Creating a Constitution

Thursday, 24 August 2017 00:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Hard decisions are part and parcel of politics. As time ticks down, Sri Lanka’s Government and public are caught between holding elections or pushing forward with a crucial Constitution-making process. 

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 committee has had an interim report containing draft constitutional proposals ready since December 2016, but delay after delay, especially on the part of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, has stalled progress.

The endless delays and an apparent stagnation of the process have caused major frustration for the Tamil National Alliance, which said enough is enough last week and fired off letters to the UN and foreign diplomatic missions in Colombo, urging international intervention to ensure the Government keeps its promises on reconciliation and devolution. According to Dr. Wickremaratne, the UNP, TNA, JVP, leftist parties and the UNFGG alliance comprising several smaller parties all favour a new Constitution. 

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 is still undecided on whether it will support a new Constitution or merely back an amendment to the existing Constitution. Taking up the latter option would mean the Executive Presidency will not be abolished. 

Another possibility under discussion is that presidential powers will be trimmed and a president will be appointed by Parliament who will then govern in consultation with the Prime Minister. Options are available to the SLFP but for the successful implementation of its election pledge it has to make a decision sooner rather than later. 

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.