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20th June 1999

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A Review of the Sinhala Commission's proposals for a new Constitution

Ethnic conflict: change the system

By Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake

The Sinhala Commission as well as all those who supported it were strongly opposed to both the Government's devolution package as well as to Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris's draft constitution which proposed to convert Sri Lanka into a federal state. The reasons for this opposition were given in detail in the two Reports issued by the Commission, namely the Interim Report dealing with the devolution package and subsequent Report (Part 1) dealing inter alia with the proposed Constitution.

One criticism that has been levelled at the Sinhala Commission is that its role has been destructive rather than constructive, that it has only indulged in destructive criticism of what its proponents say is a genuine attempt to solve the problems facing this country with no proposals of its own for solving these problems. Here we have the Sinhala Commission's answer to these criticisms.

Before we proceed to consider and evaluate the proposals put forward by the Sinhala Commission it is necessary to examine the political situation in the country today. The political system today is one that was foisted on us by our colonial masters being a replica of the one that operates in Britain, the so-called "Westminster System."

The main feature of this system that we wish to draw attention to, is its confrontational character. The central legislature is composed of a governing party and one or more opposing parties. As indicative of the confrontational nature of this system, there is an officially recognised "Leader of the Opposition".

The function of the opposition is to oppose all measures put forward by the government even if they feel in their heart of hearts, that these measures, are desirable in the interests of the nation.

This confrontational character of the system is portrayed by the very seating arrangements in the chamber of Parliament where members of the government and opposition sit in serried ranks facing each other like two armies arrayed for battle. And they certainly do engage in battle with each other, even though it be only with verbal bullets.

This is the system, complete with political parties, that has been foisted on our country and our people. While this system may suit the British who evolved it in keeping with their culture and ethos over a period of centuries starting from the time of King John and the Magna Carta, events ever since we gained independence have shown that it certainly does not suit this country with a different culture and a different ethos. Indeed if we look at our neighbouring countries it would appear that this system that was foisted on them too does not seem to be in their interests either for everywhere we see political parties forever at loggerheads with each other leading to political instability to the detriment of the nation.

In this country it has be-come increasingly clear that this system which leads to confrontation between political parties both within Parliament as well as outside is fast leading to a breakdown in our society. The evils of the political party system which even results in murders and destruction of property have now become clear to the people so much so that there have been demands for the abolition of political parties.

However, we do not think this possible since political parties have now taken root in this country and it will be impossible to abolish them. Besides, it may be argued that political parties are an integral part of a democratic system and that it will be impossible for a democracy to function without political parties, evidence for this being that all democratic countries have political parties.

The question that arises then is whether while continuing to have political parties, we cannot so arrange affairs as to do away with, or at least minimise the evils that arise from the present system. For the evils that we are faced with arise not from the political parties themselves per se, but from their confrontation, which is the result of the system.

And this is what the Sinhala Commission has attempted to do in its proposals, namely retain the political parties but introduce a system where they can function without confrontation.

The essence of the proposals is that while members will be elected to Parliament via political parties as at present (or on the basis of a modified system of elections that the Commission has suggested), there will be no confrontation between members within Parliament but they will all participate in the legislative process on the basis of co-operation and consensus under an Executive Committee System.

The provision that the leader of the largest party in Parliament should be appointed Prime Minister while the leader of the second largest party should be appointed Deputy Prime Minister and the provision that the Prime Minister must act in consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister on all important matters would ensure that there is full co-operation between the two largest parties in Parliament which, together represent about 80% of the people. For one of the other evils of the present system, apart from its confrontational character is that to all intents and purposes about 40% of the people are in effect disfranchised for, even though represented in Parliament, their representatives sitting in the Opposition are precluded from playing any constructive role in the legislative process, their sole function being generally to oppose whatever is put forward by the Government. They are certainly not in a position to promote or safeguard the interests of those who sent them to Parliament.

The Sinhala Commission's proposals will ensure that this distortion of democracy will no longer take place.

There are several other advantages in the proposed system. In the first place, since every member of Parliament will be a member of an Executive Committee which will be fully responsible for the subjects assigned to it, every member of Parliament will be afforded an opportunity of taking an active and meaningful part in the affairs of the nation.

The nation too will gain in that its affairs will be conducted on the basis of decisions embodying the collective wisdom of all its representatives in Parliament and arrived at in open discussion rather than under the present system which enables legislation to be prepared in secrecy within the four walls of the Cabinet room and suddenly sprung on Parliament and the people with the people being given only one week's time to make representations to the Supreme Court, no matter how drastically such legislation may affect them.

The other important feature of these proposals is that it will enable the minorities too to take a meaningful part in the conduct of the affairs of the nation of which they are equal citizens along with the majority. In this connection the Sinhala Commission has drawn attention to the following observation in Ms. Jane Russell's book "Communal Politics in Sri Lanka 1931-47".

"It is noteworthy that the Ceylon Tamils, for example, who had been the most vociferous critics of the Donoughmore Constitution when it had first been proposed were by 1934 its most adamant adherents. The Executive Committee system had proved by then an unsuitable vehicle for the growth of Sinhala and Tamil Communalism."

The Sinhala Commission has stated that, in forming the Cabinet of Ministers the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister should "ensure that all interests are adequately represented in the Cabinet". This would include minority interests.

Apart from the Cabinet all members of Parliament representing the minorities will be members of an Executive Committee and this will ensure that their interests are addressed, as the Commission states, "in a harmonious atmosphere without acrimony and confrontation".

One of the grievances of the Tamil politicians has been that they have very little influence in the making of government policy and this has been advanced as one argument for the devolution of power to an area where they are in a majority and hence in a position to look after their interests in those areas. If these proposals of the Sinhala Commission are implemented, they, as well as the other minorities, will be able to ensure that their interests receive due consideration not merely in those parts of the country where they are in a majority (as would be the case under the government's devolution package) but throughout the island since they will be able to play an active part in the central legislature, which legislates for the whole country.

We therefore think that it is an encouraging development for the country that at least one minority leader, Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, of the SLMC has welcomed these proposals and stated that they would be acceptable with some modification (Sunday Leader of 6.6.99).

Besides the recommendation for the introduction of an Executive Committee System, the Sinhala Commission has made other important recommendations. The Commission recommends the abolition of the Executive Presidency and its replacement by a President elected by Parliament.

According to the Commission's proposals, the President thus elected will not be confined to purely ceremonial duties but will take an active part in the process of governance by presiding over certain important special Commissions the setting up of which the Sinhala Commission has also recommended.

There is also provision in the proposals for a Vice President who too will be elected by Parliament and to whom can be delegated such functions as may be determined by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister.

The Sinhala Commission also proposes the setting up of an Independent Police Commission and Independent Public Service Commission with a view to removing these two important limbs of the state from the baneful effects of political interference which has largely contributed to increase in crime in the country and deterioration in the efficiency of the public service.

The Sinhala Commission has also recommended the setting up of an Independent Elections Commission as well as the incorporation in the Constitution of a Code of Conduct for politicians and public servants with violation of the Code being made punishable by imprisonment.

The Sinhala Commission has also recommended the setting up of a National Planning Commission and the preparation of a National Plan. It is the lack of national plan that has resulted in our having to bow down to the dictates of the World Bank and the IMF.

If a National Plan had been available, any proposals made by the World Bank and IMF could have been evaluated in the context of the National Plan and only those proposals accepted that were in keeping with the National Plan and hence in the national interest, unlike the present situation, where without any type of plan, the Government is groping in the dark not knowing in which direction it should go and therefore allowing itself to be led by the nose by the World Bank and the IMF whose prescriptions have been shown, after the South-East Asian fiasco to aggravate problems rather than solve them.

Finally, the Commission has, in an Appendix made certain proposals for replacing the present proportional system of representation.

It should be mentioned in conclusion that all these proposals of the Sinhala Commission can be implemented without a referendum. All that would be necessary is a 2/3 majority in Parliament.

The proposals are now before the people. It is for the people to decide whether they agree with them and, if they do, to urge their representatives in Parliament to implement them. We have no doubt that these proposals, if implemented, will go a long way towards getting rid of many of the ills that today beset us and, as the Sinhala Commission states help in "achieving the ideal of 'one country' and 'one people' by getting rid of divisiveness and thus enable us to face the challenge of the 21st century with confidence as a united people."

The writer is Secretary, National Joint Committee

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