Leader of the National United Front, former Ambassador and Parliamentarian, President’s Counsel M.M. Zuhair in an interview with the Daily Mirror insisted on the implementation of electoral reforms as pledged.
QYou all were the first Muslim-based organization to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 100-day period has now come to an end; are you satisfied with the decision that you made?
I am quite happy with the decision that I made for several reasons. Firstly, what happened on January 8th, and thereafter was a silent revolution. I say that because this is the first time a President of a country has been voluntarily willing to give up power, having pledged to the masses in the election manifesto. The fact that he honoured his word puts the President into the mould of a very rare calibre of person. For instance, we have Nelson Mandela, Mahathma Ghandhi and Martin Luther King who have performed such feats in different aspects of their social lives but this deed also falls right within that realm. If you look at the long history of mankind, the one person we know that gave up power was the Buddha. Prince Gauthama gave up all his power and other materialistic pleasures to live a humble and modest life. I’m not comparing President Sirisena to Buddha, but the idea that I draw parallels with is the fact that people give up power very, very rarely and it has to be commended. The fact is that the President himself was in Parliament throughout the night negotiating this and ensuring its passage. It wasn’t something that was promised in the manifesto and thereafter waiting for Parliament to do as it pleased. No. He followed it up and delivered effectively and rightly.
QWas this the only point for which you pledged your support ?
No, on December 1st, the ‘ Common People’s Agenda’ was put forward at the Viharamahadevi Park. There were many significant features which included the transferring of power of the President to Parliament, to the Prime Minister and the Judiciary. Then the setting up of Independent Commissions, elimination of corruption in the country, and fourthly, that the then ongoing ethnic and religious extremist actions of some people which led to widespread fear among the minorities of the country particularly the Muslims, would be put to an end. President Mathiripala Sirisena pledged a united and harmonious Sri Lanka, and it was on this basis that we supported him as the Presidential candidate and we are glad that he is attending to them one by one. The first 100 days had seen a large number of promises being fulfilled although not in their entirety. In fact he promised to bridge the division between the upper and lower classes of the country, which of course is a long term plan, but interim measures were taken in the budget presented. These are great achievements, The cost of living has been virtually stabilized.
"I have always said this even at public meetings, this country has over the past 100 years been on a path of communal and confrontational politics. This must stop."
Q You were a former supporter of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and you have always been a supporter of SLFP-led coalitions..
I wouldn’t say SLFP-led coalitions. I have always been associated with sections which took up the cause of the downtrodden. That has been the basis on which I have supported certain factions.
Q But this time we have a different situation. Where the President is from the SLFP is with the UNP government, a party which you have never been identified with. Is there a difference in the mode of governance of these two parties?
I wont say that, because when President Premadasa was the President of this country and there was an impeachment motion brought against him, I was one of the people who were consulted on the very day he was informed of it. That was the faith he had in me. We have always been supporters of progressive leaders of this country and Premadasa was one such person.
Q But you are deviating from the question. You have always been a left-leaning coalitions. Today we have a government led by the UNP. Is there a difference in the method of governance?
What you are now seeing is because the SLFP had been in power since 1994.
But the matter of fact is that prior to supporting President Chandrika Bandaranaike, we supported President Premadasa because he identified himself with the common masses. So the UNP can also produce people of that calibre. When you see the policies that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed and implemented you see great progressive thinking.
But I consider, President Maithripala Sirisena as a great statesman and not a normal politician that we are used to seeing.
Q The proposed electoral reforms have now become one of the main issues, following the passage of the 19th Amendment. As a leader representing a minority, what is your view on these proposed reforms?
If you look at the manifesto that was put out prior to the Presidential elections, one of the clear promises that were made, was on electoral reforms. The manifesto said ‘ Amendments to the electoral system would be put before Parliament on March 17 and passed as swiftly as possible’. Today the Opposition is reminding the government to do this. This should have been the first thing that was to be done. The bringing in of the Independent Commissions were to be carried out by March 23, and the abolition or removal of the powers of the Executive Presidency was to be done on April 20. So those which were to be done later have been concluded and we fear that minority parties could create problems in resisting the moves to fulfill the pledge by the President. Q Are you a proponent of these reforms?
Yes, of course!
Q On what grounds do you support this?
Because we see this as a golden opportunity to get rid of certain ills that prevail in this country. One is corruption which Sri Lanka is notorious for. This is mainly because of the District Proportional Representation system for which candidates have to spend huge amount of money. There are people who come and ‘invest’ in these campaigns, and then of course, they expect a return on these investments. So corruption is rampant because of these very huge electorates. How can you expect honest people to come into Parliament when they have to incur such a huge cost? The second is, the intra-party violence which has emerged after the PR system. This is a bad example because if those entering Parliament are going to be this violent what can we expect of the ordinary man, and the law and order of this country.
QBut isn’t it the argument, that this system provides a chance for parties representing the minorities and parties which are not the ‘top two’ be represented in Parliament?
Yes, but even earlier, prior to this PR system, if you look at the results of elections since independence to the introduction of this system in 1978, you would find many of these so-called minority parties and small parties being represented in Parliament.
If you look at the LSSP, at one time it had some 12 MPs in Parliament if I am not mistaken. The Communist Party was also represented. But the emergence of Communal Parties or parties that promote communal ideologies, was a direct result of the PR system.
Q Its interesting that you say this, because you were one of the founder members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC)?
Yes, I represented the SLMC at a time when there was a need for such a party because the LTTE was seeking to represent the Tamil Community through violence. They also wanted the merging of North and East, which would have weakened the Muslims of the Eastern Province. To merge the two Provinces would have been detrimental to both the Muslims and the Sinhalese in the East. Their strength would have been diluted substantially. We were opposed to that merger. Also, at the time many Muslim youth from the East were frustrated by the actions of both major parties. For 30 years they didn’t have Sinhala teachers in their schools, when the rest of the country had Sinhala as its official language. The Muslim youth were very frustrated by the actions of the national parties and they were looking towards the LTTE for salvation and leadership following the communal riots of 1983. The Ashroff-led SLMC removed the great danger. In fact if it was not for Ashroff and the SLMC, both the North and the East would have been merged, but not only that, there would have been Ealam by now - long before the war was won by the previous President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now the LTTE is no more, and we don’t see the need of such communal lines being drawn. Today there is a major social and political revolution in this country. A silent revolution is taking place. President Maithripala Sirisena is giving leadership to a new conceptual framework and a new era.
Q Are you saying that there is no space for parties which represent communal lines?
I feel that the TNA in the North and the SLMC in the East could still have their political parties and play their respective roles.
In places like Mannar, Minister Bathiudeens party could play its role, but there is no need for them to play a national role.
There are dangers in that. (them playing a national role).
Q What are these dangers?
When the country is moving away from racial and ethnic lines, one should not be holding on to them. Look at the JHU, they have evolved into a more national-centred party and are now even supporting civil administration in the North. JHU is supporting the armed forces to be back in their camps. These are huge developments, things which I never expected from them. They are doing this in the larger national interest. Take the case of Ven. Sobitha Thera or Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, they are playing a lead role in this evolutionary process. I have always said this even at public meetings, this country has over the past 100 years been on a path of communal and confrontational politics. This must stop.
Today the Muslim community has also got entangled in this mess, after the Indo- Lanka accord, which India imposed on us. Now is the time to come out of this. With the leadership that the Buddhist monks are giving and the leadership of the President this is a golden opportunity to move away from these communal lines. We should not miss this opportunity or resist this. The time has come for us to support these measures instead of standing between them.
The electoral reforms will do away with one of the main dangers, which is the sustenance of communal racism in the country whether it is from the Muslim, Sinhala or Tamil communities. The District PR system, is primarily responsible for - although not entirely. Even previously there have been elements of communalism and racism among the major parties but never to the extent of the emergence of extremist organizations even from the majority community.
They are a reaction to us (minorities). We need to get out of this sordid history of over a 100 years. We should not leave it to the next generation to deal with this.
Q Are you saying that the minority parties are the stumbling block for the implementation of these reforms?
If you look at the SLMC, they sent a delegate to Geneva and raised the issue of the Aluthgama violence, having supported President Mahinda Rajapaksa almost until the 11th hour. It was at that time that they should have protested and left. Now that is history. Now we have ushered in a new era. We are not a vindictive community to seek revenge. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the man who brought peace to this country and we should not forget that although we have many issues with him. His support to anti-Muslim organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena which he himself has said was a catalyst for his defeat, are among the many reasons. We have to be mindful of this factor and we must ensure that this sort of forces are not given space to create havoc in this country.
Q Can you explain how you think these reforms will sort out the issues that you just spoke of?
The reforms will help get out of this system. Before the PR system was introduced, we didn’t have this sort of communal political parties, from whichever community. Of course Tamils in the North had their own political parties owing to the population in the area, but the PR system has doubled or tripled this emergence of parties based on communal and ethnic lines. That is what these minorities fear. They fear that their national significance and power of bargaining will diminish as a result of this. What I am saying is there is no need for them to have national significance. They could play the role that they are set to within their respective electorates but that should be it. But there is no need to harvest votes and do other such things in the rest of the country by dividing the Muslims or the Tamils from the rest of the Community.
The SLMC has a role to play in the East and they should be permitted to do so, but it does not mean that the system has to continue to breed communalism and racism. The minority parties should not hold the aspirations of the people at ransom.
Q There have been many practical issues cited with the implementation - like the delimitation among others. Is the implementation of the 20th Amendment really practical?
If you are going to look at it through those lenses, then the 19th Amendment also had similar issues. Normally it should take much longer, and there should have been a bigger and better public debate. That’s if it was to go through the normal process and I am reacting to your question, this had to be done, and in the best interest of the country. This was what was pledged and the people gave the mandate for the promises made in the manifesto and the 100-day programme. There is no looking back on this (electoral reforms). The country had given a mandate and the government acted according to that when it came to the 19th Amendment. Electoral reforms is a promise that is as important as the 19th Amendment. It was pledged before the people. The President promised that “he would change the electoral system completely and would guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and ensure that every electorate would have a Member of Parliament”. The new electoral system has been identified very clearly in the manifesto itself. We have to honour that and go before the people. We can’t say that the 19th Amendment is good, but the 20th Amendment isn’t. Both were promised and both must be implemented before we go before the people. We campaigned and supported this change based on these promises and we told the people that these would be done. We should also be able to go before the people having honoured these promises that were made.
Q You have a government which does not have a majority, is it realistic to assume that these would be passed given the present circumstances?
Of course! Because it is the Opposition who is really pressing for this. The Opposition wanted to bring both the 19th and the 20th together. They wanted these electoral reforms presented. I am saddened that it is they who are calling for its implementation when it is we who should have given leadership.
Q Why do you think there is this sort of hesitance?
Because small parties and minority parties are the stumbling blocks. They are not thinking in the larger context of the country. When these very parties supported Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature, they supported them based on this manifesto. They have a duty to honour that and not find excuses to hold elections without honouring it.
Q Do you think the next General elections could be held with the reforms implemented?
There is a very good chance because I have made it very clear because there is no need of a Delimitation Commission if you go on the basis of the 160 seats which are called the electoral divisions, plus six Multi Member Constituencies returning eight members. So 160 seats returning 168 members. There is an issue because of the electoral imbalances in certain places, in fact Muslims have certain issues when it comes to this and I am not denying that. But what I am saying is that these issues affect everyone and not only the Muslims. The answer to that is, to bring in the same Multi Member Constituencies, through constitutional amendments and increase it to even 175 seats. All these can be done without the Delimitation Commission and through amendments to the Constitution. There is no need to hesitate on this. This won’t solve the issue, but the government has promised the establishment of an Electoral Reforms Commission following the elections. This Commission could re-look at the issues and re-demarcate the electoral boundaries for which they have been given one year. That can be done after the current elections. We made a promise; every effort must be made to ensure its passage because this can be done.
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