Govt.-UNP talks send hopeful message

by Jehan Perera

(July 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The media images last week of opposition UNP leaders being greeted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and senior ministers of his government should send a reassuring message to the country and world at large. The message is that the politics of confrontation and acrimony may be coming to an end, and the time for a more liberal spirit of nation building after war is coming to the fore. This was in contrast to the sense of crisis and acrimony that pervaded the media space the previous week when another leader of the government, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, staged a highly publicized fast unto death to protest against the UN Secretary General’s appointment of an advisory panel on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation.

The government-UNP talks are reported to revolve around three major issues. The first and most intriguing is the replacement of the Executive Presidential system with one that brings in an Executive Prime Ministerial office. The second issue is the implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which President Rajapaksa right from the beginning and his predecessor in office President Chandrika Kumaratunga in her second term of office both refused to do. The 17th Amendment takes away the power of the President to make unilateral appointments to high offices of state. The third issue is that of reforming the present proportional electoral system to one based on a mixed first past the post and proportional system.

Shortly after the government won a near two-thirds majority in Parliament in April of this year, various government spokespersons began to talk about the unfairness and undesirability of President Rajapaksa being limited to only two terms of the Presidency. This is on account of the current constitutional limitation on any elected President having a maximum of two six year terms. In the United States, the maximum limit on any President is two four-year terms, which gives the Sri Lankan presidency a third term if the comparison is with the United States.

But even this long period of twelve years is not satisfying to those who believe that President Rajapaksa merits a still longer period of power when he is at the zenith of his popularity The problem for those who propose the removal of the two term limitation on the Presidency is that there has been neither visible public support nor opposition to it. There appears to be just apathy on the surface. This could be due to the propaganda carried out by the opposition that the country is heading towards a dictatorship.

In addition, the opposition has also been making the more objective criticism that neither President Rajapaksa nor the ruling party made any mention of a plan to do away with the two term limit on the Presidency either during the Presidential election in January or the General election in April this year. Instead the government simply sprang the proposed revision of the constitution on the people after securing their electoral victories.

UNP Proposal The UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal of a compromise in the form of an Executive Prime Ministerial system to replace the Executive Presidential system would be a face saving way for the government to back out of its own proposal to remove the two term limit on the Presidency. There is usually no limit placed on the number of times a person can be elected Prime Minister. It also appears that what the UNP leader seeks is an Executive Prime Minister who would have extraordinary powers not usually wielded by a Prime Minister in the Westminster system that Sri Lankans are accustomed to and which Sri Lanka had in the past. In effect, therefore, there would be not much difference between the Presidential and Prime Ministerial powers.

What would distinguish the Executive Presidency from the Executive Prime Minister is that the latter would attend and be answerable to Parliament. Unlike the Executive President, it is also like that the Executive Prime Minister will be made accountable to the judiciary and therefore not enjoy the legal immunity that enables the President to be a law unto himself or herself. On the other hand, there would also be significant similarities between the two posts that could make the change in terminologies less meaningful.

The major similarity between the two posts is that both are elected direct by the people; the electorate that votes is the whole country. This is unlike in the case of the Westminster system of Prime Ministerial rule, where the Prime Minister is elected like any other MP from a constituency. This indicates that the Executive Prime Minister will enjoy a certain level of autonomy from both the Parliament and his own party, once elected. This contrasts with the Westminster system where the Prime Minister is liable to be removed either by a vote of no-confidence by the entire Parliament, or even by a revolt within the ruling party, as occurred recently in Australia.

The greater powers enjoyed by the Executive Prime Minister and the relative autonomy from Parliament would appeal to those who have a more autocratic style of leadership rather than a consultative style. When President J R Jayewardene conceived of the Executive Presidential system, he said that it enabled him to be "free from the whims and fancies of Parliament." However, the experience of Sri Lanka since then has been that, from the country’s point of view, it is more disadvantageous to be at the mercy of the whims and fancies of one individual than of a group of unlike minded persons, which is what Parliament is. On the other hand, making a break with the past and taking the country in a new direction sometimes requires unpopular decisions and thinking of the long term rather than the short term, which requires strong leadership powers.

Not Final The common interest that both President Rajapaksa and opposition leader Wickremesinghe have with regard to the style of leadership inherent in the Executive Prime Ministerial model may explain the warmth of their new relationship. It is believed that the inspiration for their new model comes from Israel. The shifting coalitions and a fractured party system in that country led the Knesset (Parliament) to adopt legislation in the mid-1990s that put in place the direct election of the Prime Minister. However, although this move was intended to enhance the Prime Minister’s position against parliamentary coalitions, it failed, and the new legislation in fact only further fragmented the party system. It was consequently soon rescinded. Those who frame the new Sri Lankan system will need to keep this Israeli experience in mind.

So far it appears that the dialogue between the government and UNP has not encompassed those issues of constitutional reform that relate to the ethnic conflict. It may be that the government and UNP leaderships want to first deal with those issues on which they can reach agreement and will not be too controversial with the people. While most people have shown themselves to be apathetic in relation to questions of governance in general, their potential to get mobilized for action is much higher in the case of the ethnic conflict. It is a matter of historical record that even governments have fallen when they attempted to deal politically with the issue in the past. The most recent example was the government headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2004.

As a politician with a reputation for being more sensitive to the sentiments of the ethnic minorities than most others, UNP leader Wickremesinghe will be expected to bring up the issue of the ethnic conflict into the reform process before too long. While the two leaders can agree on the direction of change that is necessary, it would not be appropriate for them to work out the substance of a political solution in any detail. Working out a solution to the ethnic conflict would require the presence of the ethnic minority party representatives, as it is their marginalization from the decision making processes in the past that led to the aggravation of ethnic conflict in the first place.

Although President Rajapaksa has not given priority to a political solution and given preference to military and economic solutions to the ethnic conflict, it is now becoming more important for him to change track. This is on account of the international pressure that is bearing down upon his government in ever greater measure. The UN Secretary General has not backed down on his human rights advisory panel despite the protests from the Sri Lankan government. He has now appointed an eight member secretariat to support the panel of advisors in their work. A political solution to the ethnic conflict that has the consent of the UNP and ethnic minority parties might be the best answer that the government can give to its international critics.