Village-level devolution, Provincial Police Commission, secular State among suggestions for new cons

Thursday, 16 June 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Himal Kotelawala

A potentially secular State, a Westminster form of government at the national and provincial levels that simultaneously maintains the unitary character of the Sri Lankan State while recognising the country’s multicultural and multi-ethnic nature in a pluralist society State, an Executive Committee system below the central government level, a reduced if not outright abolished executive presidency, a Cabinet of Ministers limited to 25 to 30, and a Second Chamber to ensure protection of minority interests were among a series of recommendations made in the Report on Public Recommendations on Constitutional Reform.

At a special discussion on the suggestions for a new constitution organised by the Citizens’ Initiative for Constitutional Change held on Monday, Committee Chairman Lal Wijenayake said that federalism was not recommended as a solution to the ethnic conflict as a demand for that may threaten the democratic gains made in the recent past. However, he said, an alternative has been proposed that safeguards minority rights by enhancing fundamental rights of all citizens through strengthening the provincial council system.

“This is not to say that one is a replacement for the other. There will be further discussion on this in the future. We have studied it extensively, taking into account the constitutions of 13 different countries,” said Wijenayake.

People in the north, he said, are of the view that they are not treated equally, leading the committee to incorporate equality into all their recommendations to the Government as a priority. 

“There were 19 of us on the committee. Though all of us didn’t agree on everything, we were unanimously in agreement that a society that upholds fundamental rights and equality is a must and we are looking at how to go about this,” said Wijenayake.

Both the north and south were united, he said, in their need for a change in the country’s political culture. Suggestions made in this regard, according to Wijenayake, include educational qualifications for people’s representatives, right to recall representatives and legislation against jumping ship. How to democratise political parties was also considered, he added.

Committee Member Elmo Perera said that the report, which contains representations made by over 4,000 citizens, made what he called a real attempt to seek public views about what the constitution should and should contain.

“Constitution-making is a matter of national importance. And it’s too important to be kept to the politicians alone. There should be discussion among the public,” he said.

With the regard to the Executive Presidency, suggestions have been made to abolish it completely, with the Prime Minister as Head of Government and executive power shared among members of the Cabinet.  The symbolic appointment of a Vice President representing minority interests has also been discussed, though not universally agreed upon.

“Our stand was that the executive presidency must go in its entirety. However circumstances have made that look inadvisable. I still am of the view that it must be done away with. There can be a presidency in other forms, but nothing definite has been said this, there is a suggestion that if there is a president, there should be a vice president from a community other than that of the president,” said Perera.

Among the submissions made to the Committee had been to elect the President by an electoral college as the titular Head of State as well as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The final recommendations include a Westminster form of government at the national and provincial levels. “When Parliament is dissolved, there should be a caretaker government until the new government is appointed,” it reads.

According to Perera, the Cabinet and Deputy Ministers are to be reduced to 25 to 30, with State Ministries completely done away with.

“There is much talk about jumbo cabinets. The present government seems to be attempting to outdo what their predecessors did. It’s very undesirable,” he said.

In terms of power sharing, the establishment of a Second Chamber – i.e. an Upper House or Senate comprising 75 members including Chief Ministers, Mayors, Municipal Council and Urban Council Chairpersons, et al – has been recommended which the report states will have a significant provincial representation. Its objectives are to ensure the protection of minorities and under-represented communities and their interests, enable the democratisation of the State and provide checks and balances to the legislature, restrict the authoritarian and majoritarian tendencies emanating from the First Chamber, and to obtain the services of experts and professionals into the decision making process of the State.

Acknowledging that there should be only one police force for the entire country, the committee states that the police within a province shall be answerable to the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers with regard to law and order in that province. According to the report, Provincial Police Commission has been recommended to deal with matters relating to the transfer, dismissal and disciplinary actions regarding officers of the provincial police force below the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police.

Devolving political power to the lowest possible level – i.e. the village – as a form of local government vis-à-vis the Grama Rajya concept has also been recommended. 

“The people of this country, at the grassroots level, have no opportunity of getting involved in the governance of this country. They have suggested Grama Rajya system. Members of local govt institutions have become contractors and businessmen rather than genuine representatives of the public. The Grama Rajya system is, therefore, something that needs to be considered very seriously,” said Perera.

A secular State has been recommended (among a series of other alternatives), while “recognising the role of religion in the spiritual development of people.” Failing which, states the report summary document, “the constitution must provide equal rights to followers of all religions and ensure rights of non-religious persons.” Another recommendation reads: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give all religions equal status. The State shall protect and foster Buddhism and the Buddha Sasana while assuring all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1) of the current Constitution.”

A new National Flag keeping in line with the recommendation for a secular State and “representing Sri Lankan collective life without reference to ethnicity.” Alternately, to design a flag “symbolising the equality of all ethnic groups and peace and harmony amongst them”. To keep the flag intact in its current state has also been recommended, as per citizens’ suggestions.

Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne of the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR) who also spoke at the event said that as Sri Lanka had just emerged from a decades-long armed conflict, the formation of this fresh constitution was an important step.

“Unlike the previous constitutions, this one is coming in the wake of a massive blood bath. The blood of both Sinhalese and Tamil youth. We cannot take this lightly,” he said.

Reconciliation, he added, is a never-ending process that takes generations. The end-goal of reconciliation is harmony. He urged the Government to speed up this process by setting up a new, powerful institute whose sole objective was to work towards national reconciliation.