Reducing the powers of the political system: a systemic approach


Protesters across the country are demanding an urgent resolution to the crisis affecting Sri Lankan society. The proposals include removing those in power, reshuffling positions and changes to the governance structure. Many are looking at these proposals from different angles. This article analyzes the crisis from a systemic point of view and draws proposals based on simple principles. They should be applicable to all future scenarios, regardless of who is in power or the personalities involved.

What is a system?

A system is a set of elements or agents working together as part of an interconnected network. They often act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A plant, breathing oxygen, using sunlight to produce energy and carbon dioxide is an example of a natural system. A school is an example of a social system.

Politicians could be seen as members of a “profession” who form networks and are in constant interaction with each other. They interact based on certain rules of engagement and can be seen as a cohesively functioning system. Within this system are denser networks based on family ties, political parties and friendships.

What is power?

Power is defined as the ability to make others obey and obey. Authority is the legitimate branch of power and is exercised by society through legal means. Citizens are obligated to obey authority, but empowered.

Social groups or individuals have overlapping sources of power and authority. Hierarchical administrative structures are a common source of power. Other sources include power through political structures, economic relationships, cultural factors (e.g. gender), religion, access to weapons, etc. For example, a male senior manager in a commercial establishment has power over a female employee through his higher income, male gender, elite status, and administrative ability to control the employee’s fate.

The political system in Sri Lanka

One of the root causes of the current crisis in Sri Lanka is that the political system has acquired excessive power. They have acquired it historically through the constitution, by using corruption to amass wealth, by a culture of subjugation and by controlling the media. They also gain power through illegal means such as coercion through violence or threats of violence.

From a systemic point of view, Sri Lanka needs an immediate reduction in the power of the political system. This means that some of the power of political systems must be shifted “away” from the hands of politicians and the political system. This opposes the redistribution of power. Calls for the abolition of the executive presidency or the devolution of power to the provinces are examples of the “redistribution of power within” the political system. These will continue to allow politicians to wield undue powers, and this is naturally a favorite among them!

Measures to reduce the power of the political system

What are the measures to reduce the powers of the political system? To answer this question, we need to analyze the power structure in more detail. I have classified under four headings: Power conferred by the political bureau; Power gained through wealth; Power gained by controlling the flow of information (i.e. the media) and; Coercive power through violence or threats of violence. For each of these categories, I have listed “doable” actions. They were identified using a technique somewhat similar to a “systematic literature search” in scientific studies. These points are offered in the best interest of the nation and, to have maximum impact, they should not be considered in isolation.

1.Reduction of the powers of political mandates

a. Repeal the 20th Amendment and transfer certain powers from the presidency to parliament. This can range from complete transfer to transfer of part of the power

b. The Constitutional Council, which is empowered to appoint independent commissions, should be less influenced by the political system. Make this operational by reducing the number of members appointed by the president or parliament

• Establish new independent commissions in key areas (eg National Health Commission, Social Welfare Commission) to provide long-term policy guidance. Use the National Education Commission as a model. Include citizen participation,

• Strengthen existing independent commissions, including the Civil Service Commission which is responsible for administrative appointments.

c. Some appointments are currently made by the political system (eg the appointment of chancellors of universities or some members of the Medical Council of Sri Lanka). Transfer these powers to the administrative structures, professions and representatives of the citizens concerned

D. Reducing the number of cabinet ministers, thereby limiting the number of powers a minister wields

e. Prohibit party crossings after the elections. Crossovers bribe politicians and lead to concentration of power

f. Human resources in state sector institutions should only be decided by administrative departments. Abolish the voucher system: the requirement to have recommendations from politicians to obtain government jobs

g. Prohibit those who hold office in NGOs, sports bodies and businesses from running for office or holding political office and vice versa. This is to minimize the infiltration of civil organizations by the power of the political system.

h. Prohibit the appointment of members of the immediate family of politicians to paid positions in their respective ministries or offices of MPs. It is about reducing the concentrations of power around politicians.

2.Reduce power over the media

a. Politicians once elected should not hold positions in state (eg Rupavahini) or private sector media institutions.

b. The media units of the respective ministries should be removed from the control of the respective minister.

3.Reduce the power that could be obtained through the unethical accumulation of wealth

a. Donations to political parties and politicians should be limited, taxable and made public. Receipts must be issued. Anonymous donations should not be allowed

b. All overseas donations must be reviewed by a special committee to prevent foreign influence

vs. Political parties must publish statements of all accounts and audit reports of local and foreign branches.

D. All candidates running for office must publicly declare their assets and do so annually

e. Foundations and NGOs created by politicians must be listed, regularly audited and presented to Parliament

f. Those charged with corruption in courts, local or foreign, should not be allowed to contest or hold political office

g. Politicians should declare their assets, any potential conflicts of interest, and their tax records should be public records

h. Grants and pensions for politicians should be the same as those received by civil servants

4.Reduction of coercive power

a. Prevent people with criminal records from contesting or holding political office

b. Political parties that have convicted criminals as office bearers should automatically lose their recognition as a legal political party

vs. Minimize security for politicians. Armed security should wear official uniforms

D. Interrupt processions outside official ceremonies

e. Limit the invitation of politicians to public functions

f. In the future, no road should bear the name of a politician and statues of politicians should not be erected in public places. They can do this in their own gardens using private funds.

Once consensus is reached on the required actions, the next step is to outline the legal, administrative and constitutional steps required to implement them. A few need (long-winded) constitutional amendments. Others require amendments to Acts of Parliament or new regulations. Some will be the subject of administrative circulars. These actions and the responsible institutions should be listed. It is preferable that the reform process be controlled by an independent structure (for example, a citizens’ working committee on reforms). Otherwise, these will soon be buried and forgotten.

To you, the next generation of activists… Best wishes.

(The author is professor emeritus of medicine and a consulting physician. The views expressed do not reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.)

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