Moving towards contentious constitutional reform
Posted on October 6th, 2017

Courtesy The Economist

Constitutional reforms, if not a full blown new constitution, were always on the cards after the reformist Maithripala Sirisena was elected president in 2015. This was reinforced after the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed a coalition government in the same year, providing them with a large parliamentary majority. However, as reflected in the interim report on the new constitution, differences between the two parties over some of the proposed changes remain. The Economist Intelligence Unit expects negotiations over the content of the new constitution to heat up in the months ahead.

In March 2016 the parliament adopted a resolution to establish a Constitutional Assembly (CA). The CA was to consist of all members of parliament sitting as a separate body. It set up a 21-member steering committee, its composition reflecting the strength of each of the parties represented in parliament. By April 2016 the steering committee had sat down to work on identifying 12 main subject areas, and it was decided that certain subjects would be dealt with directly by the committee itself.

This includes matters covered by chapters one and two of the present constitution: nature of the state, sovereignty, religion, form of government, electoral reforms, principles of devolution and land. The other six subjects were assigned to set up sub-committees specially. The CA, at its first sitting on in May 2016, appointed six thematic sub-committees to assist the steering committee in drafting a constitutional proposal. The six sub-committees and their themes were fundamental rights, the judiciary, law and order, public finance, public services, and centre-periphery relations. Most of these issues are highly sensitive in Sri Lanka and touch on issues that have been sources of political, racial or ethnic tensions for decades. It was therefore never likely that a swift solution, agreeable to all sides, would be found despite the democratic process in which the new constitution is being drafted.

A vital step has been made…

The interim report of the steering committee on the new constitution was finally presented in September this year by the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The report is based largely on the recommendations of the constitutional reform sub-committee on centre-periphery relations and the expansion of the 13th amendment of the constitution. Under this amendment, passed in 1987, extensive powers are required to be devolved to nine directly elected provincial councils with a view to meeting Tamil demands for greater autonomy. However, the amendment has not yet been fully implemented.

As we had expected, not all parties were in full agreement with the draft. The report contains annexures that set out the observations and positions of various parties such as the joint opposition (largely supporting a former authoritarian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa); Mr Sirisena’s SLFP; the Tamil National Congress (TNA); Jatika Hela Urumaya and the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (Peoples’ Liberation Front). Importantly, the UNP has not made a separate submission to be included as it is in agreement with the interim report.

… but difficult talks will follow

Three days (October 30th to November 1st) have been set aside for the CA to debate the interim report. The fact that parties have presented individual observations to be included in the interim report points to the existence of some sharp and contrasting positions. For instance, even the UNP and the SLFP—the coalition members of the so-called national unity government—hold contrasting positions of the subject of the executive presidency.

Parts of the SLFP appear to have changed their mind and now want to retain the executive presidency despite heavily criticising it in the past. This change of heart is likely to be for short-term political reasons. Although some senior SLFP members criticised the previous Rajapaksa presidency for its authoritarian tendencies, they have realised that the party would lose a lot of leverage in the coalition if Mr Sirisena’s influence were to be weakened under the new constitution. As we have pointed out in the past, the UNP remains dominant and virtually controls the coalition’s agenda for economic issues.

The UNP retains its support for the abolition of the executive powers of the president, which are then supposed to be passed on to the prime minister. This shift in power from the presidency to the prime minister would have major ramifications for Sri Lanka’s political system and its economic policy in the long term, but for now the diverging positions between the UNP and SLFP are driven by short-term considerations. (The UNP is unlikely to field a successful candidate for the 2020 presidential election but stands a strong chance of remaining in government throughout the forecast period.)

More bones of contention

We expect the upcoming three-day debate to show that there are other knots that also need to be unravelled if the constitution-making process is to proceed smoothly. For instance, there is a long-held dispute over the rights of minorities and whether Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority would agree to the country devolving more power to the periphery. The Tamil minority TNA is arguing for a federal solution within an “undivided and indivisible” country.

The report recommends that Sinhalese and Tamil replace the word “unitary”, but there are already public protests, with some Buddhist monks taking a particularly strong stand against this proposed change. Some of them perceive this as an attempt to dilute Sri Lanka’s status as a unitary state and pave the way for a federal system. The joint opposition insists that the unitary state term must be preserved. This was expected, as the opposition block rests heavily on electoral support from the Sinhalese population. Many Sinhalese fear that granting more power to the periphery, including minority Tamil areas, would pave the way for separatism to rise again and lead to renewed violence.

Consensus-building a tough challenge

Mr Wickremesinghe remains keen to push ahead with the new constitution, with the understanding that the UNP’s electoral prospects are closely tied to finally making significant progress in reforming the country’s political system. As reformist and liberal party the UNP has a strong incentive to focus on ensuring parliamentary and public support for the new constitution. However, the UNP will have to work closely with the SLFP and other parties to secure the required two-thirds majority in parliament before the constitution can be put to a referendum.

We expect debate over the new constitution to heat up in the weeks and months ahead and believe that there will be some give and take between the parties, resulting in an eventual consensus on the broad shape of the constitution. Given the fractious nature of Sri Lanka’s politics, this will be an arduous task. The question whether to schedule a referendum on the constitution before or after local government polls (which have been due for more than two years) will also play a role in the upcoming negotiations on the new constitution.

2 Responses to “Moving towards contentious constitutional reform”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    We DON’T NEED a NEW CONSTITUTION crafted by TRAITORS, SEPARATIST MINORITIES and Westerners plying their Global Geopolitics of Containing China!

    We NEED a PATRIOTIC GOVERNMENT that will REPEAL the 13th Amendment, DISSOLVE the unnecessarily ONEROUS REDUNDANT GOVERNMENTAL BAGGAGE of the Provincials Councils!

    The EXECUTIVE Presidential form of Government should be RETAINED, and the post of PRIME MINISTER should be ELIMINATED. This would ENSURE that Sri Lanka CONTINUES to have the MOST STABLE FORM of GOVERNMENT to DEFEND, PRESERVE and DEVELOP it.

    The 19th Amendment limiting the number of Presidential Terms should be REPEALED! Let the PEOPLE decide through Presidential Elections every 5 years, whether they want to keep their President or replace him with another candidate!

    There are SIMPLY TOO MANY DESHAPALUAS at National and Palath Sabha Levels on the Government DOLE harrassing and burdening the people!

    Therefore, ELIMINATE & REPLACE the Provincial Councils with DISTRICTS administered by DISTRICT GOVERNORS appointed by the National Government. The SMALLER DISTRICTS will pose LESS of a threat to the National Government than the current SEPARATISM-PRONE Provinces. DECLARE it ILLEGAL to set up ETHNIC COMMUNITIES that exclude and prevent the free settlement of people of ALL COMMUNITIES throut the country.

    We don’t need OTHER LAYERS of ELECTED GOVERNMENT in ADDITION to the National Parliament in our TINY Nation.


    CREATE a second chamber of the Parliament called the SENATE, with ONE SENATOR ELECTED from EACH DISTRICT! This will give more representation to less populated Districts than MPs elected to the House of Commons allows.

    DECLARE Buddhism to be the National Religion, with freedom of worship guaranteed to all CITIZENS.

    DECLARE Sinhala to be the ONLY OFFICIAL & COMPULSORY LANGUAGE, with administrative use of Tamil throughout the country. DECLARE English to be a COMPULSORY INTERNATIONAL Link LANGUAGE!

    DEVELOP ONE LAW for marriage between ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN. OUTLAW all other forms of marriage.

    DECLARE appealing to and collaborating with FOREIGN Nations and Organizations to interfere in the governance of the country and to invade and overturn its elected legitimate government to be TREASON Punishable COMPULSORILY by DEATH.

  2. Ananda-USA Says:

    Manekshaw, BOLD STEP you say? In ONE WORD, that is UN-ADULTERATED HORSE MANURE!


    MAHINDA made the same MISTAKE when he PROMOTED the IDEA OF RECONCILIATION with UNREPENTANT TERRRORISTS and SEPARATISTS! He FREED them from the clutches of LTTE TERROR, but these INGRATES paid him back with UNREMITTING ENMITY, and even now are WORKING HARD to resurrect that SAME Tamil Tiger GULAG!

    IT IS TIME to STOP this RECONCILIATION CRAP NOW that has not WORKED to change the COMMUNAL RACIST MINDSET of Tamil people in the North and East.

    IT IS TIME to IGNORE their DEMANDS for DEVOLUTION OF POWER, and to just ACCORD them EQUAL RIGHTS and DEMAND EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY from them, just as we do from OTHER Sri Lankans.


    IT IS TIME for Sri Lanka to look to its DEFENSES and INSTALL a PATRIOTIC NO-NONSENSE Government that will IMPLEMENT & ENFORCE Laws that will PROTECT Sri Lanka as a UNITARY SINHALA-BUDDHIST Nation in PERPETUITY.


    If BASIL is PANDERING to Tamil and other MINORITY COMMUNALISTS, he should be STOPPED in his TRACKS!


    If you are a Sinhala-Buddhist Leader, DONT GO AROUND WORSHIPPING other religious DIETIES!

    HONOR & RESPECT other religious BELIEFS in a spirit of TOLERANCE, but DON’T go around participating in their RELIGIOUS RITUALS we ourselves DON’T BELIEVE, like an ACHCHARU Buddhist! Phew …. what a bunch of ADDLE-PATED GOOF-BALLS!

    Basil takes a bold step

    By Manekshaw

    The famous slogan put forward by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his Presidential campaign trail in the North was “known devil is better than unknown angel”. However, the Northerners and the Easterners preferred the ‘unknown angel’ for the ‘known devil’ by helping to overthrow the Rajapaksa regime with their verdict ‘whatever devil is a devil’ at the Presidential poll in 2015.

    A few days after the landmark verdict given on school girl Vithya Sivaloganathan gruesome murder case with death sentences passed on seven of the accused, the former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa was in Jaffna to launch the political activities of his newly formed party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

    Having been a prominent Minister and being a member of the Rajapaksa family, Basil’s visit to Jaffna last week was very significant in many ways as it was after the Presidential Poll defeat in 2015, Basil who was one of the main strategists of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidential election campaign visited Jaffna for the first time.

    After the discussions he had in Jaffna with his party men Basil met the prominent Hindu and Catholic religious dignitaries and spoke to them on the present situation in the North.

    Basil would have got the opportunity to read the pulse of the people in the North with the comment made by Rev. Gnanasampantha Paramachariyar, Chief Priest of the Nallur Gnanasampanthar Atheenam which is a foremost Hindu institution in Jaffna.

    More than a spiritual leader the Reverend Gnanasampantha Paramachariyar is a person who remained in Jaffna and witnessed the terrifying conditions in the Peninsula when the turbulent conditions engulfed the region.

    It is not only this Hindu dignitary even the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna is also an observer of the pre-and post war developments and their views as neutral persons were considered noteworthy by the local as well as the foreign dignitaries who pay courtesy calls on them.

    Basil Rajapaksa was briefed on the present mind frame of the people of Jaffna by Rev. Gnanasampantha Paramachariyar. The Hindu dignitary said: “First of all the Buddhist fanatics in the South should be enlightened on strengthening peace and reconciliation in the country. Extremism in politics or religion shouldn’t be allowed to derail the good efforts to strengthen the peace and reconciliation.”

    As Sri Lanka is blessed with all major religions in the world, except for Buddhist clergy there were hardly any clergymen of other religions who flexed their muscles in the politics of the country.

    So, the comment made by the Hindu dignitary from Jaffna to former Minister Basil Rajapaksa has clearly indicated that the efforts to strengthen peace and reconciliation should be carried out by getting rid of the involvement of Buddhist monks in politics.

    Constructive move

    Rev. Gnanasampantha Paramachariyar also mentioned categorically that the people in the North were not against any constructive move to bring about a political solution to the ethnic question.

    Later, addressing the press at the Jaffna Press Club, Basil Rajapaksa spoke positively on several issues on the peace building process in the North.

    Basil as Minister of Economic Development played a key role in rebuilding the post-war infrastructure facilities in the North and the East.

    So as a former Minister focused on the Economic Development Basil speaking to the press in Jaffna emphasized on the need of releasing the lands still in the possession of the Security Forces in the North.

    Basil though he didn’t meet the families of the involuntarily disappeared persons during his stay in Jaffna had pointed out the need of expediting the process to find a solution to the issue.

    In the meantime Cabinet Spokesman and Minister of Health Dr. Rajitha Senaratne commenting on the visit of Basil Rajapaksa to Jaffna last week said that if former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had listened to Basil he wouldn’t have lost the Presidential Poll in 2015.

    Dr. Senaratne’s comment is interesting as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa depended heavily on his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa to bring an end to the separatist war militarily in the North.

    However, even after ending the separatist war the former President depended more on Gotabaya instead of focusing on the economic oriented humanitarian activities and dealing effectively on the political front to build up the credibility of the North and East people.

    So, Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne being a member of the Rajapaksa government was absolutely correct that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa depending on Gotabaya even in the post-war period had led to the neglect of several humanitarian issues shattering the hopes of the people in the North and the East who expected that early solutions would be reached in releasing the LTTE suspects as well as in meting out justice for the alleged atrocities committed during the three decades of separatist war.

    Therefore, Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to Jaffna last week was an ‘eye opener’ for the previous regime to understand where they went wrong in getting the support of the Northerners and the Easterners as also a wakeup call to the present regime not to repeat the same errors his brother had committed in dealing with the North and the East.

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