Unitary or united, undivided and indivisible Executive Presidency or Westminster Premier

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By 2017-09-25

BY Sugeeswara Senadhira

After an unresolved debate on 'unitary vs. federal' lasting more than 4 decades, the Interim Report of the Steering Committee submitted to Parliament came up with an interesting proposal to qualify the ekiya (unitary) with 'undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka.' However, the Tamil demand for 'united' remains qualified with 'undivided and indivisible.'

In his last visit to the North, President Maithripala Sirisena told the Tamil people that the word 'federal' was not accepted in the South. At the same time, the South is fully committed to the devolution concept.

The Interim Report proposes, Article 1 and 2 as: "Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is a free, sovereign, and independent republic which is an ekiyarajyaya/orumiththanadu, consisting of the institutions of the centre and of the provinces which shall exercise power as laid down in the Constitution. In this article, ekiyarajyaya/orumiththanadu means a State which is undivided and indivisible, and in which the power to amend the Constitution, or to repeal and replace the Constitution, shall remain with Parliament and the people of Sri Lanka as provided in this Constitution."

New structure

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after submitting the interim report said that it had proposed a new structure for the government. This he said will comprise three tiers, namely the centre, provincial councils, and the local bodies. "Emphasis is made on maximum devolution of power where maximum power will be devolved to provincial councils and to make it the second tier of the government." He then made the pragmatic statement that Sri Lanka's future depended on the capacity of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to reach a consensus on the fundamentals of the new Constitution.

Echoing similar sentiments, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader, R. Sampanthan said, "no Constitution has thus far been framed for Sri Lanka on the basis of a substantial bi-partisan consensus amongst its different people, in particular, the Tamil people, or on the basis of such bi-partisan consensus between the two main parties and other political parties. The present exercise in Constitution making presents the first such opportunity. A Constitution based upon such a reasonable consensus, would give the Constitution legitimacy and credibility."

R. Sampanthan added that this would bring the Constitution out of the realm of political expediency and give the Constitution a character which would create the ideal of a Sri Lankan identity and a Sri Lankan nation.

Devolution of powers
The differences between political parties and within parties are not limited to the unitary States of the State and devolution of powers. Another issue is the future of the Executive Presidency. While the UNP, the party that introduced the Executive Presidency 39 years ago is ready to do away with the all-powerful presidency in favour of a Westminster style, mere ceremonial Head of State and make the Prime Minister the all powerful Head of the Government, the SLFP, which opposed the Executive Presidency from the beginning and vowed to abolish it, now is of the view that the Executive Presidency is essential for the stability of the country.

Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the SLFP firmly believed an Executive President was necessary and the Executive Presidency with certain powers should exist to protect the sovereignty, defence, and unitary status of the country.

The UNP received support for abolishing the Executive Presidency from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) even though the JVP's policies are completely different. JVP Parliamentarian, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka said the Executive Presidency should be abolished through the new Constitution to guarantee vibrant democracy in the country. He said the JVP had a different view about the Constitution.

He said that the JVP decided to support the drafting of a new Constitution as they maintained that it should be changed. He said the electoral system should be changed. "It should be done through a new Constitution and not by any other means. The Executive Presidency should also be changed," he said.

The JVP Leader said the 1978 Constitution was designed to polarize power around the Executive Presidency. He said the sovereignty of the people, national defence, and the people's rights should be guaranteed and racism should not be tolerated.

The UNP is for a Prime Minister- headed government and proposed that the PM should be elected either by Parliament under the Westminster system or even directly by the people. However, there is not a single democracy in the world that follows direct election of a Prime Minister.

J.R. Jayewardene

While the JVP pointed out that J.R. Jayewardene introduced the Executive Presidency in 1978 as it suited his style of rule and he thought it would ensure perpetual UNP rule, the Joint Opposition Spokesman, Dinesh Gunawardena charged that the UNP wanted a Constitution best suited for a handful of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). "I state that there are many disagreements and disparities between the proposals submitted by the Prime Minister and those submitted by various other parties. In the Constitution drafting process, this committee has still not had the opportunity to represent the broadest public opinion to the committee.

This is an attempt to bring out the ideas of a few, ignoring the majority representing the masses," Gunawardena said.

There is also a proposal for a bicameral legislature with a Senate as a second chamber. "The SLFP agrees with introducing a Senate. We suggest that 2 members of the Senate should be given Cabinet Ministries to strengthen it," Nimal Siripala de Silva said. "SLFP suggests that the ministerial portfolios should be limited to 30 while the deputies to 30," he said.

Security of the country

The SLFP view is that the Executive Presidency should be maintained to a certain extent for the security of the country. "The President should be elected with the votes of people of all religions and communities to build up reconciliation. The SLFP maintainsw that the Prime Minister should be elected under the Westminster system."

Since 1978, there were many attempts to resolve the issue of devolution. After the initial failure of imported formulas such as the Gopalaswami Parthasarathy formula, 19 December Chidambaram proposals, and Bangalore proposals, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 was signed to enact the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was the first power sharing arrangement between the centre and provinces.

Since then, successive presidents and governments have come up with new proposals such as the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee Proposals during the period of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, August 2000 Constitutional draft during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's term, the proposals formulated by the Multi Ethnic Committee of Experts, and the report of the All Party Representative Committee headed by Professor Tissa Vitharana during the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. None of these succeeded due to objections from the main opposition - UNP and SLFP in turn.

There seem to be many divergent views on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee. However, there is unanimity that the current consensual government comprising the SLFP and UNP has the best chance of finding a compromise.

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