22 May, 2024


The Young Persons’ Document On Constitutional Reform

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

Political Machinations: Youth ideas about Constitutional Reform

A group of young people, including a few politicians, have been working recently on suggestions for Constitutional Reform following the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The brief of that Committee is wide and, even though efforts were made to hijack it, and turn it into a vehicle to amend the 13th Amendment, the Chairman stood firm and made it clear that the terms of reference as laid down by those who proposed the Committee should stand.

I have no doubt that, despite the omission of perspectives that are more common in the country and in Parliament than extreme views on either side, there are enough persons on the PSC who will ensure that the commitments that country and the President have entered into will be upheld. However I suspect the Committee will deliberate for a very long time, and a lot of problems that it would be very simple to resolve will only get worse.

I welcome therefore what I see as a Youth Initiative, and have been impressed by the systematic way in which they are proceeding. They have used as a basic text a comparison which has been made of the three recent comprehensive proposals for Constitutional Reform that have been published. The first of these – as usual, I am tempted to say – was that of the Liberal Party, and this was followed this year by the proposals of the UNP as also those of a group led by the Rev Omalpe Sobitha.

The comparison noted that there were two factors on which all three documents were in agreement, and these are what the Liberal Party had identified as perhaps our most urgent needs, because they contribute to the disfunctionality in other respects that bedevils us. I refer to the size of the Cabinet and the current electoral system. All three documents assert that the Cabinet should have no more than 25 members, and that we should have a mixed system of election, with half the seats filled on a first past the post system, while the other half would be on a proportionate basis.

The main document thinks as the Liberals do that the final figure should represent the proportion each party commands, and therefore each voter should have two votes, one for the constituency representative, and the other to indicate the support the party receives. Another paper we looked at however has a novel suggestion, that each constituency candidate should have a running mate, and the seats allocated on proportionality would go to those running mates who had secured the highest proportion of votes. That means that, if the UPFA won 70 percent of constituency seats with 55 per cent of the votes, the running mates in the 55 seats in which it did best would also get into Parliament (Parliament, sensibly, was to consist of 200 members, half chosen on each system, with another 20 or so seats reserved for women, also selected proportionally).

It was a great relief to find people thinking out of the box as it were, though on balance I think the proposal in the main document would be more equitable, and also easier to operate. Another area in which the alternative proposal was particularly innovative, was in introducing, not term limits for the Presidency, but rather limits on how often a person could stand for the office of President. As it graphically says, ‘This system would be fairer than Presidential term limits, because if a continuously successful Presidential candidate is limited by term limits, then equally, so should be an unsuccessful candidate that has been continuously rejected by the people’s mandate’.

I suspect this is a not so veiled reference to Ranil Wickremesinghe, but I suppose it is understandable in the present context that we have to pay attention to ground realities too. The main document, which is categorical about a limit of two terms for the Presidency, also makes it clear that this provision should come into operation after the next election, ie it does not derogate from the possibility of the present President standing again.

I think this is essential, not only because to change conditions now when there is no viable alternative in any party would be foolhardy, but also because the lame duck syndrome would become even more marked. It was worries about this that constituted one of my arguments against having the last Presidential election early, a position in which the President said, I suspect scornfully to suggest our lack of political experience, only the Defence Secretary concurred. But what I find worrying is that, even with term limits removed, there are those who treat the President as a lame duck, using him only for electoral advantage, whereas he should be in the driving seat as far as policy making goes.

I suspect this phenomenon has something to do with our disastrous mix of a Presidential system with the Westminster Parliament based Cabinet system. When the rest of the Executive is in Parliament, with the President outside, it is much more concerned with the electoral impact of decisions, whereas a proper Presidential system should allow for a more professional approach to policy making and implementation.

That is why all other serious Executive Presidential systems have a Cabinet separated from Parliament. In America most Ministers – or Secretaries as they are called, a better title to emphasiz the service element of their responsibilities – are not politicians. In France or Russia, even politicians have to resign from Parliament to serve in the Executive.

To my immense relief, the young persons’ document encompassed this provision. It says, also incorporating the limit on numbers, that ‘The Cabinet shall consist of not more than 25 Ministers…Members of the Cabinet shall not be Members of Parliament or any other elected body, and shall not undertake any other employment. Any Member of Parliament or other elected body appointed to the Cabinet shall resign from such body’. Such perspicacity is immensely encouraging.

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