Tuesday, 16 July 2019 17:41

The President Has A Better Option - Jehan Perera

Once again the issue of the long postponed provincial council elections are coming into national focus. The problem, however, is that the focus is not on improving systems of governance as it should be, but on the forthcoming elections. It is being reported that President Maithripala Sirisena is seeking to ensure that provincial elections are held prior the presidential elections that are scheduled to be held by the end of this year. The president appears to be increasingly conscious that he needs to do something out of the ordinary, which others do not dare to do or do not want to do, to leave behind a legacy of greatness or obtain a second terms of presidency for himself. So far his plans have been unsuccessful. They range from the attempt he made in October 2018 to topple the government he came to power in alliance with, to winning the war against drugs and to re-imposing the death penalty, to lengthening his term in office.

It would be galling for the president to note that these strategies have not been successful so far. But there are other options he could consider. Ideally, the president would like to ensure that his term of office can be lengthened sufficiently for him to be able to dissolve parliament after it passes the four and a half year mark in February 2020. This is when he becomes constitutionally empowered to dissolve parliament even without its consent. The president would then be in a position to negotiate with the contesting political parties regarding his future if they are to obtain his blessings. He would then be in a position to offer the party that is prepared to work with him on his terms the wherewithal that accompanies the defense ministry and police department which are vested in him and which are powerful instruments of state that can be deployed if need be.

Unfortunately for the president it appears that his previous attempt to extend his term of office, which was done last year in January when he asked for a declaratory judgment from the Supreme Court, has worked to his detriment. On that occasion the Supreme Court ruled that the president was not entitled to a six year term in view of the 19th Amendment and his term commenced on the day he was sworn in as president on 9 January 2015 for five years till 9 January 2020. It also appears to be the case that his hope that his term of office only commenced running the day the Speaker signed the 19th Amendment into law, which was on 15 May 2015, thereby giving him a five year term till 15 May 2020 is likely to be unrealistic. It is in this context that an attempt is being made to hold the provincial council elections prior to the conclusion of the president’s term of office. This would once again give him an opportunity to negotiate with the political parties regarding his future in return for his support at those elections.

Only one of the nine provincial councils is still functioning with a democratically elected leadership. All others are under the control of governors appointed by the President as their terms have ended and fresh elections have not been held. They are barely functioning due to lack of resources and political leadership even though many of the public servants continue to do their best by the people they are expected to serve. Holding provincial elections would be a national priority from the perspective of electoral democracy. However, the electoral laws and problems regarding the equitable demarcations of electoral units has yet to be completed. It is unlikely this problem will be resolved in the short term as these are the subject of inter-party disputation.

There is a reason why the delay in provincial council elections has not agitated the general population is that most people see the provincial councils as unnecessary structures that are expensive to maintain and which add another layer of bureaucracy to their lives. This is not as it should be or was meant to be. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was brought in to solve the ethnic conflict and bring the war to an end with the support of the Indian government. The 13th Amendment partakes of features of the Indian model of devolution of power, which has empowered each of the Indian states so much so that the chief minister and state ministers become more important to the people than their central counterparts.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the provincial councils are disempowered, both in terms of power and resources so that they can only meet their recurrent expenditures with difficulty and have little left over to do the development work that is the people’s priority. The blame comes to the provincial council rather than to the central authorities who have denuded the provincial council system of the power and resources they need to be effective agencies of development and problem solving. The only champions of devolution at the national level remain the Tamil political parties, who have for many decades been seeking more self-government for the ethnic minorities who predominate in the North and East of the country.

One of the overlooked national priorities at this time is to find a better solution to the problems of devolution of power that would give the ethnic minorities a greater sense of being in charge of their lives, rather than in being in subject to the political decisions of the representatives of the ethnic majority. This is the grievance that directly led to three decades of war. Now although the war is over a decade the grievance remains due to the lack of a solution to the problem of inter-ethnic power sharing that is equitable and reasonable. An option to reconsider at this time is the possibility of asymmetric devolution in which each of the provinces are able to negotiate the powers they believe they need. However, in the post-Easter Sunday context, the focus has totally moved to dealing with the fallout of those bombings, protecting the country from more such bombings and improving inter-community relations.

In this context, the call for provincial council elections to be held before the presidential elections is not likely to gain much traction from the political parties which see the provincial councils as they are presently structured as the equivalent of white elephants. They are more focused on national structures of power rather than on provincial ones. They would prefer to have the presidential election first, as this is the election that would have a decisive impact on all the elections that follow. The psychological impact of winning the presidential election would be a tremendous morale booster to the political party or alliance of parties whose candidate wins the election. A victory at the presidential election would strengthen the winning parties in all the elections that follow, be they general or provincial elections.

Instead of seeking quick fixes to gain popularity and bargaining power, the president may wish to consider spending his final months in office dealing with the core issues that have been retarding the economic and political progress in the country for decades. This is particularly important in the context of the rise in inter-community suspicions and prejudice in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. The main ingredient would be to reassure all communities that they are stakeholders in the process and their views will be taken into consideration. Before the elections take place, the president can summon an all party conference to work out the basic principles they would commit themselves to whichever political party or coalition of parties wins the elections. Sri Lankans from all walks of life might then better face the future with confidence rather than despondency.

Despite being denuded of many of its most educated and intrepid citizens who have emigrated due to the perilous conditions within the country, Sri Lanka continues to have topmost human resources. This was seen vividly during the World Cup Cricket tournament that captivated the world for a month. The caliber of Sri Lankan born and Sri Lankan educated persons is so high that the World Cup tournament referee was a Sri Lankan, Ranjan Madugalle, and the chief tournament umpire was another Sri Lankan, Kumar Dharmasena, while the chairman of the most prestigious English club that hosted the finals was yet another Sri Lankan, Kumar Sangakkara who also performed a stellar role as a commentator for the international media. With human resources such as this at the disposal of the country, it is worthwhile for the president to reflect on where the political leaders have gone wrong and steer them, even at this late stage, to the correct path.