National List MP Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, who played a pivotal role in the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, speaks about the constitution making process and what should be done. He responded to matters raised by Government MP Jayampathi Wickramaratne in a previous interview. Excerpts of the interview:
It is a fallacy for someone to believe that the current social and economic problems can be resolved merely by having constitutional changes
If we opt for the abolition of executive presidency, we should give mind to a new electoral system to be introduced
Today, the current Proportional Representation with preferential voting has made way for identity politics based on caste and ethnic lines
- Regardless of his personal wishes, President should stick to his mandate
- Executive Presidency is important to maintain parliamentary stability
- Only a cabal of foreign funded NGOs is eager to abolish it
- It is also important to ward off separatist threat
- Govt is not doing it
- National Planning Commission should be set up to decide on national assets
- Govt promised to rule according to UN principles
- If not for executive presidency, country would be rendered unstable
- But it acts contrary to expectations
- Today, only a coterie of people are part of the decision making process
QThe need for a new Constitution is debated by some. What is your opinion?
Actually, certain amendments are needed to be incorporated into the Constitution. We understand it. With regard to the country’s land policy, electoral reforms and peaceful co-existence, we need some constitutional reforms. Why should it be done? It is a fallacy for someone to believe that the current social and economic problems can be resolved merely by having constitutional changes. It is also wrong to believe that the current Constitution is an affront to human rights and democracy, and dictatorial. The present predicament of the country is not a phenomenon created by the Constitution. Let alone, we believe the evolution of certain legal or constitutional mechanisms would find solutions to some of the issues at hand. Executive presidency is projected as the main cause of problems. It was introduced by the UNP government with the approval of two-thirds. It has not even referred to referendum. The same constitutional model with executive presidency at the helm is found in the United States of America, Germany and France. Executive Presidency is practised not only in Sri Lanka but also in many other countries.
QYet, some claim that the government received a mandate to abolish the executive presidency. You played a major role in electing the current President. What is your response?
It is total falsehood to say that the President received a mandate at the last Presidential Election to scrap executive presidency in full. At the 2015 Election, I attended a lot of TV programmes. If we had sought a mandate for the abolition of it, people would not have voted for him as such. It would have created the perception in the minds of people Mr. Maithripala Sirisena was seeking a mandate only to give away his powers , but not to rebuild the country. People would have got the impression that Mr. Sirisena would be a puppet to act according to the interests of a few others. We reflected on such possible thoughts in the minds of voters.
In the creation of executive presidency, it was primarily meant to ensure parliamentary stability in one aspect. At the last election, no party could get a simple majority to run the country. That is due to the current electoral system. If we had continued with the electoral system that prevailed in the country during the 1970/77 period, a single party could have got the majority. Along with the introduction of executive presidency in 1977, we have made way for changes in the composition of Parliament as well.
Proportional Representation System replaced the First Past the Post System. In a way, today, the Proportional Representation is interlinked with the executive presidency. As long as the Proportional Representation is there, executive presidency should remain. In case the executive presidency is abolished, it will render the country politically unstable under the current electoral system. What would have been the current situation if not for the executive presidency?
Today, Parliament would have been held to ransom by the minority or minor parties with their extremist demands. It will lead to national unrest, not to national reconciliation. Racism raises its head in the event of an unstable Parliament. In such a situation, the budget cannot be passed. There can be constant elections. Then, the country cannot move forward.
After executive presidency, the provincial councils were also introduced in 1988 in conformity with the Indo-Lanka Accord. There were several court cases filed in this regard. The bench of Supreme Court was divided down the middle. The Executive President had the power appoint a judge on such an occasion. Mr. Palinda Ranasinghe was appointed the chairman of the bench. He was appointed by the then President. His stand led to the ruling that the proposed Constitutional Amendment could be enacted with two-thirds without referring it to approval of people by referendum. If not for the chairman’s, bench remained divided down the middle leading to an impasse. One section argued for a referendum and the other ruled it out.
The Supreme Court upheld on that occasion that any volatility to be triggered by the provincial councils could be overcome by an executive presidency. It was upheld that the country would not face the threat of partition as long as executive presidency remained.
All in all, executive presidency is important to maintain stability in Parliament and to quell the separatist threat possible to be triggered by the provincial councils.
We also work for the revitalization of our education sector and saving our young generation from drug menace. We have submitted these proposals. We will decide on the next candidate accordingly. I do not know who will be the candidate
If we opt for the abolition of executive presidency, we should give mind to a new electoral system to be introduced. If we reintroduce the system that remained in the 1977/78 period (The First Past the Post System), there is no harm in abolishing executive presidency. Or else, we have to alter the present Proportional Representation System in a manner that would enablethe installation of a stable Parliament through an electoral process. It, however, looks difficult because minor and minority parties prefer the current system. Today, the current Proportional Representation with preferential voting has made way for identity politics based on caste and ethnic lines. There is no constituency based representation guaranteed here. It involves a lot of campaign financing. Only the moneyed candidates can make it finally.
QWhat should be the priority in introducing new constitutional reforms in your view?
That is to change the current electoral system. During the time of the last elections, there were different opinions prevailing. Some NGOs, advocating minority rights and working on foreign funds, are eager to abolish the executive presidency. They receive funds for that purpose.
Normally, western liberal politicians throw their weight behind struggles for minority rights happening elsewhere in the world. That is characteristic of them. It is reasonable in some contexts and unacceptable in others. It cannot be justified at all in some situations.
It is also wrong to believe that the current Constitution is an affront to human rights and democracy, and dictatorial
There is a cabal of such NGOs operating here. They are not bothered about the alienation of national assets and lands to outsiders. A few remaining old guards of the leftist movements belong to this category. They are obsessed with this issue. It is not the UNP, the SLFP or the JVP crying hoarse about this matter.
QHow do you interpret the President’s mandate then?
Different individuals and ideological groups came under one banner for the victory of President Sirisena at that time. It included NGOs and Human Rights groups.
Alongside, there were group like mine, appearing for a national economy, preservation of national assets and all. Which group can stake the biggest claim for this victory? There is a tussle each staking a claim. Actually, the victory was made possible only because a section of the SLFP defected to the other side along with President Sirisena. We were also part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The UNP could not engineer such a defection. The UNP’s base had eroded in the electorate because of its stand during the war time. So, they were not in a position to win an election. People in the north also wanted a regime change. They were convinced that the UNP could not make it. They realized that a candidate, commanding the support of the Sinhalese, could win. They told it to me openly. President Sirisena listened to all. He launched his manifesto in front of a large crowd and pledged only to do away with features of the executive presidency, which have doctorial and anti-democratic slants. He promised to subject executive presidency to be reformed only. That is all. He was clear that he would not opt for any change warranting approval of people by referendum.
He was clear that he would not opt for any change warranting approval of people by referendum
I defended this position during TV programmes. People trusted it. It, alone brought around 200,000-300,000 votes to President Sirisena. We could do it. I was in Parliament at that time with more than 100, 000 preferential votes. We never appeared for the total abolition of executive presidency.
QBeside the coffin of Ven. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera, President Sirisena vowed to abolish the executive presidency. It was seen and heard all over the country. What have you got to say?
Though Mr. Sirisena holds executive presidency, he cannot act according to the his own whims and fancies. Regardless of his personal wishes, he should go by what he promised to the country only. There is a policy line presented to the country. He should stick to it.
QSome MPs of the SLFP led by President Sirsena stress that he should be the next Presidential candidate. What is your stance?
I have never given my mind to who should be the next candidate. Yet, I will determine what should be the policy of the next candidate. We are working for it through our programme for a sustainable economy. That is to be based on carbonic agriculture, renewable energy, protection of biodiversity, and medium scale industries instead of mega industries. It also includes plans for strengthening the local entrepreneurs and non- alienation of national assets to multinational companies. We also work for the revitalization of our education sector and saving our young generation from drug menace. We have submitted these proposals. We will decide on the next candidate accordingly. I do not know who will be the candidate. I have not given mind to any individual. I believe that nothing detrimental to the country should happen under this government installed after an arduous task.
There is a cabal of such NGOs operating here. They are not bothered about the alienation of national assets and lands to outsiders. A few remaining old guards of the leftist movements belong to this category
QYou talk about the drug menace. We find cocaine being smuggled into the country. In fact, cocaine was found in the storage facilities of Lanka SATHOSA. What is your view?
I think there is no proper public attention drawn to this matter as such. The Minister concerned must be aware of imports made through the government’s tender procedure. He should know who was awarded the tender. Or else the officials concerned should know. This is a national crime. The government is held answerable. I learnt that some officials have been transferred for leaking information in this regard. This has to be looked into.
QThe Mahanayake Theras opined that there was no need of a new Constitution. What is your view?
I do not know the context in which the Mahanayake Theras said it. My position is clear. There is no mandate for the evolution of a new Constitution. Either the UNP or the SLFP has no simple majority in Parliament for such changes. There is a constitution making process currently underway. It is being made for narrow ends, according to initial reports.
The government promised to bring a National Planning Commission. It is not done. Instead, arbitrary decisions are taken to lease out the Hambantota Port. It is totally unacceptable.
The President should necessarily change the current electoral system.
QHave your notified your stance to the President?
QHas he agreed with you?
I cannot tell it right now. He should act for the setting up of a National Planning Commission to decide on national assets of the country. Now, a coterie of people takes decision. It should be stopped.
It was promised to govern the country according to UN principles. The government is acting in the opposite direction. In fact, it talks about the removal of ban on Glyphosate today.