United National Party (UNP) MP for the Kandy district Lakshman Kiriella in an interview with Daily Mirror’s Kelum Bandara pointed out that a Constitution which upholds the sovereignty of the people is essential to Sri Lanka’s future progress, both for economic development and for dealing with international demands. He opined that the rule of law, judicial independence, and media freedom are at stake today, with nothing being done by the government to arrest the dangerous trend. Mr. Kiriella said his party is for a multi-cultural, pluralistic society where every one will have equal rights irrespective of caste, creed, class and ethnic differences.
Q:As the main Opposition, why did the United National Party (UNP) decide to introduce a set of proposals for a new constitution as a tool to take on the government?
Now the war is over. During the war time democracy, media freedom, human rights and the rule of law were derailed. Nevertheless, people endured the situation. Now what the country needs is an inclusive government that works in consultation not only with its allies but also with the Opposition. It is with that view, we submitted proposals for a new constitution with safeguards for sovereignty and rule of law. This is a set of proposals for discussion. We have recommended the abolition of the executive presidency. Its power should be shared with the Head of State, Prime Minister and Speaker. That is number one. Secondly, we propose for the ruling by a Council consisting of the Prime Minister, the Head of State, the Speaker and the Chief Ministers of the Country. The power of the executive presidency is to be curtailed. The third one is the Westminster system.
Q:There seems to be some ambiguity regarding the power of the Executive. Can you elaborate on that?
We have proposed the total abolition of the executive presidency and assigning its power to the Prime Minister and the Speaker. The other one is to prune the power of the executive presidency. In our proposals, the country is to be ruled by the Council mentioned above.
Q:When you say reducing the power of the Executive, what kind of powers do you mean? Today, the Executive enjoys a lot of powers including the power to dissolve Parliament after one year.
Those matters are open for discussion. We have not submitted a hard and fast solution. This is only a broad framework for discussion. We are ready to discuss all this. Anyone is welcome to put forward his or her recommendations.
Q:You mentioned that your party is for sharing power among Head of State, Speaker and Prime Minister. In that sense, will the post of Speaker be much more powerful?
Definitely, the Speaker has to play an active role. There are many countries where the Speaker plays a major role in governance. We are studying those constitutions.
Q:From where did you derive insights when introducing these proposals for a new constitution?
There was a committee headed by leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and other party seniors. MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe played a key role, putting these proposals into a legal frame. zzzWe have taken into account the experiences Sri Lanka had, particularly after 2009. We have introduced proposals to stand up to these challenges faced by Sri Lanka as a country. After 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa abolished the 17th Amendment. If you consider our Constitution, you will realise that sovereignty should be with the people of the country. Sovereignty is safeguarded by an independent legislature, an independent judiciary, by holding free and fair elections and by upholding fundamental rights of people through government agencies. These are the four factors that safeguard sovereignty. They are directly or indirectly under the Executive today. If these institutions can act independently, sovereignty is ensured. So, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution concentrates more and more into the executive power. We want to reintroduce the 17th Amendment first.
Q:How are you going to drive home your message effectively to the rural masses in this regard?
We are discussing this at every level. We are having a dialogue with religious leaders. Already we met with Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera who too introduced a set of proposals for good governance. We are willing to work with him. We will meet the Mahanayakes on June 13. If you read the newspapers today, you will see even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has called for a total change in the existing Constitution instead of bringing Amendments in a piecemeal manner. One must realise that the country is enjoying peace after 2009. All these fundamental values have to be observed and legalised. The President promised the 13th Amendment and plus. Now, he is for the 13th Amendment minus. Now power devolution has been reversed. After the 18th Amendment, the Executive has control over all these institutions. Through the Divi Neguma Act, some powers vested with the provincial councils were taken back.
Now, they are trying to bring Amendments to the 13th Amendment. The President gave assurances to the international community that he would find a solution to the national issue based on the 13th Amendment. Therefore, the latest attempt to dilute the 13th Amendment will have serious international repercussions.
We are promising to implement what President Rajapaksa promised. After 2009, he made a lot of promises. First, there is the expert panel report by the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), and then the resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2009. We will take into account the correspondence between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). We will base our solution on the promises made by the President. We are clear on that.
Q:What is the model you propose for power devolution?
We are for power devolution within a ‘unitary state’. The UNP introduced the provincial council system. We are not ashamed of it. We stand by devolution, unlike the government. The government is keen to decentralise only the administrative powers. They do not believe in devolution of political power. Instead, they are taking away the powers already devolved.
Q:What is your opinion on the recent bill to repeal powers devolved under the 13th Amendment?
It is a step backward. Initially, the government was very firm in this regard. Going by today’s newspapers, it is clear that he is ready to give the ruling party members the “conscience vote”. MPs can vote freely. It means the government has lost the battle.
Q:What is the kind of support you get from other parties for your proposals?
The support is overwhelming. It is tremendous. I get four or five letters a day.
Q:Is the TNA ready for discussions with you?
Yes, TNA leader R. Sampanthan has welcomed our proposals. We are very clear on devolution.
Q:The successive governments have made various promises during elections times. But, Sri Lankans are well aware that some of them are never kept. Therefore, how can people believe that the UNP will live up to its promise on the proposals for the new constitution?
We will go for a referendum. Most governments promised to abolish the executive presidency. Yet, it never happened. They could not do it because they did not have the two-thirds majority required for it. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga did not have it. Therefore, she had to depend on the UNP for it. Yet, President Rajapaksa has the two-thirds majority though he does not act on abolishing the executive presidency. We will go for a referendum after securing power. It is not merely abolishing the executive presidency. There will be a change in the electoral system. We will do away with the proportional representation system. We will introduce stringent laws to prevent political crossover. There will be new laws in place to deal with the impeachment of the Chief Justice.
Q:In your view, what will be the international repercussions of the government’s move to dilute the 13th Amendment?
It is a setback for the country. I am not worried about the government. The government has assured the international community that there would be a solution based on power devolution.
Q:Why do you believe that the introduction of a new constitution should take precedence over everything else?
It is a key to economic success. A constitution based on modern democratic principles is needed for it. Although the war is over, the economy has not been able to achieve its anticipated growth. Last year, the annual income of the country was insufficient for repayment of loan installments along with interest. It is mentioned in the Central Bank report. The government had to depend on loans. How long can we go on like this? Ten years ago, only 40 percent of revenue was enough to settle loan installments. All the big projects started by the government have been a total flop. All the state corporations are running at a tremendous loss.
Q:You are going to reduce the Cabinet to 25. Is it practically possible for you to do this because there are many aspiring for positions in a government?
It can be done. At the moment, we have only 40 MPs. Twenty five of them will be made Cabinet ministers in a future government, and the rest could be appointed as deputy ministers if they are elected as MPs. All others will be new comers.