Some thoughts on Provincial Councils on the eve of Elections.

| by Neil Dias

( April 13, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The constitution of Sri Lanka certified on 31st August 1978 has at times been termed as one which had been designed to cater to the aims and aspirations of one individual. The constitution followed upon the general election of 1977 by which the United National Party securing about a fifty percent of the total votes cast in the country obtained a five sixth majority in parliament. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party got seats quite out of proportion to the number of votes that the people of the country voted for the party. So stunning was the blow the election results delivered that the left got completely wiped off the political map. They have failed to recover since then. As very often predicted by Dr. N.M.Perera during his lifetime the architect of the constitution during his period of the grip on power indulged in unchecked constitutional manipulation to his hearts content going to the extent of removing his main political rival out of the political arena. The five sixth majority obtained in 1977 was further extended by the staging of a referendum using the full force of all three departments of the government machinery. Signs of these occurrences were evident on the eve of the election results when post election violence of the most inhuman form continued unabated before the very eyes of the armed forces and the police. We were direct victims. Even the presence of friends who found themselves elevated to cabinet positions could not help. All these occurred in the name of democracy and giving the impression that there was really only one branch of government in operation. No other interpretation was even attempted by the other branch of government some of whose members were themselves attacked and their positions on the bench taken away most unceremoniously and unlawfully.
Sri Lankan coastline residents take refuge on higher ground at Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo, on April 11, 2012.                 Image Source- Getty Images
It was under the leadership of the same architect and his band of close followers that the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution was enacted and certified on14th November 1987. The amendment, which incidentally constitutionalised local government and made to operate as original provisions of the constitution rather than amendments to provisions that already existed was a direct result of the mishandling of the situation in the North and the East where armed groups had taken over the administration and was preparing to be a threat to neighboring India as well. Again it was not an amendment the provisions of which catered to the aims and aspirations of the people in any part of the country. In fact the provisions were never made operational in the regions where they were mainly intended. The main opposition opposed these amendments and refused to take part in the elections to the Provincial Councils which were set up under these provisions. Armed groups in the South who were themselves a byproduct of the political work of the regime at the time killed those that took part in those elections.
Like in all other occurrences in the field of politics even those who opposed the Provincial Councils found the provisions in them too tempting to go on opposing them. It has become a ready means of rewarding their political followers and family members at the second level and a stepping stone for elevation to national politics. As of today there are no major political groups that oppose the Provincial Councils. The question is whether that alone is sufficient to continue with the system in its present form. There are those that oppose the system as being a waste of public funds. No doubt the maintenance of Governors and Chief and other Ministers are a very heavy burden on the country’s finances especially in a situation where the major work in the provinces like roads construction, health and education are managed more meaningfully by the center. But there is a strong argument through the experience gained in watching the system work to argue in favour of introducing structural changes to the system to make it really a system worth the enormous national resources that are pumped into it to make it work.
It is in this context that it is attempted to highlight the suggestion that the Executive Committee System that was in operation from the Donoughmore Constitution up to the dawn of independence be incorporated into the legislatures of Provincial Councils. On the eve of the elections to the Provincial Councils this may be a much profitable endeavor. This is a system under which all the members of the Provincial Council irrespective of parties will have some share in executive work. When the Donoughmore Commissioners came to Ceylon in 1928 the Executive Committee system had been in operation in the London County Council for well over thirty years. So that even at the time of its introduction it had been a well tried and tested system in the field of local government. One of our earliest leaders who saw much merit in the system even at the national level was the late S W R D Bandaranaike who wrote “Under the Donoughmore Constitution, backbenches of all parties shared the executive work and you avoided the bitterness and sense of frustration that is liable to develop not only amongst the opposition parties, but even backbenches of the government.” Mr Bandaranaike is alleged to have argued in favour of the executive committee system and then argued in favour of the cabinet system which was structured on party lines and again argued in favour of the former system. Of course both D.S.Senanayake and Oliver Goonetillaka opposed the system for the fear that it would politically belittle them and reduce their power and influence. These are also some of the reasons that the present Chief Ministers are bound to oppose these proposals. Sir Oliver and D.S.Senanayake opposed the Executive Committee system due to the additional fear that it would hold back Ceylon’s political development and delay the grant of independence. As of today the system has a tendency to encroach upon the unbridled power of the Chief Ministers in performing like a one man show and attending to all work from laying down policy to awarding tenders in the construction of culverts and roads.
Among the many other distinguished politicians who have spoken in favour of the Executive Committee System has been Dr. Colvin R de Silva who commented that it has been a misfortune to have dropped the system from our political structures. Minister Dinesh Gunawardene and Professor G.L.Peiris have been strong adherents of the Executive Committee System. Minister Dinesh Gunawardene has gone so far as to suggest that the system be adopted not only in parliament but in the contemplated District Development Councils. Professor Peiris has among other arguments, adduced thirteen reasons in favour of adopting the system going so far as to suggest that it is a cure for the excessive politicization which has become a grave problem in Sri Lanka. Additionally the Organization of Professional Associations has made its submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee for Constitutional Reform in favour of adopting the system at national level. The late Dr. I.D.S.Weerawardene and Dr Jane Russell have also contributed much towards the study and adoption of the system.
Not only in Provincial Councils but the Executive committee System may find useful and profitable accommodation even in the Pradeseeya Sabhas and Municipal Councils. This may be a profitable method of bringing the marginalized politicians especially of the minority communities into mainstream politics.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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