The Political Column

5th March 1999

If there's no two-thirds, there are several ways

By our Political Correspondent

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The UNP has at last taken a clear stand on the executive presidency the topic of a lively debate in the country. It now calls for the abolition of the executive presidency.

What prompted this volte face is a realisation that the executive presidential system stymies the main opposition party's attempts to come to power.

UNP parliamentarian Mahinda Samarasinghe, a vociferous critic of the executive presidency, says the system should be abolished since the powers and privileges associated with it have been misused by the incumbent.

It appears that the UNP has at last realised how draconian the system could be, given the enormous powers that surround the executive presidency. But when the UNP was the ruling party, it failed to realise the ill-effects of the system. It took six years in opposition for it to realise how authoritarian the system could be.

Mr. Samarasinghe has been consistent in his opposition to the executive presidency. But the same could not be said about the UNP's position.

At one stage, Gamini Dissanayake, UNP's candidate at the 1994 presidential election, advocated the abolition of the executive presidency. But with his death just before the 1994 election, the whole scenario changed. The new opposition and party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was a keen advocate of the presidential system introduced by former President J. R. Jayewardene in 1978.

Till the defeat at the 1999 presidential election, the UNP defended the executive presidency, probably due to a belief that the mantle would be passed on to Mr. Wickremesinghe. When Chandrika Kumaratunga retained the presidency, the UNP probably felt that it could not suffer another six years in opposition with the most powerful executive presidency being held by its main political rival.

It has now come to realise that the executive presidency is the main symptom of the political ills of the country and it calls for the return to the Westminster system which existed in different forms from 1947 to 1978.

In August 1994, when the PA was elected to office by a slim majority, the UNP thought that it would be in the best interest of the party that they should support the abolition of the executive presidency.

UNP stalwarts such as Gamini Dissanayake, Ronnie de Mel, K. N. Choksy and former Attorney General Tilak Marapana met President D. B. Wijetunga to express their views. Mr. de Mel suggested that the UNP should cooperate with the new government to help it abolish the executive presidency a promise the PA made during the hustings. Mr. Choksy and Mr. Marapana said the abolition of the presidency could not be done in a hurry because it required major constitutional amendments that needed to be effected after much public debate.

Mr. Dissanayake had later met the then prime minister, Chandrika Kumaratunga, at constitutional expert Neelan Tiruchelvam's residence in Colombo and offered his support to the government to scrap the executive presidency. But Ms. Kumaratunga was reportedly wary about the UNP's offer.

The issue of the executive presidency was also discussed by the SLFP, the main constituent party of the People's Alliance before the 1994 general elections. Though there was some acceptance of the system within the party, party stalwarts sought modifications to the presidency to make it accountable and answerable to parliament.

The SLFP also advocated that Article 42 of the 1978 constitution should be amended to read that the president was not only responsible but also answerable to parliament.

Under Article 42, answerability can be achieved in two ways by (1) assigning to the prime minister the function of answering all matters pertaining to the exercise of powers, authorities, responsibilities of the president in parliament and (2) by the president himself attending parliament in terms of Article 32 (3) to deal with any matters himself as he considers necessary or important.

The UNP's position till 1994 had been that the executive presidential system functioned well for 15 years, contributing towards the political stability and economic growth of the country.

The system has also helped to balance the conflicting interests of the different ethnic and religious groups. The UNP, therefore, advocated its continuity in whatever form whether elected directly by the people or by parliament as suggested by President Wijetunga.

But today, the situation has changed. The UNP is calling for the abolition of the executive presidency while the PA wants to continue the executive presidency for the next six years on the basis that it had won a mandate from the people to rule the country under the system for six years.

But what is important in this whole exercise is that if the government wants to abolish the executive presidency, it should do so without serving the interests of individuals because eventually any system serves the people and not the individuals.

Thus, if this government is keen on abolishing the executive presidency, it should do it immediately without resorting to transitional provisions to continue with the presidency for six more years. The executive president could become an executive prime minister with the introduction of the constitution. She need not wait till the next general elections under the new constitution to become the executive prime minister. If the UNP is elected to parliament under the new constitution, according to which the presidency will end in 2005, it could create a constitutional crisis with both the President and Prime Minister exercising executive powers.

Despite its drawbacks, the executive system has its plus points as well. For instance, the whole country participates in the election of the president. Thus the system helps defuse claims for sectarianism.

In this context minority political parties view the executive presidency as a vital organ in the Sri Lankan body politic. One such party is the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which feels the UNP is trying to exploit a possible chaotic situation with the introduction of the new constitution.

SLMC parliamentarian M. M. Zuhair says as a minority party, the SLMC wants to see this happen. He says if the UNP does not support the government's constitutional reforms which now include some UNP proposals as well, there is a way out.

Mr. Zuhair has already brought it to the notice of government circles. He says a two-thirds majority in parliament would not be necessary to include several provisions on devolution. If the government thinks that it would be difficult to obtain the UNP's cooperation, it could amend the chapter which contains the 13th amendment with a simple majority. To back up his argument, Mr. Zuhair cites Section 154 G (2) which states:

"No bill for the amendment or repeal of the provisions of this chapter or the 9th schedule becomes law unless such bill has been referred by the president after its publication in the gazette and before it is placed on the Order Paper of parliament, to every provincial council for the expression of its views thereon within such periods as may be specified in the reference and

a) where every such council agrees to the amendment or repeal such bill is passed by a majority of the members of parliament present and voting."

This means that the provisions in this Chapter could be amended with a simple majority to include the government proposals on devolution.

Mr. Zuhair has shed new light as far as devolution proposals are concerned. Another option, according to Mr. Zuhair, is the constituent assembly which could repeal the whole constitution and replace it with another.

If the UNP's cooperation is not forthcoming, the government is seriously considering the adoption of these methods to bring in the new formula which the government thinks would help to end the ethnic crisis in the country.

But at this stage, the government should also be mindful of the Indian factor. India, as a regional power, should be kept informed of all developments regarding devolution proposals and peace moves. It should not be forgotten that it was with India's good offices that in 1987 President Jayewardene tried to bring about a solution to the ethnic crisis. The success of using Norway as a facilitator depends on India's support for the move.

Since the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, India's policy towards Sri Lanka has changed. For India, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran is nothing more than a fugitive. Thus India's assistance is necessary for any peace deal to come into action. May be this could be the reason that the Sri Lankan government has hurried through the Indo-Sri Lanka trade pact.

India's role in Sri Lanka has also gained some international legitimacy, as was seen during the 1987 pact.

The United States backed India and even pledged assistance if it needed to bring about a peaceful settlement to Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. James Spain, US ambassador in Sri Lanka, was directed by the US State Department to personally hand over a fax message from US president Ronald Reagan to Rajiv Gandhi who was in Colombo. When Mr. Spain asked Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit whether he could meet Mr. Gandhi, he was told that the Prime Minister was on a tight schedule and an appointment could not be granted. But when Mr. Spain asked whether he could go with him to meet him, Mr. Dixit agreed.

Mr. Spain handed over the fax message to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, saying the original would be delivered at the Prime Minister's office in Delhi. The message congratulated the Indian Prime Minister for the steps taken to normalise the situation in Sri Lanka and contained a US pledge of support if India needed to implement the Indo-Lanka accord.

In the circumstances, it is quite evident now that India cannot be ignored in the peace process if Sri Lanka is to enter into a negotiated settlement with the LTTE with Norway as a facilitator.

Beside this, remarks made by Minister S. B. Dissanayake at an architects' forum have created an upheaval in the political atmosphere. Minister Dissanayake has allegedly said: "If we cannot obtain the required two-thirds majority for the constitutional reforms, we will close down parliament for a short time and convene it as a constituent assembly, and if required close down courts and implement the reforms."

The alleged utterances provoked the Supreme Court judges to react. They wrote to the Chief Justice and asked him to determine whether the alleged remarks constituted contempt of court.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva directed the Supreme Court registrar to act on the matter and obtain an affidavit from the Editor of The Sunday Times which carried the minister's remarks in a front page story.

The alleged remarks made by the minister will be examined by the Attorney General to determine whether charges could be framed against the minister.

In the meantime, in a media release the minister who expressed his regrets to the judges and the judiciary for any pain caused, blames The Sunday Times for distorting his speech.

The Dissanayake fiasco figured in parliament on Thursday when the chief opposition Whip W. J. M. Lokubandara moved an adjournment motion condemning the remarks allegedly made by the sports minister. But Minister G. L. Peiris gave a firm assurance to the members of parliament that neither the parliament nor the courts would be closed down.

But UNP's A. H. M. Azwer said he wanted to know as to which minister was speaking the truth. He pointed out that Minister Dissanayake's speech had let the cat out of the bag and wanted to know to whom the cat belonged and told the House that since the presidential secretariat had not contradicted Minister Dissanayake's alleged remarks he could fathom as to whom the cat belongs.

In the meantime, the UNP is planning to move a motion seeking the appointment of a select committee to probe the conduct of the minister and his alleged utterances.

Mr. Lokubandara, Tyronne Fernando and Henry Jayamaha had been assigned with the task of drafting the resolution before being vetted by party legal consultant K. N. Choksy. They are likely to move this as a resolution from the whole opposition with other political parties also joining hands with the UNP. The resolution may come up in parliament next week.

In another development, a World Bank sponsored seminar on good governance was held at Colombo Hilton. Attending the meeting were Deputy Minister Reggie Ranatunga, parliamentarians Upali Gunaratne, Ravi Karunanayake, Pradeep Hapangama, Rohan Abeysekera, M. M. Zuhair, the Auditor General and several senior government officials.

The objective of the seminar was to have a proper idea as to how the World Bank funds have been disbursed by the recipient countries. The World Bank representative was of the view that no country had done it properly up to date.

Mr. Karunanayake told the seminar it was good to monitor the disbursement of funds to obtain their maximum utilisation. It should be for the betterment of the country and democratic values. The World Bank representative then said that it was their idea, too.

Mr. Karunanayake said he wanted to raise this in parliament but his motion has been lying for a long time in the order book.

"I have also suggested that the proceedings of the Committee on Public Enterprises be opened to the media," he said.

Mr. Ranatunga, who is the COPE Chairman, endorsed his views.

Apart from these, both the government and the opposition are getting ready for the next parliamentary elections.

The UNP has appointed a 16-member select committee for this purpose encompassing the old guard of the party.

The select committee comprises party leader Wickremesinghe, Karu Jaysuriya, Gamini Atukorale, W. J. M. Lokubandara, Tyronne Fernando, P. Dayaratne, Dharmadasa Banda, Ronnie de Mel, Festus Perera, M. H. Mohamed, Rukman Senanayake, Jayawickrema Perera, H. M. S. Adhikari, Alick Aluvihare, Renuka Herath and Ananda Kulasinghe.

Correction

In this column last week, we inadvertently said Tilanga Sumathipala defeated Upali Dharmadasa in the contest for the Cricket Board presidency last year. It was Cliford Ratwatte who was defeated.

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