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I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.
Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.
In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.
After he won election, Jayewardene ignored his own political theories when he found himself in command of almost absolute power following the massive electoral victory in 1977. He was virtually unquestionable for, along with Senanayake, most of those who had held cabinet office in the 1965 UNP government were dead. Jayewardene was more senior than all those who remained and he soon dismissed his only contemporary, a cabinet minister who had been with him in the 1950s.
The fact that he did not implement his proposals was clearly his own decision rather than the result of political compromise. He probably realised that his control of parliament would be enhanced by continuing the requirement that the cabinet should be drawn from parliament. The executive would not be criticised by members of his own party if they were hoping to join it and if its senior members were present with them in parliament. Another reason may have been that he was winning over members of other parties by offering them executive positions. It would have been embarrassing if they had to vacate their parliamentary seats for this new system, in which case candidates would have had to be nominated to the seats by either Jayewardene himself or the party to which they had originally belonged.
By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.
In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.
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.
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.
In this 8th Chapter of my book on this subject I look at how the majoritarian system of democracy we had in this country contributed to increasing resentment by those who felt shut out of the decision making process. This played out principally with regard to racial differences, where what seemed majoritarianism on the part of successive elected governments contributed to the movement for autonomy and then for secession. But we should also remember that there were deep resentments based on class differences that led to two violent youth insurrections in the seventies and the eighties.
The Official Languages Act
In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He had established the party after leaving the United National party (UNP). During the election campaign he had presented himself as a champion of the common man against the elite who had dominated Sri Lankan politics. But due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism.
Chapter 7 of my book on this subject dealt with the Donoughmore Constitution and its workings. The State Council it had set up achieved a lot but by the forties the Sri Lankan political leadership wanted more. Since, unlike in India, there had been loyal service to the British war effort by Ceylonese political elite, as represented by the Board of Ministers, a commission led by Lord Soulbury was sent to Ceylon to commence discussions on self-government during the war. The ensuring achievement of Independence and the power of the Prime Minister under the Soulbury Constitution was the subject of Chapter 8.
It was D S Senanayake who during the Second World War presided over the negotiations towards independence. Though initially only a larger measure of self-government was being considered by the commission, the logic of history and the imminent independence of India prompted Britain to agree to the request for independence.
The new Constitution, under which Ceylon became independent in February 1948, abolished the State Council, which had encouraged a sense of responsibility regarding government in all members of the legislature. It introduced instead an oppositional system that was based almost entirely on the British cabinet system. After the parliament was elected, the person who commanded the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament was appointed prime minister, and he then appointed a cabinet to exercise executive power.
Chapter 6 of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka dealt with the introduction of Universal Franchise to Sri Lanka, and the beginning of Representative Government. This happened through the Donoughmore Constitution, which gave Sri Lankans a much greater say in government than in any other colony which was not composed largely of European settlers.
The main grievance of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution had been that while the Legislative Council, in theory, had authority over the government through its financial and legislative powers, it had no executive powers. The two representatives in the Executive Council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.
In response to these grievances, Britain sent another commission at the end of that decade to draw up a new constitution. In the 1920s, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, along with at least some members of the cabinet and parliament was keen on reforms in the colonies. The Donoughmore Constitution, as it was known after the Chairman of the Commission, Lord Donoughmore, moved in radical new directions. It introduced universal suffrage, which was opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E.W. Perera, D. B. Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, one of whom was the Labour Party leader, A. E. Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.
Democracy developed apace in Britain in the 19th century, and the Ceylonese began to ask for similar rights for themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was impossible for the British government to refuse such demands. The Liberal Party had returned to office in 1906 and many years, on a reform platform that included reducing the power of the House of Lords, in pursuit of its belief that final decisions should rest with the elected representatives of the people. Though they did not extend democracy on such lines to the colonies, they began a process which did lead to universal franchise in Sri Lanka within a quarter of a century after the reform process began.
McCallum Constitution: The Elective Principle
In 1912, the elective principle was introduced in the Legislative Council. According to the principle just one representative was to be elected by all ‘educated’ Ceylonese. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, perhaps in recognition of his contribution, was voted to this position by a substantial majority in what was a largely Sinhalese electorate. He justified this faith in his representative capabilities when he argued passionately on behalf of the Sinhalese imprisoned by the British after the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. Legend attributes the reaction of the government in Britain to representations made by E.W.Perera, who travelled to England after the riots. But that would have been far too late to save the imprisoned Ceylonese, and in reality it was Ramanathan who did most for the victimised Sinhalese.
Among the prisoners was D. S.Senanayake who later went on to become the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka. The British administration in Colombo was threatening the severest penalties of martial law against him. It was Ramanathan’s spirited attack against the unjustified violence of the British reaction to the riots that roused the attention of the British government. When the British government was informed by telegraph of his protest, it decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach and to recall the then Governor of Ceylon.
These incidents occurred after the Colebrooke Constitution had been replaced by a constitution implemented by Governor McCallum. The franchise, by now, had been extended in Britain to include all adult males and therefore it was believed necessary to provide some concession to the elective principle in Ceylon. It was seen as one of the more advanced colonies, suitable for experiments because of its small size. The Executive Council remained unchanged, but the Legislative Council was expanded to 21, including ten unofficial members, four of whom were to be elected. Of the four elected members two were Europeans, one a Burgher and one an ’educated’ Ceylonese. The other six—three Sinhalese, two Tamils and a Muslim—were to be appointed by the governor.
For the second part of this series, I will follow the system of the book that Cambridge University Press published some years back, and deal with practice in Sri Lanka. At the time I wondered whether I was not being unduly simplistic in spelling out in detail the way in which democracy developed in Sri Lanka. But a decade later, I realize this is essential, for, let alone students, many politicians and even academics cannot connect, and see relationships between basic political principles and what happened in this country – which was often the result of the particular convenience of a few individuals in positions of authority or of influence.
The first Chapter of the Second Part, Chapter 5, is about Power Sharing and Representation. It begins with a quick sketch of Early History before moving on to the development of Representative Institutions in the British period.
Sri Lanka, as most countries of the world, had an autocratic form of government for much of its history. Kings (or sometimes queens) ruled Sri Lanka from well before the Christian era. A change of government meant a change of monarch, often through violence or invasions. Sometimes the country was divided into several small kingdoms, with different kings who were independent of each other. More often, it was unified with one king dominating other rulers who were characterised in different periods as sub-kings or governors.
These kings were given advice and assistance by councils with various responsibilities at the centre. There were also systems of local government, with councils of elders in villages, or councils of various sorts to advise governors of regions. However, all such councils existed at the will of the king, as did the courts. They and the governors were chosen or appointed on the sole authority of the king. Though good rulers took into account the wishes of their people, the idea that the people had a right to choose their rulers never came into play. The only occasions on which the will of the king was not absolute was with regard to succession or appointment of sub-kings, where heredity was crucial. In short, democracy was unheard of as a principle. The Divine Rights Theory of Monarchy based on heredity or conquest held sway in Sri Lanka, as it did in most of the world, for most of its history. Read the rest of this entry »