Executive power should be with the prime minister

Presidency should be ceremonial

An Interview with Tissa Vitarana

In this interview, parliamentarian Tissa Vitarana the general secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party talks to the Sunday Island about the contents of the discussion paper on constitutional reform put out by the government recently.

Q. In your day, you would have been a participant in one constitution making process (1972) and a critic of yet another (1978). If we look at this discussion paper put out by the new government on the proposed constitutional reforms, does this appear to you as a serious professional attempt at constitution making?

A. This discussion paper presents a point of view rather sketchily. It gives some indication of the direction in which the changes are proposed. But I think it has to be filled out. I would have preferred some analysis of the previous constitution and the reasons for the changes proposed. That would be a better basis for formulating a new constitution. That is lacking. But I think from the point of view of initiating a discussion, this is a good starting point.  

Q. Conventional wisdom would say that a system of government has either to be a prime ministerial system or a presidential system. So when Colvin R. de Silva formulated the 1972 constitution he basically retained the contours of the previous constitution because what he wanted was a prime ministerial form of government. But this discussion paper seems to recommend something that is neither fish nor fowl.

A. I fully agree with you. That was my initial reaction as well. Executive power should either be with the president or with the cabinet headed by the prime minister. Here they are trying to share the executive power. That itself is going to lead to more problems. I for one will clearly indicate that I would like the executive presidency to be removed in toto and a ceremonial president installed. Executive power should be with the prime minister otherwise we are going to have continuous problems between the two in the period ahead. We need to clear this up. Unfortunately they have not only set a 100 day deadline, they have also made it a condition that there should not be any changes that warrant a referendum. If we are going to do away with the executive presidency then we need a referendum. My own feeling is that if we are going to make the changes and if it necessitates a referendum, let us have a referendum. The referendum could be held at the same time as the parliamentary election in June. I would prefer that the executive presidency is done away with.

Q. It is said in the discussion paper that "The mode of election of the president will not be changed. This will be a matter for the next parliament." Does that make any sense to you?

A. Once we do away with the executive presidency, there is no need to have an election to elect a ceremonial president. The election of the president could be done by parliament. This again is a weak point in the discussion paper.

Q. It is also said in the discussion paper that the president will be the head of state, the head of the executive and the commander in chief of the armed forces. Then it is said about the prime minister that he will be the head of government. How do you differentiate between the executive and the government? Ordinary people like us would think they are referring to the executive when they say ‘government’.

A. Definitely. I fully agree with what you are saying because the prime minister should be the head of the government and head of the executive. The president can be the head of state.

Q. Having a head of the executive separate from the head of government is going to lead to a turf war.

A. In fact these are the points that I will be including in the document that I wrote to present to the prime minister.

Q. There is also a desire to include subjects like the Auditor General and Audit Service Commission, the National Procurement Commission and the Right to Information Law in the constitution. In India they have a Right to Information Act and that is a separate piece of legislation. Why do we need to have all these things put in the constitution? The main pledge given was that the executive presidency is going to be scrapped. A whole lot of political parties got together on this single issue. But now we see all kinds of extraneous things are being brought in and given prominence while the most important thing, the abolition of the executive presidency, is left out. What do you make of this situation?

A. I think there has been no unified thought process in drafting what has been presented. That became very evident when we had a preliminary discussion at a meeting headed by the prime minister last week. It is going to require vey much more than 100 days to iron out the differences. On the question of the electoral system, there was an exchange of views last week and there were wide differences. In this context, if we are going to do a decent job and come out with a constitution that will lead to a stable government, we need much more time and we need a proper evaluation of the proposals and the possible outcomes before we agree on what should actually be done. I am sorry that this is being done in this ad hoc manner.

Q. The United Front government came into power in May 1970. Even though the contours of the previous constitution were not changed, yet the constitution making process took quite a while. What is your experience with regard to the formulation of the 1972 constitution?

A. There was a Constituent Assembly that sat for two years. I remember at that time we used to meet at Hector Abhayavardhana’s house in Chitra Lane and discuss the issues that need to be considered. When the process of the Constituent Assembly itself started, led by people like Dr Colvin R. de Silva, serious attention had already been given to key issues that needed to be addressed. But here I see that is sadly lacking. Rushing through the process on a matter of this magnitude in 100 days is not feasible. Already the schedule that has been drawn up has not been met even on more mundane matters. When it comes to a matter like the constitution which is going to affect the future of our country, I fear that this very cursory discussion will not yield results.

Q. When the presidential election was going to be announced, you raised the question as to why it was being held two years early. I suppose the same applies in this case.  

A. In fact when D.E.W.Gunasekara, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and I met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and tried to prevail on him not to have an early presidential election but to go the full term, we said that these constitutional changes should be made during the interim period. The question of electoral reform has been discussed at length in a Parliamentary Select Committee which Dinesh Gunawardene headed and of which I too was a member. But even at the final stages of that process, there were differences of opinion that had not been resolved. I thought it was really necessary that those issues be discussed further and that we should come to a proper consensus. There is more than a year remaining for Parliament so let us make use of that period to properly work out a constitution that will stand the test of time.

Q. Since you broached the subject, we see that there is no talk of changing the electoral system in this draft paper. Do you think it is feasible to abolish the executive presidency without changing the electoral system?

A. No it isn’t. The changes in the electoral system also have to be addressed in a way that will maintain the stability of the country.

Q. With regard to these constitutional proposals, we don’t know who is preparing these documents. Don’t you think it will be better for the whole Parliament to sit as a Constituent Assembly as in 1970-72 to make the process more transparent?

A. In fact when the LSSP discussed this matter with the former president, we suggested that a Constituent Assembly be formed. Nimal Siripala de Silva and Susil Premajayantha were also in favour of that proposal and it was in fact included in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. 

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