The UNP goes round the bend


The UNP’s draft constitution released last week clearly shows that the grand old party has completely lost its grasp of reality. Even when the UNP was voted into power in 2001, they had only a tenuous grasp of the reality which is why they lost power so soon – just two and a half years – the shortest time any government has held power since independence.  This constitution shows that the UNP has gone completely round the bend after spending too long in the opposition. Just take the following suggestions they have made:

a) The executive presidency will be abolished and will be replaced by a ‘head of state’. Like the president of yore, this ‘head of state’ will also be elected directly by the people. The powers earlier wielded by the president, will be divided up between this ‘head of state’, the prime minister and what the UNP terms ‘the speaker’s council.’ One would think that if they want to abolish the presidential system of governance, they would do so outright. Why do things in halves – changing the name of the position and retaining some of the powers? And since every country has a head of state, why not call him President the way all other countries do? To call our head of state by the name of ‘head of state’ is like some people calling their pets by generic names like ‘Dawg’ or ‘Catt’

2. While the president’s title will be changed to that of ‘head of state,’ the prime minister’s title will remain prime minister. This is a cause for relief. It would have been hilarious to have a prime minister as well with the generic name ‘head of government’. But what is of concern is the proposal to divide the powers of the executive presidency not just between the UNP’s proposed ‘head of state and their prime minister, but also the speaker’s council.

3. The ‘head of state’ will be the head of a ‘Council of State’ which will be made up of the head of state himself, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the leaders of the political parties represented in parliament and the chief ministers of the provinces. It is this council of state that will advise the head of state on how to conduct his affairs. It is the council of state that will decide on all political matters and national priorities. The Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister and the Provincial Boards of Ministers will be responsible for the implementation of the decisions of the Council of State. What this means is that the formulation of policy and its implementation will be done by two different bodies, which will have some overlap. This again is a continuation of the tendency that Sri Lankan politicians showed to tie themselves up in knots as they did with the 17th Amendment. This is a small country that does not need such a complicated system of governance. He who is elected to power should also formulate policy and take the credit or the blame for what he does.

4. The idea of including the leaders of political parties represented in parliament, in the so called ‘council of state’ is just plain crazy. This means that any head of a splinter group who has found his way into parliament will have to be included in the council of state. This will lead to the splintering of political parties and the formation of coalitions to cash in on this provision. Even as it is, there are too many splinter groups with too many leaders.     

5. What takes the cake is that the so called independent commissions that functioned under the 17th amendment would be brought back and on the recommendations of the Council of State, the Head of the State will appoint members to Independent Commissions, for elections, the police etcetera. Thus we see that executive power will be subject to extensive mutilation under the UNP’s scheme of things. The existing powers of the president will be dispersed among multiple centres of power, the head of state, the prime minister, the council of state, the cabinet and the independent commissions. The latter will be a law unto themselves not answerable to anybody – not even the people of Sri Lanka.

While the UNP’s suggestions for the executive branch reads like a constitution dreamed up by the mad painter Salvador Dali, it has to be said that their suggestions for the legislature are sound. The UNP envisages the abolishing of the preference vote system and the institution of a mixed proportional representation system with parliamentarians being elected to the various territorial electorates as in the old days and a certain proportion of MPs coming in on the proportion of votes polled by the political parties. This kind of a system has already been proposed by the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral Reform and the UNP’s constitutional proposals indicate a bi-partisan agreement on this matter.

A particular twist that Ranil Wickremesinghe has added to the draft constitution is a clause establishing the tyranny of the political party. This clause goes as follows: "Any Member of Parliament or a Member of any Provincial Council or a Member of any Local Government Institution who loses the party membership from whichever Party he/she is elected/appointed to that institution shall cease to be a Member of that institution forthwith." So what have we here? The leadership of the political parties has been strengthened beyond measure while the powers of the executive presidency have been diluted and dispersed. Anybody who sees this discrepancy will immediately link this to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s awareness that he will never be president so there is no harm in diluting the powers of a presidency he will never hold. But he holds the position of party leader and he seeks to strengthen the powers of the position he has. So guess what RW would have done if he had been the executive president.

On the devolution of power, the UNP has tried to please both the Sinhala voter as well as the international community. On the one hand they say that they will uphold the unitary character of the state to please the Sinhala voters. On the other hand, they say they will effect a genuine devolution of power in keeping with among other things the UNHRC resolutions against Sri Lanka and the recommendations of the LLRC. The UNP’s devolution proposals, clearly justifies the warning that the present writer issued some weeks ago showing how this system from which the 13th Amendment was copied has turned India into a failed state. We warned that India has experienced the progressive strengthening of the states at the expense of the central government and that since this is an endemic condition of the Indian constitution, we in Sri Lanka should never follow the Indian system of governance.

The UNP’s draft constitution provides for the nine chief ministers of the provinces to sit in the Council of State where they may well constitute the largest group of persons present. The head of state will have to act according to the instructions of the council of state and all policy decisions will be made by this council of state. What this could mean is that with the support of one or two political party leaders, the chief ministers will be basically running the show. The chief ministers will have decision making power over parliamentarians and cabinet ministers and the cabinet will be the mere implementers of the decisions made by the chief ministers! This would mirror the situation that prevails today in India, with regional satraps calling the shots while the central government impotently carries out regional diktat.

In a chilling replay of the drama that has been going on in India for the past three decades, the UNP has recommended that the Office of the Governors of the Provinces be abolished and their powers and functions be performed by the Head of State. The office of the governor of the states was conceived by the framers of the Indian constitution as a means for the central government to keep control of the states. In India, with the states increasing asserting themselves, the demand has been for the powers of the governor to be abolished so that the states can become even more independent. Here now is Ranil promising to do in Sri Lanka what the Indian separatists have been demanding in India. When the UNP says that the position of governors of the provinces will be abolished and those powers vested in the head of state they are in effect giving all powers to the chief ministers because the chief ministers will form the largest group of people in the council of state.

Assertive Indian states have been agitating for such a system for years. We wrote a few weeks ago how the 2010 Puunchi Commission on Centre-State relations in India had recommended just the kind of capitulation to the regions that the UNP is now recommending in its draft constitution. We warned that the Indian system of governance brings into play these centrifugal tendencies and that we should never adopt the Indian system of governance on that account. Here now is proof that that warning was not only correct but also timely since it came just weeks before the UNP put out their constitutional proposals. The government should compare the UNPs present draft constitution with the 1988 report of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations and the 2010 Puunchi Commission report on Centre-State Relations and come to a decision on the provincial councils system. This government has a duty by the people to what it takes to ensure the integrity of the country as the people have entrusted them with a two thirds majority even under the proportional representation system to make decisions for the long term benefit of the country.  

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