Saturday, September 2, 2017

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Internal party democracy, a key to future political reforms

UNP backbenchers set the trend in motion
By Gamini Abeywardane

Political parties are an essential component in a democracy. As such, political parties themselves often claim to be democratic in all their party activities. But, in reality they are not so, because political parties generally have various internal rules and constitutional provisions which enable the party leaders to act dictatorially or to manipulate the direction of the party in all important matters.

As a result, it is usually those closer to the party leadership who get the lion’s share in everything and backbenchers often have little or no say. Both the UNP and the SLFP that have governed our country over the years have had same tendencies in this regard which have been more conspicuous under the executive presidency. The enormous powers concentrated in the presidency enabled its occupier to bulldoze his own will in disregard of the opinions of others.
However, the situation seems to have changed following the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution. Its democratic dividend became more than manifest with much room for protests and alternate opinion. This new air of freedom and the democratic trend now seems to have entered into political parties as well.

This tendency was seen clearly in the recent times particularly in the UNP where the backbenchers who were usually powerless suddenly became instrumental in removing two key ministers – Ravi Karunanayake and Wijedasa Rajapakshe, from the cabinet. For whatever reasons, this would not have happened, if not for the process of democratization that is happening across the political spectrum. It would certainly be beneficial to people, if this type of process can end up reforming at least the major political parties in the country.
In any political party the upper rung or the seniors are usually content with opportunities they already enjoy while there can be corruption charges against some because it is those who have power who can get corrupted first. Therefore, this layer of politicians is not interested in reforms. It is the backbenchers who are often critical of the wrong moves of a party or its seniors.

Thus, the backbenches could be the best place to spearhead the war against corruption as well as to initiate some of the important reforms which can ultimately change the political culture of the country. The newly passed local government laws with adequate representation on the basis of wards are expected to return better quality members changing the political culture at the local level and it could be a good first step towards changing the political culture of the whole country.
Once the new electoral system is introduced at provincial and national levels greater changes in the overall political culture will be inevitable. These changes sometimes may take longer than expected, but they will certainly be positive changes.

The dawn of internal democracy within political parties is a favourable development as it will expedite the transformation within these parties in a way suitable for the future development of the country.
Such reforms are much needed as future political parties need to be equipped with members who possess the right knowledge and skills to steer the country and its economy into the modern era.

With online exposure and international education the younger generation will not vote for the kind of typical politicians whom we have today. Unless there is a change in both persons involved and the political culture, it is difficult to prevent the younger generations from becoming disinterested in politics.
It’s only the democracies with well-developed political parties with proper ideologies that will be able to produce the kind of political leaders who will be able to lead their countries successfully in a modern competitive environment.

Thus, the growth of internal democracy in political parties will help the country to choose better leaders from among those qualified to lead, irrespective of where they come from. This will reduce the space for family bandism in politics while the election of future leaders could become more merit based like in more developed democracies.
There is a great need for this tendency to come to other political parties, mainly to the SLFP as well. However, there seem to be a vacuum in this area in that party with no proper youth leadership as a result of unwholesome developments that have been taking place in the recent past.

One of the biggest problems right now is that politics is not attracting new blood and it has virtually become a game for sons and daughters of the existing politicians who know the taste of it. The existing PR system makes it virtually impossible for any new comer to succeed in politics unless that person has a colossal amount of money to spend. The current political culture usually associated with negative factors such as corruption and infighting also makes it unattractive for the youth.
The country can never prosper unless there is a complete transformation in this area enabling the attraction of educated youth and the respected and national minded professionals and businessmen into politics. The current situation mainly attracts two categories of people into politics – the offspring of today’s politicians who are much comfortable with the system and those who see great opportunity in politics to make more money.

The system unfortunately leaves out the two most vital categories of people that needs to be attracted into politics if we are to make this country a better place for people to live – people with proper background and education who enter politics for prestige and those who are truly national minded and have a feeling for the country.

Greater entry of such people will make it easy for all communities to get together and work for the betterment of the country and there will be lessor space for parochial and divisive considerations such as language, race and religion. At least the two main political parties in the country should undergo this transformation and the emerging democratization within political parties and the new electoral system will be able to lay the foundation for this change.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

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Unity govt. should fulfill its intended task

By Gamini Abeywardane
National governments are a rarity. The concept originated in the UK around the time of the Second World War as there was a great need for all to get together against a common enemy – the Axis forces led by Adolf Hitler. The concept often has been promoted or spoken about in the democratic world whenever there is a need to work together in the interest of the nation.
In Sri Lanka the need for forming a national government had been spoken about many times in the past prior to 2015, the closest possibility being on the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. However, there was no genuine desire or any practical possibility to form one until the incumbent yahapalana government was formed.

Thus, the formation of a national government with the participation of the two main political parties in the country was a rare development, if not a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. The immediate reason behind it, was to achieve certain national objectives which are impossible for one political party to achieve without the active support of the other.

 The main objectives included abolition of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution and reversing dictatorial trends through several independent commissions; introduction of good governance and re-establishment of the Rule of Law; improved diplomatic and trade relations with the western countries; reaching consensus on vital economic reforms; effective dealing with the UNHRC on allegations of human rights abuse; national reconciliation and resolution of the northern problem through constitutional means; investigating into allegations of large scale corruption; creating a proper environment for attracting foreign direct investment; and electoral reforms.

While there is progress in some of these areas the government has miserably failed in several other areas, particularly in resolving the northern issue, fighting corruption and attracting foreign investments. Of all these there are two vital issues, the resolution of which needs nothing but a national government –northern issue and fighting corruption.
Tolerating corruption

On the issue of corruption the biggest drawback is the central bank bond scam which happened under the auspices of the very government that came into power with an electoral promise to curb all corruption and to catch and punish those from the previous administration who were accused of large scale corruption.

However, on the positive side is the air of newly ushered freedom and transparency which enabled opposition members of the parliament to campaign and force the government to appoint a presidential commission to look into the alleged scandal.
Also, on the negative side is the inability of this government even to expose or prosecute anybody from the previous government for complicity in any acts of corruption or undue enrichment. On the contrary, there have been allegations of willful delay in proceeding with such prosecutions making a mockery of some of the basic tenets on which this yahapalana government was set up.

Some of these allegations may not be easily provable; yet, the real issue is that there doesn’t seem to be any genuine effort by those in control of the government to go ahead with such prosecutions irrespective of whatever the final outcome is going to be.
No country has succeeded in bringing down corruption to zero level. What is needed is a system of justice, fair play and transparency where any acts of corruption gets exposed and perpetrators brought before the law so that it would become the strongest deterrent against anyone who is likely to get involved in corruption in the future.

The government has so far failed to create such an environment and on the contrary, by its own inaction, has created a situation where people will take it for granted that political corruption will never be exposed in this country. There cannot be a better encouragement than this for politicians who want to make money by wrongful means to proceed.

Northern issue

On the most important issue of resolving the long standing issue of the Tamils of the north there was much expectation at the time the joint government of the UNP and the SLFP was set up. That is because it’s well-known that throughout the history, whenever a government was genuinely interested in finding a constitutional solution to this issue the main opposition party has never co-operated.

Whenever the UNP wanted to resolve the issue, the SLFP opposed and scuttled it and similarly, whenever an SLFP government took steps to resolve it, the UNP scuttled it. This was the fate of Bandaranaike- Chevanayakam Pact as well as Dudley- Chelvanayakam Pact, two genuine efforts to resolve the issue in the past.
That is the background which gave rise to the thinking that only a national government consisting of both these parties that could one day resolve this problem. Thus, when the national government was formed there was much expectation in this regard among the minorities that supported it.

Despite appointment of a parliamentary steering committee and holding of a series of public discussions and preparation of several reports based on the views of a fair cross section of the public and the professionals, much progress is yet to be achieved. The main reason is lack of consensus between the two parties on the nature of the constitution they want to evolve and rather unfortunately the abolition of the executive presidency, a main promise on their electoral platform, has been one such area of contention.
The resolution of the age-old northern issue by itself is a difficult task because of the historical fears of the Sinhala community about separatism and some of the unreasonable demands made by the extremists in the north. Apart from their traditional opposition to devolution of power the bitter memories of the LTTE’s terrorism also makes it more difficult for the government to get the approval of the Sinhala majority for a constitutional solution to the northern issue.

While these traditional difficulties are quite understandable, the strangest development is the inability of the two parties to agree on the constitutional package. So, it is fundamentally important for the two main partners of the government to have some internal consensus between them on these proposals in order to place them before the people.
If the executive presidency is the issue they should leave it aside and at least agree on the possible devolution package under a presidential system. Presidency should not stand in the way of a solution to the northern issue because the Tamils have never asked for the abolition of the executive presidency. It is sensible to complete what is doable during the tenure of the unity government rather than wasting time arguing on the impossible.

Electoral priorities
Meantime there are some developments within the government, particularly within the UNP that will have a direct bearing on these issues. The current wave of political action mostly spearheaded by the young backbenchers of the UNP who have been disgusted over things like lack of direction, slowness in corruption investigations seem to be bearing fruit.

Some of the effects of this have been resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake and the moves being taken against Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa in the UNP working committee.
On some of these critical issues this group has been having a simultaneous dialogue with both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena and they seem to have the capacity and the will to change the future course of the government.

Even at the party level democracy seems to be prevailing and these are healthy developments that can put the government on the correct track. At the same time, with the strong possibility of holding either provincial or local government election early next year the government seems to be getting ready to face people.
The strongest signal in this direction came from the duty reduction on motor cycles and single cabs and use of mobile telephone data. As such the possibility is for election priorities to take centre stage of politics in the next few months. It will also provide the opportunity for the unity government to realign itself and test their popularity among people.  

Despite much friction and occasional disagreements, it is unlikely that the two parties in the government will fall apart and they should remember that their historic responsibility as a national government is to renew their MOU and finish the primary task of the national government before the expiry of their term. Among them stands the resolution of the national issue, a responsibility from which the only national government ever to be formed in the country cannot and should not shirk.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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Democracy galore, but no strong government

History shows that our people need both democracy and a strong government and they are not ready to sacrifice one for the other. Then the question is how do we achieve this constitutionally? This is something that should receive adequate attention of our legislators and other interested parties, especially at a time some new constitutional proposals are being developed through a steering committee of the parliament.

By Gamini Abeywardane

Much anticipated resignation of foreign minister Ravi Karunanayake took place on Thursday, ending weeks of speculation. Irrespective of whether it was forced or voluntary, resignation itself was a salutary move. Whenever high officials are accused of wrong doings and investigations begin, in most established democracies it is customary for them to resign facilitating impartial enquiry.
On the contrary, in the last several decades in our country, irrespective of whatever accusations, resignation of officials or politicians holding public office was almost unheard. Thus, our political culture despite much negativity seems to be undergoing some healthy transformation following the political changes that took place two years ago.

The first sign of it was seen when then Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana resigned over the Avant Garde issue. Even the recent resignation of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s PRO over some drug related issue pending police inquiry, though at a lower level was something in this direction while the most high profile one was that of minister Karunanayake.

The controversial bond issue and the need for punishing those involved is entirely a different issue. No doubt the resignation of the foreign minister saved the government from a bigger embarrassment of facing a no confidence motion in parliament which was likely to be supported by some members of the two governing parties as well.
At the same time the fact that he had to resign and the circumstances that led to his resignation would be both an example as well as a deterrent to any future wrong doer, if such person is holding public office.

Then, the other salutary development is that despite Ravi Karunanayake’s criticism of the officials of the Attorney General’s department over the way he was interrogated at the commission of inquiry, there is a great degree of freedom for law officials to act without fear particularly after the establishment of independent commissions under the nineteenth amendment to the constitution.

However, amidst all these healthy developments the negative side is that despite promise of good governance the new administration has failed to provide any convincing alternative in the form of a corruption free environment. Neither have they been able to provide any relief to the people.  As a result there seem to be much disillusionment and confusion and to add to them all, there is an aura of lack of control or direction.
Controversial public utterings

This is more than evident from various public statements made by key politicians in both governing parties. On vital issues there is no unanimity or agreement among the key players of the government and the public statements made by ministers against certain government decisions long after they were approved by the cabinet seem to be going against the idea of collective responsibility and party discipline.
A high point in this type of behaviour was seen in recent utterances made by a cabinet minister against Hambantota port deal. He went to the extent of saying that he does not agree with handing over the management of the port to the Chinese and would do everything possible to take it back from their control and nationalize it.

While the country is facing a huge debt issue and government has no choice other than working with the Chinese who have the capacity to develop the port, statements of this nature without offering any other alternative solution will only further complicate matters for the government.

Another cabinet minister was seen publicly criticizing the government’s official position over the SAITM issue. He attacked the government’s decision to continue with SAITM while showing much sympathy to medical students who are currently on strike, but did not indicate his opinion on the future of private medical education in the country.
When ideas diametrically opposed to the opinion of the government are publicly promoted by members of the cabinet, on one hand it becomes an encouragement to those who are organizing public protests against the government while on the other it further confuses the people who have been bewildered by infighting even among cabinet members of the same party

While re-establishing the tradition of resignations in the face of public antipathy is a welcome sign there seem to be serious issues with regard to concept of collective responsibility in the cabinet and general party discipline. These are vital traditions which are necessary for a democratic government to function.
If a minister is against a certain decision by the government there is ample opportunity to oppose it at the cabinet meetings. If the majority of the ministers agree to it despite opposition from one or two the tradition is to go by the majority decision.

If the disagreement is of a serious nature and on a vital matter such members have the option of leaving the cabinet but continuing to make harsh public statements critical of a major government decision is in total violation of the concept of collective responsibility which requires that members of the cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them

One aspect of collective ministerial responsibility is that ministers share responsibility for major government decisions, particularly those made by the cabinet and, even if they personally object to such decisions, ministers must be prepared to accept and defend them or resign from the cabinet.

The other important element that is being seriously eroded seems to be party discipline. Although there has to be freedom for all members to express their own personal opinions, in a democracy parliament works on the basis of a party system and members of each party have to adhere to a certain set of policies which keep them together.

In the modified presidential system that is currently in operation in our country strict adherence to collective responsibility or party discipline as they are found in a Westminster system may not be possible. However, if the parliamentary system is to work there need to be some form of collective responsibility and party discipline and the public statements of ministers should indicate who belongs to which party.
This lack of disciple becomes quite conspicuous in the eyes of the people because of the strict contrast with the seemingly disciplined environment that prevailed under the previous government. Despite whatever allegations of authoritarian trends there was disciple, a sense of stability and a strong government,

The change of government happened mainly on issues of freedom, democracy, rule of law and corruption. The very people who were instrumental in bringing about this change now seem to be bewildered and confused as to which direction we are moving now.

Some government politicians have argued that public protests that are happening almost on daily basis are symptomatic of the new found freedom after many years of repression. But given the current situation in the country the question will naturally arise as to whether the members of the two political parties in the government are also still enjoying such new found freedom.
Need for a strong government

History shows that our people need both democracy and a strong government and they are not ready to sacrifice one for the other. Then the question is how do we achieve this constitutionally? This is something that should receive adequate attention of our legislators and other interested parties, especially at a time some new constitutional proposals are being developed through a steering committee of the parliament.

We need a strong institutional framework with adequate powers to deal with wrong doers and corruption without political interference and a proper electoral system to ensure that only suitable people are elected as members of parliament as well as provincial and local government bodies.
Relying on individuals to achieve these objectives will not serve any purpose because the tendency will be to consolidate his or her own position or that of their clan after doing one or two right things. Therefore, the better way would be to develop strong and dependable democratic institutions similar to those found in the United States and other established democracies in the west.

Under the Soulbury Constitution we had perfect democracy but often had weak and wavering governments while change of government was too frequent. On the other hand, executive presidency while providing a stable government took the country almost to the brink of a dictatorship.
The way this government is running we see that the existing system of combined governance also has failed to produce expected results. What is apparent now is two people with almost equal power cannot run a country. As such finding a suitable mid-way with stability and democratic institutions which ensures participation of all communities is a must. It is up to the constitutional experts and the parliament to come up with a solution.





Sunday, August 6, 2017

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Same day PC polls a fantastic idea, but delay in elections can nullify all its good effects

The best compromise would be to do all the necessary electoral reforms within the shortest possible time and to have the elections without delay so that it will be a win-win situation for both people and the government. In a democracy people are entitled to a good electoral system as well as an unhindered opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
 By Gamini Abeywardane
The idea reportedly mooted by the government recently to make it compulsory by law to have all provincial council elections on the same day, on the face of it, is a salutary move. Due to whatever reasons, when the provincial councils were set up by the J R Jayewardene government they did not introduce the same day election rule for PCs. If it was deliberately done the motive would have been to keep the option of testing the waters by having these elections one by one so that it would always be for the advantage of the government in power.
Following the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution the first provincial council election was held in April 1988 only in four provinces – Wayamba, Uva, North Central and Sabaragamuwa, because of the bad security situation that prevailed at the time. The elections to the other provinces were held subsequently, again not on the same day but on a staggered basis.

Upon the expiry of their term elections to seven provincial councils other than the north and the east were held on the same day in May 1993. That means although the election law did not strictly prescribe the necessity for same day elections, the normal practice applicable to parliamentary elections was followed in this regard as well. The elections in the north and the east were not possible because the amalgamated province had been taken under the central control by that time following the unsuccessful attempt by Vartharajah Perumal to declare independence unilaterally.

Thereafter, each time when provincial elections were held it was for two or three provinces and thus we inherited a situation where a few PCs complete their term every two or three years. This gave a good opportunity for incumbent governments to test their popularity from time to time and act accordingly without having to face the risk of islandwide elections at once and every government has been using this distortion for their own advantage.
Now the cabinet has already approved a proposal to amend the election laws and the Constitution to make it compulsory to have all provincial elections on the same day. But the problem is, even if the law is passed, how do we get it straight with terms of PCs ending on different dates? One way is when one or two provincial councils finish their terms around September to dissolve the remaining councils as well and to have elections for all. The other option will be to put the PCs which will be finishing their terms early under presidential control and wait till the all others finish their terms.

The first option will be disadvantageous to all PC members who have considerable time to finish their terms and therefore such a move is likely to be opposed by the respective provincial councils. The exercise of the second option will mean postponement of PC elections and that kind of move will any way be resisted and opposed by all opposition political parties who have already been clamouring for early local government elections.
The governing parties will naturally think that postponement of any election is going to be in their advantage given the wave of problems and the public protests they are currently facing. The other issue is the major split in the SLFP which has been deteriorating over several months and the party will need reasonable time to sort out their issues. Then UNP under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been too busy with mega economic plans and reforms and seems to be not concentrating on any grassroots level political activities that are vital if they are to face any election.

Now the local government elections have been due for a long time and technically they have to be held before the provincial elections. However, despite necessary draft legislation for reforming the electoral system being before parliament, still there is no clear sign about holding such elections in the near future.
However, as the legal position stands today there is no room to postpone provincial council elections whenever they become due and the Elections Commission has already made it clear. The terms of the Eastern, North Central and the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils will expire between September 6 and October 1. Any change in this situation can occur only thorough the amendments to the provincial election laws which are likely to be taken up soon.

Whichever election is going to be held first, the problems that are to be faced by the government will be the same. With the split in the SLFP such an election is going to be fought by three groups unless the two governing parties decide to form a coalition. Facing such an election alone is a difficult task for the SLFP faction led by President Maithripala Sirisena. On the other hand, the Joint Opposition backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa which has been demanding early elections seems to be under the belief that they can enhance their lot at any future poll.

PC electoral system

While the debate over PC elections is on another idea that has already come up is the need for changing the electoral system of the provincial councils. Draft laws for reforming the local government electoral system and introducing a hybrid system being ready, one may propose why not introduce the same for PCs as well. The constitutional process that is going on in the parliamentary steering committee has already developed some comprehensive proposals to introduce a hybrid system at national elections so that it becomes meaningful to have the same for PC polls as well. These are proposals beneficial to the people and electoral reforms at all levels should happen sooner or later.

Many governments in the past while accepting in principle that PR system is not in the best interest of the people, have gone on postponing the electoral reforms for petty reasons. On the other hand, it is equally bad if the current government starts working on these ideas of reforms and drags their implementation with the ulterior motive of postponing elections until the final years of their government’s term.

The best compromise would be to do all the necessary electoral reforms within the shortest possible time and to have the elections without delay so that it will be a win-win situation for both people and the government. In a democracy people are entitled to a good electoral system as well as an unhindered opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

Need for being security conscious
Meanwhile several security related issues have surfaced in the north in the past few months and these developments could well be disadvantageous for current attempts to develop a constitutional solution to the long standing northern issue.

The latest is the sword attack on two policemen in Kopai preceded by the incident which ended the life of the police sergeant who was handling personal security of Jaffna’s High Court Judge. Some of the persons who have been arrested in connection with these incidents have been proved to be ex LTTE cadres.
In the past one or two years there have been many such incidents including discovery of some arms and ammunition in several locations followed by the arrest of a number of ex-LTTE cadres. The IGP Pujith Jayasundara has pointed out that some of the recent incidents are akin to the things that happened during the formative years of the LTTE and it is not possible to say that we have totally eradicated terrorism from the country. 

All this shows the importance of national security and alertness despite absence of war and the popular belief that terrorism has been almost wiped out from our country. In this age and time where terrorist groups are powerful enough to shake even mighty nations, emergence or re-emergence of terrorism could be a matter of time. So, the mere fact that the war is over in our country should not be a reason to be complacent about national security.
With a history of insurgencies, terrorism and war running into well over three decades, Sri Lanka can ill-afford to ignore the need for strengthening its armed forces and intelligence services. This will become more relevant as the country grows economically and increases its asset base – industrial installations, power stations, ports and airports etc.

In the context of current internal and regional developments, it is likely that terrorism will continue to remain an eternal threat in the foreseeable future. No country can afford to be lax on matters of security and some of the recent happenings are a grim reminder for the necessity of being security conscious.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

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Trade unions cannot grab the mandate to govern

Democratically elected government of the day should have the freedom and the authority to decide on policy matters and direct the country’s economic progress taking advantage of the ongoing global and regional developments. It is natural for trade unions to oppose any kind of reforms that affect their employment but they have no authority to overstep their territory by impinging on the government’s mandate to run the country.
By Gamini Abeywardane
People who have been sick of student protests and GMOA strikes over SAITM issue were forced to witness another series of trade union excesses this week at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). The sudden stoppage of work by the petroleum workers caused immense hardships to people and was about to bring the whole economic machinery to a standstill when the police and the army intervened under an essential services order and brought the situation under control.
The main demands of the trade unionists were only remotely connected to their trade, right to bargain or conditions of employment. On the contrary they were trying to impinge on the lawfully elected government’s right to govern the country by dictating them on the economic policy.

They were demanding that the Hambantota Port privatization deal be amended to keep petroleum related activities under the CPC; the proposed joint project with India to develop the hither to neglected British built oil tanks in Trincomalee be stopped and the oil tanks should be handed over to the CPC; and Sapugaskanda oil refinery be modernized with state funds under the CPC without getting the foreign private investments into it.

The CPC workers have no right to dictate to the government on this type of policy matters. As is the common knowledge, the Hambantota Port is a huge burden to the government with Rs 43 billion loss in 2015 alone and the only way to make it viable is to manage it with Chinese participation and the deal with the Chinese company will rid the country of the debt burden by transferring an equity share in lieu of the loan.
It is no secret that the Chinese funded the project because Hambantota will be an important port on their proposed Silk Route. The previous government rightly or wrongly had embarked on this project and now we have little option other than working with the Chinese. Sri Lanka which is in an economic turmoil after fighting a bitter war for several decades will not be able to undertake a project of that magnitude on her own. No other international funding sources will agree to provide financial support as they know that Sri Lanka alone has no capacity to make such a port economically viable within a reasonable time.

The oil tank farm in Trincomallee which was built by the British colonial rulers for military purposes prior to the Second World War has been neglected for a long time and has been exposed to decay. It had been constructed at a huge cost at the time and handed over to us following the departure of the Royal Navy in the late 1950s.

Most of those storage tanks are still in good condition and it is a prudent thing to put them to some good use in a way the country can receive some income. Some understanding has already been reached with India to jointly develop these tanks for oil storage and bunkering purposes which will be economically beneficial to both countries.
The third demand of the CPC unions is also equally unreasonable. The upgrading and modernization of Sapugaskanda oil refinery is an urgent need as the country is currently spending a massive amount of money to buy refined oil. However, the total project cost will exceed US$ 1.3 billion and with other priorities and repayment of existing loans becoming due, it is not possible to make such an investment. Currently there are plans to develop it with a foreign party as a public private partnership.

 All these are projects that are necessary to be completed within a reasonable time and Sri Lanka is short of funds to do so on her own strength. Then the next viable alternative is to undertake them with participation of foreign investors. These are mostly policy decisions the government has to take and hardly connected to the labour rights of those who work at the CPC. 
If tolerated, this type of actions which are totally outside the employment issues of the workers could spread into other areas as well making it impossible for a legally elected government to run this country. Some may raise issues over the manner the military took over the control of the oil installations, but that is the only way the government could bring the situation under control. Public sympathy is surely with the government and not with the unruly strikers who are determined to achieve their motives by taking the government to ransom and destroying state property.

Parallel action by GMOA

This followed a similar wave of trade union action taken by the GMOA recently disrupting the health services over the SAITM issue. That too has similarities in the sense what they were agitating for had lessor connection to the professional or employment rights of the doctors, but a policy matter as to whether private medical education should be recognized and allowed to develop in this country.

The striking doctors were not saying so directly, but were insisting that the SAITM should be nationalized which in effect meant that no private medical education institution should be recognized even in the future whatever its standards are going to be. There was a lot of ambiguity on this point which finally exposed the motives of the GMOA.
Some time ago they also opposed the introduction of the free ambulance service backed by the Indian government. Despite objections by the GMOA, the government went ahead with the project and the free ambulance service is operating quite well in the western province and is now being expanded to other areas as well. Opposing doctors would have perhaps thought that this would encourage the entry of Indian medical professionals into the country, but it has not happened that way. 

If you compare the two situations those who participated in the strikes are two groups of employees who are well looked after. Doctors are well paid and enjoy much privileges and perquisites such as right to private practice and duty free vehicles which other state workers are not entitled to. The employees of the CPC have good salaries and enjoy many other facilities such as medical benefits, bonuses and handsome overtime payments enabling even the lowest grade employees to enjoy a much better standard of living compared to other government employees.   
Both these groups together with workers in similar utilities and essential services have been able to win many demands far and above other categories of state employees because of the vital nature of their services to the daily lives of the people. Thus they have been able to take many governments to ransom in the past when it came to winning employment related demands.

However, the issue developing now is different as these trade unions with the backing of certain political groups are now moving outside the traditional areas where trade union rights are recognized and going into governmental policy issues which are remotely connected to their trades.
This issue merits adequate public attention as the country is in a critical stage where major reforms are necessary in many vital areas of the economy to take best advantage of the developing macroeconomic and investment climate in Asia and particularly the South Asian region. It is also significant that we will not be able to do this in isolation and it is necessary to work with all regional and global powers that are active participants in this transformation and in this regard China, India and Japan are important partners for Sri Lanka.

Any effort to scuttle economic reforms in these vital areas will have a significant negative impact on the future of our country and it is unfortunate that these efforts to block the economic reforms are often backed by disgruntled political forces that are hell bent on ensuring their own survival in total disregard of the economic future of the country.
Democratically elected government of the day should have the freedom and the authority to decide on policy matters and direct the country’s economic progress taking advantage of the ongoing global and regional developments. It is natural for trade unions to oppose any kind of reforms that affect their employment but they have no authority to overstep their territory by impinging on the government’s mandate to run the country.





Thursday, July 27, 2017

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Indo-Sri Lanka Accord - Thirty years of soul-searching — the lasting legacy of 1987

Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene signing the historic accord in July 1987
The most significant contribution of the much-maligned Indo-Sri Lanka Accord has been the restructuring of the island nation’s postcolonial state

Jayadeva Uyangoda
Thirty years have passed, not so quietly, since President J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987. The accord’s story has become part of history in India as well as Sri Lanka. However, has Sri Lanka’s politics changed since the advent of the accord? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

In Sri Lanka, the most important political change since 1987 has been the total military defeat and demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The accord was one of the early attempts to bring Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war to an end by means of a political-constitutional solution. On his part, Rajiv Gandhi thought that a political solution in Sri Lanka on India’s initiative would not only resolve the island nation’s ethnic conflict, but also ensure a role for India in shaping the political trajectories of a post-war Sri Lanka. This thinking was subtly reflected in the accord’s clauses as well as annexures.
The accord had two immediate objectives. The first was to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic war by persuading the Tamil militant groups to lay down their arms and then join the so-called political mainstream. The second was to alter the constitutional and structural framework of the Sri Lankan state and offer regional autonomy to the minority Tamil community through devolution of powers. The two objectives have been met with only partial success.

The Tamil militant groups, with the exception of the LTTE, agreed to follow the political path opened up for them. The LTTE rejected the accord, and returned to war not only with the Sri Lankan state, but also with the Indian state. Within four months of the accord’s signing, India — its sponsor — became a direct party to the war, demonstrating the utterly unforeseen twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s politics of civil war.

And the war went on and on till May 2009 when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa achieved the seemingly impossible — a unilateral war victory by decisively defeating the LTTE. And that happened, contrary to the dominant narrative in Sri Lanka, with the support and blessings of many parties — like India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, the European Union (EU) the United States (U.S.) and the UN. Amidst disbelief and euphoria, Mr. Rajapaksa claimed personal credit for achieving ‘the first success’ in the global war against terrorism. And that seems to have effectively and permanently ended the ‘political-solution’ approach to the ethnic conflict — an approach that guided the drafting of the accord in July 1987.
The second objective of the accord required a constitutional amendment. The 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution was passed by Sri Lankan Parliament in November 1987. The new law, which closely followed the Indian constitutional model of power-sharing, created a system of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka’s nine Provinces. Though rejected by the LTTE as an inadequate solution to the Tamil national question, the 13th Amendment at least restructured, de jure, Sri Lanka’s postcolonial state, which had remained unreformable in the direction of pluralism and multiethnicity.

This, in retrospect, is the single-most significant and lasting contribution that the much-maligned pact has made to Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics. The 1987 system of devolution was created on the basis of a set of important assumptions, as clearly articulated in the text of the accord. These included: a) Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multicultural society; (b) Tamil demand for secession is not politically tenable, though understandable; (c) regional autonomy is the best alternative both to a unitary state and separation; and (d) Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict can be best managed by political means, grounded in the acknowledgement that the ethnic minorities have legitimate political and other grievances and aspirations.

Quite interestingly, a powerful outsider had to use some coercion to convince Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ruling class that reforming the state, reflecting these assumptions, were the key to Sri Lanka’s political unity and nation-building. And its acknowledgement, though without much conviction, is perhaps the most important positive contribution which Jayewardene made — he made many negative ones — to Sri Lanka’s politics.
So, what has happened to Sri Lanka’s Provincial Council system since November 1987? It has been a story of many twists and turns. In the merged ‘North Eastern Province’, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the most leftist among Tamil militant groups, formed a coalition after winning the first Provincial Council election, only to be confronted with a rigid, unsympathetic and evasive political class and bureaucracy in Colombo. The despair led the EPRLF to declare a unilateral declaration of independence and its members then retreated to India for political asylum. Provincial Councils continued in the Sinhalese-majority Provinces, seven in all, where there was no demand for devolution. Confined to these seven Provinces and caught up in a powerful ideological paradigm of a centralised unitary state, the entire system of Provincial Councils found new political reasons for their existence other than regional autonomy.

Two of them stand above others. The first is that the Councils, contrary to the original intention of the law, became institutional extensions of the Central government and the ruling party in Colombo. Second, they evolved into institutions through which political corruption and patronage politics got decentralised and democratised. Even the Northern Council, which was formed anew after the war in 2013, and run by a Chief Minister of the Tamil National Alliance, has not been able to reverse this institutional paralysis. C.V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister, defying his own party’s wishes, has succeeded quite well in not being able to find any imaginative breakthrough in the exercise of providing regional autonomy to the people in the North. Thus, in the Northern Province, ‘devolution’ means ‘no devolution’ and more debate on why there is ‘no devolution’.
Since July 1987, there have been significant changes in Sri Lanka’s politics. The ethnic civil war has ended, and there is no armed insurgency threatening the state. Insurgency led by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP) too was defeated as far back as in 1989. In fact, the JVP has re-invented itself as an effective parliamentary party. Authoritarian regimes have come and gone. Attempts at re-democratisation have been made and have partially succeeded. A new generation of political leadership has emerged with conflicting visions for the future of Sri Lanka.

Amidst all these changes, there is one constant. It is the resistance to reforming the state, and the state’s failure to become truly pluralistic and multiethnic. This is despite popular support for such reforms and pledges made by political leaders to win elections. Thirty years since the accord, Sri Lanka is fast losing momentum to bring constitutional reform, yet again.
The most important legacy of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord is perhaps the set of assumptions, outlined above, that guided the accord and the 13th Amendment.

Jayadeva Uyangoda recently retired as professor of political science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo


Saturday, July 22, 2017

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Ward system in local polls: A first step towards reducing corruption

Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting will certainly do some good towards cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out. If PR system cannot be completely discarded with, at least a mixed system could be a good starting point.

By Gamini Abeywardane

There are strong signs that much postponed Local government elections are to be held at last. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have indicated that these elections could be held by December or January.

However, going by developments since the expiry of the term of the local government bodies, those in the opposition seem to be quite skeptical about these promises. For them it’s a case of seeing is believing and nothing short of official declaration of elections will convince them. 
Amidst protests by the Joint Opposition (JO), government postponed these elections citing the delay in delimitation of wards and electoral reforms as reasons. Meanwhile, critics mainly from the JO have been saying that the real reason for the postponement was the government’s inability to face elections due to growing unpopularity among masses. They were agitating that elections should be held under the old system without waiting for electoral reforms.

All political parties have looked at the issue in the way that is most advantageous to them.  With the current wave of problems it is natural that the governing parties will find it difficult to face any elections. Out of the two governing parties the, SLFP which is suffering from a major internal split will have the biggest difficulty when it comes to facing elections.
Most of the former members of the local bodies are with Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP and they seem to believe that they have the biggest electoral advantage whatever political party they may contest the elections from.

Most of those former members also have the necessary financial clout to fight elections and it would definitely be in their advantage, if the elections are to be held under the existing 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 are quite understandable. If they wish to continue doing so it is not impossible for them to find another loophole in the electoral system to further postpone the elections.

However, in a democracy there is a limit to postponing such elections and sooner or later they have to be held and that is probably a factor that has influenced both President and Prime Minister to hint that LG elections would be held by December or January.
Meanwhile, delimitation report has already been submitted and the proposed legislation reforming the current electoral system is also before the parliament. What has been proposed is a mix of 40 percent Proportional Representation (PR) and 60 percent first-past-the-post (FPP) system. And there are also proposals to increase women’s participation up to 25 percent.

Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting will certainly do some good towards cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out. If PR system cannot be completely discarded with, at least a mixed system could be a good starting point.
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 campaign is possible in a ward which is generally a small area.
Another negative aspect of the current system that has been often highlighted by many people is the disadvantage of not having a particular member to address the issues of a given locality because under the PR system the entire district is considered as one electorate.

 The PR system also gives corrupt candidates who are unpopular in their own locality the opportunity to win votes from the rest of the district by throwing money. Thus, the system facilitates the easy entry of undesirable elements that have no education, but enough funds to spend.
These are some of the reasons that triggered the call for reintroduction of the ward system in local government elections based on first-past-the-post voting.

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 has a greater responsibility to hold elections on the modified system.
Moreover, if the intention of the government is to cleanse the electorate as promised and ensure that better quality representatives are elected to the local bodies, there should not be any intentional delay in holding elections. And if elections are to be held by the end of the year as currently speculated they should be held on a mix of PR and first-past-the-post systems.

Controlling corruption
This 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.
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 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.