JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about his party’s initiative to bring a constitutional amendment for the abolition of executive presidency. The excerpts:-
- President is Head of State only
- President to be elected not by public vote but by Parliament
- PM is the Head of Government
- UNP can’t wipe off its hands now
- Prez has no governmental power
Q How do you i ntend to amend the executive presidency, technically speaking?
We have prepared a draft. According to it, some powers vested with the executive President will be transferred to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Likewise some powers of the executive President are proposed to be assigned to the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions appointed by it. The President will also retain some powers. It is not just the transfer of powers from one person with executive authority to another. It is the transfer of power to various bodies and individuals – the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions.
Q What are the fresh powers to be assigned to the Prime Minister in terms of the proposed amendment to the Constitution?
We are in the process of working out it in an orderly fashion.
Q Currently, the President is the Head of State. What will happen to that position if the new amendment is incorporated into the Constitution?
As per the current Constitution, the President is both the Head of State and the Head of Cabinet. Yet, we propose the President to be the Head of State and the Prime Minister to be the Head of Cabinet.
As the Head of State, the President will continue to be involved in state affairs and the Commander in Chief of Armed Forces. Yet, he will not be the Head of the Cabinet. Also, the President is not to be elected by a public vote. It is a post to be elected by Parliament within one month upon its formation.
Q The Constitutional Councils already holds authority on some key affairs previously done by the executive President. What are the new areas of power to be added to the Constitutional Council?
We have to consolidate the Constitutional Council further. You asked about new additions. That is still under discussion.
Q Currently, the President is not only the Commander in Chief but also the Defence Minister. He can hold ministerial posts. What do you propose under the new amendment?
Our position is that the President should not hold ministerial posts.
Q How far have you progressed in evolving this piece of new legislation to be introduced as an Amendment to the Constitution?
We have finished bulk of it. Actually, we have finished legal formatting of the draft. Yet, we have to look at the political aspect of this. We hope we will be able to present the draft for consideration in May.
Q Who is working out this Bill on behalf of the party?
There are several drafts presented in regards to the amendment of executive presidency in the past. We studied all of them. We have a whole lot of lawyers supporting our party. We got their assistance. Besides, there are our own members having an idea about it. They are all involved in drafting this. We have to make finishing touches to the basic draft.
Q There is a school of thought that the abolition of executive presidency would affect the unitary status of the country. Currently, the executive presidency can some hold over the affairs provincial councils, by appointing the provincial governors. Once that safeguarding is removed, the provinces would enjoy greater autonomy. What are your views on this?
Such criticism is made by some even without having a look at this draft. It is not yet available for anyone to peruse. Once it is available, anybody can propose changes. We wish to say that the Provincial Governors would continue to have the same powers. The President would continue to have powers for their appointments. Then, the question does not arise.
Q The President is to be appointed by Parliament under the proposed Constitutional Amendment. Then, the party in power always has the chance of getting the President appointed in their favour. How do you see this?
Except on special occasions, the President and the PM have represented the same party in Sri Lanka. When the President is appointed by Parliament, the same would happen.
Q What are the constitutional models you looked at in working out this amendment?
We did not try to replicate the model of any country in this instance. We studied the models in a number of countries. The presidential system is in practice even in some parts of Europe. In India, the PM is the Head of State. It is a country that has devolved powers to various states.
The current electoral system is better than the ‘First Past the Post System’ in terms of democracy. We need a departure from the fraudulent political culture of this country. Today, stable governments cannot be formed, not because of the electoral system but because of the prevailing fraudulent political culture.
Q In the Indian Constitution, there are strong unitary features. Did you study them?
We are not making a new Constitution. We only make a new amendment to the existing Constitution. There was the need for a new Constitution. There was a process initiated for it. We were also party to it. Yet, the constitution making process has been abandoned now. Therefore, we want to secure, at least, the abolition of executive presidency. Criticism levelled against our initiative is not constructive or justifiable. The JVP was opposed to the executive presidency right from its inception. After 1994, all the main parties promised to abolish it. All the Presidents, elected since then, pledged to do it. Today, some persons, who worked out manifestos for such Presidents in this respect, are critical of our move to abolish the executive presidency. Therefore, their arguments are not realistic. They did not take the same line of thinking at that time. It is nothing but hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness.
Q This is a topic discussed in political circles for decades. Yet, what prompted you to move the amendment at this juncture?
First, the parties have promised to abolish the system. But, when in power, they have always acted in contrast. Now, we have reached a point of no return. In the run up to the last presidential elections, this was a key pledge made by President Maithripala Sirisena. He vowed to do it besides the coffin of Ven. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera. Yet, the government has abandoned the process. We cannot allow the government to play its game in this regard. The JVP took the initiative as a result. We are doing something long overdue.
Secondly, we believe the current political composition is ideal for the purpose. Political equation is well-suited for it. Instead of a strong single party government, we have a coalition government at the helm of affairs. This is the ideal time to get something done in this regard. We have to manoeuvre the situation for the benefit of the country.
Q The JVP is trying to bring this legislation as a private member’s Bill since it has hardly become part of the country’s law. How hopeful are you of getting this enacted into a law?
It is up to Parliament. We will only move this in Parliament. This will get enacted in Parliament as one option or defeated. If it is defeated, it would expose political skulduggery of those concerned. We will do our duty.
Q Have you initiated any dialogue with other parties in this regard?
Actually, we had a round of talks about a year ago. We had talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). We had reached a rough agreement. We are now ready for talks with all those concerned - the political parties and civil society heads etc. Already, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made remarks in favour of our initiative. Some members of his side have opposed to it, though.
Q What is the support you get from the United National Party (UNP)?
There is no definite idea expressed. Some within the party are supportive of it. The UNP has passed a resolution, on one occasion to abolish the executive presidential system. The UNP had the same stand in the run up to the presidential election. The UNP cannot wipe off its hands now.
Q Minister Mano Ganeshan is opposed to the abolition of executive presidency. He said the people of the entire country could participate in the election of the President as voters of one whole electorate. He argued that it could offer a platform for national unity in that sense. What are your comments on this?
We don’t believe the executive presidency can bring about national harmony. It has been in practice for 40 years. Instead, it created a wedge between the communities. Executive powers were abused to set ablaze the Jaffna library. The 1983 ethnic riots took place with the patronage of executive powers. The executive powers were used to buy over the parties representing different ethnicities. For small parties, the presidential election is the best opportunity to flaunt some bargaining power and to get some personal benefits.
Q At the last election, it was the union of different political parties and individuals that brought about the regime change. The parties representing the Tamil and Muslim communities played a pivotal role in this exercise. The composition of the current parliament is also a direct result of that union. Do you agree?
One cannot take this Parliament as an example. There is distortion of it. If you look at the previous Parliaments, there was no contribution from the executive presidency to bring about national harmony.
Q In the current political context, the parties representing Muslims and Tamils have become the forces to reckon with in the election of the President. Your views on this...
The current context is not something everlasting. It is only an occasional phenomenon. We do not think it would be the same in the future. There is a possibility of dangerous leaders ascending to high political office in the future. These minority leaders may not be able to deal with such leaders.
Q Whom do you refer to as dangerous leaders?
After becoming the executive presidents, most leaders turned out to be dangerous. The past leaders such as JR Jayewardene and R. Premadasa conducted themselves like this. The rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa smacked of dictatorial characteristics. There are certain names being mentioned these days. If such persons come to power, we can sense what would follow.
Q What do you feel about President Sirisena as a ruler in that context?
We cannot take him as an example here. He is the President. But, he has no governmental power. It is with another party. Also, some of his powers were pruned under the 19th Amendment. Otherwise, we could have been able to see the real nature of the current President. The 19A took away his power to dissolve Parliament. Otherwise, he could have dissolved Parliament by now. So, he prorogued Parliament, instead.
Q It is very difficult to get a stable Parliament elected under the current electoral system. If the executive presidency is also abolished, how would it affect the country’s stability?
The current electoral system is better than the ‘First Past the Post System’ in terms of democracy. We need a departure from the fraudulent political culture of this country. Today, stable governments cannot be formed, not because of the electoral system but because of the prevailing fraudulent political culture. We see the culture of political crossovers. It has to be changed. If somebody proposes to stop crossovers, we will agree to it. There is a culture of politicians being bought over.
As for the local government elections, the real problem is there in the political culture, not in the electoral system. If there is a decent political culture, the party that gets the majority should be allowed to form administration. Now, the defeated party tries to form administration by luring members from other side through the offer of inducements.