Power sharing arrangements in conflict resolution
Posted on October 11th, 2020

N.A.de S. Amaratunga 

As discussions on drafting a new constitution gathers momentum the ethnic problem may assume significant importance as it has been an intractable issue in the politics of Sri Lanka. Some political scientists believe that ethnic based conflicts could be resolved by power sharing methods that strengthen democracy (Hartzell CA, 2015) while others disagree as results are rather disappointing in a large majority of countries (Horowitz D, 2015). This letter looks at these points of view in an attempt to see what useful information could be gleaned from these studies relevant to Sri Lanka.

The concept of power sharing is not new to Sri Lanka, during the time of kings there were administrative units at village level which were continued by colonial rulers, Rate Mahathaya”, Korale” are examples. In 1927 Donoughmore Commission had recommended Executive Committee system for executive function in the State Council to be formed out of the 58 elected members. This could be considered as a method of power sharing at the centre. The Commission also recommended Provincial Councils as a means of devolving power to the periphery.       

Sri Lanka had provincial councils since India forced it on us in 1987 as a solution to the ethnic problem which, however, have not been very successful to say the least. For one thing, it does not solve the problems of Tamils as more than half of them live outside the North and for another, it is a huge redundant financial burden for a small country like ours. Further the 13th Amendment carries land and police powers which are almost federal features and difficult to implement though there is pressure for their implementation. We must also remember that the Supreme Court only very narrowly endorsed the 13th A and also Justice Wanasundera’s powerful dissent when it was referred to the Supreme Court for clearance before enactment in the Parliament in 1987.

Therefore it may be worthwhile to examine the alternative methods available and tried out in other countries that come out of conflict when a new constitution is under consideration in Sri Lanka. Ethnic based conflicts are not uncommon in the world. From 1945 to 2006 there had been 127 civil wars in the world that ended during that period. Only 67 (52%) of these countries had called for power sharing.

In most of these countries there had been intense civil wars and none had ended with one side winning the war. The wars had been brought to a halt by third party intervention, either the UN or regional countries. The Sri Lankan conflict was a war waged by a group of terrorists against an elected government and was brought to an end by a total defeat of the terrorist group. The terrorists were fighting for a separate state or something close to it. Moreover terrorism in the country was sponsored and assisted by foreign countries who also had their own agendas. Whether it could recur may very much depend more on the geopolitical situation in the region and the foreign powers involved in it and their designs for the region including their capability and strength of carrying it through than local politics. 

Power sharing methods that are being discussed by political scientists of repute (Liphart A, Horowitz D, O’Leary B, Wolf S, Weller M)  fall into two broad categories known as Consociationalism and Integrationalism or Centrepetalism. The former is more suitable for countries where there is no significant difference in the  population ratios of communities. This arrangement  may have the following features; coalition government, proportionality, veto rights and autonomy. Consociationalism in its early times featured only political power sharing, later power sharing had extended to other areas such as economic, territorial and military (Hartzell CA, & Hoddie M, 2015).

In integrationalism or centrepetalism as the name suggests there is encouragement of voluntary cross ethnic cooperation and inducement for inter ethnic cooperation and fair allocation of resources. The goal of both these methods is inter-ethnic power sharing. Consociationalism attempts mandatory post-electoral governing conditions of all ethnic antagonists who find their way into parliament through a proportional electoral system. Centrepetalism by contrast aim at voluntary per-electoral inter-ethnic coalitions of moderates.

Of the 67 countries mentioned above which had adopted power sharing methods most had gone for a combination of these methods, 54 (80%) had wanted political power sharing while 29 (43%) had territorial and economic arrangements and 47 (70%) had wanted military power sharing as well (Hartzell CA, & Hoddie M, 2015).

These arrangements no doubt could be considered fair and just if the difference in the population ratios of the groups involved is not too big. If on the other hand one group is less than 30% of the total population the criticism that it is rewarding violence may arise. Further the arrangement may be viewed as an agreement between elite groups instead of a social contract for the benefit of ordinary people. However whether these arrangements in any case have lasted a length of time that justifies their adoption needs to be looked at.

There were 78 countries in Asia, Africa,  Middle East, Eastern Europe, former USSR and the Caribbean which were in intense ethnic conflict during 1980 to 2010. Of these only 20 managed to conclude inter-ethnic power sharing arrangements, many failed, some experienced genocide eg. Rwanda in 1993 and others ended with secession eg. Sudan in 2005. Only 4 to 6 achieved stable arrangements but even these have serious political instability (Horowitz D, 2014).

These inter-ethnic power sharing arrangements seem to have failed due to three innate problems. Firstly there is the difficulty of adoption, for example the majority would want majority rule and the minority would want guarantees against majority rule which may be given when the majority is weak but take back when strong. Another problem is the degradation of the arrangement due to manipulations by both sides which could happen in Centrepetalism, a good example is what happened in Malaysia in 1969. Third problem is due to immobilism caused by mechanisms like minority veto which could be a power endowed to the minorities in a second chamber. The veto could cause immobility of progressive projects resulting in economic stasis as experienced in Northern Ireland, Belgium, Bosnia and perhaps in Sri Lanka too regarding Divineguma” project. 

Researchers who support the idea of power sharing as a means of resolving ethnic conflict do not seem to have substantial evidence of success anywhere in the world, yet they say it is the only means of encouraging democracy in these countries in deep conflict and violence (Hartzell CA & Hoddie M, 2015). Security concerns of minorities cannot be addressed by any other means. For example some stability has been achieved in Burundi as both political and military power sharing has been attempted. However it is a fragile arrangement as seen by intermittent flaring of violence. In Sudan, they say, territorial power sharing has worked but the opponents say what happened in 2005 is virtually a secession. Economic power sharing has been attempted in Sierra Leon and Indonesia, the situation in the former is improving and in the latter it is stable and economy is doing well.

What useful information could be gleaned from all this that could be used in resolving the problem in Sri Lanka. Regional autonomy within a unitary state was attempted with the 13th A which would be almost federal if land and police powers are granted. The majority community had never been consulted regarding this arrangement and opposition against it is mounting in the society and within the parliament also. Some may say it is a fate accompli and is best left alone without creating an issue of it and may be utilized with improvements to solve the problem. Yet they forget that it does not solve the problem of 50% of the minorities who live outside the North and the East. For instance the minorities who live in Colombo and in the Estates have well organized political parties with representatives often joining the government in coalitions. They may not need provincial councils and now nobody seem to want them. Few of the elected representatives from the North also have joined the government. In fact the coalition governments at the centre  that include the minorities proposed by consociationalism as one of its main features have been operative to some degree in most of the governments since independence.

Proportionality in government expenditure in the important areas like employment, education, infra structure, culture etc. would be another aspect the constitution committee  could look at and devise means of giving constitutional guarantee for such expenditure. Political power sharing at cabinet level proportional to population ratios of the minorities utilizing those elected to parliament could also be considered and this arrangement could also be given constitutional guarantee. The degree of power sharing in the areas of politics and economy as proposed here would be more meaningful to everybody than provincial councils.

N.A.de S. Amaratunga 

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