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A second chance?

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The next two months will be crucial for Sri Lanka; not only is the Budget to be presented, the parliamentary debate on the recently released interim report of the Constitutional Assembly will be held during this time. It will be a significant test not only for the Government and the main Opposition but also a measurement of how much public dedication is behind reconciliation.   

For two years the Government has been slowly pushing forward with its election pledge to cement reconciliation through a new Constitution that will focus on clearer devolution and improved minority representation as well as abolishing or reducing the powers of the executive presidency. But key stakeholders have warned that the window is fast closing with knotty problems such as Constitution-making falling victim to political expediency in the second half of parliamentary terms. This leaves the Government with less than seven months to keep its promises.   

Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathi Wickremaratne chairs the Management Committee of the Steering Committee tasked with drafting the new Constitution. Since March 2016, the 21-member parliamentary body chaired by the Prime Minister has been thrashing out the knotty questions of devolution, the future of the executive presidency and electoral reform – areas where political consensus is vital to ensure the passage of the draft proposals through Parliament.

The endless delays and an apparent stagnation of the process have caused major frustration for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The upcoming debate is likely to test the TNA and its relationship with the coalition government as the Joint Opposition and other loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would use the debate as a platform to trot out corrosive, narrow and damaging efforts both in and outside the parliament.

Ironically, the major sticking point for the SLFP is the abolition of the executive presidency, even though the party has railed against the all-powerful presidency since it was instituted in 1978. Political analysts noted that despite the SLFP’s four-decade campaign against the executive presidency, the office has best served the centre-left party. Three of Sri Lanka’s five executive presidents elected to office since 1978 have been members of the SLFP.

With the party now split between President Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a change in the executive presidency could hold an uncertain future for the SLFP, prompting its members to tread extra carefully. The SLFP’s stance on the new proposals will be crucial to signpost where the coalition government will eventually land on the issue of the Executive President and the devolution of power. President Sirisena making his first statements on the draft a few days ago rejected claims that it promoted federalism, indicating a positive outlook. The tone and details of the debate will give more details.  

Dr. Wickremaratne has warned that the new Constitution is in danger of facing the same pitfalls as the 2000 attempt, which came too late in former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s term and was eventually scuttled by politics. If Sri Lanka loses this chance to rectify historical injustices and build a foundation for a new future it may not get another opportunity for decades to come.  


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