By Somapala Gunadheera –
It is heartening to see the new Government making an honest attempt to implement the Hundred Days Programme, (HDP), they highlighted as an election promise. However honest their intention may be, the implementation appears to be lagging behind day by day and caustic remarks on the delays are on the increase. It is manifestly unfair to hold the new-comers down to the exact dates indicated. There should be no quarrel, if the trend of implementation shows an honest effort to keep to the promises.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the JVP, has made a useful distinction between ‘schedule’ and ‘time frame’ as applied to the HDP. He says it is pointless haggling about the dates in the schedule. What matters is whether the implementation follows a time frame. By and large, the present Government has made seven promises. They are;
1. Reducing the cost of living and increasing income,
2. Introducing delayed people-friendly legislation,
3. Establishing communal amity
4. Investigating and penalizing bribery and corruption
5. Repealing the 18th Amendment of the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened independent institutions, through a 19th Amendment to the Constitution
6. Replacing the current Preference Vote system with an Mixed Electoral System
7. Abolishing the authoritarian executive presidential system and replacing it with an executive of Cabinet of Ministers
Cost of living and income
The supplementary budget passed on the due date has increased salaries in the public sector and started initiatives to spread its fallout to the private sector. Prices of commodities used by common people have been reduced. However, wisecracks on the changes made and their adequacy are common, as may be expected, from the Opposition, but there appears to be reasonable satisfaction with the relief already given.
Prompt attention has been paid to the promulgation of long delayed essential legislation. The National Pharmaceutical Policy Bill and the Witness Protection Bill are being rushed through Parliament. Eighty percent warning on tobacco packaging has become a reality at long last. A visible effort is being made to give the minorities their due place in society. Civilian Governors have been appointed to the North and the West, ending a minority demand for years, within a few weeks of coming to power. A start has been made on reducing land occupied by the army in the North. Authorities responsible for national reconciliation have already started a dialogue with the minorities. Surprisingly, politicians in the North who were placidly tolerating obvious discrimination for years, have become aggressive all of a sudden, thereby making the task of nation building more arduous and forgetting it needs two hands to clap.
Shortage of manpower
Where the shoe pinches is in the systems and personnel entrusted with the implementation of reforms. Relief given to consumers and famers have not reached them adequately so far, thereby downplaying its impact. Obviously, the new comers have not paid attention to this problem in advance. Of course it is unfair to expect them to sophisticate their plans to that extent when they were out of power but they do not appear to be making an organized effort, even at this stage, to fill the gap. Questioned on this shortcoming at his first public interview, the PM has said that he was searching for and testing officials who would be adequate to the task in hand.
The signs are that the search is focussed on people who have proved themselves when the searchers were in power. Such people have since passed the prime of their working life and they cannot be expected to invigorate the machinery of government, out in the field. They are best employed as consultants and advisors. The immediate need is to mount an efficient hunt for management talent in the public service for members who have proved themselves in the past and are still young enough to make an impact in their field. A quick source of information for this search would be those who have already retired from a productive carrier. Professional associations also can play a useful role here.
Investigation and adjudication
Shortage of manpower is evident not only in implementation but also in investigation. That appears to be the main reason for the slackness in realizing item number 4, investigations on bribery and corruption. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the rate of progress here. The media is full of allegations about bloodcurdling coup d’états, gunrunning, money laundering, drug trafficking, international bribery and kingdoms established overseas.
Continuous inquiries are in hand but with nearly half the schedule of the HDP over, no concrete evidence is placed before a credible tribunal to establish the imputations. Nevertheless the rumours tarnish the reputations of the accused, without giving them a chance to exculpate themselves. The charges are so phenomenal that they cannot be properly adjudicated by ad hoc committees. Even the President has publicly expressed his personal dissatisfaction with the tardy investigations and undertaken to appoint within a week, a Presidential Commission, before which the charges could be proved. Several weeks after, the PC is still in the coming. Naturally, these investigations are best entrusted to persons with extensive judicial experience. Is the administration finding it hard to find at least three of them to serve in the Commission?
Apart from the public satisfaction to be gained by providing for a proper investigation into charges levelled at some of those who were at the helm until a few weeks ago, the new Government has much to gain by establishing them judicially. The exposures can be made the most convincing instrument of propaganda for the Party in power, at the oncoming general election. The Nugegoda Campaign mounted by those who wish to return to power on the back of the former President, should ruffle the feathers of those in power now. Confidence generated by the massive event for the UPLF, is likely to grow up to a formidable challenge to the UNP at the next election unless it takes prompt and effective action to offset the propaganda. Quick and visible action to prove the charges levelled against the former regime is bound to defuse the Nugegoda Halo effectively. Every minute lost on this counter offensive eats into the prospects of those in power.
The Colombo Telegraph has carried a discussion paper giving some details about constitutional reforms under discussion. It is not clear why these proposals were not officially published and the views of the concerned public were not openly solicited. Constitutional reform should receive the widest publicity and the closest scrutiny. Despite the lack of transparency and solicited discussion of the current process, some criticism of the proposals have already appeared. It is not proposed to go into their merits here, except to say that the proposals appear to be mostly ad hoc and ad hominem. The most pertinent question is how the proposed reforms are to be introduced. Are they to be included in the 19th Amendment or are they to be promulgated in a new Constitution?
Presumably, the latter may not be intended, for drafting of a Constitution is a massive task that would normally take at least six months to complete. What may be satisfactorily accomplished within a hundred days is only an amendment of the existing Constitution. Moreover, as a new Constitution is following hard by, that amendment would necessarily have a short life and its main purpose should be to nullify what had been improperly entered into the Constitution against its guiding principles, through a questionable exercise of power. That would obviously mean the removal of the 18th Amendment. Such removal would necessitate the creation of provisions to replace the removed Article 17. In sum, what is needed immediately is to delete the amendment introduced to Article 31, removing the limit on a President’s term and to replace provisions made to concentrate powers of absolute control of the executive and judicial institutions in the hands of the President by the insertion of Article 41A in the Constitution.
The 19th Amendment
Both of these objectives may be achieved by the proposed 19th Amendment. There is a danger of rushing to the conclusion that the purpose of limiting the powers of absolute control of the executive and judicial institutions in the hands of the President may be achieved promptly by reintroducing the rescinded relevant provisions of the 17th Amendment. That would be the easy way out only if the rescinded provisions were perfect in their own right. It may be recalled that there was widespread criticism of some provisions in the 17th Amendment, introduced hurriedly at a rear moment of consensus like the one that obtains today. Tenability of the composition of what was named the ‘Constitutional Council’, communal bias, process of nominations, absence of compulsion on the President to act on the recommendations of the Council were among the many hiccups created by that Amendment. So much so that some appointments could not be made under the stipulated conditions and some continued to be disregarded until the demise of the Amendment.
There is no time left in the HDP to rectify these omissions but there appears to be a short cut to fill the gap, while legalizing an informal arrangement made recently, which has worked satisfactorily so far. That is by including provisions in the proposed 19th Amendment for what is informally called the National Executive Council, which is broadly representative of most interests. What can be done as a quick-fix is to further broad base the composition of that Council and entrust it with the functions exercised by the ‘Constitutional Council’ of the 17th Amendment. That would grant uninterrupted continuity to the Presidential functions to be rescinded from the 18th Amendment, while granting legal status to the National Executive Council at the same time. Any difficulties arising in the working of this arrangement will be short-lived as the emerging new Constitution can cure them permanently by rectification or replacement.
A two tier time frame
The time frame of the HDP can be divided into two. Frame one is the HDP itself which includes item 1 to 5 above. Items 6 and 7 fall under the second frame. They pertain to the rationalization of the electoral process and the creation of a new Constitution. These two items go hand in hand. It is wasteful to create a perfect electoral process before the next general election without extricating the country from the Bahubootha Constitution. Similarly, it is ridiculous to create a perfect Constitution before the election and leave it to operate for six years under the existing lopsided electoral system.
It is essential that both projects are accomplished simultaneously. This is not a task that can be rushed through pell-mell for the entertainment of the electorate, however disappointed it may be. Any attempt to impress the people with a quick-fix in this area will be destined to end in chaos and a repetition of past misadventures. What the electorate needs is quality for which they would be prepared to grant reasonable time. This is what the Godfather of Good Governance, Rev. Maduluwawe Sobhita has to say about timing the reforms:
“We didn’t ask for 100 days. The government could take until next April to deliver its promises as it seems it is running out of time. An election is not the priority at this time. People voted for reforms, which the government should deliver at any cost,” The Thera has also observed that the government should do away with the Preferential Vote System and bring in a new electoral system before a general election. The Government would be wise to take the recommendation of the Thera into serious consideration, bearing in mind the magic of his prophetic call for good governance.
Don’t change horses in midstream
It is true that the speed of implementing the HDP is important but what that Programme finally achieves is more important. The final product should be a genuinely democratic government selected by the people through a fair and equitable process. All the gains of the last Presidential Election would be lost if the next general election is held under the same old Constitution through the existing defective electoral system. That would imply that these two conditions are satisfied before the present Parliament is dissolved. That is best done under the consensus obtaining in Parliament now which can produce the two-thirds majority required. Let us make hay while the sun shines, taking no bets on the composition of future Parliaments.
The arbitrary decision to advance the general election does not bear examination. The term of the current Parliament would last till April next year. That leaves more than a year for the authorities to put the house in order. There is no need to start items 6 and 7 de novo. Fortunately, the country has at its disposal two documents prepared after due consultation and careful deliberation. The first of them is the draft Constitution presented to Parliament in 2000, drawn up by a representative team of renowned experts. It was about to be adopted by mutual consent, when it was unexpectedly shot down by a disagreement pertaining to the sitting President. That draft could be easily polished by the surviving members who authored it, if necessary, with the addition of other experts who have since come into the picture.
As for the electoral legislation, Parliament is already equipped with draft legislation prepared by a Committee headed by Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena. There appears to be general satisfaction with that document. Even if the document contains odds and ends that need rectification, it should not take long to prepare it for tabling in Parliament. In that background, both documents can be put through Parliament in a matter of months under the assurance of passage given by the consensus subsisting among all Parties. It would be counter productive to dissolve Parliament prematurely, with a grand solution in sight. On the personal side, the postponement would allow some MPs to qualify themselves for pension, while enabling many to maximise what may be their last sojourn under the limelight.
Besides, allowing Parliament to run its full course would benefit both sides of the House. The move will give more time in which the Opposition could recoup its losses and the Government could consolidate its gains. It can be taken for granted that neither side would rock the boat until the cruise arrives at its final destination.