Colombo Telegraph

Ranil Can Try His Luck Later, Six Months Later

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

UNP Returns To Liberal-Democracy: More Than A Whiff Of Donoughmore

In political science, keep the mind razor sharp and tongue as piercing as a dagger; no quarter should be yielded to blunderers; the world is infested with too many mutts. The art of politics, on the other hand, is the craft of getting as much as can be realistically extracted in a given conjuncture. The objective of principled politics is to permit only morally flawed compromises that are unavoidable.

Was this last the psychology of the drafters who put together the constitutional proposals unveiled by the UNP on 29 May? I am no UNPer, I look from the outside as a Leftist, but this seems how they set about it. A second caveat: I am speaking of the written document, a future UNP government may well betray stacks of promises, as Mahinda, Chandrika, Premadasa, even JR did with no inkling of their own moral ignominy. Lanka is fatigued and demoralised by the foulest crop of politicos in its history. Their forerunners of the first three post-Independence decades had many failings, but were not dishonourable scoundrels. But these days,

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now (politicos) drink blood”

Enough of this whingeing, back to earth and the UNP draft. I will deal with the Preamble, the Executive, and the Devolution of Powers; this covers much the substance of the document.

Preamble

The opening paragraph justifies the 1978 Constitution as a “socio-economic transformation project” which succeeded. I have no quarrel with the factuality of this statement; it was a project to take Lanka out of populist social-democracy into neo-liberalism, the global craze in the Reagan-Thatcher era. It opened Lanka to globalisation and world trade from which it had hidden in economic insularity since 1956. But it was also at the root of the loss of the moral compass of our people who reckoned: “I am not my brother’s keeper”; the individual bears no social responsibility; selfishness is the primary ethical precept. The decline of social morality, where people stand aside and watch as leaders desecrate state and society, flows from this ethic. They turn “pigeon-livered and lack gall to make oppression bitter”.

I am in agreement with the second paragraph which asserts in strong language that the Mahinda Rajapakse regime desecrated the dignity of the office of President, blatantly abused power, and is guilty of extreme nepotism, corruption, and disregard of democracy and human rights. This is a fit and necessary opening salvo. It is followed by a longish third paragraph of homilies about restoring dignity, returning sovereignty to the people, harmony among races and religions, judicial independence and such like goodies. All manifestos need something along these lines, let it pass without further comment.

Except for a tongue-in-cheek reference to Lanka’s pristine glory which the UNP hopes to restore, the draft is imbued with a very this-worldly flavour. It rings of semi-secularism, avoids nationalism and makes only a droll reference to Buddhism; these last two –isms constitute the staple diet of the petty bourgeois. The draft is steeped in liberalism and is a product of modern bourgeois thought. Whether such liberalism can surmount primitive nationalism and narrow religious bias, emblematic of Rajapakse appeal, is moot. Enlisting the likes of Sobitha Thero may be the key to tilting the balance.

At this point in Lanka’s history, resisting the slide to Corporatist Authoritarianism is a priority. The Left from its standpoint of social-democracy needs to do business with liberal-democracy. However, the Left must also retain and nourish its identity, on which point Vickremabahu’s strategy is hopelessly off the mark. At home, the Left cannot check authoritarianism alone; alliances are needed. But it must not repose faith in future UNP governments; it must preserve its identity and independence. Internationally, post 2008, capitalism is in the throes of a prolonged crisis; there is no way out on that road. Alternative structures are imperative; hence a distinct global Left identity is also vital.

The Executive

            It is an interesting discussion that the drafters (or translators) have garbled. One would have thought UNP legal luminaries could write a few paragraphs sans a string of inconsistencies that would make a schoolboy blush. Thankfully, one can ferret out the gist. What I like best is that three options are brought forward for public debate. This I applaud. But first a crucial point; the document declares “The Presidency (implying the Executive Presidency) will be abolished”. This is explicit and makes common cause with Sobitha’s platform, the JVP, TNA and LSSP-CP. So now this is beyond the pale of doubt as a universal Opposition and Dead Left stand.

The opening clause envisages that executive power be distributed between a Head of State (HoS), Prime Minister (PM) and a Speaker’s Council (SC). Who gets what is not spelt out and just as well; detail is premature in a first draft. As presented, this tripartite division of power is a blanket provision overreaching all three options that follow. But stupidly, Options 1 and 3 do not say how the HoS will be chosen, and Option 2 does not say how the PM is chosen. In Option 3, called a Westminster model, presumably the PM is the person commanding most support in Parliament.

Option 3, which is the same as Sobitha’s and which I prefer, is a return to a Parliamentary system with controls; 25 ministers maximum, mixed proportional-cum-FPP electorates, and a Speaker’s Council of Speaker, PM, Leader of Opposition and party leaders. There is a whiff of Donoughmore everywhere! The draft does not say how the HoS will be chosen, empowered, or if purely ceremonial. If ceremonial, it contradicts the aforementioned overreaching blanket division of executive powers. It’s dumb not to be explicit. The HoS, in this option, should be ceremonial with no executive powers and chosen by a simple mechanism. It is absurd to hold national elections to pick a ceremonial HoS – oh hell, let’s call the bloke President again, now that the wings are clipped.

The first and second options are novel but I dislike both. Nevertheless it is good to encourage public debate. In Option 1 the PM is chosen by direct election, but PM and Cabinet answer to Parliament. Nothing is said about powers or selection of HoS but by virtue of the aforementioned blanket provision HoS shares executive power. A very messy arrangement between HoS, PM and Parliament; all with powers and all with mandates rooted in electorates; a sure fire recipe for conflict. Throw it out! The rest of you go ahead and discuss it till the cows come home; I only state my preference.

Option 2 is the most novel and envisages a directly elected HoS – but says nothing about how the PM is chosen. HoS will head a Council of State (CoS), the supreme policy making body, while PM plus Cabinet, and provincial Boards of Ministers are the implementation arms. The overarching blanket clause mentions a Speaker’s Council (SC) which is not the same as the Council of State. The latter includes provincial Chief Minister’s in addition to those on the Speaker’s Council, but excludes the Speaker.

Presumably only the CoS, not the Speaker’s Council, will exist in Option 2; neither council will exist in Option 1 (why?); SC is for Options 3 only. You will find none of this spelt out in the garbled handout reproduced in the Island and Daily Mirror of 30 May. Nevertheless, and this lamentation apart, the UNP has to be congratulated for invoking a bold and useful discussion of the structure of executive power. Once settled, but not before, corresponding arrangements of the organs of state must be laid out. This is consequential and technocratic, probably not of interest to the public at large.

Devolution

I applauded the document for facing up to devolution; an issue Sobitha’s drafters ducked. Oh yes, the UNP says “unitary”, and somewhere else says “foremost” for Buddhism. Forget it; all for-show-only bluff that liberal-democrats have to put-on, to pander to Lanka’s as yet primitive petty bourgeois mass consciousness. ‘Unitary’ only means de jure federalism is out; well, everyone knows that. What matters are the powers devolved. The assertion “powers will be genuinely devolved to provincial councils” places the UNP, verbally, ahead of the SLFP and the JVP on the national question. I am inclined to tell Tamils and TNA: Turn a blind eye to the bluff and work on clarifying substantive issues. Will any of this eventually come to pass when the monks go marching in? Probably not, but that’s a bridge to cross then; retain organisational strength and ideological independence for now.

Most significant is an unmistakable invocation of Donoughmore principles at the provincial level. The Chief Minister will be the leader of the largest party, the Deputy Chief, leader of the second largest party, the Board of Ministers will be drawn from all parties in the PC. Will it work? Is this country too dementedly over-politicised to revive Donoughmore concepts? Are Lanka’s politicians:

“Bloody, bawdy villains! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, ‘kindless’ villains”

Maybe, but a turn to Donoughmore, to a degree, at the provincial, local as well as the national level, is desirable. The concepts are certain to win public backing.

We now have Sobitha’s proposals and the UNP draft; enough to start discussions aimed at a consensus that the whole opposition, including the JVP, can embrace. Next a sticky matter; nominating a Single Issue candidate to run against and defeat Rajapakse in the first instance. This is an initial sine qua non say for six months, without which the abolition of the Executive Presidency and a new constitution are non starters. I guess Ranil wants to run for HoS under Option 2, or substantive PM under Options 1 or 3; ok, he can try his luck later, six months later.

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