Battle lines drawn
Posted on January 19th, 2016

Editorial Courtesy The Island


Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has spelt out how he thinks the government should set about the task of framing a new Constitution. His statement issued on Sunday coincided with a declaration by Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe that the government would not allow the country to be divided. Addressing the media on Sunday the PM made it clear that the unitary character of the state would be preserved.

Now, the question is whether the government will be able to enlist the backing of Tamil nationalists who are averse to the unitary status for its constitution making project. It should explain how it proposes to solve what has come to be dubbed the national question, through constitutional means. It is being speculated in some quarters that a devolution model that goes beyond the provisions of the 13th Amendment is likely to be offered.

Former President Rajapaksa says other constitutional matters should not be mixed up with the two key issues, to wit, the abolition of the executive presidency and electoral reforms over which a consensus has been reached. The entrenched constitutional provisions should be left untouched except the abolition of the executive presidency, he says. Rajapaksa is of the view that the constitution making process should be divided into different segments, which should be handled separately. He is opposed to the idea of placing all constitutional reforms in a single document before the people at a referendum because provisions inimical to the national interest can be incorporated into it.

Rajapaksa has said nothing new; he has only reiterated his long-held views on devolution etc. The devolution of power in the new Constitution should not exceed the provisions of the 13th Amendment and what has been implemented at present, he insists, calling for re-examining police and land powers devolved to the provincial councils. He may not have spoken for the SLFP officially but he has effectively defined the parameters within which that party controlled by his rivals will be compelled to operate as regards its cooperation with the UNP to introduce a new Constitution.

As for former President Rajapaksa’s statement published in this newspaper yesterday the sting is in the tail, one may say. In the concluding paragraph he asserts that it will be appropriate for fresh polls to be held to elect a new government after the promulgation of a new Constitution. He knows the incumbent government is wary of facing a general election so soon; it has postponed even the local government polls on some flimsy pretext. It is not getting any more popular and has nothing more to offer to the people. Most of its election promises remain unfulfilled. The anti-incumbency factor is weighing against it.

The former president’s argument is not without some merit. The incumbent President sought a popular mandate to abolish the executive presidency as a national priority. Therefore, it goes against the will of the people to retain that institution which is antithetical to democracy even a day longer after the promulgation of a new Constitution. The new constitution should not be blast-frozen and relegated to cold storage. The period of transition should be brief. If a cure is found for a serious illness a person is afflicted with it must be applied urgently, mustn’t it? Sri Lanka’s body politic is ailing and it must be cured without further delay. After all, that exactly is what the proponents of good governance promised.

Some foreign experts are reported to be seeking to have a finger in the constitutional pie in the making. Their involvement is bound to be counterproductive. The government already has its work cut out if the stiff resistance its parliamentary resolution on constitution making has run into is any indication. Foreigners will only aggravate its predicament.

Sri Lanka’s experience with the involvement of meddlesome foreign governments in its domestic affairs has been bitter. The so-called peace process under the UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) is a case in point. A drug trial has left one person dead in France. Experiments with constitution making are fraught with the danger of going the same way as new drugs being tested by foreign companies. Hence, the need for treading cautiously with all precautions taken to ensure that the efforts being made to frame a new constitution and/or the outcome thereof won’t leave the Sri Lankan democracy brain-dead.

There are lessons to be learnt from President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ill-fated constitution making project in 2000. The UNP, having initially cooperated with her government, shot down her draft Constitution in Parliament on the grounds that some controversial provisions had been smuggled into it. Consensus is the key to the success of a constitution making project.

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