that that was probably more flattering than accurate. One can see rather that the greatest mistake was to ignore completely the manifesto on which the President had won the election, and instead assume it was about two things and two things alone – the abolition of the Executive Presidency and having an election after 100 days.
Unfortunately now the government will be remembered for just two things, one the laudable reduction in the authoritarian powers of the Presidency, the second the Central Bank Bond Scam. But there was much else in the manifesto that could easily have been implemented in the almost six months which the government had before Parliament was dissolve.
I have already looked at the seven broken promises with regard to reform that were mentioned in the 100 day programme, viz
1) Electoral Reform
2) Amendment of Standing Orders
3) The Right to Information Act
4) The new Audit Act
5) A Code of Conduct
6) A Cabinet of not more than 25 members representing all political parties in Parliament
7) A National Advisory Council including all political parties in Parliament
The last three of these did not require a Parliamentary majority, and three of the others could have been passed with a simple majority. But the failure to develop consensus on issues of common national interest, and instead concentrate on Ministries for one party, and the perks that went with these, led to disaster.
Those blunders are obvious. For the next couple of weeks I shall look at some of the excellent ideas in the manifesto that were completely ignored. The total failure of this government to entrench better systems of government, based on ideas that had been canvassed for a long time but which had not been taken forward, must be registered, and I hope the government elected in August will move swiftly on such matters.
One of the most innovative ideas in the manifesto occurred in the section entitled ‘An advanced and responsible public sector’. The second bullet point there read, ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’
Though I used the word innovative, in fact this represents a recognition of reality. A hundred years ago, when the British began to think of appointing Sri Lankan Government Agents, the Province was obviously the practical unit of administration. But as populations grew and the business of government expanded, the District became more important and accordingly Government Agents were appointed to Districts too. Now however, with so much more to do and for so many more people, it is the Divisional Secretariat that has to initiate and oversee action in most particulars. Unfortunately we are still stuck in hidebound systems, and Divisional Secretaries do not have the decision making powers they need. In addition, many government departments are not well represented in the Division, which leads to long delays with regard to action, let alone decisions.
After the problems I had noted in the North and East, I discussed the matter with those with experience in the field including the immensely knowledgeable Asoka Gunawardena and the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Mr Abeykoon, who is now the Secretary to the President. We then approached the UN, which set up a consultancy, and last year we got a comprehensive report from Asoka on ‘Improving Service Delivery in the Divisions’. Unfortunately, when the election season set in, the Secretary put the matter on hold. Though Karu Jayasuriya was initially keen to take things forward, it turned out that he was not the responsible Minister, given the manner in which Public Administration had been carved up. I did mention the matter to the Minister responsible, but such reforms are not really his concern, and in the mad rush for elections the matter had been forgotten.
After the election I hope a concerted effort will be made to move forward in this area. It is important to make sure however that this is done with provision to consult the people, something the last President pledged which was not done. Mr Abeykoon had set the process in motion, through a circular that instructed Grama Niladharis to chair the Civil Defence Committee meetings in their GN Divisions, but this has not really taken off. Clear instructions are needed as to how the ideas brought up at consultative meetings should be taken forward (something that can be improved in Parliament too, where minutes are not promptly circulated and action points rarely recorded). This was planned, but elections intervened.
At the last meeting of the Home Affairs Consultative Committee in Parliament, this being the Ministry entrusted with District and Divisional Administration, I brought the matter up, only to find that the Minister and the new Secretary knew nothing about this. They had not been briefed, but the Minister promised to look into the matter, and I hope that he will find some time during electioneering to at least ensure that a position paper is prepared for him, or for his successor.
Meanwhile, nothing has been done in the last couple of years with regard to the other area of governance that is closest to the people. I refer to the work of elected officials, namely the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha and his team. At present their functions are confused, because there have been significant changes in the manner in which these are organized – utilities for instance are supposed to be their responsibility, but both water and electricity require much central government involvement.
Because of all this a new Local Government Act was being prepared, and with the blessings of the Minister, the Secretary gave me a copy of the draft for comment. I found it a great improvement on what we have now, but thought there should be entrenchment of consultation procedures, with the advisory committees to local bodies being composed of representatives of community organizations, not appointees of those in political authority.
The Secretary, one of the brightest of our Civil Servants, Mr Ranawaka, took the ideas on board, but he was then entrusted with other responsibilities and the Act seemed to have been forgotten. But if good governance is to become a reality, the next government should study the current situation, with the help of Asoka Goonewardene’s comprehensive report, and set in place systems to ensure that people have ready access to the services government should provide at local level.
The last conference I attended was in the North East of India, where the topics encapsulated in the title of Prof. Hettige’s book loomed large. The same issues that bedevil development questions in this country were apparent there, and could be summed up perhaps in one word, namely consultation.
I was asked, earlier this week, to speak on the ‘Nexus between Development and Governance; a Sri Lankan Perspective’ at the launch of Prof. Siri Hettige’s latest book, ‘Governance, Conflict and Development in South Asia: Perspectives from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka’. This is in fact a collection of essays, co-edited by Prof. Hettige, bringing together the proceedings of a series of discussions on the subject.
I must confess that I went through only the essays on Sri Lanka, which is a shortcoming, but I should add that I thought it best to concentrate on this country, given the crisis we are going through. Prof. Hettige made some admirable points, though he did so with the detached dignity of an academic, whereas in the current context there might have been a case for a more aggressive approach. But since the essays were written some time back, and the book was a record of what had taken place, I must grant that it would have been difficult to be creatively topical.
In the last few articles in this series, before we know whether or not the Reforms this country needs will be taken forward or not, I will continue to look at the pledges in the President’s manifesto which have been ignored. The most important had to do with structural and political reforms, and of these the Government only bothered about one, leaving half a dozen undone.
But there were also very practical measures, which are equally important if we are to develop as our people deserve. Way back in the seventies the Economist I think described us as the only underdeveloped country that was still under-developing, and in 2001, the then Australian ambassador said he had never known a country go backwards so quickly, as we had done, during the period he had been here. That was one reason that motivated me to vote for the UNP in the December Election, though the way the LTTE ran circles round the government that took over soon caused worry. Still, I think it was a good thing we had a change then, since I think it also put the SLFP, in its PA incarnation which then changed to UPFA, back on its toes.
Development, when he experienced it, came largely through construction, as with D. S. Senanayake and his dams, the Mahaweli in JR’s time, and then the devotion to infrastructural development in rural areas under both Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But while we must continue grateful to the last, both for bringing us security, and for his development programmes, in the last couple of years it became clear that not enough was being done with regard to Human Resource Development.