J.R. and the erosion of democracy: The Absurdity of Multiplying Portfolios

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 2 2021
Columns J.R. and the erosion of democracy: The Absurdity of  Multiplying Portfolios

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Ranil was as I have argued JR’s spiritual heir and it was he who imitated him most slavishly and most destructively. So when for the first time he was in the saddle with regard to setting up a Government, namely when he became Prime Minister at the end of 2001 after Chandrika Kumaratunga called a General Election after several of her parliamentarians crossed over, he got her to appoint 28 of what he termed Project Ministers. 

The Cabinet he first set up had 25 members, and there were around half a dozen Deputy Ministers, but much was handed over to these Project Ministers – though indicative of the lack of precision in his apology for a system, some of these Project Ministers, including the Minister of Education who had been left out earlier, were promoted to the Cabinet a couple of months later. This nomenclature seems to have been his, though the internet note I have referred to declares that ‘President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed non-Cabinet Ministers with the title of Project Ministers’. But there is no sign of such when she was Head of Government, so this seems to have been Ranil’s brainwave.

The reason for this is typical of Ranil. He wanted to make clear that these characters were above Deputy Ministers. Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake were Deputy Ministers, with the helophyte Sagala Ratnayake given the same status. But characters such as Johnston Fernando and Suranimala Rajapaksa were Project Ministers, with much better perks.

The perks had perhaps been entrenched long before Ranil took charge. But he made a mockery of their status and their privileges by appointing Cabinet Ministers for the subjects entrusted to them, and specifying that they had to report through that Cabinet Minister.

The idea of State Ministers

Unfortunately, on what seems simply a pattern of Monkey See, Monkey Do, Mahinda Rajapaksa then also had Project Ministers. Then, when Ranil became Prime Minister under Maithripala Sirisena, he changed the nomenclature and instead of calling them Project Ministers, he made State Ministers of those he wanted to elevate above Deputy Ministers. Interestingly, initially he did not appoint Cabinet Ministers over some of them, which is why indeed I accepted such a position, thinking that I would have autonomy to work. Unfortunately I fell foul of Chandrika Kumaratunga when I refused to dismiss the UGC Chairman at her behest, to which her response that I should wait and see who they put on top of me. And sure enough Kabir Hashim was appointed and, having promised me to leave decisions to me, saying he did not know the subject, he started interfering.

I should note however that the idea of State Ministers was not Ranil’s but rather Premadasa’s. He did not have Deputy Ministers but, in addition to Cabinet Ministers he had both Ministers outside the Cabinet and State Ministers. The former seem to have been senior but, since the perks were the same, there was probably not much difference.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa seems to have followed Premadasa rather than Ranil in that he too, has no Deputy Ministers but only State Ministers in addition to those in the Cabinet. It was said when the appointments were made that he wanted his State Ministers to function autonomously. But that is not possible without structural changes. Obviously Cabinet Ministers will cling to their exalted status and stymie their juniors, and no one seems capable of telling Gotabhaya how he should proceed if he really wants greater efficiency.

After that exploration of the manner in which JR multiplied Ministers and types of Ministries, and the manner in which his successors used the provisions he had laid down with no clear rationales – except for the profits to be got by multiplying personnel and perks - I return to his perverse constitutional amendments. 

Perverse constitutional amendments

I have noted how his first amendment was designed to subvert a judicial decision, of a piece with the contumely he had shown for judicial independence when he got rid of serving Supreme Court judges and hand-picked his own Courts.

The second amendment subverted a principle he had introduced in the Constitution, of party control of Members of Parliament. It was a principle designed to ensure subservience to a party line, and thus destroy a cherished principle of Westminster style parliamentary democracy, the independence of Members of Parliament. And I continue astonished by the myopia of those who want a return to a Westminster system, which they claim will restore the power of Parliament, when obviously under JR’s constitution Parliamentarians are bound hand and foot to their party leaders. 

But of course we have had it made clear to us time and again that the independence of Parliamentarians is a myth, or rather independence to make principled decisions. For starting with the bribery of MP’s to bring down Sirimavo’s Government in 1964, MPs have proved buyable time and again, more concerned with feathering their own nest rather than exercising legislative and oversight power on behalf of the people. 

And I should reiterate JR’s sheer cynicism in subjecting Members of the 1977 Parliament, who were elected as individuals on the First Past the Post system, not through a party list, to provisions more appropriate to those elected under Proportional Representation. And then, having done this, he then exempted those in other parties who wanted to cross over to his side. 

Then there was the original 3rd Amendment, with regard to Kalawana, which requires no further comment. The subsequent 3rd Amendment too I have discussed at length, a provision unknown in the rest of the democratic world, allowing an Executive President to decide on the time of an election when he wanted to be re-elected.

And that brings me to the next Amendment, the 4th, which was even more obviously than the others a fundamental assault on democracy. Originally JR claimed that it was not an Amendment he was proposing, but rather a referendum to postpone elections which was possible under the Constitution. Having argued forcefully against the previous government’s postponement of elections, which it had foolishly done when it introduced its new Republican Constitution in Parliament, he declared that this should not be possible through a simple decision of Parliament, even with a two-thirds majority. Rather, such a decision by Parliament would also have to be submitted to the people at a referendum.

But when the proposal was first mooted, Felix Dias Bandaranaike pointed out that the life of the existing Parliament could not be extended through just a parliamentary vote and a referendum, since the new Constitution laid down that that Parliament could last only six years after it had been elected. 

This was in the transitional provisions, but JR then had no qualms about proposing an amendment to those transitional provisions. And he kept claiming that everything did was in full accord with democratic principles, unlike the practices of the government that had preceded his.

I should stress that one of JR’s claims as to the democratic safeguards he was introducing, to prevent the sort of abuse he claimed Mrs Bandaranaike’s Government had engaged in, was that certain fundamental changes could be made only with a two thirds majority, and this would require consensus since under proportional representation it was unlikely that any party would get a two-thirds majority on its own.But then he had no qualms about making fundamental and profoundly anti-democratic changes with the two-thirds majority he had got in 1977 under the First Past-the-Post system, with just over half the votes of the electorate. 

This he wanted to hang on to, for he realised how easy that had made it for him to do anything he wanted. But by 1982, he realised that he was not likely to get anything like that majority in the election that his Constitution laid down should be held in 1983. He had advanced the date of the Presidential Election which he expected to win easily, so that the impetus of that victory would carry his party through in a General Election. But even though he had knocked out Sirimavo, he did not do as well as he had expected against Hector Kobbekaduwa, the candidate the SLFP put forward. Some senior elements in the SLFP did not campaign for Kobbekaduwa, but Chandrika Kumaratunga’s husband Vijaya who took charge ran an energetic campaign and JR was nervous about what would happen in a Parliamentary Election. 

So, though he would probably have won a Parliamentary Election, he decided to hang on to his massive majority for another parliamentary term and proposed that the date 1983 be changed in the Constitution to 1989. And in the very simple Bill he put forward, to make that date change in the transitional provisions, he specified that this was a Bill to amend the Constitution and it therefore had to be passed with a two-thirds majority and would also have to be submitted to the people at a referendum. 


By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 2 2021

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