By Dharisha Bastians
Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party pleaded for consensus to enact a new Constitution to end decades of ethnic strife by extensive decentralisation of power and the SLFP made a strong case for retaining the executive presidency, as the first day of debate on a constitutional proposals report kicked off in Parliament yesterday.
As the House took up the Interim Report by the Steering Committee tasked with drafting the new constitutional proposals for debate yesterday and the Joint Opposition launched street demonstrations against a new Constitution, the Tamil National Alliance urged parliamentarians to seize the opportunity to change a “bitter past” and vowed to do everything possible to reach consensus on the thorny issue of power-sharing.
“Sri Lanka must remain one,” said Tamil National Alliance Spokesman and Jaffna District Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran, who opened the debate when the 225-member Parliament sat as the constitutional assembly for a full-day session yesterday.
Sumanthiran said that while Tamil parties had always said Sri Lanka must be a federal state, a wrong perception was being spread that Tamil people want to separate from the country. “But if this country is to remain one, different peoples that live in this country must have equal access to government power,” he emphasised. “Our people must be able to say our language is equal; our religions are equal and we have a due share in governance structures in this country.”
Sumanthiran noted during his speech that many of those vociferously opposing proposals contained in the Interim Report, including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had been members of the Cabinet which ratified 2000’s Union of Regions constitutional proposals.
“The Union of Regions proposals went far beyond what is contemplated in terms of power-sharing in this Interim Report,” he charged.
“Don’t you want a resolution to a problem that has plagued this country since independence?” he asked members of the House opposing the Steering Committee’s Interim Report.
In a broadside at the former President, the TNA MP tabled a page of Rajapaksa’s 2015 presidential election manifesto in which he pledges to formulate a new Constitution through a constitutional council process within one year of being elected to office. Cumulatively, 97% of Sri Lankans had voted to enact a new Constitution since both main candidates had made pledges to this effect during the election, Sumanthiran argued.
Laying out the SLFP position during the debate, Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva insisted that his party was still opposed to bringing constitutional changes that would require a referendum. “During a referendum, people will vote on the cost of living and the SAITM issue, not on the new Constitution. So the SLFP position is still that Parliament should enact constitutional amendments that do not require a referendum to pass,” he said.
The SLFP has continued to maintain this position despite participating in a unanimous adoption of a resolution of Parliament setting up the constitutional assembly to draft a new Constitution. The resolution explicitly stipulates that the new Constitution would be subject to a referendum.
In a similarly ironic vein, the senior SLFP MP also argued strongly for retaining the executive presidency, abandoning decades of opposition to the all-powerful presidential system enacted in 1978 by the party. De Silva argued that when wider power-sharing with the provinces was being envisioned, a strong presidency was necessary. “A president elected by Parliament will not work. The president must be directly elected,” the SLFP member insisted, claiming that this was also the view of smaller political parties.
The position runs contrary to promises by President Maithripala Sirisena, who leads the SLFP, that he would be the last executive president of Sri Lanka. Constitutional experts also express concerns that a directly elected president could undermine the power of a prime minister and cabinet of ministers in a time of crisis, in a Westminster style governance model.
The JVP harped on these pledges made during the 2015 presidential election with both the party’s MPs insisting that President Sirisena’s primary mandate was to abolish the presidency. JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake said that every presidential candidate in recent history had come to power pledging to abolish the executive presidency. The clamour for a new Constitution island-wide did not come from a desire for power-sharing but from a desperate cry to abolish the authoritarian presidential system, Ratnayake charged.
The JVP took a diametrically opposite view from the SLFP, insisting that in the new Constitution, the president could be the head of state and hold certain limited powers, but should not be directly elected by the people.
JVP MP Nalinda Jayatissa said that while every president came to power pledging to abolish the system, each of them would go on to win parliamentary majorities that would then enable them to prop up the presidency.
“This is a rare opportunity we have in this Parliament. This president doesn’t have a parliamentary majority. We must seize this moment,” Jayatissa said in a fiery speech. Answering arguments that an executive president would make the country more secure, Jayatissa said no president had been able to prevent a war or communal riots in the island.
“In any event, executive power doesn’t just vanish with the abolishing of the presidency. It is transferred, to a cabinet, to parliament, to governors and different agencies,” he explained. Addressing the opposition to the new Constitution mounted by the powerful Buddhist clergy, Jayatissa urged the senior monks to recall that it was executive power that allowed night races around the Temple of the Tooth despite protests by the Sangha.
The debate on the Steering Committee’s Interim Report will continue today and tomorrow, before the constitutional assembly adjourns and the Committee returns to work on its final report. The final report by the Steering Committee will contain a draft Constitution bill as an annexure which will be taken up for debate and vote in Parliament. This bill will need a two-thirds – or super majority to pass in the legislature, after which it will be put before the people through a referendum for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote.
The Joint Opposition, which appears to be getting into top gear for the ‘NO’ campaign, staged a demonstration at the Parliament roundabout yesterday, as the debate on the Interim Report got underway. The pro-Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA has stoked fears of secession if a new Constitution is enacted, with wider powers being granted to the provinces.
Speaker quells P’ment’s fears over protesters
By Ashwin Hemmathagama – Our Lobby Correspondent
Despite the police barricading the Parliament roundabout near the Polduwa Junction to prevent almost 2,000 protesters from marching towards Parliament, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya assured lawmakers’ safe passage to and from the House when the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly was taken up for debate yesterday.
The Speaker, responding to a Point of Order raised by UPFA Joint Opposition group member MP Bandula Gunawardena, said that protesters would not be allowed to forcefully enter Parliament and law enforcement authorities had already been informed to secure the travel of MPs without any delay or obstruction.
Amidst the disturbance of Joint Opposition MPs, UNP backbencher Nalin Bandara Jayamaha stated that it was a protest staged by the National Freedom Front, which was unable to take part in the debate but misled the public. “They are the bankrupt politicians,” he charged.
Meanwhile, reminding the lawmakers that there were two other access routes to Parliament despite the main route being closed due to security reasons, Minister of Higher Education and Highways and Leader of the House of Parliament Lakshman Kiriella urged them to take either one of these routes rather than making a big issue out of nothing.