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Suggestions to improve Parliamentary system

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This essay is a shortened version of a summary of conclusions of a Seminar Series on Constitutional Reform initiated by the Council for Liberal Democracy in November 1987, which were concerned with the role and structure of Parliament

[Functions of Parliament]

* Enacting legislation

* Scrutinizing the Government’s acts

* Addressing issues of national policy

* Respecting the rights of political minorities

It was agreed that the current Parliament had deteriorated and been greatly devalued in relation to its predecessors. Many thought this was not particular to


Parlament, the centre of country’s democracy. File photo

 Parliament under the 1978 Constitution, though the situation became worse under that Constitution. Devaluation began with the Constitution of 1972 when absolute power was concentrated in the National State Assembly (as Parliament was than named). For the first time executive, legislative and even judicial power were concentrated in the legislature. This supreme power of the National State Assembly meant its unrestrained use by the parties that commanded a majority.

Under the Soulboury Constitution there was demarcation of responsibility between the executive (the Cabinet), the legislature (Parliament), and the Judiciary. Parliament then, in terms of the need for diversity and checks and balances, consisted of two chambers.

Despite the Cabinet consisting, according to the British Parliamentary tradition, of members of the two houses of Parliament, some differentiation of functions, as well as greater respect for diversity in Parliament, was maintained. This more balanced approach was overturned by the 1972 Constitution, which declared the legislature to be the ‘supreme instrument of State power’.

It was noted that the system of executive committees under the Donoughmore Constitution had been useful. Such a system should be revived, whereas multi-party democracy in Sri Lanka, given the party system and the prevailing style of Parliamentary government, had divided the people.

Patronage based on these divisions led to deprivation and bitterness. In the context of an underdeveloped country with a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual society, the current adversarial political system inherited from the Westminster model of Cabinet Government created dangers.

This is worse since it has been adapted to a Presidential system which still requires all ministers to be Members of Parliament, with all appointed from the dominant political party.

A remedy was to incorporate some features of the executive committee system so that Members of Parliament of opposition political parties could also have some executive authority. This would minimize the current sense of marginalization of those in opposition.

So as to strengthen Parliament and to arrest its current weakness, it was felt that expulsion or resignation from the political party on whose ticket a Member of Parliament was elected should not result in expulsion from the house. Difficulties that arose from resignation from a political party, in a context of proportional representation, were discussed. A suggestion was made that a by-election should take place if a Member of Parliament resigned from his party.

There was agreement that Parliament should be elected under a scheme of proportional representation, but it was noted that most systems of proportional representation increased the political control of party hierarchies.

The adverse effects of a proportional system would be reduced by the adoption of a mixed system such as the German one.

The role of the Cabinet

The issue of whether the powers of Parliament declined with the establishment of the Executive Presidency was discussed. Though this had happened, it was noted that this was the formalization of a trend which had developed over time, the concentration of political power in a single leader. What had in fact occurred was that powers which the Prime Minister had in real terms exercised had formally been conferred on the new Chief Executive, the President.

To be continued

 

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