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Redefining parliamentary sovereignty

17 April 2015 07:07 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Central Bank at its latest review meeting held this week has expressed its opinion stating that the current behaviour of the bank interest rates to be inconsistent with the prevailing inflation and other macro monitory fundamentals. In fact, they reduced the policy interest rate by 50 basis points w.e.f. April 15. However, the private sector and the general business establishments do not see a reduction of interest rates for their borrowings, contrary it’s going up.
The interim budget presented in February has not given any positive hopes to the business community as the government policy statement totally lacks the way forward and the road map of the new government’s economic policy framework. All share price indices at the Colombo Stock Exchange have also plummeted. There has been an allegation on the Central Bank Governor on the Treasury bond issue. The guaranteed price scheme for tea and rubber smallholders as promised in the budget is practically not in operation and benefits are not filtered down to the growers. The net result is that the majority of the business community was disappointed by these developments and is beginning to feel a sense of insecurity. For the first time, the government’s motion to increase the authorized limit of the Treasury bills by another Rs.400 billion has got defeated in Parliament and that shows some kind of instability on the part of the national government. It goes without saying that the political stability of the country is a necessary prerequisite for sustainable economic development.
According to the Central Bank interim report released on December 31, 2014, the annual average inflation, as measured by the change in the Colombo Consumers’ Price Index (CCPI), followed a declining trend for 19 consecutive months and reached 3.3 percent in December 2014 from 6.9 percent in December 2013. Following the same trend, the annual average inflation rate at present declined further to 2.5 percent. The foreign reserves now stood at a healthy US $ 7 billion and the reserves are projected to strengthen further with the proceeds pending from currency swap with the Indian central bank. Therefore, there is no reason for the interest rates to go up and even the external value of the rupee need not be devalued in the near future. 



Deliverables below expectation
Consequent to the presidential election on January 8, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe have been running the country with more or less a ‘UNP Cabinet of Ministers’. The government at the very inception has effectively put in place a mechanism to implement the ‘100-day programme’ as promised by President Sirisena in his manifesto presented at the elections. President Sirisena has earlier pledged to weaken Sri Lanka’s powerful executive presidency, speaking to ‘TIME’ recently in his first interview with an English-language news agency: “It’s a major problem for the country that power has been centralized. Power must be distributed.” He had also indicated earlier that he would set up a strong internal mechanism probe (war crime investigation) within a month of a visit to the U.K. in March. At the meeting between the two heads of governments, the British Prime Minister has indicated to the Sri Lankan counterpart that what the British government was expecting from the new Sri Lankan government was not merely words but real action. But speaking to TIME the president has now indicated that the details of the planned investigation would be announced only by the end of June.
After assuming duties by the new government, there has been some curtailment and slowdown in development work throughout the country. Indian media has quoted the Chinese ambassador as saying that Sri Lanka should respect bilateral agreements and business contracts and protect the interests of the investors. The Chinese government under the Mahinda Rajapakse government built closer ties with Sri Lanka providing millions of dollars for infrastructure development projects. The new government has moved away from China as it revives ties with India and the West. The president’s point was reiterated by the prime minister, “The fact is we moved away from everyone else, leaving only China. We antagonized the West, we antagonized India. You can’t carry on like this,” says Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka has recently denied the Sri Lankan government’s position that the Chinese contractor for the ongoing outer circular road development project has agreed to reduce the cost by some Rs.30 billion. A retired career diplomat told this writer recently that his view is the new government has now antagonized China and the government must respect the principles of the non-aligned movement. It seems that the new government has raised the expectations of the Western governments and the deliverables are yet to come.
As for the financial assistance and loans obtained from the Chinese government under the Mahinda Rajapakse government, the relevant and more accurate information would have to be found out from a reliable source. The writer’s view is it could be easily obtained from the Parliament Hansard itself. Two years ago, on July 25, 2013, in reply to an oral question raised by Sajith Premadasa on ‘foreign aid’, Dr. Sarath Amunugama provided a detailed reply on behalf of the finance and planning minister. I give below the summary: 
There have been 39 countries and other multilateral agencies that provided financial assistance/ loans to Sri Lanka during the period 2005 to 2012. As can be seen, the total amount of foreign loans received during the period under review works out to Rs.1,465 billion. And the five major countries/multilateral agencies that provided the highest amount of loans to Sri Lanka were China, Japan, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank and India. Also the total financial assistance from the government of China as a percent of the total loans received was only 22 percent and Sri Lanka has obtained 19 percent from the Japanese government during the same period of eight years up to 2012. Therefore, it is not correct to say that we moved away from everyone else, leaving only China.



Economics of devolution
Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, having realised the lapses on the part of the government and immediate danger posed thereon, recently summoned and shared with the editors and owners of media the list of immediate priorities for the country, which includes genuine reconciliation and rebuilding national unity. In this connection, it is relevant to mention that Northern Province Chief Minister Wignaswaran was reported as saying that the 13th Amendment can never be the final solution. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Modi himself has called for the need to go beyond the 13th at the recently concluded state visit to Sri Lanka. 
During the last 90 days, the entire government machinery has been concentrating more on alleged corruption and malpractices supposed to have been committed by some politicians and officials of the previous regime. Instead, they should have put in place an effective governance system concentrated more on factors that would drive the economy and at the same time effected much-needed constitutional amendments. They should have set up a constitutional assembly to address a few critical issues such as, electoral reforms doing away with the preferential voting system and possible solutions to the national (North-East) question, in addition to the abolition of the presidential system itself and setting up of independent commissions. Instead, they have focused more on drafting separate chapters specifying details on “right of access to information” whereas the freedom of speech and expression including publication has already been guaranteed in Article 14(1) of the constitution. With the recent Supreme Court determination on the 19th Amendment, it is unlikely that the executive power of the president could be drastically reduced as expected.
The government as well as opposition members are going in for major electoral reforms to replace the present Proportional Representation System with a mix of the PR and the First Past the Post System. We are pleased to see the proposed electoral reforms as this would totally eliminate the preferential system (MANAPE). In the future, the elections to the office of the presidential and parliamentary elections could be held together, except the forthcoming general elections to be held in July this year. However, Indian Origin Tamils (IOTs) have submitted proposals to safeguard their interest. The problems of the IOTs, over one million people live along with Sinhala majority areas in Lanka’s total population of 21 million, are different from those of the Sri Lankan Tamils living in North-East. They will find it difficult to get elected; under the FPPS system, the MP will always be a Sinhalese.
According to an article published in Indian Express on April 11, the IOTs are asking for Multi-Member Constituencies (MMC) to get a fair representation under the FPPS. “Multi-Member Constituencies are most essential to ease the fears of the most vulnerable ethnic minorities,” a memorandum presented to the Commissioner of Elections by the Democratic Peoples’ Front (DPF), a party representing the  IOTs, said. “The DPF considers it fair if the IOTs are able to elect five MPs from Nuwara Eliya district; three from Colombo; two each from Badulla and Kandy; and one each from Ratnapura and Gampaha; making a total of 14 MPs in a House of 250,”Indian Express further said.
The provincial council system (13th Amendment) was set up under the Provincial Council Act no 42 of 1987. It is interesting to note that just before PCs were installed, the ‘Pradesheeya Sabha Act’ no 15 of 1987 was passed in parliament thus establishing over 300 Pradesheeya Sabhas in the country with a view to providing greater opportunities for the people to participate in the decision-making process. It can be argued that there is a lack of skills and competencies of the council members and government officials at regional level in order to exercise authority to serve the people. Most of the members of provincial councils and local government authorities are unsuitable and incapable in exercising their legitimate authority; leave alone the much talked about police powers in order to maintain law and order for the benefit of the people. It is a question of the capacity to understand the role and functions of local government authorities perhaps due to so many complications surrounding the formation of PCs, PSs and the duplication of work among many local authorities and the Central Government. In addition, a lack of sufficient fund allocation from the centre to undertake development projects at grass root level would have aggravated the problem.
The majority of the civil society leaders and a cross section of people are beginning to feel that the presence of the pro-west, pro-Indian government poses an existential threat to the future of Sri Lanka. Ven. Medagama Dhammananda of Asgiriya Chapter, Kandy was quoted as saying at the National Joint Committee meeting held recently that they are concerned about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Addressing the meeting, an eminent lawyer Monohara De Silva, PC, warned that the present government’s decision to fully implement the 13th Amendment would be disastrous for the country. The current debate is not intended with obstructing the proposed process of devolving more powers to the North East council thus preventing to find a solution to the so-called ‘ethnic issue’. They could focus on studying the policy incongruences at macro level in order to ascertain whether there have been any powers being misused at grass root level by those elected (especially police powers and powers vested in the chairmen of the PSs and chief ministers of PCs). It is also true that Sri Lanka has adopted the concept of decentralization of power, which has resulted in devolving power to PCs and PSs across the country, which is an effective system of governance.

This writer’s view is any lasting solution has to be found by critically studying the far-reaching implications of establishing both, the local authority system through PSs as well as the provincial governance system. What is required thereafter is to devise a legal and administrative system for greater devolution of authority to be exercised at grass root level. The power is then truly vested in the ordinary citizens of this country to manage their own affairs. This is the spirit of effective devolution as universally accepted. The present units of devolution, PCs and PSs, are too large administrative establishments thus negating the very purpose of the principle of devolution with the objective of getting closer to the people. 



Redefining parliamentary sovereignty
The writer argues that time is opportune to critically review our governance system that had lasted more than 50 years in our country resulting in enormous wastage and unnecessary cost of duplication at regional and central government level.
The debate two weeks back was who shall hold the position of the leader of the opposition? It was reported Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa was studying days reading books on parliamentary traditions to resolve the issue of who should lead the opposition in Parliament. He has requested UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayanth to discuss the matter with the opposition members and suggest a name. The writer’s view is this is a matter for President Sirisena to summon a meeting and hold a discussion with PM Ranil Wickramasinghe together with the incumbent Leader of Opposition Nimal Siripala and all other party leaders including Dinesh Gunawardena and come to some consensus in keeping with the traditions of parliamentary democracy. As the writer said earlier, the concept of good governance shall not be the end goal; rather it would be a ‘shared value’ system of the government. All you need is to have a shared understanding and trust. To the writer it’s a question of integrity goes beyond the identity issue. 
Ranil Wickramasinghe is considered as a true democrat upholding British political traditions of Westminster style of parliamentary democracy. The key feature of the Westminster model is the executive dominance, which guarantees that political power and authority remain heavily concentrated at the core of the state. Executive dominance is justified in order to achieve a strong and decisive government. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapakse are committed SLFPers. Their rivalry will ensure the victory of the UNP, the traditional opponent of the SLFP. However, it is very likely that President Sirisena would want Ranil Wickramasinghe as the Prime Minister thus preventing Rajapaksa coming back as the national leader after the next parliamentary elections. The so-called national government formed with 26 SLFPers joining the coalition government was not intended to put any other elected leader (with a majority) in parliament as the Prime Minister. 
It seems that the scenario has once again changed. This week Taylor Dibbert, a freelance journalist based in Washington, has for The Diplomat published an article in the ‘DIPOMAT’ titled ‘Sri Lanka: Can Sirisena Deliver on Reforms?’ He argued that Sri Lanka’s recent political shake-up has meant that continued volatility has been the order of the day. According to him, Rajapaksa was ousted because Sri Lankans craved real reform – not cosmetic manoeuvring. Quote. “Sri Lanka’s complex political transition – towards more responsible governance, lasting institutional reform and healing the wounds of three decades of war – is still in its early stages. The lingering potential for a Rajapaksa comeback further complicates the situation.” Unquote. It is in that context only the recent letters from President Sirisena in his capacity as the Chairman/SLFP removing five SLFP central committee members should be viewed. This would mean that the real fight for power would be the parliamentary election to come.

(The writer can be contacted through jayampathy@bpl.lk)
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