Unitary, United Deadlock
Posted on November 10th, 2019

By Sugeeswara Senadhira Courtesy Ceylon Today

The Presidential election campaign that was focused on promises on subsidies, salary hikes, free fertiliser, cost of living and similar issues during the last four weeks has suddenly deviated this week to the issue of the proposed system of Government. 

The current focus is whether Sri Lanka would continue as Unitary State or a new Constitution would be adopted to change it to a Federal Government without using the term ‘federal’.


This issue re-surfaced last week when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) extended its support to New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa. Although the TNA did not stress on the 13-point demands of Tamil university students, the party expressed satisfaction over the promises given by Premadasa in his manifesto.


Candidate Sajith Premadasa’s election manifesto clarifies the need for constitutional reforms: “Our Constitution must reflect the multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and pluralistic nature of our country and must unite us not only in law, but also in our hearts.” (Page 14).


On the system of Government, it says, “Maximum devolution of power within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka will be implemented.” (Page 18).  


English version of manifesto


Although, the English version of the manifesto did not have the word ‘unitary’, the Sinhala manifesto states that Sri Lanka will continue to be a Ekeeya Rajyak (Unitary State).


The difference between a Unitary and a Federal Government is that a Unitary Government puts its power in one Central Government while in a federal system the governing power is divided into federal and local governing bodies that connect to the National Government.


In a Unitary State, the Central Government commonly delegates authority to sub-national units and channels policy decisions down to them for implementation. The majority of Nation States are unitary systems. 

They vary greatly. In India, the federal seat or the Central Government has decentralised powers to State Governments. Federalism is an institutional mechanism to accommodate two sets of polities, i.e., first is the centre or national level and second is at the provincial or regional level. Both the sets of polities are autonomous in its own sphere.

 Certain subjects, which are the concern of a nation as a whole, for example, defence or currency, are the responsibility of the Union or Central Government.

 On the other hand, regional or local matters are the responsibility of the regional or State Government. In case of a conflict between the Centre and the State on any issue, the judiciary has the powers to resolve the disputes.


In the United States, too, all States have Unitary Governments with Bicameral Legislatures (except Nebraska, which has a Unicameral Legislature). Ultimately, all Local Governments in a Unitary State are subject to a central authority.


Great Britain, for example, decentralises power in practice though not in constitutional principle. Others grant varying degrees of autonomy to subnational units. In France, the classic example of a centralised administrative system, some members of Local Government are appointed by the Central Government, whereas others are elected.


TNA to support Premadasa


Immediately after the release of the election manifesto by Premadasa and the decision by TNA to support Premadasa, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused Premadasa, of deliberately misleading the people. In a statement, the Opposition Leader said that the chapter of the UNP’s manifesto dealing with constitutional reforms will replace Sri Lanka’s ‘Unitary State’ and will lead to the nation becoming “a loose federation of virtually independent provincial units”.


He further asserts that the UNP is deliberately misleading the Sinhala majority by avoiding the English phrase ‘Unitary State’, as he maintains that this has “specific constitutional connotations”. 

Instead, the Sinhala edition uses the phrase Ekeeya Rajya roughly meaning “undivided and indivisible”. In Tamil, the phrase orumiththanadu is used. Rajapaksa claims that the deliberate avoidance of the term ‘Unitary State’ will mean that in Sinhala the label of a Unitary State will remain whereas in Tamil and English this would no longer be the case.


This deliberate avoidance of the term ‘Unitary State’, he asserts, is also shown by the use of the phrase mawbime ekeeyathwaya which means “the unity of the Motherland” but has no constitutional value.


Rajapaksa maintains that the UNP’s proposal contains provisions to expand the powers and functions of the Provincial Councils, to set up a Second Chamber in Parliament made up of Provincial Council representatives in order to curb the powers of Parliament, to allow the provincial units to raise funds independently, to place District and Divisional Secretaries under the Provincial Councils and to create a Constitutional Court which will adjudicate in disputes between the Centre and the provincial units.


Premadasa’s manifesto states, “We will protect the unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of our Motherland. We will bring Government decision-making closer to the people.

 Maximum devolution of power within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka will be implemented. Devolution of power will be meaningful, efficient and waste will be reduced. Devolution of power will ensure that we create true unity among all Sri Lankans”.


However, Premadasa pointedly said at campaign speeches that he was for ‘maximum devolution within a Unitary State’ to resolve the ethnic issue. He said he felt that the current decision-making structure in the country is ‘ad-hoc, disjointed and personality driven’ that has led to the ‘system favouring one segment’ of society over others. 

He reiterated this at an interactive forum on news media held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo. He said he supports “maximum devolution within a unitary country, which was our policy stance in the 2015 manifesto.But to do so we need to eradicate racism from our society, fight discrimination and prejudice.”


This clearly shows there is an ambiguity in Premadasa’s policy on constitutional reforms. This, the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to use to sway the floating vote.


With five days to go for Presidential Polls, one can be certain that the vast majority of the people, perhaps over 80%, have already decided to whom they vote. While the first two candidates would split 80% of this among themselves, the other 33 candidates are likely to get less than a million votes collectively.


In these circumstances, the floating votes are crucial for one of the first two – Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa – to edge out the other at the finish tape. Hence, the attempts to woo voters will continue until 16 November, although official campaigning will have to end at midnight
13 November.

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