Ditching The Executive Presidency & Re-Writing The Constitution

| by Dr A.C.Visvalingam

( October 19, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) From 1994, the UPFA and its antecedents have given solemn oral and/or written undertakings on at least four occasions promising to get rid of the Executive Presidency but they have not done so. What happened instead was the strengthening of the Executive Presidency by effectively nullifying even the few safeguards that had been incorporated in the 17th Amendment. To make things worse, the subsequent passing of the 18th Amendment, which the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has consistently condemned from the time that it was proposed, has led to greater violations of good governance and accountability. We recollect that the three left LSSP stalwarts in the government confessed at the time (late 2010) that they had voted for the 18th Amendment even though their consciences were against it! It was, therefore, truly gratifying to hear (in an excerpt broadcast over the SLBC morning Sinhala News on 15 October 2014) the words of JHU Parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero confessing that he had been wrong to support this amendment.

Some days ago, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported to have said in Jaffna that he is prepared to do away with the Executive Presidency if the Tamils give up their call for Eelam. We recall that Dr C.V.Wigneswaran, after having secured the Chief Minister’s post of the Northern Provincial Council under the Tamil National Alliance banner with a strong mandate, stated several months ago that the Tamils have accepted the unity of Sri Lanka and are no longer calling for separation. As he has not retreated from that position, President Rajapaksa should move quickly to get the Executive Presidency eliminated. Sri Lankans would then be free to discuss and agree on the wording of a new Constitution that is based, as before, on a united Sri Lanka.

Given below are some key features of a Constitution that CIMOGG has crafted from first principles.

The Constitution is made more democratic by getting a greater proportion of the People’s sovereign powers delegated to the peripheral units such as the Grama Niladhari Divisions (GNDs), the Pradeshayas and the Districts, thereby leaving the Centre to exercise only those powers which affect the country as a whole.

In order to introduce stability into the body politic, and to cut down on repeated disruptions to public life and the present enormous waste of public funds, elections will be held only once in four years during a specified period of the calendar year and not timed to favour any particular group of politicians.

Those who want to represent and serve the People must start their political journey by first getting elected as People’s Representatives to a 10-person Citizens’ Committee in each Grama Niladhari Division (GND) and then progress towards the Centre through Pradeshiya Sabhas and District Councils, in a further 3-stage screening process.

Candidates must be registered voters in their own GND. To have their names included on the voting list of the GND, they would be required to fill in a short Application Form, giving details of their education, other qualifications, employment, social service activities and their priorities for the GND. The completed application forms, translated into one or two of the other national languages wherever required, shall be distributed to the 400 or so households in each GND. Public meetings, processions, loudspeakers, posters, media advertising etc will not be permitted. Thus, the total cost of appearing as a candidate for election as a People’s Representative would not exceed a few thousand rupees for the translations and photostating. There will be no space for supporters from the underworld to come into the picture to indulge in assault and arson. The violence-free conditions so created will serve to overcome the fear that discourages women and highly-motivated youth from seeking political office and thereby help increase their numbers in elected bodies.

At the next stage, the People’s Representatives in each Pradeshaya will act as an electoral college to choose eleven (11) of their number to their Pradeshiya Sabha. Similarly, the Members of the Pradeshiya Sabhas in a District will act as an electoral college to elect 25 of their number to the District Council. The Members of the 25 District Councils would then form 25 electoral colleges to elect a total of 128 Members of Parliament in proportion to the populations of the Districts.

By adopting this electoral process, huge savings will be effected by reducing disruptions to public life, cutting down drastically on security arrangements and cleaning up.

The Constitution is based on the immutable principle that the People are sovereign and it is they who delegate their powers to various elected bodies and ancillary entities. There shall be no question of either Parliament or the President donning the mantle of supremacy over the People.

The People’s powers are divided into five independent parts –

a. The People retain their fundamental rights and the franchise;

b. Each of the 14,060 GNDs shall have its own elected Citizens’ Committee vested with the requisite powers to serve the People within its geographic boundaries without interference by any other body, elected or otherwise;

c. Each of the 331 Pradeshayas shall have its own elected Pradeshiya Sabha vested with the requisite powers to serve the People within its boundaries without outside interference;

d. Each of the 25 Districts shall have its own District Council vested withthe requisite powers to serve the People within its boundaries without outside interference;

e. All matters that concern the country as a whole and which do not interfere with the powers delegated to the GNDs, the Pradeshayas and the Districts shall be the responsibility of Parliament.

f. The GNDs, the Pradeshayas and the Districts shall be allocated grants, fixed annually, from the Consolidated Fund to implement the programmes approved by their respective elected bodies.

A clear-cut separation of powers between the Legislature and the Executive shall be ensured by eliminating the office of "Minister" of any description. At present, Ministers have one foot in Parliament and the other in their Ministries. They get laws, programmes and fund allocations passed in Parliament to suit their own agendas and then misuse their executive powers in well-known ways.

As the delegation of considerable responsibilities to the District Councils will reduce the work of Parliament, the number of MPs is reduced to 128. Of these, three shall be elected by secret vote of Parliament to be the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Assistant Speaker. The other 125 MPs shall be divided into 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees (PPCs) to deal with 25 different groupings of subjects as proposed in 2007/2008 by the Organization of Professional Associations.

A typical MP cannot be expected to possess high level expertise of any kind - which, in any case, is the position even now. On the other hand, through the novel provisions that are included in the new Constitution, whatever specialized information and guidance that MPs lack can be secured quickly, as and when required, as set out below.

With the advice of Ministry Secretaries, senior academics and professional organizations, the Parliamentary Senior Appointments Panel (PSAP) will collect the bio-data of those who are qualified to give expert advice in their respective fields. The PSAP will have this information processed and submitted to the full House for approval to create a Panel of Experts. Anyone listed in the Panel of Experts may be liable to be called upon to provide specialized inputs, not on a full-time basis but whenever required. This is an arrangement that most top professionals who look forward to doing some public service would welcome. Many of them may be glad to give some of their time even without payment but it may be better to have a fairly generous scale of fees set by Parliament for their services.

Ministry Secretaries would be charged with the running of their Ministries in accordance with approved administrative regulations, overseen by an independent seven7-person Central Executive Council of highly experienced and respected administrators from the public, private and academic sectors. The members of the Central Executive Council shall be selected by secret vote of Parliament from a list prepared by the PSAP with inputs from the 25 PPCs.

The administration of the judicial service shall be the responsibility of a Judicial Service Commission (JSC) headed by three retired judges of the Supreme Court, selected by secret vote of Parliament from a list prepared by the PSAP with inputs from the relevant PPCs and related institutions. The JSC shall, whenever needed, send to Parliament a short-list of a few names giving its recommendations for the appointment of judges, and Parliament shall subject such recommendations to a secret vote of the full House to select the final appointee.

The Head of State shall be a non-executive President elected by secret vote of Parliament from a list of distinguished persons of high integrity whose names are proposed by the 25 District Councils. He shall be the Commander-in-Chief.

The Income, Assets and Liabilities of all major decision-makers will be checked annually by a team headed by three retired judges of the Supreme Court/Court of Appeal, assisted by trained fraud investigators. They will be independent of the Department of Inland Revenue, which shall be obliged to furnish promptly to them copies of the annual Tax Returns received by the Department from the said major decision-makers. The Bribery Commission shall continue to carry out its work as at present in respect of those who are not subject to annual checking.

The majority of our MPs do not rely greatly on their Parliamentary salaries because they earn very much more from other sources or by other means. Hence, their record of attendance in Parliament is atrocious. The Constitution requires that elected representatives of the People, other than those in the Citizens’ Committees of the GNDs, should be obliged to work a minimum number of hours every week and be paid salaries on a scale that would attract competent and committed citizens to come forward to be elected, in preference to part-timers, however brilliant.

CIMOGG has worked out the particularities of how the Constitution should be structured in order to meet the above objectives and many other important ones. The key initial chapters of such a Constitution have been framed in formal language, ready for legal draughting, and the less critical remaining chapters will be completed in due course. Sinhala and Tamil translations of the key chapters are also being prepared.

Anyone who furnishes his/her name and e-mail address to –

"Subash Ranasinghe" will be forwarded by email a soft copy of the key initial chapters of the Constitution and are welcome to offer suggestions as to how to improve what has been completed so far.