Provincial buffoonery and Presidential anxieties


Rajan Philips

Friday, August 24, marked a rare instance of parliamentary unanimity that is usually reserved for a vote of condolence following an MP’s passing. There was no death to bereave last week, but it was burial of a different kind - when the House unanimously voted down the Delimitation Committee report for demarcating electoral districts for Provincial elections. 139 MPs belonging to the governing UNP/SLFP and the opposition JO/TNA voted against adopting the report. The six or so JVP MPs apparently left the Chambers during the vote, while the rest of the lot simply did not show up. Absentee parliamentarians, like absentee landlords of old who Philip Gunawardena went after in his Paddy Lands Act, are a national disgrace but that is the least of the problems facing national politics.

The government is now in a quandary over the timing of the Provincial Council elections – three of which are now more than one year over due, three more will be due within a month, and the remaining three can wait till next year. And the way the government and parliament have handled the provincial delimitation matter is nothing less than political buffoonery. The companion to this buffoonery is the growing anxiety among prospective candidates for the next presidential election. The interesting, or pathetic, new development is that no potential candidate seems to be sure that he (there is no she at this time) would in fact become a candidate. The main challenge now is more about securing candidacy than about winning the election ultimately. That uncertainty applies across the board from Mahinda Rajapaksa (unless he has already told GL Peiris to shut up about his (MR’s) candidacy prospects under 19A) to Ranil Wickremesinghe and every potential candidate in between from either party (or alliance).

A manifestation of this uncertainty is the latest trial balloon floated by SB Dissanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakara, though not jointly, that would have Maithripala Sirisena run again as a common candidate but for a different opposition, i.e. SLFP/SLPP/JO (instead of the UNP/UNF/JVP/TNA that he was co-opted by in 2015). That would be quite a chameleon feat for changing political colours even for Sri Lankan politics. The balloon can easily be pricked, however, for everything depends on an agreement being reached between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena for an electoral arrangement in which Sirisena will be the first violin and the Rajapaksas will have to be content playing second fiddle. There is also speculation about efforts to secure a second candidacy for Sirisena from the same 2015 UNP/UNF camp that he has been mostly running away from for the most part of this year. That speculation again shows the uncertainties surrounding the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The names of Sajith Premadasa and MangalaSamaraweera are also purposefully kept afloat as potential candidates for UNP/UNF.

The upshot of the speculations involving the candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena is that if he were to be anointed as the candidate of either of the two common fronts, Mr. Sirisena could call the elections as early as January 2019. What would that do to the government’s current position (not a promise) that the six provincial council elections will be in January 2019? Will they all be postponed until an advanced presidential election is done and dusted? Or could they all be held together? In his famous April interview earlier this year (The Island, 25 April 2018), the swashbuckling National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya was quite confident about the NEC’s capacity to hold the presidential election and six provincial elections at the same time if necessary. Perhaps the government and parliament could make it easy for the Election Commission so that NEC could hold them separately: the presidential election could be held at one time, and the provincial elections for all nine provinces (and not just six of them) could be held a few months before or after the presidential in 2019. For that, the government and the parliament must reach an agreement on the electoral system for provincial elections.

Provincial delimitation

The delimitation report that was buried last week was produced after four months (between October 2017 and February 2018) of intense labour by a committee of five appointed by the President, and comprising three eminent retirees (a Surveyor General, a Central Banker with expertise in Statistics, and an Assistant Commissioner of Elections) and two equally eminent academics. The committee composition with three minority representatives and two Sinhalese, and chaired by a Tamil, was even better than GG Ponnambalam’s much reviled 50-50 formula. Yet, their report was rejected mostly because its recommendations did not provide for sufficient minority representation, especially Muslim representation, in different provinces. The missing desideratum apparently is the absence of any provision for multi-member constituencies to enable minority members being elected to their respective Provincial Councils.

There have been different explanations for this lacuna, the apparent stalemate in the efforts to resolve this before the report was finalized, and the ultimate rejection of the final report by parliament. Prof. Shahul Hasbullah, the Geographer, a member of the Delimitation Committee who unfortunately passed away in Jaffna the day after Parliament rejected his Committee’s report, told the Sunday Times (4 March 2018) that the problem of Muslim representation arose from the geographical scattering of the Muslim population throughout the island. According to him, the Committee was constrained in addressing this issue, and the law in its current form is not helpful. Of the 222 electoral divisions in nine provinces recommended by the Committee, according to Prof. Hasbullah, 175 (78%) will likely have Sinhalese representation, 25 (11%) - Tamil representation, 13 (6%) - Muslim representation, and nine (5%) - Plantation Tamil representation. The 13 Muslim representatives will be in four Provinces and there will not be any Muslim representation in the other five Provinces.

According to the Committee Chairman, Dr. K. Thavalingam, a former Surveyor General, the Committee included in its report as recommendations, suggestions by Prof. Hasbullah to address the question of Muslim representation. On the other hand, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha, who has been handling quite a few problem files from subsidiary (provincial/local) governments to managing cricket, has offered a different explanation (The Daily News, 29 August 2018) for the stalemate and the failure to address this practically in the report before the report was presented to parliament. Part of that explanation that the Committee did not give enough time to political parties to study the report and provide their input is simply untenable because the government had given the Committee only four months to complete the report and the Committee to its credit had met that deadline.

The Minister also raised another point that his suggestion to the Committee Chairman that the Committee should meet with political party representatives to listen to their concerns before finalizing the report was apparently turned down by the Chairman on the grounds that there was no provision in the law for such a consultation. We do not know what actually transpired between the Minister and the Chairman, but considering the turn of events and the wholesale rejection of the report by Parliament, it is possible to surmise that thoughtful steps may not have been taken to identify and address issues before presenting the report to parliament.

There is no doubt that the Committee has fulfilled what it was assigned to do in the time it was given, and has produced a report of 804 pages in four months after navigating through 678 written and oral representations by members of the public and stakeholders. The question is whether the Terms of Reference given to the Committee were adequate for the Committee to produce what the government may have expected to receive, and what the parliament thought it did not receive. It is truly unfortunate that intermediate steps were not taken to make sure that the Committee and the government were clear with one another about what was being expected and what was being produced. This is unfortunate for two reasons.

First, the political atmosphere is a breath of fresh air compared to the country’s acrimonious history in dealing with ethnic representation. At least, at the formal level there is no opposition by others to the Muslim concerns over representation. This is even sweeter considering the political targeting of the Muslims over the last few years by fringe groups who dominate politics between elections. So it is unfortunate that an amicable opportunity to resolve the issue of representation seems to have been wasted, hopefully, only temporarily. Second, at the more procedural or technical level, it is inexplicable that a way could not be found to have the Committee listen to the concerns of political parties and produce a report that would have deserved a better fate than wholesale rejection.

We do not have all the facts to say anything definitively, but it would seem that procedural rigidity on the part of the Committee and predictable sloppiness on the part of the government have combined to produce the vote of rejection in parliament. The redress now is apparently through a new committee appointed by the Speaker of Parliament to review the rejected report and make recommendations to hold provincial elections. The new committee will be chaired by the Prime Minister and will include the four individuals appointed by the Speaker, one from each of the four ethnic groups. All of this is apparently in accordance with the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act of 2017, and it has also been asserted by both government and opposition parliamentarians that the recommendations of the PM and the four members of the committee will be final and will not require any approval by parliament.

Everything might be legal and procedurally proper, as it is being asserted, but it challenges commonsense that after parliament has rejected the report of one committee produced after four months of labour, another committee headed by the Prime Minister (who only recently survived a vicious no-confidence motion) can make new recommendations which will not require parliament’s approval for their implementation. A simple question is why the same process could not have been undertaken with the earlier committee. At the least, a mechanism could have been worked for some consultation before finalizing and presenting a report that parliament would summarily reject.

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