Written by 3:51 pm Verité in the News Views: 0

Reaching Consensus on an Interim Government

Published by DailyFT

The speech given in Parliament by the SJB stalwart Patali Champika Ranawaka indicates a readiness by segments of the SJB to take up the challenge of an interim government, without Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President or with him with reduced powers. This is a prudent approach. There is a high likelihood that the now annulled 19th Amendment which reduced powers of the President will be brought back with bipartisan support. This will allow the Parliament to go ahead with the formation of interim government without discredited elements

After three days of debate, the Parliament of Sri Lanka adjourned on 9 April to reconvene on 19 April leaving 10 days of non-action at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and people are suffering. This is exactly why #NoToAll225 has become the second slogan of the #GoHomeGota2022 protest movement. The young protestors see the Parliament and its 225 members as accomplices in a sell-out of the country by the executive; Parliamentarians have become too used to being an appendage of an all-powerful President; they have forgotten their role as a check on the Executive.

The #GoHomeGota2022 movement, which is essentially a reaction by youth to the failed policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the resulting suffering inflicted on the people, shows no sign of waning. But, the chief whip of the Government announced the other day that the President has no intention of resigning. The situation can escalate, putting the lives of the protesting youth in danger. Parliament is the only institution which can avoid a dangerous confrontation.

Whether #GoHomeGota2022 becomes a reality immediately or not, the Parliament can do much on all three fronts – economic, political and social – to meet the demands of the protestors in a peaceful manner. An interim PM and a Cabinet without the Rajapaksas is widely seen as a start.

On the economic front, the Central Bank has a professional back at the helm and he has initiated monetary policies, debt restructuring, and negotiations with the IMF for an aid package and accompanying conditionals. The President cannot take credit for these developments. If the protestors on the street did not force his hands, there would have been, to use the word that new governor, “more denials, delaying and not telling the truth” from the Central Bank. Further, as the governor of the CBSL emphasised, if we don’t find solutions to political and social issues, the economic rescue efforts will flounder. The Parliament holds all the cards to the political and social issues but the critical question is how we get them to act.

The nine-point program for recovery put forward by the Samagi Jana Balwegaya (SJB) devotes five points to address the economic crisis, with the other four on providing relief for at-risk categories, seeking aid to avert food crisis, supporting wealth generators of entrepreneurs, and designating professionals as decision makers. There is no mention of an interim government. 

In contrast, the speech given in Parliament by the SJB stalwart Patali Champika Ranawaka indicates a readiness by segments of the SJB to take up the challenge of an interim government, without Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President or with him with reduced powers. This is a prudent approach. There is a high likelihood that the now annulled 19th Amendment which reduced powers of the President will be brought back with bipartisan support. This will allow the Parliament to go ahead with the formation of interim government without discredited elements.

Ranawaka briefly mentioned a novel concept of using existing sectoral oversight committees as the starting point for a Cabinet of Ministers. In fact, it is one of the proposals put forward by NMSJ and further articulated by Rohan Samarajiva. This concept is indeed promising in that it is rooted in the existing provisions in the Parliament for sectoral oversight committees and our past experience with Executive committees in the Parliament under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931-1947, which we will discuss shortly. 

The 11-point point program offered by the group of MPs who broke away from the governing SLPP to sit in Parliament as Independents is essentially about mechanics of an interim government. However, their proposal for a decision-making National Executive Council (NEC) in the Parliament as the power centre in an interim government is highly problematic. There are no provisions in the Constitution for an executive body which functions in place of or parallel to a cabinet of ministers. Further the NEC is supposed to be represented by all the parties in the Parliament, but there is no indication of the criteria for participation of small parties in such a council. Officially, fifteen parties are represented in the Parliament with SLPP, SJB, TNA, JVP, EPDP, AITC holding 145, 54, 10, 3, 2 and 2, respectively, and 9 small parties including the UNP holding one seat each for a total of 225. 

There are several rather radical elements in proposal by the Independent MP groups. For example, the President is required to act on the advice of the proposed NEC in all matters including the appointment of the prime minister, ministers, secretaries to the ministries, and advisers to those ministries and the number of ministries to be set up and their portfolios. Here even if Gotabaya Rajapaksa refuses to resign, he will be a figurehead President only according the proposal by the Independents. A limited number of portfolios is envisaged and ministers will not be entitled to any additional pay of privileges. Repealing 20th Amendment and re-enacting the 19th Amendment with appropriate changes is low down the list but included. If the problematic NEC proposal is replaced by a sectoral oversight committee system that I propose later, there is a lot of room consensus between all opposition parties and independents in the Parliament, I believe.

Though the three days of debate from 7-9 April may have seemed like an endless series of grand-standing by political parties or factions within the parties, a consensus seem to be emerging on the need to (1) repeal the 20th and bring back an improved 19th and (2) forming an interim government with a new set of faces. More and more MPs form SLPP may join the ranks of independent giving a boost to the two initiatives. 

In this document I outline a three-step process,

  • Repeal the 20th amendment re-enact a 19+, as a necessary condition
  • Agree on forming an interim cabinet of 15 with new faces
  • Use sectoral oversight committees as the starting for forming the cabinet

for an interim government with the reenactment of an improved 19th as a pre-condition, and sectoral oversight committees as the basis for a bottom-up Cabinet. 

Repealing the 20th is a necessary condition

There is consensus about the abolishing of the Executive Presidency, but as legal experts point out it could be long drawn process which may require a referendum which the country can ill afford at this time. In the meantime, repealing the 20th and reenacting an improved 19th Amendment may achieve the purpose at hand because it would reduce the powers of the President. Any discussion on an interim government has to be after the Parliament takes back its powers rudely snatched by a draconian 20th Amendment.

The National Movement for Social Justice has been consistent in its critique of the 20th and warning about its fatal consequences from day one. Today, it’s heartening that not just the NMSJ but all political parties are united in their support for repealing the 20th Amendment, reenacting the 19th and going further if possible to remove the problem of dual centres of power in the 19th amendment. SJB has announced that it will have a draft ready when Parliament reopens. The group of independent MPs too may present a draft. 

This is a moment when all including protesting youth rallies around the #BringBack19+ hashtag.

The #GoHomeGota2022 movement, which is essentially a reaction by youth to the failed policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the resulting suffering inflicted on the people, shows no sign of waning. But, the chief whip of the Government announced the other day that the President has no intention of resigning. The situation can escalate, putting the lives of the protesting youth in danger. Parliament is the only institution which can avoid a dangerous confrontation

An interim cabinet of 15

The number and nature of portfolios in an ideal cabinet is a favourite topic for policy analysts. Many civil society organisations and thinktanks have proposed various structures with numbers ranging for 20 to the constitutionally allowed maximum of 30 ministers for a Cabinet. With the constitutionally allowed additional 40 portfolios for state ministers, governments have invariably used all the slots appoint maximum number 70 minsters and state ministers. 

Following is a ‘working list’ which is derived from the list of sectoral committees in the 8th Parliament. The SLPP replaced the sectoral committees with ministerial oversight committees in the present 9th Parliament but there are too many of them too be considered for an interim government. This list compares well with portfolios common to cabinets across the world and the one put forward by Verite Research at oen pjt. Interestingly a very similar set portfolios was used interim Cabinet of 15 appointed Rajapaksa soon after presidential election of 2019. 

An indicative list of portfolios for an interim government:

  1. Finance – Finance; Economic Policy; Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development
  2. Foreign Affairs – Foreign Affairs
  3. Defense – Defense
  4. Internal Affairs – Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government
  5. Justice – Justice, Human Rights and Legal Reforms
  6. Environment – Environment; Wildlife Resources
  7. Health – Healthcare and Indigenous Medical Services
  8. HR and Innovation – [School Education]; Skills Development, Higher Education; Technology and Innovation; Employment and Labor Relations
  9. Agriculture – Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Development; Lands and Land Development; Fisheries and Aquatic Resources; Plantation Industries and Export Agriculture; Mahaweli
  10. Commerce – Internal Trade, Food Security and Consumer Welfare; Industries and Supply Chain Management; Small and Medium Business and Enterprise Development; Industrial Export and Investment Promotion; Tourism
  11. Infrastructure – Ports and Shipping; Roads and Highways; Telecommunication; Urban Development; Water Supply; 
  12. Energy and Transport- Power and Energy; Civil Aviation; Transport Services Management; Telecommunication
  13. Culture and Society – Cultural Affairs;
  14. Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs; Sports and Youth Affairs; Information and Mass Media
  15. Family and Community Women and Child Affairs; Housing; Social Security; [School Education]

Three countries in Africa – Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe – have taken the lead in governing by performance contracts for ministers. In another document we will present a list of indicative performance indicators for each committee. 

Sectoral oversight committees as the foundation for a bottom-up Cabinet 

In Chapter 5 of his book titled ‘Power-sharing in the regions’ Jayampathy Wickramaratne notes that:

“A system of executive committees existed under the [Donoughmore Constitution which was operative] from 1931 to 1947 in pre-independent Ceylon… The absence of political parties would have made a cabinet form of government difficult and executive committees allowed for the participation of minorities in government…

This note about the absence of political parties at that time is relevant to the present Parliament where 41 MPs have already stated that they are going serve as independents and more are expected to join their ranks. Even the SJB, the second largest Party, is a new coalition put together only two years ago. Not surprisingly, some of stronger personalities in the coalition march to their own drum beat. In such a scenario, the Donoughmore executive committee system may be ideal for an interim government at the present time. 

As Wickramrathna further notes, the chairpersons of executive comprised the Board of Minister or the equivalent of a Cabinet today: 

Under the Donoughmore Constitution there were three Officers of State, the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Legal Secretary, who were all British officials. These three and the Chairmen of the seven executive committees in the State Council together formed the Board of Ministers. The Chief Secretary was the Chairman of the Board of Ministers. The seven executive committees were: home affairs, agriculture and lands, local administration, health, labour, industry and commerce, education and communications and works. 

The election to the committees was by secret ballot. Each member of the council was given three votes or manapes for each committee position.

The State Council elected the seven executive committees by secret ballot from among its members. Each committee contained, as nearly as possible, an equal number of members. Each member, except the Speaker and the Officers of State, nominated three members to each committee by secret ballot. Transfer between committees was possible. 

The committee structure had allowed for a more participatory decision making in Donoughmore Parliament.

Board of Ministers under the Donoughmore Constitution did not constitute a homogeneous group having the same or similar political opinion like the customary British Cabinet. Ministers did not carry out some part of a consistent, coordinated Cabinet policy but acted as rapporteurs of the decisions of executive committees. There had even been instances of Ministers speaking and voting on opposite sides… At the beginning, decisions by majority vote had been the practice in the Board of Ministers. Weerawardena states that this practice soon changed and the habit of coming to agreed conclusion developed.  By using the Sectoral Committees of the 8th Parliament as a guide where a Committee of Selection was charged with the task of determining the number of committees and those serving in them as well as using the lessons from Executive Committees during 1931-47 period, we propose that the 9th Parliament:

  • Establish a Committee of Selection made up of 29 members in the ratio that they are represented in the national list with SLPP, SJB, ITAK and JVP, respectively, nominating 17, 7, 1 and 1 members, respectively, and all other nine small parties nominating 3 members collectively.
  • If some MPs in a given party have chosen to be independent, allocate a proportional number of seats to the group of independents in each Party.
  • If the selection committee is not represented by a sufficient number of minorities as per Section 90A of the constitution, each party will be required to nominate an adequate number of minorities, beginning with the two parties entitled to the most number of members in the Committee of Selections.
  • The Committee of Selection draws up a list of Committees and their portfolios and develop the rules for conducting the election of Chairs for each committee. The election shall be conducted by Secretary to the Parliament or other designated authority.
  • Elections for the chairmanship of each committee will be carried out by ranked preference voting (or single transfer ballot voting) with each member allowed three preferences.
  • Once all chairpersons are elected, they will work with the Committee of Selections to place all members of Parliament on one of the committees with each committee comprising of 14-16 members for an average of 15 members per each of the 15 committees. 
  • The President shall appoint the chairperson of each committee as minister responsible for the subject in the Cabinet. 
  • nParliament will elect a PM from among any of the members of the Parliament to serve as the Prime Minister. The role of the PM is to draw up the performance contracts for each of the committees and to follow up on their progress. The PM is responsible for the overall performance of the committees. 
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Last modified: April 5, 2024

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