The current Sri Lankan Parliament is in a unique position and it would be quite interesting to watch its proceedings. The President is the Head of the Government and the Cabinet of Ministers and on the other hand he is the Leader of the main Opposition party, the SLFP, in Parliament. Hence he controls the Government and the Opposition. If by any chance the former President enjoyed this position, in a way it would be high fun to watch the behaviour of his subjects mesmerised by him.
During the presidential election, the UPFA leadership fought tooth and nail to defeat Maithripala Sirisena. After the election, when the members of the UPFA and mainly the SLFP started to defect, the former President who was the Party Leader at that time handed over the leadership to the President as a strategic move in order to stop the defections and to keep the party intact. The President in turn accepted the offer for strategic reasons in order to ensure the support of the Parliament for the 100-day program.
Both the President and the Opposition Leader would have to play difficult roles in time to come and the President has admitted that. The Opposition has already requested a debate on the way Mohan Peiris was removed after Prime Minister explained it in the Parliament.
As the Prime Minister keeps on saying that he will introduce the system of Lichchavis to Sri Lanka, it would be interesting to discuss the Lichchavi system in relation to the composition of the Parliament today.
The writer has written an article to the Daily FT on 20 May 2014 under the title ‘Why isn’t the Western form of democracy effective in the East?’ (http://www.ft.lk/2014/05/20/why-isnt-the-western-form-of-democracy-effective-in-the-east/) discussing in detail the governance system of Lichchavis in relation to our culture against Western culture.
Proposed UNP Constitutional amendments
Some time back UNP proposed a guideline to a new constitution where the following was stated in relation to the Provincial Councils:
“The Member who commands the majority of a Provincial Council shall be appointed as the Chief Minister and the Leader of the political party which has secured the next highest number of seats shall be appointed as the Deputy Chief Minister. The Boards of Ministers of the Provincial Councils will be appointed proportionately to the votes polled by the respective political parties in such Council.”
Under Executive there are two options and under the second option it was stated that as a novel system the executive powers will be exercised on apolitical basis and to be subject to checks and balances.
“The Head of State will be the Head of the Council of State (which will consist of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, the Leaders of the political parties represented in the Parliament and the Chief Ministers of the Provinces), and will act on the advice of the Council of State.”
“The decisions of the Council of State shall be by consensus. In the event there being no consensus the majority decision will prevail. This will pave the way to practice Lord Buddha’s preaching on governance – peaceful assembly, peaceful dialogue and peaceful dispersion.”
It was stated in the 100-day program document of the President that after the next general election the leader of the party which would secure highest number of seats will be appointed as the Prime Minister and the leader of the party which would secure next highest number of seats will be appointed as the Deputy Prime Minister. Therefore the intention is to extend the provincial council system of the proposed UNP constitution to the national level as well. This should be the Lichchavi system the Prime Minister talks about.
What is Lichchavi system? During the time of Buddha in 6th century BC, Ajasath the king of Magadha and a devotee of Buddha wanted to invade the Vajji territory. Buddha advised Vassakara, the Chief Minister of Ajasath, not to go ahead with war. The Buddha further said that the Lichchavis, rulers of Vajji, could not be suppressed and defeated until they adhered to the seven Dhammas which were not conducive to defeat (Sapta Aparihaniya Dhamma). Those seven points are given below:
- They held regular meetings to discuss matters pertaining to the day-to-day administration.
- They met, worked and dispersed as a team.
- They strictly followed the law of the country.
- They were submissive to the elders.
- They respected the women-folk and condemned the oppression of women.
- They followed the religious customs and protected them.
- They respected the clergy and held them in veneration.
- The values behind these seven points can be identified as follows:
- Maintain the rule of law
- Protect the weak
- Respect those who are respectable
These democratic traditions followed by the Lichchavis were introduced to Bhikku order by Buddha. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha said as follows.
“Oh, bhikkus, so long as you sit together and discuss your problems together as a matter of routine, you are assured of progress but no set-backs. Oh bhikkus, so long as you are bound together in unity you are assured of progress but no set-backs.”
In the present democratic system introduced to us by Western countries, the main feature is to debate a point in the Parliament and arrive at a majority decision. Political parties would have different policies, different ideologies and different thinking patterns. At the same time each member of the each party may not have the same view about the each bill and the each issue debated in the Parliament.
However, in Parliament when the bills are debated, generally the government members argue in favour of the bills and the opposition members argue against the same bills. These arguments may not be based on their conscience. Parties decide the stand they are going to take. Therefore ultimately it is the decision of the party leadership. Members are obliged to follow the decision of the party. Hence the members are somewhat restricted to speak about their own views in the Parliament and essentially they vote in line with the thinking of the party leadership.
The main reason for this situation is on the part of the government, issues are discussed at the Cabinet level and the decisions are taken and in order to move forward the support of the government parliamentary group is needed. On the other hand the intention of the opposition is to get the power and rule the country in accordance with their principles so that they raise the issues opposing the view of the government.
This system would work in individualist societies in Western countries where by and large the issues are debated and discussed objectively. In collectivist societies like Sri Lanka the objectivity is less prevalent and very often things are taken personally. In collectivist societies they try to maintain consensus in the in-groups and whereas the rivalry is prevalent among the groups. Therefore in collectivist societies, democracy can be deteriorated to the level of tyranny of majority which we have experienced in the past and on the other hand in individualist societies there would be more possibility of respecting minority views and protecting their rights.
Advantages of the proposed system
If the suggested system to the constitution by UNP is implemented, there will not be two main rival groups challenging each other. We have observed in the recent past how the ruling alliance can take revenge from their opponents with the treatment they have extended to former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
Under the proposed system there will be one group in the parliament and they can debate and decide on the issues for the benefit of the country based on their self-conscious irrespective of the situation that securing any future political power by manipulating the issues.
The main underlying value of the Lichchavi system was consensus. In Asian collectivist societies consensus is valued within in-groups. In Sri Lanka the largest in-group in general would be the race, religion, caste or political party. Unfortunately it is not the nation all the time. Nation means all the people living in this country, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and all the rest of them.
By creating a government under the proposed system we should be able to shift the smaller size of the in-groups to the largest level reflecting the nation. Without this feeling among the citizens of this country it would be difficult to extend the growth of the country to the next level. For instance in a county like Japan the largest in-group is the nation. For them it may be easy since there is less diversity among the citizens where as in Sri Lanka we have multiple ethnicities and religions. Consensus and harmony rather than rivalry among the different groups is essential at this level.
The other value was to maintain the rule of law for everybody in the country. This is one attribute of combining entire population together. This was adapted by Elara in a unique way at very high level. In contrast to the previous regime it appears to be that the present government is upholding the rule of law.
Another value of Lichchavis was protecting the weak. When the democracy is in operation the minorities of ethnic, religious or ideologies should be protected in addition to the persons who are physically weak. Even Asoka did the same thing. Also respect should be given for the persons who deserves it. It should be noted that the values of Lichchavis other than maintaining the rule of law is in contrast to the protestant work ethic of the West identified by Max Weber in 1904.
If the President can ensure the good governance and a corruption free system it would work as the main support of the proposed system.
Role of the present Parliament
The existing structure of the Parliament provides necessary support for this and it would be a rehearsal for the government to come. Different countries adapted different systems in developing their constitutions and governing systems.
Since independence we have adapted various methods to change our constitutions and systems of governance. The method proposed is not practiced anywhere in the world and it is going to be a unique system. It may work or it may not work. The duty of the present Parliament is of paramount importance of laying the ground work for the proposed system.
This proposed system should be debated adequately. Civil society, not only politicians, should also come forward and discuss the pros and cons of the proposed system. Then and only then will we be able to establish a lasting constitution which would facilitate the economic growth and the social wellbeing of the country.