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New constitutional amendments:

Opposition must think of positive approach - Minister Dinesh Gunawardena

The Chief Government Whip and Water Supply and Drainage Minister Dinesh Gunawardena says it is better for the UNP and its alliance to think of a fresh approach of working with the Government on some issues for reforms that would be beneficial for fast economic growth in the country. This is the need of the hour today. The Minister in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer said as per the new constitutional amendments, the President is to come to Parliament in every three months. This has never happened in the history of our presidency since 1978. Therefore, the Government has taken one step forward from the Parliament's point of view.

Q: You were the Chairman of the Parliament Select Committee appointed on electoral reforms. Why are electoral reforms necessary?

A: I was the Chairman of the select committee on electoral reforms at the last Parliament. But this Parliament has not yet set up such a committee. But our deliberations at the last two committees were very clear. There was an all round consensus by political parties both Government and the Opposition, national organisations and the public on electoral system based on PR and preferential system and there has to be changes on this basis. This is a nation wide drive which has reached the highest peak today. We went into these issues and also even the Election Commission's reports and made recommendations to have a new election system based on First Past the Post majority, PR and raise the number of Members of Parliament. This system should be adopted right now to the Local Government level where the Local Government elections would also have votes about 75 percent PR about 25 to 30 percent to give grassroots representation and accountability to the members elected.

Q: How is the next Local Government Election going to be held? Will the new system apply to all elections including the Presidential elections?

A: The Local Government Elections Electoral Reform Bill has been drafted by the Government and it has been recommended by the Government to the Cabinet of Ministers. We hope we could get through the legislation in Parliament and have the next elections on the new system where the preferential votes will be out and the unnecessary expenditure of voters representatives will also be out. On this matter, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a delegation to discuss with the Opposition Leader and the Opposition, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister A. L. M. Athaulla and myself met the Opposition Leader and his delegation. We reached a consensus on this matter. So the smooth sailing of the bill is expected within the next two or three weeks.

Q: There were some good points of the PR system such as enabling minority and small parties to come to Parliament or another body. Will that be lost in the new electoral system?

A: Definitely not. Minorities would not be deprived or unrepresented through the PR percentage. Secondly there will be multi-member constituencies which would give an additional safeguard to the minorities to represent different ethnic groups. Therefore the minorities would definitely able to elect their representatives.

Q: Is there provision in the new electoral system for more representation by women and youth?

A: Of course. Women's representation and youth representation have also been included as mandatory in the nomination papers.

Q: Is the Government planning to hold the Northern Provincial Council election in due course? Will it be under the new system?

A: Of course. At the moment our Provincial Council elections have been held under the old system. So the Provincial Council elections will have to be under the old system. The Government would hold the Northern Provincial Council election within the next few months, because the democratisation process is in progress and we have been able to strengthen the democratic process after defeating terrorism due to moves taken by the President. This would pave the way to the people's elected representatives in the North and the East to drive the development work of their people.

Q: Will there be a limit to registration of new political parties?

A: The legislation recommended by our committee was passed in Parliament where the Commissioner of Elections will have to conduct the annual registration and re-registration of parties. Those who don't qualify would face deregistration. We have about 59 political parties. More than half of them are totally defunct. Even the Commissioner of Elections himself has also reported about this matter. But he has no powers for deregistration. These powers have now been given by necessary legislation.

Q: The Constitutional Reforms also call for the establishment of an elections commission. How will this mechanism work and how will it ensure impartiality?

A: The present constitutional amendments especially the 18th amendment has not deleted any other commissions except the Police Commission. For better functioning of the Police and prompt functioning of the Police service, the Government decided to take the Police Department because the Police is a department which comes under the normal defence establishment. The other commissions are going to function and the elections commission also will be one of them.

Q: Is there a possibility that the new electoral system would reduce violence, elections violations and rivalry among candidates of the same party?

A: Very much. That was one of the key reasons to propose this new electoral system. Under the present electoral system unnecessary expenditure, rivalry and violations have been increased. So the new system would definitely be much more peaceful and much more cost effective in the electoral process.

Q: Is there any possibility to let Sri Lankans abroad to vote, as done by many other countries for their citizens abroad?

A: There is a proposal for that. That proposal has been studied. But the finality has not been reached. We have an overwhelming majority of people working abroad specially in the Middle East. Whether they could be allowed to come for vote etc is a process which the Government will have to discuss before bringing these legislations.

Q: Will the Government introduce electronic voting in due course? This is already being done in India and many other countries?

A: We did recommend in our report that there should be an electronic voting. The Commissioner of Elections is in full agreement. It will be a process which will bring more confidence to the voter and the candidate. It would also bring very fast results as well. We don't want to spend hours and hours and unnecessarily bother of Public Servants and pay overtime for counting right through the night. All these shortcomings will be eliminated if we have electronic voting. Even Moratuwa university has developed a machine. Countries like India and Bangladesh have also implemented this system. Similar systems can be introduced to our country as our literacy rate is very high. The Government is also in full agreement for the implementation of this electronic voting system.

Q: What is the significance of the new constitutional amendments? Why should the executive presidency continue?

A: The executive presidency will go through many reforms. This has also been stated by the President as well. The whole constitution will go through various reforms. We have had this constitution for a very long time with its defects. The issue is the executive incumbent being given the right to recontest. This not only for a person A or person B. This is for anyone who will hold that office. At the moment, the restriction on two terms has been removed. This has to be passed by the legislature. If you allow the incumbent President to recontest,if the people want, they will reelect him. If the people disagree, they will not elect or the incumbent may not contest. Just because this clause is there, it does not make it mandatory for incumbent to recontest.

But I would ask a question. Who decided on the two terms of the President? This country or people did not decide. It was a model copied by late President J. R. Jayewardene and we have been asked to follow it. We are in Parliament and recontest. Sometimes we get defeated and recontest again and get elected. There is no bar for Parliamentarians or even the Prime Minister in terms of getting reelected. So it is relaxing the right of the voters to have more choice on the presidency. The President himself has agreed on the constitutional amendments and he is going to come to Parliament every three months. This has never been done in the history of our presidency from 1978 and other Presidents didn't agree for this. So from Parliament point of view, we have taken one step forward. As I mentioned before, the constitutional reforms will continue and so many other matters will come up.

Q: Why do you think it is important for the President to visit Parliament at least once every three months?

A: The President has to have a very good dialogue and a rapport with the affairs of Parliament such as Parliament control, finance, legislative powers and many other related practices. Therefore the President's visits to Parliament will indirectly a form of being answerable to Parliament and participating in affairs of the elected representatives to the Parliament. This is a very positive step. We will have an extra clause under which the President could visit Parliament and address Parliament at any time. I think this will happen. President Rajapaksa is a people's representative winning an overwhelming historic majority and he will work more closely with the elected representatives. We have got two thirds in Parliament. This is a historic victory under the PR system which means the UPFA has been given an overwhelming mandate to make reforms for the betterment of the country.

Q: The Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that they would oppose to these constitutional amendments in Parliament. How do you view this?

A: The Opposition Leader has been voting against everything in this country which is for the people and for the Motherland. Even during the entire battle against terrorism, he opposed to the Government at the last hour. Because Wickremesinghe, the UNP and the alliance supported terrorism, and separatism they always tried their level best to oppose the Government. If anything is bad for the country they have become the champions of the goal like the secret and undisclosed agreement what Wickremesinghe signed with the LTTE Leader. Today it is exposed that perhaps even he did not know how it came. So what are they talking about today?

It is better for the UNP and its alliance to think of a fresh approach of working with the Government on some issues for reforms that will be beneficial to the people of our country for fast economic growth. That is what the country wants today. The President has assured a leap forward in economic development. But today the President has unnecessary delays and blockades to be relaxed. That is why we are bringing the constitutional council process into account. When we had to form a probationary Government with the JVP, they put forward the 17th Amendment. It was prepared by the UNP. But the JVP put forward this and our Government accepted it. But when it came to the Parliament, so many clauses were amended to get two thirds. It was not done with a studied effort. It was done in haste. What happened? The Constitutional Council was represented by political appointees. The political appointees were answerable to their political leadership rather than being impartial members of the Constitutional Council. As a result the delays and the formation of it was becoming impossible. Even earlier former President Chandrika Kumaratunga refused to appoint political sympathisers or activists. Therefore the Constitutional Council did not function. What happened was the process closed down and the entire administrative system, appointments, promotions and absorbtion to the cadre got delayed. As a result, the economic development work which is the prime importance today gets delayed. There has to be some rectification for both one to eliminate political interference in this Council as much as possible and reduce the delays in the administrative structure which is necessary for faster economic development.

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