Constitutional changes unnecessary for All-Party Government - Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe | Sunday Observer

Constitutional changes unnecessary for All-Party Government - Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe

28 August, 2022

When an all-party government was proposed by me no one had taken to the streets. But every party opposed the proposal then. Later everyone again took an interest in the proposal with the rise of the citizen’s struggle, said Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Some are of the opinion that the Constitution does not have the provisions to facilitate this. That only displays their lack of knowledge of the Constitution. No provision of the Constitution needs to be changed to form an all-party government. It can be done through the existing Constitution, he said.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: You have presented the 22A draft Bill to Parliament. But the people are still unaware of its contents. Would you like to explain for their benefit?

There have been criticisms against the Constitution of 1978. Among them is the notion that the President can be a dictator and so as he pleases under the guise of being democratic. Democracy was introduced to reject totalitarianism. But the 1978 Government that was formed through a people’s mandate allowed for the suppression of democracy and the rise of a dictatorship by venting the majority of the powers in one person. At that time the people did not understand its dangers though intellectuals did raise concerns. J.R Jayewardene took staunch decisions and extremely repressive measures. He used his powers in a dictatorial manner against the people. This worsened under President Ranasinghe Premadasa who went even beyond Jayawardene.

As a result of this Chandrika Kumaratunga secured 62 percent of the votes in the Presidential election of 1994 due to her promise to abolish the Executive Presidency and reform the electoral system. But she did not receive support from the MPs to make these changes.

But some executive powers were curtailed through the 17A. But this was once again changed through the 18A and more executive powers were added. The good governance Government through the mandate it received brought in the 19A. But by gaining a two-thirds majority in 2020 the Government replaced the 19A with the 20A.

This time around the people finally understood the gravity of one person being allowed to make a majority of the decisions. In order to avoid this situation, provisions should be made in the Constitution itself.

Today, Sri Lanka has reached this state because of people who greatly abused the executive powers of the President. The reserve of $ 8.6 billion was reduced to zero after a year. We are working to build a legislative assembly that has the power to appoint the judiciary and others to high Government positions without allowing such individual decisions to be taken.

Public money is often stolen through the procurement process. One decision by the Central Bank is enough to collapse the country. Therefore, we are bringing the Audit Service Commission through the 22A. Our aim is to remove the independent commission from political bias. Professionals must be appointed to these commissions. The 22A will allow for decisions to be made collectively through the Parliament and the legislative council as opposed to by only the President.

Q: Does this draft Constitution re-enforce the 19A? In its essence is the 22A the 19A?

A: The base of the 22A is the 19A. But it has gone beyond the 19A to add more salient features to the democratic process. Some similar features from 20A have also been added. As per the 19A, only a fundamental rights petition before the Supreme Court can challenge the President’s powers to hold Ministerial positions.

But under 20A it could be done through a writ petition before the Court of Appeal. The number of judges in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were also increased through the 20A. We have included such positive provisions.

Q: What are the specific democratic features included in 22A?

A: Currently, a Ministry secretary’s tenure ends with that of the Minister. According to the new amendment, there is a possibility that the Secretary of the Ministry can continue his work without any such disruptions. The 19A allowed the President to retain three ministries including the Ministry of Defence. The 22A ensures the President will only be able to hold the Defence portfolio. But he will not be able to transfer it to any other person and the courts will not be able to challenge his powers.

Q: Some feel the 19A must be re-enacted. What is your opinion regarding this?

A: We have presented a more democratic constitutional amendment bill that goes beyond that. The opposition has called for the 21A to be enacted. All 60 odd provisions in it have to be presented for a referendum. The constitutional amendment that we presented has been made in such a way that it can be done without a referendum. If the court says that we should go to a referendum on a certain clause, we will act accordingly. We will not let our efforts go in vain.

Q: After the 20A the General Secretary of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) presented a draft of the 21A. What happened to that amendment?

A: It died a natural death. Even the people had no faith and interest in it at this time. We are not even able to hold local government elections so the question remains how practical it would be to hold a referendum at this juncture.

Q: But despite the promises and coming into power on the back of it no government has abolished the executive presidency yet. Your thoughts on this?

A: It was merely a popular slogan but no one followed through. In 2000 former President Kumaratunga brought forward a constitution to curtail the powers of the executive presidency. But such proposals need a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Even though the Executive President system is abolished the powers are then transferred to the cabinet of which the Prime Minister is the head. Then the same accusation can be levelled against the Prime Minister concerning the use of powers. Between 1970-1977 former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was accused of acting in a dictatorial manner.

That is how JR secured power. So then the same failures can be seen in that system as well where a rule was allowed by the Prime Minister through the Westminster system.

Sri Lanka’s executive presidential system is a failure. This system was introduced in the US in 1979. According to that constitution, the US became the leading power in the world. Our constitution was made based on the constitution made for France. But France has also succeeded today.

Q: Why did the Westminster system and the presidential system go wrong for our country?

A: I think we failed due to two reasons. One was the fault of the people. The public often votes and elects Executive Presidents with narrow objectives for personal gain or to show the power of the party representing their interests.

On the other hand, some individuals are not politically mature to wield the power they gain. In 1972 the courts had no power over fundamental rights. But despite JR taking many dictatorial decisions, he also facilitated the development of the judiciary because it was given the power to act on violations of fundamental rights.

After that, during the time of Ranasinghe Premadasa, a President with little political maturity, the people were completely fed up with this executive system. But again during the time of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the people did not seem displeased by the system and it allowed her to continue her tenure.

Mahinda Rajapaksa did a balancing act as it was during the height of the battle against terrorism. After the victory over terrorism, the country got tired of that government because of its dictatorial manner of governance. That is how the ensuing political change came about.

As for whether it is the Westminster system or the presidential system that is good, I must say both are good. The selection of suitable people should be done during the selection process. People should be smarter than this. People should think about how the decision they take for the country will affect the future.

Q: You say abolishing the executive presidency is a common slogan to secure power. But former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also spoke of a new Constitution. What are your thoughts about introducing a new constitution?

A: The government spoke of this even prior to coming into power. I was to be tasked with bringing in a new constitution. I presented the 22A to the cabinet, the day after I was appointed as a Minister. Next, I discussed with parties engaged in the citizen’s struggle. We expect to work to change the obstacles for the educated, erudite and youth to be part of the government. A committee has been formed for that and the cabinet has been informed. Once all these issues are resolved we must go for elections.

In the previous government, we had planned to change the electoral system by changing 19A and bringing in 20A. But even then, using the president’s dictatorial power, he also dissolved the parliament.

At that time, I had planned to appoint a committee to amend the electoral system, make recommendations and implement the program. In the meantime, it was expected that a select committee would be appointed for a new constitution and a constitution would be drawn up. Even if the best constitution is made, the people will not accept it at once. We should have a dialogue with the people.

Q: An accusation against the 20A is that it was formed to protect a family or individuals. The 22A did not provide such an opportunity right?

A: We admit it. The 22A hasn’t facilitated this as it consists of fully democratic features. It does not protect nepotism or party politics.

Q: You are a minister who strongly called for an all-party government. Does the Constitution facilitate an all-party government?

A: When I first proposed an all-party government no one had taken to the streets. But every party opposed the proposal then. Later everyone again took an interest in the proposal with the rise of the citizen’s struggle. Some are of the opinion that the Constitution does not have the provisions to facilitate this. That only displays their lack of knowledge of the Constitution. No provision of the Constitution needs to be changed to form an all-party government. It can be done through the existing Constitution.

Q: What is the progress of the President’s negotiations with political parties to form an all-party government?

A: Some parties are not keen to form an all-party government. Others have agreed to support a common program instead. We must empower parliament through sectoral committees to intervene in decisions taken by the executive. If political parties contribute to that system in parliament, it can be considered a significant victory.

Q: If all political parties support an all-party government, wouldn’t this lead to the lack of a strong opposition considered a democratic feature of the country, which will then make a significant big political impact?

A: This situation will only occur if they support the government merely in exchange for positions. But if they extend their support while sticking to their policy frameworks this will not happen.

Q: Recently the President had to step down following a people’s uprising. Some then claimed the people are more powerful and therefore, the Constitution cannot be treated like the divine word. What is your opinion about this?

A: There is violence, power struggle and criminal intent in not respecting the Constitution. The Constitution is not the divine word. But in politics, the Constitution is more important than the word of God. It has been made using the sovereign power of the people. These things will cause the country to become completely anarchic and have no protection against bloodshed.

Q: The session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee discussing Sri Lanka will be held on September 12. Do you expect to present any facts regarding the building of national unity while participating in it?

A: Yes. We expect to present facts there about creating national unity. We expect to hold discussions with relevant groups on the establishment of national harmony. We have been discussing with them for a long time and have created new hope for them.

We must ensure national harmony when forming a constitution.

The Tamil diaspora is leading a force against Sri Lanka. All these people should act with one purpose as Sri Lankans. The root of all this is mistrust. We are following a practical program to dispel this mistrust and create harmony between communities.

There are many accusations about politics and politicians regarding corruption in our country. Therefore, an anti-corruption act is being prepared and will be completed by next week. The 22A to the constitution will be adopted soon as well.