Sunday, December 3, 2017

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Local polls: A referendum on the two-party rule

By Gamini Abeywardane

With the withdrawal of the fundamental rights petitions in the Court of Appeal against the delimitation gazette, the holding of the local government elections has now become almost a certainty. Nearly two years of delay has been attributed to both genuine efforts to complete much wanted election reforms as well as attempts to postpone elections till the anticipated settlement of the major rift in the SLFP.
Although, the inordinate delay cannot be justified, the electoral reforms which introduced a mix of 60 percent first-past-the-post and 40 percent PR which ensures a representative for each electoral ward is a salutary measure. Delimitation of wards to accommodate the demographic changes that have taken place after the wards were carved out several decades ago was also an important development.

Moreover, the reform of the electoral system was one of the main objectives of the national unity government and thus the time genuinely taken for completion of that part of the reform is well justified. The efforts to patch up the differences between the two warring factions of the SLFP – the official SLFP   led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the Joint Opposition led by Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – also is understandable because, if succeeded, that would prevent a humiliating defeat for the party.

A defeat would certainly be a bad experience for a political party led by the country’s President who has maintained a reasonable level of popularity both nationally and internationally. Those who were behind the reconciliatory moves from the Sirisena group would have thought that an electoral defeat for the party would mean a greater shift of the party membership towards the Former President, making it difficult for President Sirisena to keep his grip over the party.

At the same time such a defeat would also mean a bad omen for some of the SLFP cabinet ministers who have been half-heartedly remaining in the government, while having secret links with the Joint Opposition. Worst of all, some of them are defeated candidates or who have crossed over to the government after the change of government and accommodated as MPs on the national list. Naturally, they have the worst fears about the future and their only intention is to remain in power for few more years.

There are people with similar issues on the Joint Opposition as well. Most of them have pending FCID inquiries or court cases against them and have no political future on their own. For their very survival they have no alternative other than depending on the residual popularity of Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the war winning national leader.
However, for President Sirisena, it’s not the end of the world. For him there are many options including working further with the UNP to accomplish the remaining goals of the National Unity Government. They include the complete resolution of the national issue and carrying out the remaining economic and other reforms.

In fact, one should not forget that most of the international support and recognition for him, is with the expectation that he will deliver these goals brining about the much needed economic transformation.

Fulfillment of these expectations is sure to make him an unforgettable national leader who will also enjoy the support of the minorities. And that would give him a special status independent of the electoral success of his party and he could even become the President and Head of State for another term, probably through a vote in the parliament, though minus some of the executive powers he enjoys at present.

On the other hand, President Sirisena must surely be aware that joining hands with the Joint Opposition would mean electoral success at the local level, but could be suicidal for him at national level particularly with the prospects of Mahinda Rajapaksa faction taking over the control of the SLFP.
The unsuccessful dialogue between the two factions and some of the impossible demands made by the leaders of these groups and the fact that some of their leading members publicly opposed unity talks, also showed that there was no genuine desire to join together.

Despite these developments the current situation is that elections are likely to be held simultaneously throughout the country under the new system as planned earlier, though there can be a slight delay with dates being pushed to somewhere early February.
The UNP is like to gain out of the rift in the SLFP, at the same time it is not easy for the Mahinda Rajapaksa backed Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) also to make a major impact. The past experience shows that it is not easy for a breakaway group from a main stream party to succeed in politics.

It is likely that the political heat will be over with the conclusion of the election, whatever its outcome may be. With the threat from the breakaway group subsiding, the official SLFP will be able to determine its future direction. One cannot even rule out the possibility of the two parties in the unity government forming joint governments in some local authorities as well.  
Though, a local level election it will be an important mid-term election which in reality be a referendum on the future direction of party politics in the country. The people will see the real electoral strength of each party, independent of the outward manifestations often seen in the form of disproportionate noise and protest campaigns.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

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Amidst no faith motions more prospects of early LG polls

By Gamini Abeywardane

The week began with the much waited climax in the Treasury Bond saga with none other than Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe giving evidence before the Bond Commission on Monday. It was an unprecedented development where the country’s prime Minister had to fall in line with a presidential commission of inquiry appointed by the very administration in which he himself is an important component. To that extent, it displayed the true nature of the democratic environment prevailing in the country, in contrast to what Sri Lankans witnessed in the last several decades.
The commission being only a fact finding exercise, as usual, it will end with a formal report with certain recommendations. There is a long way before anyone can be found guilty of any wrongs and legally punished. Even if any legal process is to be carried on in that direction, it has to be an entirely a different exercise and a time consuming one.

Some of the SLFP Ministers who were among those pressurizing President Sirisena to appoint the Commission of Inquiry into the controversial bond issue apparently were elated that they managed to get even the Prime Minister before the commission and expose some of those from the UNP camp who were responsible for the alleged fraud. Both the Joint Opposition and the JVP apparently tried to claim the credit for getting a Commission of Inquiry appointed to look into the matter.

There have been sensible debate as well as mere political mudslinging and empty noise over the issue. Although final result of this exercise is not predictable much damage has been caused to those who are accused of involvement in this scandal, the worst affected being former finance minister Ravi Karunanayake who has been already sent to political wilderness.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who came to be testified before the commission on his own volition apparently made some political capital out of it with nothing having gone against him at the commission. He made use of the opportunity to explain the macro picture surrounding the bond issue such as the urgent need for money at the time, why auction system was introduced for bond issues and some aspects of the government’s economic programme.

Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim who were called before the commission earlier also came out of it without much damage for themselves. The most devastating effect of the appointment of this commission was on Minister Ravi Karunanayake and some of the reformist young backbenchers of the UNP made use of the opportunity to force him out of the political mainstream at least for the time being.
The backbencher group led by Deputy Minister Ajith Perera throughout tried to display a different stance over this issue, publicly saying that it was an unfortunate incident in which the UNP should not have got involved and those who are responsible should be punished. They tried their best to maintain their image as a cleaner group within the party and use the scandal to expedite the reform process they were clamouring for.

However, the opposite happened when it partially boomeranged on them. A good many of that group together with some UNP members of the COPE, the parliamentary committee which earlier looked into the scandal, also got implicated over some sensitive telephone conversations with Arjun Aloysius around the time COPE inquiry was going on.
Now, the public sittings of the Bond Commission are over and its final report is due to be handed over to the President shortly. There was a huge media show surrounding the whole exercise while the only tangible outcome for the moment was the removal of Ravi Karunanayake from the cabinet of ministers.

For the joint Opposition led by Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa the bond scandal was a blessing in disguise. Although many are now trying to claim the credit for getting the bond commission appointed a greater amount of it should go to them because they were the group which vigorously campaigned for a high level probe into the matter which was later picked by others as well.
This unfortunately happened at a time when the whole country was waiting for some progress over the probe into allegations of massive crimes and corruption against the bigwigs of the former government and the new scandal gave them a fantastic opportunity to cover up themselves from the public eye at least for the moment.

Local elections

As the dust settled over the bond commission local government election issue has begun to occupy the media space with the possibility of elections getting further postponed in the face of the stay order issued  by the Court of Appeal preventing the implementation of the gazette notification pertaining to Local Government bodies until December 4.
The popular belief was that the filing of fundamental rights cases by voters in several districts was a sinister move by interested parties to postpone elections indefinitely. Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faizer Mustapha for quite some time has been in the middle of this controversy with accusations leveled against him for using various legal loopholes to postpone the elections.

Meanwhile, the reluctance of the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena to face any elections at this time due to the internal split in the party has been attributed to these attempts to postpone local government elections. Amidst these political moves public opinion has been building against the idea of postponing elections with rights groups voicing their opinion against it.
UNP which earlier appeared to be colluding with attempts to postpone elections now seems to have changed their stance, perhaps after realizing that the ground situation is in their favour. Another reason for the change of attitude would have been the displeasure in the UNP camp amidst growing tension that has been building between the coalition partners following revelations at the bond commission.

In this background now both Joint Opposition and the JVP have already handed over two separate Motions of No Confidence against the Provincial Council and Local Government Minister Faizer Mustapha alleging that he has deliberately complicated matters to ensure postponement of local polls and thereby undermined the people’s right to vote.
Meanwhile, the backbenchers of the UNP also have stated that Minister Mustapha has acted in such a way that democratic rights of the voters have been violated and that they would support any No Confidence Motion against him in Parliament. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also has asked the legal committee of the UNP to examine the possibility of having LG polls before February 4 next year.

The Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is expected to have a meeting of all political parties in the Parliament to take a decision in this regard. Observers say that in the event all of them insist on going ahead with the elections, a motion can be passed by the Parliament to that effect with a two third majority to go ahead with elections as planned.
Meanwhile, there seem to be a lot of pressure being built up asking minister Mustapha to resign from his ministerial position before any No Confidence Motion is presented in Parliament and if that happens he will be the third minister to resign on similar issues in the recent times with Ravi Karunanayake and Wijedasa Rajapaksa being the other two.

With lessor or no prospects of the two warring factions of the SLFP getting together, if the elections are held the general belief is that the ground situation will be much favorable to the UNP. It is true that the ruling joint government has not gained any popularity in the recent times, while the Joint Opposition not being in control of any established political party will also be not in a position to make much of an electoral impact. Therefore, politically speaking it will be a strange situation where the voters will be compelled to elect the best out of the bad lot.
If the elections are held it will be an opportunity for each party to know its real strength which in reality could be different from disproportionate noise they have been making on the political stage. It will also provide an opportunity for the people to show their response to all political and other developments that have been taking place since the last general election in 2015.

However, whatever happens in a local government election, it is unlikely to bring about a major change in the government and the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeseinghe will have no alternative other than going ahead with their joint administration until the next major national election.




Saturday, November 11, 2017

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Bottom line of the petroleum issue

Only proper liberalization can resolve the problem

By Gamini Abeywardane

The Cabinet sub-committee appointed to look into the recent petrol crisis, has found that the failure to maintain buffer stocks and the absence of a mechanism to carry out emergency supplies were the reasons for the shortage.
The committee also raised doubts as to how the delay in the arrival of the two shipments – one ordered by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the other by the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) – and the breakdown of the refinery, all happened around the same time.
Based on the committee report, Petroleum Resources Development Minister Arjuna Ranatunga had directed the CID to conduct an inquiry into this matter. Whatever the outcome of this investigation, it is not going to resolve the issue in the long run and it could be a matter of time before another shortage occurs.

This is certainly an indictment on our current petroleum management system. The severe shortage of petrol, long queues at fuel stations which lasted nearly a week created much frustration among the masses. Irrespective of whatever the reasons behind, it talks volumes about the state of affairs in the energy administration in the country. Each party involved in the issue tried to pass the buck on to the other, while no one has taken responsibility for the crisis situation that arose. The immediate reason for the calamity was the rejection by the authorities, of a shipment of petrol meant for Lanka IOC, on the ground the product was substandard. Spreading of this news resulted in panic buying of fuel increasing the daily average sales beyond the supply capacity of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) resulting in a shortage.

Meantime, there have been allegations that officials of the CPC had failed to keep sufficient stocks to meet an emergency. Around the same time the stories about an inexplicable breakdown at the Oil Refinery at Sapugaskanda and political pressure to unload the substandard oils shipment etc. indicate the level of politics and possibilities of corruption around oil business. Now, much light has been thrown on these factors by the findings of the Cabinet sub-committee which looked into the matter. It is supposed to have recommended a regulatory mechanism to avoid repetition of such situations.

The quantum of monies involved in these deals is such even in the past there have been enough and more allegations of corruption involving politicians handling the subject, directors as well as high officials of the CPC. We have also witnessed the disastrous effects of substandard petrol being imported and released to the market and how government had to pay compensation for the damages caused to vehicles. There are also conspiracy theories and possibilities of sabotage etc. to make the current government unpopular in the face of highly probable local government elections in the near future. Despite these possibilities what is clear is that there is a serious issue in managing the petroleum industry in the country.

There are doubts as to whether country has gained anything by nationalizing the petroleum industry in 1961. At the time the government had no involvement in the petroleum business. Market was controlled by Shell while Esso and Caltex had relatively smaller market share and import, storage and distribution went on smoothly. Nationalization of the industry would have been inevitable because of the need for the state to control the commanding heights of the economy in terms of the political thinking at the time. But the question is whether we have gained much out of it.

Since the government takeover of the petroleum industry the CPC continued as a monopoly till 2003. With unsustainable losses and other inherent issues normally associated with the government sector, the need for deregulating the industry arose and accordingly the monopoly of the CPC was ended with the formation of LIOC, a subsidiary of the Indian Oil Corporation being given nearly a one third share in the local petroleum market in 2003. Storage units in Kolannawa and Muthurajawela were made common user facilities by establishing a separate company called Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminal Limited (CPSTL) with the joint participation of the Government, CPC and LIOC.

Following the Petroleum Products (Special Provisions) Act passed in 2002 there were plans to have three players – the CPC and two other suppliers in the petroleum market along with a common storage facility. Accordingly, all arrangements were ready with 100 petrol sheds kept under treasury to be handed over to a third player who was to be picked on an open bid system. However, with political changes that did not happen and as a result the expected level of openness or competition has not been achieved in the market.

Had that happened the real benefit of liberalizing the petroleum market would have been achieved with more players in the market and the government having to get involved only in quality control and regulating aspects. This would have been much similar to the situation that prevails in the telecom sector after privatization. If that had happened much of today’s problems associated with the petroleum market like what we have just witnessed and even threats of sudden stoppage of work will not be a problem for anybody.

More over in today’s world it is foolhardy to think that potential foreign investors will come and operate in a country where the whole transport system can become inactive in a moment due to shortage of petrol and diesel due to wild cat strikes or whatever other reason. Therefore, the best way to have some energy security in the coutry and stability in the petroleum market would be to have a third player or more in the market and for the government to regulate it in an efficient manner.

Even the current storage system should be re-examined because a central storage system also has its inherent weaknesses and it’s too much of a risk to depend on one entity for storage. Perhaps, it may be more practical to have more players with each one having its own storage facility. Building new storage facilities may be out of the question in present times because of the high costs involved. No private investor, foreign or local, will spend such a colossal amount of money, especially in an unstable environment with possibility of state takeovers and so on.

The idea of putting the world war 11 era oil tanks in Trincomallee to some good use also becomes relevant in this context as it will also go hand in hand with this issue. If these tanks are utilized in a fruitful manner Sri Lanka will never have a domestic oil shortage and keeping such a buffer stock will ease our problems even in the face of a worldwide petroleum issue. So, the way out is to have a more open attitude towards the petroleum market with more players. Unfortunately with the latest fuel shortage for which the immediate reason appeared to be the low quality shipment ordered by the LIOC, interested parties have spread the distorted opinion that it is the privatization that created the issue.

The strangest thing is that although the petroleum monopoly of the CPC is supposed to have been ended, 82% of the market is still controlled by them and LIOC has only 18%. In such a situation it is highly illogical to blame the small player saying that the reason for the shortage is the rejection of a shipment of theirs over a quality issue. In fact, in such a scenario the bigger player should be able to cash on the situation by releasing additional stocks to the market and increasing their sales. So it is clear that the real reason for the current unhealthy situation is the country’s inability to complete the liberalization process in the manner it was originally planned.

If there are three or more players with nobody having the market control and a proper regulatory mechanism, there can never be shortages and that seems to be the only way to resolve this permanently. Only such a situation will protect the market from disastrous impacts of sudden shortages or work stoppages by employees of one player. However, because of the political sensitivities no government will be able to choose that path in the near future. But, if we are to resolve this issue permanently and lay the foundation for a stable economic future such decisions will have to be taken one day.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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SAITM issue, likely to be reloved

But overall standards should not be compromised

By Gamini Abeywardane

The seemingly irresolvable SAITM issue has shown some signs of being resolved in the near future. The government’s decision to remove it from the control of Dr. Neville Fernando family and run it as a not-for-profit entity under the supervision of the University Grants Commission (UGC), in terms of the recommendations of Harsha de Silva committee has received some favourable response from the GMOA.
If the GMOA still has some concerns over the admission criterion, overall quality standards or clinical training, it is quite understandable going by our past experience in setting up private medical educational institutions. SAITM as well as infamous North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) which happened to be closed down in the eighties amidst severe protests by medical students of the state universities is a grim reminder of our history of trying to do right things in the wrong way.

Private medical education
Private medical education is not a bad thing, but world over there are stringent criteria for admitting students to medical schools because of the sensitivities involved in the work of the doctors whose competency is a key factor in saving the lives of thousands of patients. Therefore, the minimum entry qualifications for medical studies are quite high compared to what is required for higher education in Arts, Humanities or Pure Science.

Unfortunately, what usually happens in our country is whenever the private sector launches medical schools on a fee levying basis those who are involved in them including respected medical professionals try to misuse those institutions for their mediocre sons and daughters to enter the medical profession. Often the entry requirements are kept at a minimum level having such ulterior motives in mind.
There is a proposal to attach the SAITM operation together with its current students to Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLITT) at Malabe which has been running for quite some time now, as a not-for-profit higher educational institute for IT and engineering. Under whatever set up the school is going to be placed in future, some justice should be done to its current students who have been wasting both time and money for quite some time due to no fault of theirs. At the same time future intakes should be picked on a proper admission criterion with definite arrangements for clinical training and maintenance of overall high standards.

Now, the issue of SAITM has become internationally known, whatever we do in future in the field of medical education should be properly done because it will affect the country’s reputation for quality of its higher education. With many private institutions of higher education already operating in the country and newer ones coming up frequently, it is time for the government to step in and establish quality control mechanisms for higher education as found in the western countries where private higher education is popular.
In fact there was a similar issue recently with regard to the foreign law degrees awarded through some of the local higher educational institutions when the Council of Legal Education refused to accept them. However, the issue did not attract much public attention as it was settled well in time.

The issue arose because some of the content based on Sri Lankan law included in the foreign degrees and their assignment based evaluation process were questionable. This too arose due to the lack of a suitable quality control mechanism for awarding of degrees through private institutions.  
Politics in higher education  

With proper mechanisms the country can avoid unwanted controversies in whatever new medical schools or other institutions of higher education which are set up in the future. It’s bad enough we have done the same mistake twice – in NCMC and SAITM, because of the lack of proper policy or quality control system in higher education. It’s true these were done under two different regimes, but education policies should not differ depending on the government in power.
The worst scenario as we have just witnessed is when things are done in the wrong way; it opens opportunities for various bankrupt political groups to make capital out of it. In the SAITM issue medical students of the state universities had a genuine grievance because of issues of standards and entry qualifications. The GMOA came in because it was an issue affecting the medical profession.

However, when the issue was dragging for too long without a solution some sections of the JVP as well as Frontline Socialist Party and their affiliate Inter University Students Federation saw much potential for new slogans and seized the opportunity organizing massive student protest campaigns. Some of them went to the extent of demanding total closure of SAITM and putting a stop to private medical education.

With these latest government proposals which have been partially accepted by the GMOA, there are some hopes for resolving it and the most displeased over this development would be those political groups who were making capital out of it.
Quality control

Introduction of stringent quality controls will not only take politics out of higher education but also will enhance the quality and make our higher education more acceptable internationally. This is quite important because Sri Lanka with its educated population has all the potential of becoming an education hub in the region attracting even reputed international educational institutions into the country.
Private medical education is quite an accepted thing everywhere in the world. Some of the best medical schools in the world are private institutions, but governments in respective countries monitor them with strict standards. Therefore, what is needed here too is a proper monitoring regime for higher education with strict standards for medical education. Such high standards should apply to all higher education institutions in the country, be they private or state controlled.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

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Uphill task of constitution making

Monday's debate, a significant development

By Gamini Abeywardane 

As the debate on the new Constitution forges ahead many socio political and historical complexities in the Sri Lankan society seem to be coming into replay. With the difficult task of balancing the pride of the two main communities, the framers of a new Constitution no doubt have an uphill task.
The upcoming three day debate in the Parliament starting on Monday will throw much light on the many sides of this complicated issue and will be a turning point in the whole exercise for finding a lasting solution to the northern issue among other things. Many who have commented, criticized or made irrational statements on the subject in the streets outside will have to stick to their points and behave in a more responsible manner in a parliamentary debate.

Never in the past, a constitutional discussion has come this far. Neither has any incumbent government had shown such genuine desire to find a constitutional settlement encompassing the views of a wide section of the population. In that sense it will be a historic development irrespective of whatever the final outcome is going to be.

This could be the fourth attempt to address the northern issue constitutionally preceded by the Constitution Draft Bill of 2000, Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact and Bandaranaike –Chelvanayakam Pact. The difference is in all those previous instances there was no public discussion or debate. While the 2000 draft was rejected by the Parliament the others were withdrawn in the face of public antipathy.

Process followed

On the contrary this time the matter came to the centre stage in quite a different way as a major electoral promise by the coalition of political parties that was voted into power in January 2015. The constitutional process began in January 2016 with the appointment of a Consultation Committee by the Cabinet to seek the views of the people.
This mechanism paved the way for wide and active public participation and a culture of inclusiveness. The mandate of the Public Representation Committee was to seek oral and written submissions from the public on constitutional reforms through public consultations throughout the country.

The next phase of the constitutional reforms began with the passage of the Parliamentary Resolution of 9th March 2016 known as Framework Resolution which established the “Constitutional Assembly” and its procedure for drafting a Constitutional proposal.

The Constitutional Assembly sits as a separate body consisting of all Members of Parliament and has powers that are similar to the powers of a Committee of the whole Parliament. The sessions of the Constitutional Assembly are conducted inside the Chamber of Parliament.
 In terms of the Framework Resolution the Speaker of Parliament is the Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly and is assisted by seven Deputy Chairmen who are elected by the Assembly.

 At the first sitting of the Constitutional Assembly on 5th April 2016, the seven Deputy Chairmen were appointed together with the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. The Steering Committee is responsible for the business of the Constitutional Assembly and for preparing a Draft of a Constitution for Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, on 5th April 2016 the Constitutional assembly appointed a Steering Committee chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and consisting of 21 members representing all political parties present in Parliament.

The Steering Committee is aided by six Sub-Committees each comprising 10 members and a Chairperson appointed in terms of the Framework Resolution. The six Sub-Committees were appointed on 5th May 2016 by the Constitutional Assembly and were assigned to deliberate on areas of Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Law and Order, Public Finance, Public Service, and Centre-Periphery Relations.
The deliberations of the Sub-Committees included discussions with various stake-holders including political party representatives, members of interest groups and organizations that made representations to the Sub-Committees. Representations received by the Steering Committee from political parties, Provinces and interest groups were also referred to the six Sub-Committees for their consideration.

In addition, interactive sessions were conducted among Sub-Committees with the participation of representatives from key sectors including Secretaries to Ministries, Senior Representatives of Provincial Councils (PCs), Heads of Departments, Senior Personnel from Independent Commissions and Civil Society representatives. The Final Reports of the six Sub-Committees that were submitted to the Steering Committee were tabled in the Constitutional Assembly on 19th November 2016.
Based on these reports the Steering Committee prepared an Interim Report in relation to core subjects to be covered by a Constitution such as nature of state, sovereignty, religion, form of government and principles of devolution which also contains political party positions and observations made by members of the committee.

It is this Report which was tabled in the Constitutional Assembly on 21st September 2017 that is going to be debated in Parliament and most of the outcry and noisy remarks made by various political groups in the country are referring to the content of this document which is only a bundle of proposals sometimes contrary to each other.
This is far from a constitutional draft and the content is not something that has been secretly developed as portrayed by some. It is the outcome of a very transparent, systematic and democratic process well in tune with the accepted procedure for this kind of things worldwide.

The only difference is that this sort of transparency and opportunity for public discussion was not provided in the failed 2000 constitutional draft bill, 2010 All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) proposals or in the instances where new constitutions were promulgated in 1972 and 1978. It was only the politicians who participated in these processes and public had little or no say.
Need for a new Constitution

All these previous attempts suggest that there is a need for a new Constitution which had been recognized without any reservation by the respective Presidents and the governments that initiated these efforts. The Government’s Proposals for Constitutional reforms published in October 1997 in its preamble had recognized that “ravages of hostilities and armed conflict resulting in extensive loss of life, destruction and loss of property” had endangered “distrust and disharmony among the people and has impeded the Nation’s progress” while also stressing that it is essential to heal the divisions of the past and to establish a stable legal order in the form of a Constitution.

The APRC Report of 2010 says that the President mandated the APRC to evolve ‘a home grown new Constitution’ which will provide ‘a comprehensive approach to the resolution of the national question’. These are clear admissions by the leaders at the time that there is a national issue which needs a constitutional solution.
It is also noteworthy that 2000 constitutional proposals as well as the APRC proposals of 2010 had proposed abolition of the executive presidency and return to a parliamentary system. On the issue of the unitary status of the state the year 2000 constitutional draft had referred to the state as ‘an indissoluble union of Regions’ while the APRC Report of 2010 had proposed to retain the word ‘unitary’ while it was not proposed to alter the foremost place given to Buddhism in both these instances.

There has never been any unanimity in these sensitive areas and naturally the current set of proposals in the Steering Committee of the Parliament will also have all these different ideas from federalism to unitary state, from foremost place to Buddhism to secularism or from retaining executive presidency to parliamentary system.

In the end what is best for the country is to debate all these ideas extensively and to come up with some consensus and the three day debate in Parliament can be a good starting point. There could be a vast difference between the document that is debated and a final draft and with that people on both sides will know their practical limitations and that itself is a great step towards reaching some consensus.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

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Do we need a new Constitution?

By Gamini Abeywardane

As the work of the Constitutional Assembly of the Parliament progresses to a reasonable level opposition is mounting from various quarters who argue that there is no need for a new Constitution and the current document we have is good enough.
It is not strange because many times we have experienced similar developments in the past whenever attempts were made to find a reasonable solution to the northern issue, the most well-known instances being Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact and Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact. Another somewhat similar instance was the Constitution Draft Bill of 2000 during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The strangest is that there was no such massive opposition when the country’s Constitution was replaced twice in the past without addressing the northern issue which has been a thorn in Sri Lankan politics from the late fifties onwards. In both those instances (1972 and 1978) although there were reasons for a change mostly they were driven by the private agendas of the ruling parties and not meant for addressing any of the burning issues at the time.
The other significant feature was on both those occasions the Constitution was rushed through the Parliament making use of the two thirds majority they had without adequate public discussion or consultations and also without the active participation of the Tamil community even in the Parliament.

This is the first time in the history of our country a Constitution is being discussed widely in Parliament and across the whole nation and therefore it is reasonable to expect opposition from many quarters. Public reactions for or against are a good thing in a democracy and more so when a new Constitution is expected to be promulgated in the most participatory manner with adequate discussion and finally through an islandwide referendum.
Fears of separatism and division of the country are quite understandable in the context of the actions of the LTTE in the recent past. However, we must also remember that despite their separate religious and linguistic identity Tamils never asked for a separate territory for them at the time of independence.They only asked for adequate representation for them in the Parliament.

The idea of a new Constitution is mainly to keep the cohesiveness of the nation, inclusive growth and prosperity and not to encourage division of the country. After many years of conflict we need to recognize that Tamils have unresolved issues that need to be addressed constitutionally which the thirteenth amendment has failed to resolve. That is the very reason why the Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his dialogue with the government of India promised a solution going beyond the thirteenth amendment which he called ‘Thirteen plus’.
As a result of three decades of bitter conflict, the Tamil issue has got internationalized almost nearing UN involvement and the current unity government was voted into power supported by of the Tamil community with the promise of finding a reasonable solution to the northern issue among many other changes to the governing system and electoral reforms.

It was a serious promise not only to the Tamil community and the nation but to India and rest of the world community who have been concerned about the developments here. Therefore, this government has a serious obligation to deliver on its promises and any intentional failure to do so will not augur well for Sri Lanka as a country.
Such a situation can only invite the involvement of the UN and other powerful countries in resolving the northern issue while also encouraging divisive and separatist elements in the country and thus providing a fertile ground for re-emergence of terrorism.

Any postponement of a solution to this problem will also postpone the economic progress of our country as happened during the last several decades. It is only a satisfactory resolution of this issue which can bring back the Tamil community to the main stream of things and ensure their full participation in the country’s economic development.
Similar ethnic issues that have been plaguing most other nations have been now resolved and finding a long lasting solution to our problem is an urgent priority and drafting a new Constitution will be a great opportunity to do . The current inclusive approach with wide debate both in Parliament and outside will afford the opportunity of resolving the issue with the participation of the entire nation.

This is the best opportunity in decades as the country’s two main political parties have joined together to form a government backed by minority political groups led by the Tamil parties. In the past, many attempts to solve this problem failed because whenever the governing party proposed a solution the other party blocked it.

If we do not resolve this now, it will lead to permanent frustration of the Tamil community and will also be a blow on the political future of moderate Tamils led by the TNA who supported the formation of the unity government with much hope.
Key issues in current political debate such as place of Buddhism in the Constitution, the unitary state and the executive presidency are important to many, but that should not be an impediment to settle the Tamil problem where the core issue is devolution of power and land rights.

It may sometimes be possible to resolve the issues vital to the Tamil community even without tampering with current constitutional provisions regarding unitary state, Buddhism or even executive presidency. Therefore, it is politically detrimental to the country’s future to oppose the idea of a new constitution altogether.
What we have so far developed through the ongoing parliamentary process is a set of proposals and ideas which can be the basis for a constitutional draft. It is a short sighted move to stifle the entire process just because a few proposals on the table are unpalatable to some.

All right thinking people who have a genuine desire to see an end to the long standing national issue should look at the current constitutional proposals not with suspicion but with openness and receptiveness. In this context the best judges to decide on the need for a new Constitution will be the people themselves and the idea of a national referendum on the issue could perhaps be the best answer to the problem.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

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Hybrid system of voting at last

Will the outcome justify the delay in elections?
In this background the efforts by the government to postpone these elections also have done some good indirectly, irrespective of what the government’s motive was in doing so. Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting and mandatory inclusion of women candidates will certainly help cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out.

By Gamini Abeywardane

Now the necessary amendment bills have been passed by parliament and it is likely that the long delayed local government elections are finally to be held in January. The inordinate delay can never be justified as any willful postponement amounts to denial of peoples’ right to vote. It’s an important constitutional right in a democracy which cannot be removed or restricted.
First it got delayed because of the need for delimitation of electoral wards which took a long time and the second delay was due to the need for amending laws to introduce the hybrid system of elections and provisions prescribing minimum representation for women.

The delay has often been blamed on the government and the opposition political parties particularly the Joint Opposition has been alleging that the government was delaying it because of its lack of readiness to face an election. They alleged that the SLFP faction led by President Maithripala Sirisena in particular was behind the delay because of their inability to face elections due to the internal problems in the party. The UNP has been accused of collaborating with the President in this matter.
Despite these issues and allegations and counter allegations the most positive development is that much talked about electoral reforms are happening slowly but steadily. Election delay is a dark cloud but the silver lining is that electoral reforms are introduced and for the first time the hybrid system of elections will be introduced in the next local government elections.

Having seen the dark side of the preferential voting system across the political spectrum there was general consensus that what is ideal for the country would be a hybrid system of first-past-the-post and PR systems. The ugliest face of the PR system became evident with bitter fighting at election times even among the members of the same party often leading to violence and mayhem.
Another negative aspect that has been often raised by the people is the disadvantage of not having a particular member to address the issues of a given locality because under the PR whole district is considered an electorate.  The PR system also gives the opportunity for corrupt candidates who are unpopular in their own locality to win votes from the rest of the district by throwing money. Thus, the system facilitates the easy entry of undesirable candidates who have no education but enough funds to spend.

These are some of the reasons that triggered the call for abolition of the PR system and reintroduction of the first-past-the-post system of voting. Accordingly Chandrika Kumaratunga had the abolition of the PR system as one of her electoral promises at the 1994 presidential election.
However, she never took any interest in electoral reforms during her tenure. This was because by that time most of the politicians had got used to the system and the PR vote enabled a politician to win a seat from the district vote even if voters in his own electorate had rejected him.

Then at the 2005 presidential election Mahinda Rajapaksa also promised to abolish the PR system, but he too did not take any constructive action to abolish or reform it during his presidency. Though people did not like the PR system it was often favored by politicians, mostly the corrupt ones who had general support throughout a district or who had sufficient money to throw during election times.
The proportional representation was introduced by J R Jayewardene mainly because he knew that even when the UNP was electorally defeated under the first past the post system they often had the majority vote count. So, with the new system in force JRJ thought that his party would never be defeated.

One may argue that PR system is a far more democratic system because all minority groups also get their fair share of representation. But the immediate motive behind its introduction would have been the belief that it was electorally more favourable to the UNP although subsequent experience showed that it is not always so.
All political parties have looked at the issue in the way that is most advantageous to them. As local government elections became due the Joint Opposition in particular were agitating that elections should be held under the old system without waiting for electoral reforms.

 That was because most of the former members of the local government bodies were with Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP and they seemed to believe that they had the biggest electoral advantage whatever political party they may contest the elections from.
Most of those former members also have the financial clout to fight elections and it would have been in their advantage, if the elections were held under the PR system. That is the very reason they have been fighting their tooth and nail for obtaining early elections without waiting for electoral reforms.

In this background the efforts by the government to postpone these elections also have done some good indirectly, irrespective of what the government’s motive was in doing so. Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting and mandatory inclusion of women candidates will certainly help cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out.
PR system has been frowned upon and criticized by many as it has often destroyed even the unity among members of the same political party. Its inherent confrontational nature has on many occasions led to infighting, assault and even murder.

 PR also has merits
Despite criticism PR also has its own merits although demerits have outweighed merits according to our own national experience. It gives value to each vote as opposed to winner-takes- all situations often found in the FPP system. That is why it is often preferred by minority groups and small political parties.

On the other hand in local elections the ward system will provide the good candidates a better chance of getting elected as election will mostly depend on one’s reputation in his or her locality. The question of throwing money and winning votes will not arise because good men with little or no money will also be able to contest and win since even house to house campaigning is possible in a ward which is generally a small area.
While it is morally wrong and undemocratic to restrict the voting rights of the people, a government that came into power on a promise of changing the electoral system had a greater responsibility to hold elections on the modified system.

Controlling corruption
The hybrid system and the inclusion of more women members could be the starting point to reduce corruption which now has taken alarming proportions. The PR system makes it mandatory for anyone contesting even local elections to spend a huge sum of money for the campaign. Thus, the system encourages anyone so elected to earn money through undue means or to give political favoures to supporters who have financed the election campaign enabling them to make more money.

Increasing female representation also will indirectly help to bring down corruption as women tend to corrupt less compared to men. They are also likely to spend less for their election campaigns while their presence in the councils will also influence the men who are in majority to behave well.
The new system could be disadvantageous to many former local government councilors who have also made money through local level deals and government contracts throughout the years. Some of them have stayed in power making use of the ill-gotten money although they are unpopular in their own localities.

Local elections will for the first time give the opportunity for the voters to gain some experience on how the mixed system of elections is going to work, while it will afford the government the opportunity to test the waters and see for themselves the ground realities before they face any national or provincial elections.

It will also be interesting to see how the split in the SLFP is going to impact on the electorate, as up to now, what we have seen is only the heated political debate and the disproportionate noise made by some of the vociferous politicians often overplayed by the electronic media.
While the ward system will give the people a better opportunity to eliminate those who are corrupt and unsuitable the first opportunity for selecting good men and women lies with the political parties that nominate them.

So, it is important to have some guidelines and a proper selection criterion when preparing nomination lists and, if the political parties are genuine about cleansing the system, they should begin the process by nominating the most suitable candidates.  Code of Ethics for Nominations’ prepared and presented by PAFFREL and accepted by all political parties can provide some guidelines in this regard.
Our political leaders have to admit that if corrupt members are elected a greater part of the responsibility should go to the political parties that nominate them. The voters alone cannot fight corruption if political parties continue to nominate corrupt men as their candidates and ask the people to vote for them.