CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS REACH JOURNEY’S END : MINORITY PARTIES PRESENT CANDID OPINION

agreed on the basic contours

Four minority parties, Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganeshan, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Minister Rauf Hakeem, All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Rishad Badiudeen and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devananda submitted a common set of proposals to the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee.

The TPA formed in 2015, consists of the Democratic People’s Front, National Union of Workers and the Upcountry People’s Front. This Union largely represents the Tamils, mostly Indian origin Tamils, living outside the North and East provinces.

The SLMC and the ACMC are the voice of the Muslim majority and the EPDP represents mainly the southern Tamils.

While they have slightly differing views on electoral reforms, religion and power sharing, the four minority parties that submitted the common set of proposals have consistently agreed on the basic contours of a new constitution.


reasonable consensus

The TNA Leader R.Sampanthan speaking on their own proposals to the Steering Committee said, with regard to the abolition of the Executive Presidency, several proposals are being discussed without having reached any consensus so far. “On some issues there is understanding and some issues are yet being discussed,” he said.

The TNA leader said, the primary objective is to be able to achieve a reasonable consensus, which will be broadly acceptable to the country and its people.

The six sub committees (Fundamental Rights, The Judiciary, Law & Order, Public Finance, Public Service and Centre Periphery Relations) have tabled their proposals. It is expected the Steering Committee will, before long, come up with its interim report in regard to deliberations. An effort is being made right now to achieve maximum possible consensus, with regard to the interim report.


contentious issues

The Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) has made known to the Constitutional Assembly their wishes in regard to the contentious issues of power devolution under a new constitution, CWC Leader Muthu Sivalingam said.


With a renewed thrust by the main political parties to wrap up the much awaited constitutional reforms as early as possible, the process seems to be nearing its intended destination. The political parties have presented proposals containing their own hopes and aspirations to the Steering Committee, and are now in the last stages of reaching maximum possible consensus over the working draft.

On the eve of drafting a new constitution or sweeping amendments to the country’s constitution, leading minority parties represented in the Constitutional Assembly spoke to the Sunday Observer last week, on their respective stance on certain critical issues of power sharing.

Separation

Under the principles of the state, the parties had reiterated their commitment to oppose any moves for separation. The proposals emphasize that no Provincial Council or any political party or any entity within or outside Sri Lanka, should attempt or ‘advocate separation or secession of any part from Sri Lanka’.

It has also called for constitutional safeguards against armed struggles to achieve political or other goals in the country. “No one shall attempt or advocate an initiative towards armed activity to achieve any political or other goals in Sri Lanka.”

While seeking ‘constitutional recognition’ for four major communities, Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian origin Tamils, their proposals highlight the need for a true devolution of power to the Provinces.

Territorial integrity

Under territorial integrity, they have suggested, the Sri Lanka state shall be known as the “United Republic of Sri Lanka”, in Sinhala Language “Sri Lanka Ekshath Janarajaya and in Tamil language “Aikkiya Ilangai Kudiyarasau”. This is contrary to the ‘unitary character’ of the state proposed by a majority of the southern political parties represented in the Constitutional Assembly, including the UNP and the SLFP. The union of Tamil and Muslim parties has also proposed that subdivisions of the districts and subsequent territories of the local government entities should be declared by the President in concurrence with the Provincial Council administration.

President

On the subject of presidency, the coalition of four Tamil and Muslim parties have stressed that the head of state should be the President. His term is to be restricted to five years and the President shall hold only the portfolio of Defence. They have also proposed offices of three “Vice Presidents”. The Vice Presidents are to be selected from three communities other than that of the President.

Second Chamber

They have upheld the proposal for a second chamber and the membership of the Second chamber is to be on ethnic basis, a total of 36 members with 18 Sinhalese, 6 Sri Lankan Tamils, 6 Muslims and 6 Malayaha Thamils (Indian Origin Tamils). The chairperson of the Second Chamber is to be a Vice President on a rotational basis. His term of office is to be restricted to one year.

Official Language

It has also been proposed to amend the current format of Article 18(1) to read as “Sinhala and Tamil shall be the Official Languages of Sri Lanka”

The group has suggested the Divisional Secretariat divisions where the Sinhala or Tamil linguistic minority population exceeds one eighth of the total population of that area, to be declared (through gazette notifications) as Bilingual Divisions by the President, considering the recommendation of the Department of Official Languages

They have further suggested that both, official languages and the link language should be strictly used for all state and civil purposes within all such Bilingual Divisions.

Place for Buddhism

Three parties have agreed that the clause relating to the subject of Religion to read as “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddha Dharshanaya, the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)” The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) is of the view that: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall be a secular state while assuring to all religions the rights granted by articles 10 and 14 (1) (e)”

They have upheld the Sinhala and Tamil versions of the National Anthem. “The National Anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ in Sinhala language and ‘Sri Lanka Thaaye’ in Tamil language.”

Power sharing

The quartet of political parties support the majority decision to abolish concurrent lists of power between the national and the provincial.

It has been stressed that powers devolved to the Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment must continue to stand as devolved powers, and there shall not be any constitutional attempt to shelve any power from the PC list of powers.

The parties, except the ACMC is of the opinion the Cabinet of the Provincial Councils should consist six members with one minimum reservation for each of the community of interest. The ACMC has proposed that the cabinet of the Provincial Councils must consist seven members.

Electoral system

Parliament shall consist of a total of 245 members, of whom 215 members shall be elected to Parliament, and 30seats shall be reserved for the National List.

The EPDP has suggested the 30 seats reserved for the National List should be ‘elected on provincial basis’.

But the working draft of the new Constitution which is currently under discussion says, there shall be 233 seats in the new Parliament.

They have referred to the 14th Amendment in the present constitution, identifying their proposal as “The Zonal Electoral System” similar to the idea initiated in the respective Amendment.

The whole country shall be divided into 40 to 50 electoral Zones, and each electoral zone to have a population of about 400,000 to 500,000.

They have pointed out that the small electoral zones will lessen inter and intra- party rivalry, and high election expenditures, while increasing the accountability factor, bringing the elected member closer to the voter. An electorate based election system is also upheld by parties like the LSSP and JVP.

The election will be proportional. The group has also proposed a new delimitation commission with minority representation to demarcate wards.

The SLMC has stated that it stands by the electoral reform proposals it had already submitted to the Steering Committee.

Executive President

The party has conveyed that it favours the continuation of the Executive Presidency, given that, as a minority party it has the opportunity to directly present their grievances to the President and seek his intervention.

Election of Prime Minister

On the election of the Prime Minister, the CWC is of the opinion that the Prime Minister should be from the majority party and he should win the confidence of all political parties.

Second Chamber

The CWC has also acknowledged that a Second Chamber is a positive proposal, in that, it will be an institution to intervene in all hasty actions of Parliament and take corrective action through the matured wisdom of the members of the Second Chamber.

Electoral system

They have upheld the present Proportional Representation system. In contrast to Minister Mano Ganeshan’s group, the CWC is also supporting the merger of the North and East. MP Muthu Sivalingam said,“We welcome the merger as a majority of people are Tamil speaking.”

Land and Police Powers

They have also expressed support to decentralize Land and Police powers including the establishment of a provincial police post.

Executive Presidency

“Our views on the executive presidency are well known, we are firmly of the view that the executive presidency as it existed under the former president should not continue.

We remain committed to that position, but when and if there is a possibility of achieving an overall consensus, in regard to the proposals to the constitution, compromises are always possible.”

On the election of Prime Minister, nothing has been finalised, three proposals have been discussed, with no decision being taken. I would not commit myself to any position, whatever the choice (by political parties and TNA), it will be based on democracy.

The senior parliamentarian said, ‘Be it the Westminster System (which is in practice today), nomination system or a pre-commitment it will be through the democratic system.’

In regard to the electoral system and the National List, he said, according to the working draft, there won’t be a National List hereafter.

There is a proposal that the parties that win the largest number of seats can have a bonus seat. In view of the fact that in the Northern Province voters have been displaced in very large numbers there will be a provision for a few seats for the Northern Province as an interim measure.

He said, on the proposals for the new electoral system currently being deliberated, there is not much disagreement. There is going to be a hybrid system, to elect 60% on the basis of constituency and 40% on the basis of Proportional Representation.

The Second Chamber

“We know its a new feature… an old feature that is coming back but with a different objective. There will be a Second Chamber which will play a role in ensuring that the constitution is properly operational. We believe it’s a good feature.”

The merger of the North and the East

The merger of the North and East is also a matter under discussion, he said adding that the TNA has asked for the merger of the North and East provinces. We have presented our position to the Steering Committee.

The discussions are being conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality, and without much confrontation, everybody seems to realize that, we need reform, both in regard to governance and in regard to various other issues.

“There is a visible desire, on the part of members to work in a spirit of cooperation. “About the land and police powers there is a proposal for a provincial police commission. “If there is a provincial police force there has to be a provincial police commission. One calls for the other. It is a necessity.” “We are anxious that the process should be completed without further delay. Parties have taken time to come to grips with the issues, but I think we have not come to a stage of addressing the issues in a more serious way. Our expectation is that we should be able to complete it shortly. “ “I won’t come up with time frames but in the context of the discussions taking place between the parties, thus far, I don’t think there is need for much delay,” he said, adding that, he would not say everything is ‘hunky dory’.

Referendum

We would like the country to approve the constitutional proposals in a people’s referendum. For it to have full legitimacy, the new constitution must receive the sanction of the people. And, we would like for the people to express their views on it.

TNA and NPC proposals

There is a set of proposals by the Northern Provincial Council. The Council is thinking quite liberally and it has come up with proposals seeking more powers for them which are progressive. I wouldn’t say they are in total conformity with the TNA proposals but there is not much difference. 


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