Today the topic of conversation in most circles in Colombo and elsewhere is “Constitutional Reform’. This has of course been an issue ever since President Premadasa succeeded to the ‘Throne’- to dump the 1978 Constitution and with it the Presidential form of government. This has been the promise of everyone who succeeded President Premadasa, but after one sits on the ‘Throne’ amnesia sets in, the taste of power takes possession of the mind and body and the Executive Presidency becomes the dream of every politician.
Sadly it is indeed true that when in Opposition many political parties and political leaders have pointed to the fact that the Electoral system introduced through the 1948 Constitution has made a mockery of Democracy and the Rule of Law, but as stated earlier, when in power they are inebriated and seek to exploit the system to their entire benefit at the expense of the unfortunate people who are only sovereign in name. We do need, in the nations interest, to have a Constitution which enshrines democratic values, Social Justice, Fundamental Human Rights, grants Equal Opportunity for all our people, ensures ethnic harmony, peace and good governance.
Our first priority should be to change the Electoral System which breeds corruption --- it is the biggest nail in the coffin of representational Democracy; To contest a District, which is the electorate, one requires millions, yes an enormous amount of money and where does the money come from; we all know where it comes from. Big money is needed and the system is inherently corrupt and that is why if we are to restore real representative Democracy to our country, the first thing we need to do is to introduce Electoral Reform; it is the need of the hour. It is indeed a pity that even the compromise formula in the Dinesh Gunawardena Report has not been implemented ---- many are of the view that the ‘First past the post system’ despite its faults is most definitely better than what exists today. The government should give the Dinesh Gunawardena Report maximum publicity, call for the views of the public and ‘Civil Society’, incorporate ideas that make for fairer representation of the people and then hold a Referendum and make it law if the people approve. In any case we need to do away with the District as the Electorate. The President who is justly considered ‘GREAT’ because he saved our country from being separated, would also go down in our history as the leader who restored true Democracy to our country, if only he takes the initiative to do this.
There are many other initiatives he would need to take to restore the country’s image. We need to have an Equal Opportunities Bill (in this regard a recent statement attributed to the Army Commander was most heartening). We also need Accountability and Transparency. When our President on assuming office stated that he was the TRUSTEE of the people --- and would safeguard the peoples’ interests, that warmed our hearts, for that is our expectation of him. We wish him well with all our hearts to perform this noble task.
The foremost among other issues which a new Constitution should address in the interest of the people is --- the politicisation that has become pervasive. We need to have an independent Constitutional Council appointed with the concurrence of Parliament, to make all important appointments of the State and meritocracy must be enthroned. The restoration of our confidence in the Judiciary is imperative.
The Constitutional Council should appoint the Election Commission, the Bribery Commission, the Judicial Service Commission, the Public Service Commission (let us truly professionalise our Administrative Service and the Foreign Service and secure them through Acts of Parliament) and the Police Commission. They MUST BE INDEPENDENT BODIES. Let us do away with the Provincial Councils and have instead District Councils as was envisaged in the Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayagam Pact. The subjects of ‘Police’ and ‘Land’ should not be devolved under any circumstances.
The right of our people to be governed in the language of their area of habitation must once again be secured.
Let us have a chapter on Fundamental Rights of the people which should be inviolable and also the Duties of citizens and of the government. Fundamental Rights and Rights of Women and children must be sanctified through the Constitution. Whilst the right of people to practice the religion of their choice must be secured, any action deemed provocative must be made an offence in this multi religious, multicultural society.
Finally, to perhaps the most fundamental issue today---- the Presidential Executive form of government: no doubt for centuries we have been ruled by Kings and Queens but the world has changed and so has our country where the level of literacy is one of the highest in the world. Our people have enjoyed Universal Suffrage from 1931 and enjoyed the Right to be a party to deciding on our destiny, so let us not have any feudal form of government --- let us have our head of state elected by Parliament comprising of a National Assembly and a Senate; the President should work with Parliament to deliver good governance to us, the people. The President’s idea of a Second Chamber is a most laudable one --- where we could have at least ten representatives of the District Councils, elected by them, representatives of the Academia, Business Chambers, The OPA, Civil Society representatives, nominees of Trade Unions and distinguished citizens contributing to the making of the laws of our country. The Parliament could be supported by a Research Service as in the US. It is such a Parliament that should appoint the Constitutional Council and a Committee of Parliament could also examine the suitability of candidates nominated for high office by the Constitutional Council.
Let us transform this country into a true Peoples’ Democracy. Let us hope that our Trustee would make it happen for the sake of generations to come – they too would be grateful.
(The writer is the (Retd) Additional Foreign Secretary and former Ambassador to the EU and High Commissioner of Malaysia)