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.




Saturday, October 7, 2017

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New Constitution: Are we on the right path?

By Gamini Abeywardane

As we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of our Parliament it is more than a coincidence that a new set of proposals forming the basis of a new Constitution for the country is ready for its consideration. Though seven decades have elapsed since we gained independence from the colonial rule we have terribly failed in the task of drafting a proper Constitution acceptable to all communities.

In this matter we are sadly behind India which succeeded in replacing the British given Constitution with a document of their own within three years of their independence in 1947. India, though a single state, is in reality a subcontinent with diverse races, religions and languages and much cultural diversity, yet for all, they managed to come up with a constitutional document acceptable to all. There have been several amendments, but no one is demanding an entirely a new Constitution.
On the contrary, Sri Lanka which has a much less complicated situation with just a few races, languages and religions, is still struggling to draft a Constitution acceptable to all communities and that too after fighting a long and bitter internal war fueled by racial, religious and linguistic factors. As such, the need for a new Constitution is more than clear and, in fact, the incumbent government was voted into power with the full backing of all minority communities with the task of drafting a new Constitution as one of its electoral promises.

However it is rather unfortunate that in Sri Lankan politics there still is a certain segment of people who believe that there is no need for a new Constitution and the current document in force has solutions to all the problems, despite claims to the contrary by the minorities, particularly the Tamils. In this situation, it is interesting to examine why we as a country have failed to come up with a proper Constitution for so long.

Personal agendas

The main reason appears to be that both our locally made or autochthonous constitutions were tailor made not for the people of this country but for the political groups that were in power in the respective periods. This is clear from the constitutional history of our country.

Independent Ceylon’s first constitution popularly known as the Soulbury Constitution was accepted by all the communities in the country as minorities were given some sense of protection. Safeguard was provided for the minorities by Article 29(2) of the Constitution which prevented the Parliament from conferring benefits on the majority community and imposing disabilities on the minorities. With some minor amendments it lasted for a quarter of a century probably because it was drafted after consultation with all the communities over a period of about three years.
Then came the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and it is a well-known fact that the Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly without the participation of the Tamil community for whatever reasons. Probably the leaders at the time were in a hurry to bring about a rapid change in the country having great socialistic ethos in their minds and failed to give much thought to the idea that a Constitution is a consensus document which binds all the communities together.

Then came the second Republican Constitution of 1978 which introduced the executive presidential system. President J R Jayawardene, the architect of the Constitution tailor-made it for himself. The proportional representation was introduced 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.  
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. Yet, it is clear that JRJ’s immediate motive was not to give more democracy to the masses but to perpetuate the dominance of his party.

This attitude is quite clear from the way he centered near-absolute power around the presidency with him in the chair. All the great values of democracy – rule of law, independence of the judiciary, the police and the public service were compromised under the might of the executive presidency.

After becoming the executive president he had the audacity to say that he had power to do everything other than making a man a woman and woman a man. If 1972 constitution had erred in not providing adequately for the minorities he could have well corrected that with his five sixth majority in Parliament. Yet, he failed to do so until he was forced to devolve power under Indian pressure. All that showed he too had a personal agenda behind his effort to introduce a new Constitution.
The seventeenth amendment which provided for setting up of a constitutional council to recommend appointments to independent commissions covering vital areas of government such as the judiciary, public service, police, elections etc. was, however, an exceptional piece of legislation as it received the consent of all political parties in the parliament.

However, at the same time that was a classic example of a piece of legislation that was rushed through the parliament without adequate time for debate. There was a great loophole in not providing for a quorum for constitutional council and as a result when a vacancy occurred due to death or resignation of a member the entire council became non-functional.

The eighteenth amendment was again another instance of strengthening one individual’s own position rather than resolving a constitutional issue. Declared intention of the eighteenth amendment was to rectify the anomaly in the seventeenth amendment and activate the constitutional council and other independent commissions.
However, President Mahinda Rajapakse used the opportunity to remove the term limit on the presidency allowing him to contest for the presidency for a third time and also took the power to appoint supposedly independent commissions into his own hand thereby making the executive presidency almost dictatorial.

Such is the history of our constitutional making where leaders responsible for drafting constitutions or amending them often acted for their own benefit ignoring democratic traditions or the well-being of the people. They have often acted as politicians and never as statesmen.

Much needed consensus
For a constitution to be accepted by all and to last long it should be drafted following sufficient public debate and India has set a fine example in this regard. India’s constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly, which was elected by the elected members of the provincial assemblies.

The members of the Constituent Assembly met for the first time on 9th December 1946. On 29th August 1947, the Drafting Committee was appointed, with Dr B. R. Ambedkar as the Chairman along with six other members assisted by a constitutional advisor.
A Draft Constitution was prepared by the committee and submitted to the Assembly on 4th November 1947. Draft constitution was debated and over 2000 amendments were moved over a period of two years. Finally on 26th November 1949, the process was completed and Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution and the whole process took three years.

In Sri Lanka in all previous cases of Constitution making, the process was confined to parliamentarians of the government and the final draft was bulldozed through the parliament without much attention to the views of the opposition members or the general public.
However, this time over the process that was triggered over a year ago with the establishment of the Steering Committee of the Parliament seems to be much in line with the Indian experience. Already there has been some debate over this matter both in parliament and outside coupled with public consultations.

Most of the politicians who are publicly opposing the idea of a new constitution also have participated in the process going on in the Parliament where they have not been able to rationally oppose some of the fair and reasonable proposals that have been placed across the table.
Still it is only a collection of proposals and the bulk of it has come from various quarters as ideas and cannot be attributed to the whims and fancies of a particular individual or a political party unlike in the previous instances of constitution making.

Unitary nature
There have been much heated arguments over the unitary nature of the Constitution and the place accorded to Buddhism while there seems to be some general agreement over the often controversial issue of devolution of power.

However, the bright side is that all minorities are agreeable to retaining the current constitutional provisions which give foremost place to Buddhism while assuring all other religions their due place.
The only contentious area seems to be the unitary nature of the Constitution as set out by article 2 of the present Constitution. Retention of the word ‘unitary’ has been opposed by the TNA on the basis that it might give the opportunity to a future government to take back some of the devolved powers through judicial interpretations. Instead they have agreed to have the word ‘Ekeeya’ as found in the Sinhala version of the current Constitution with specific provisions against dividing the country.

However, considering the rest of the provisions this seems to be a resolvable issue because what finally matters is the spirit of the Constitution and if everything goes well the question of taking back some of the devolved powers will not arise. What will matter to the people of this country is undoubtedly economic development and if the national question which has been hampering our progress can be resolved, every other issue will become secondary and people will have less time to concentrate on emotive issues.
Another important step that has been suggested in the current constitutional process is to present the final draft to the people through a national referendum after it has been passed by the parliament by a two thirds majority. The TNA has vigorously supported this idea as they believe that no Constitution will succeed if it has not been approved by the people.

A referendum will be the best way to ensure such public debate and discussion while any piece of legislation directly approved by the people in that manner will have the legitimacy that is needed to create some sense of permanency for such a document in the minds of the people.
With ample support from the minorities and the international community this government got the biggest ever mandate to draft a new Constitution and it would be anti-democratic to abandon it at the behest of various groups that have never backed a positive change in the past. The idea of a new Constitution should be abandoned only if people reject it at a referendum and not because some groups oppose it.






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.