Social Justice for Today: Q and A with Nirmal Devasiri

C. A. Chandraprema’s Interview with Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, courtesy of The Island, 30 January 2015

Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s -col tel Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’- Pic from Colombo Telegraph

Spokesman for Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s National Movement for Social Justice Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about the apparent lack of interest in the new government in fulfilling the pledges relating to constitutional change they made during the election campaign.
NIRMAL-island Nirmal

Q. The new government was elected on certain core promises. The main cause around which all of you united was the abolition of the executive presidency. Now more than three weeks into the new regime, we are hearing less and less about the abolition of the executive presidency, especially from the newly elected president. There are various street shows being enacted by activists of the new government to fill TV news bulletins while constitutional changes have been pushed into the background. What we are hearing is about limiting the term of the president to five years. That’s not quite what you had in mind is it?

A. There are concerns about that among people who supported this government. This has been discussed among the various bodies of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) as well. What the NMSJ envisaged was a complete abolition – a return to the pre-1977 system. The proposals brought by the JHU are different. There was a discussion the other day with Dr Jayampathy Wickremeratne and though there may be some differences in the timeframe it appears that the process is on track, but it appears that it will not be a complete abolition. We have to watch the situation. The government exists on a certain equilibrium among political forces. There is the UNP then there is the Chandrika-Maithri camp and the JHU within the government’s decision making circle. If we look at the vested interests involved, Ranil would like to see presidential powers being reduced. He needs to enhance the powers of the prime minister. The UNP has a lot of bargaining power and, therefore, I believe the executive powers of the presidency will be reduced to a great extent.

Q. Even if the powers of the presidency are reduced, we seem set to have a president who will continue to be elected.

A. That problem has certainly come in for discussion. Even Jayampathy Wickremeratne raised the question whether there was any point in having an elected president after the executive powers are reduced. Having an elected president is an issue because an elected representative can claim certain powers. That is an issue that has to be taken very seriously. If powers are going to be reduced then why spend money on an election.

Q. According to the proposals put forward by the JHU, the president in addition to being the Commander-in-Chief has to be the defence minister. The defence portfolio as well as the foreign ministry was always brought under the prime minister in the pre-1978 Constitution because it was so important. How can the executive powers of the president be reduced with such an important portfolio remaining in the hands of the president? Are organisations like yours agreeable to this JHU proposal

A. We’ll have to look at the final outcome of all this. The main question will be whether the president we are left with is able to dominate parliament as at present or whether his arbitrary powers are reduced with checks and balances. I think the acid test will be whether the president will be able to completely control the prime minister and the cabinet.

Q. Just supposing subjects like national security and defence remain with the president – he will be able to do anything claiming a state of emergency. How can we prevent a situation like what prevailed during the 1970s under Indira Gandhi in India? After all it is the president who decides what constitutes a situation warranting the declaration of an emergency.

A. The same thing can happen even in a prime ministerial system. Executive power can be abused wherever it lies. In the United Front government of 1970-77, Felix Dias Bandaranaike also wielded enormous power. Every constitution has provisions to meet exceptional circumstances. Those provisions can always be abused. The problem with the presidential system that we have here is the power it has to dominate all other branches of the state. When the National Movement for Social Justice spoke about the abolition of the executive presidency, it was a total abolition that we had in mind. If Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha had contested, he would have left the position altogether within six months after having made the necessary constitutional changes. The parliament would have elected a William Gopallawa style ceremonial president as head of state.

Q. If the executive presidential system is going to be changed, one thing that needs to be done parallel to that is to change the electoral system because no party can get a clear majority in parliament under the present system. Under the present system, governments have got clear majorities in parliament only in 1989 and 2010. In 1994, 2000, 2001 and 2004, no party got a clear majority.  If the presidency is taken out (or presidential powers are reduced) and we have hung parliaments, that is going to bring the whole country to a grinding halt. So it is absolutely essential that the hybrid first past the post and proportional system that has already been discussed extensively by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform be introduced to prevent complete chaos.

A. My personal view is that there is going to be a series of constitutional experiments in the future. I am sceptical about the proposed electoral reforms because smaller national parties like the JVP will be left without representation in parliament. The reforms however will favour regional parties like the TNA. I would prefer proportional representation without the preferential vote system.

Q. You can’t deprive the two main parties of working majorities just to keep two or three JVPers in parliament.
A. That is why I said that this has to be the subject of extensive discussion. The political party system itself is in a state of flux today.  There is the possibility of a major division in the SLFP at the next election. It is still not clear what Mahinda plans to do. There is a small alliance forming around him and that, too, has a support base which I think will be considerable. Then nobody knows what the JHU is going to do. The Sri Lankan political party system is in a fluid state now. I am not convinced that stable governments can be built entirely through technical arrangements in the law.

Q. Your organisation the national Movement for social justice under the leadership of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera was created for the sole purpose of abolishing the executive presidency and bringing in constitutional change. Now, nobody seems to know what is going on.

A. The National Movement for social Justice is now seeing increased support. A lot of people who helped change the government but are unhappy about the way things are going are joining up with the NMSJ. The majority view in the NMSJ is that the executive presidency should be abolished and we should adopt a hybrid first past the post and proportional representation system.

Q. Another thing that we discussed before the election was the slogan of a non-party common candidate. That changed just a week after the election. Now, the non-party candidate is the leader of the SLFP/UPFA which has 136 MPs in parliament. The excuse is that without enough MPs the constitutional reforms cannot be pushed through. But, the new president is now involved in SLFP politics. The first thing that he did was to put a stop to the crossover of SLFP provincial councillors so that the PCs will remain in the UPFA fold. Such involvements are only going to increase and not decrease in the coming days. If you noticed, none of those who broke away from the SLFP or the UPFA to join Maithripala really joined the UNP. What would you say to this?

A. I don’t pay much attention to the power games of the governing elite. The reason why the NMSJ promoted Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera as the presidential candidate is because he has no political vested interests. Maithripala Sirisena is a person with political vested interests. When Sirisena’s name came up as the common candidate that was one of the issues that I raised.  But, in hindsight, when looking at the margin of victory, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera may not have been able to win. So, we had to compromise. That happens in realpolitik. The only way to counterbalance the situation is with pressure from below. The question before NMSJ is how to mobilise popular sentiment. But, we must not look at this negatively because the powers of the executive presidency will be diluted and some democratic reforms like the independent commissions and the right to information law may be passed

Q. The main campaign slogan was not the right to information act. The mandate received was to abolish the executive presidency and to change the electoral system.

A. That is right. When we wanted to campaign only on the issue of abolishing the executive presidency, people criticised us saying that you can’t have only good governance and constitutional change on the agenda. They said that while that might be good enough for the Colombo elite, you can’t attract rural votes with just that so various other items were added to the agenda such as reductions in the prices of essential commodities. But, the mandate of the NMSJ is for the total abolition of the executive presidency.

Q. If that does not happen within this 100-day period and only some cosmetic changes are made, what is the stand that the NMSJ will take?

A. We have already decided that a popular opposition movement is needed.

Q. You mean you are going to agitate for the abolition of the executive presidency?

A. Absolutely! There was a discussion yesterday with a large number of member organisations and a series of actions have been decided upon. I can’t elaborate on that now but we are going to agitate for our original aim.

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