Apprehensive about electoral consequences, political parties in Sri Lanka are either posturing on the on-going constitution-making process, or are maintaining stony silence on it.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by President Maithripala Sirisena, has taken a hard line publicly, while being accommodative in closed door committee meetings on the constitution.
The United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is silent publicly, but is active in the committees.
These contradictions exist because the subject of constitution making is thorny. No one knows how effective the anti-new constitution lobby represented by the Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be, in the coming Provincial Council elections and also in the next Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020.
But forces which are eager to give the country a new constitution as per the pre-election promise solemnly made by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, are confident that the competing parties would sink their differences and agree to the Steering Committee’s Interim Report which is to be submitted to the Constitutional Assembly (CA) on September 21.
The Steering Committee (SC), chaired by the Prime Minister, comprises representatives of all parties in parliament. The Constitutional Assembly (CA) comprises all the 225 members of the present parliament. The SC is expected to draft an Interim Report on the constitution based on the reports of the various Subject Sub-Committees. The Sub-committees’ reports were in turn based on consensus among the members. Each Sub-Committee had gone around the country eliciting views from a cross section of people.
Staunch opponents of the idea of drafting a new constitution (like the Joint Opposition or JO) say that the Sub Committees’ reports were biased because their members were largely people with left-liberal-internationalist views and not nationlistic views.
But those wanting a new constitution say that the Sub-Committees had not given their collective views, but only meticulously stated the views of the people who had testified before them.
“It was not as if one view prevailed and others were blacked out. All view were included. It is now for the Steering Committee to read through these reports and come to a conclusion on what each one is saying,” explained S.Thavarasa, a Member of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Sub-Committee on Center-Periphery Relations.
Further, the report of the Steering Committee will also be only an “Interim” report. It will have to be debated in the CA and chopped and changed there before being put to vote to get the required two thirds majority of the total membership of the House.
On top of all that, the draft new constitution will have to be approved in a Referendum, Thavarasa pointed out, commenting on the opposition’s rejection of the constitution even before an initial draft has been written.
Those parties which want to solve the long-standing minority Tamil question and foster democracy overall, are confident that when it comes to the brass stacks, the bickering parties will sink their differences and a new constitution will see the light of day by year end, as planned.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP and member of the Steering Committee M.A.Sumanthiran said that with inter-party consensus marking the reports of the Sub-Committees, and with the Steering Committee witnessing consensus on key issues, there should be no difficulty in getting consensus on the Interim Report as well. The current posturing of the various parties on the new constitution will be rendered meaningless in course of time, he predicted.
According to Sumanthiran and Thavarasa, there are no basic differences as regards the main issues like devolution of power to the provinces, the Nature of the State, and the place of Buddhism.
The Sinhalese-majority parties want the basic structure of the constitution to be “unitary” while the Tamils minority want it to be a “federal” one. But as a compromise, the Sinhalese parties are willing to accommodate devolution of power within an overall unitary structure.
“Both sides were looking for substance rather than nomenclature,” Thavarasa explained.
On the place of Buddhism, Sumanthiran said that Tamils ,who are either Hindu or Christian, did not oppose giving the foremost place to Buddhism, the religion of 75% of Sri Lankans.
“While agreeing on the broad principles, the various parties have their views on the details. But we do not think that these details will stall the overall process,” Sumanthiran said.
Taking the proposals of President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as an example, Sumanthiran said that the proposals do not question the basic premises of the draft Interim Report.
While the Tamil parties would like the Executive President to have limited powers, the SLFP wants the present powers as spelt out in the 19th. amendment passed in 2015. The President should remain Defense Minister and have powers to declare an emergency with or without the consent and sanction of parliament.
The SLFP is for the existing 13 th.amendment defining devolution of power to the provinces.But it wants the provision for amalgamating provinces to go (mainly to avoid amanlagation of Tamil-speaking provinces). The provincial Governor should not be reduced as a rubber stamp of the provincial Chief Minister ,it said.
The party also stated that Executive’s decisions taken regarding national security or take over of lands for security purposes, should not be challenged in any courts. Declaration of a State of Emergency should not be subject to a court review. As it is not practical to get parliamentary approval to declare a provincial Emergency, the President should have the power to enforce an Emergency in the province concerned.
Joint Opposition Opposes
Former President Rajapaksa’s ‘Joint Opposition’ has also handed in its set of proposals. But a new body called “Eliya” or Ligh,t under the leadership of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, vowed this week to campaign against the constitutional changes as it sees devolution of powers to the provinces as a stepping stone to the division of the country as desired by Western neo-colonial powers.
Gotabaya is the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa. All ‘JO’ leaders were present at the inaugural meeting of “Eliya” on Wednesday.
The United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has not submitted its proposals but indications are that will go with the general trend of opinion.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is hopeful about the new constitution getting through. The different views on details could be thrashed out in the debates in the Constitutional Assembly, Sumanthiran said.
According to Thavarasa, if the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) supports the new constitution, the Joint Opposition can be disregarded and the bill will be passed with the required two thirds majority in the Constitutional Assembly.
“But to defeat the campaign of the JO, government will have to campaign for the constitution forcefully. It must get its act together as soon as possible,” Sumanthiran said.
“Even the referendum can be won,” said Mano Ganeshan, leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and Minister of National Languages and Dialogue.
“I can speak both Tamil and Sinhalese and can convince both sides,” Ganeshan said confidently. (South Asian Monitor)