NEW CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY: MAIN BONE OF CONTENTION

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By 2017-09-25

with Ravi Ladduwahetty

Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system that is corrupt, that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.

LONGEST SERVING INDEPENDENT IN US CONGRESSIONAL HISTORY, BERNIE SANDERS

After months of deliberations and contentious arguments, in closed door meetings, the Steering Committee, of the Constitutional Assembly, last week approved the final copy of its Interim Report on Constitutional Reforms.

A member of the Steering Committee, confirming that the report is ready for submission, said the Constitutional Assembly was summoned to meet on 21 September morning.

A copy of the report will be handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena.

The interim report, which deals with the vital aspects of Constitutional reforms, including the electoral reforms, devolution of power and nature of the State, spells out the contours of Constitutional Bill.

The Interim Report will be tabled along with the observations made by various parties. Accordingly, the observations of the Joint Opposition, SLFP, TNA, JHU and JVP have been included in the report as annexures.

The report also consists of a separate collective document submitted by the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) and Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). Constitutional Lawyer Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne has submitted his own report.

The UNP has not made a separate submission. as the Party agrees with the report in its entirety.

It was deduced that the observations made by various parties indicate contradictions and clashing views on core issues related to the Constitution.

While the SLFP has sought to retain the Executive Presidency, the JVP insists on its abolition. While the TNA is bent on a 'federal' solution within an 'undivided and indivisible country', the JO is adamant on preserving the clause on 'unitary state'.

"It is now time for hard bargaining. These views are not fixed positions. Nothing is cast in stone. The challenge is to hammer out an agreement cutting across all parties through compromise and negotiation," the Steering Committee members said.

Sources said a date for the debate on the interim report would be fixed after its submission and the Steering Committee, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, would go ahead with drafting the Constitutional Bill based on the proposals and suggestions to be made at the debate.

The Steering Committee, which conducted its first meeting on 5 April 2016 has so far conducted over 70 meetings. The Constitutional Assembly, formed following a resolution passed unanimously in Parliament in March last year, has so far conducted four sittings.

In the meantime, the reports of six sub-committees on "Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Finance, Public Service, Law and Order, Centre-Periphery" were presented to the Constitutional Assembly by the Prime Minister on 19 November. A three-day debate on Constitutional reforms, initially scheduled to commence on 9 January, was postponed indefinitely as there was no consensus among the political parties. The Framework Resolution for the Constitutional Assembly, in terms of Clause 5 (a), makes provision to establish a Steering Committee comprising 21 members. The Steering Committee is responsible for the business of the Constitutional Assembly and for preparing a Draft Constitutional Proposal for Sri Lanka. As such, the Steering Committee is the entity instrumental in driving the process of constitutional reform and is assisted by six Sub-Committees which were appointed by the Constitutional Assembly in respect of specified subject areas relevant to the making of a Constitution.

At the first sitting of the Constitutional Assembly held on 5 April 2016, the 21-member Steering Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was appointed.

The other members of the Steering Committee appointed by the Constitutional Assembly are Ministers Lakshman Kiriella, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Rauff Hakeem, Susil Premajayantha, Rishad Bathiudeen, Patali Champika Ranawaka, D. M. Swaminathan, Mano Ganesan, Malik Samarawickrama and former Minister (Dr.) Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, along with the other Members of Parliament such as TNA Leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, JVP Leader Anura Dissanayaka, Dilan Perera, MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena, National List MPs Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, M. A. Sumanthiran, Dr. (Mrs.) Thusitha Wijemanna, along with the JVP's Bimal Ratnayake, SLFP's Prasanna Ranatunga, and EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda.

EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY:TO BE OR NOT TO BE ?

The biggest bone of contention seems to be the Executive Presidency. There is a school of thought in the SLFP that it should remain because President Maithripala Sirisena has aspired to contest despite the powers having been reduced. Some in the UNP have wanted it abolished due to a popular belief that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has a better chance of being elected Prime Minister and that the real powers are vested with the Prime Minister and also given that he has lost two attempts before, in the race for the Presidency, to former Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1999 and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, whoever the riders were. The JVP and all the minority political parties have wanted the Executive Presidency totally abolished too as it is seen to be too Draconian.

UNITARY VERSUS FEDERALISM

Another serious issue which is worthy of conjecture is the Unitary Character of the State, which Southern Sinhalese political parties insist on versus Federalism which has been advocated by the TNA and other Northern Political Parties. Even President Maithripala Sirisena told the United Nations General Assembly that the Unitary Character of the State is a sore point to the TNA and that Federalism is a sore point to the Sinhala hardliners and chauvinists.

POSITIVE ELECTORAL REFORMS

It is indeed laudable that the reforms also intend doing away with the preferential votes system or the manape system which has led to a lot of heartburn, rancour and acrimony. It is also positive that Parliamentary elections will be held on the electorate system and not district-wise, which will also make the scale of operation much more manageable for the individual MP aspirant as he/she would be canvassing only in his electorate and not the entire district, which otherwise makes the scale of operation much larger and which could lead to corruption in the funding. A mix of the first-past-the-post system and the Proportional Representation (PR) system would also be beneficial and would be seen as a method to give the ruling party, whatever that is and will be, a comfortable working majority and not have landslides like we saw in 1970 and 1977 vis-a-vis the Hung Parliaments we have seen since 1994 which requires excessive Cabinets where "all have to be appeased" in lieu of support in Parliament or otherwise.

DEVOLUTION AND CONCURRENT LIST

Also what is not decided is the degree of devolution, which is also listed in the 13th Amendment, which is the SLFP (the Maithripala Sirisena faction and not the Joint Opposition ) and the UNP have agreed to go by. But the TNA is insisting that land powers also should be given.

However, whatever land powers that the TNA is griping for, there will be a National Land Commission which will come under the Central Government and the TNA and other political party wallahs will not be able to dance the merry jig to their tunes.

But it all depends on whether the new Constitution will do away with the Concurrent List which will have subjects like education which will be at both the National and Regional and Provincial levels.

This columnist could be reached on [email protected]

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