The erudite bliss of people who pose as politicians has been put to the test in the form of a Constitutional Assembly, and yet many failed to comprehend its depth. As the Constitutional Assembly debates on various provisions of the Steering Committee Report, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has made remarks to the extent of stating that the report has no validity in law. True and conceded, but to what effect is this Steering Committee Report if it declared no intentions of a proposed Constitution?
When the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka expressly states that there is ample time to prepare a Draft Constitution, what exactly does he mean? A good hint would be the Local Government polls. With the ample electoral reforms proposed, perhaps a new Delimitation Commission could take enough time to even extend the term of Parliament would be a wild guess.
Lessons from the past
This is exactly what the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike did in 1972. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the elections in 1970, and Sri Lanka’s first autochthonous Constitution was introduced in 1972. Through this Constitution, she extended the term of her party by another two years. Under the 1972 Constitution, the National State Assembly was permitted to function for a period of six years, after which there was an automatic dissolution.
This provision was continued on to the 1978 Constitution, until the term of office of Parliament was reduced to five years in 2015. Nonetheless, Sirimavo Bandaranaike proved that the term of Parliament could be extended through a new Constitution.
In another example, Sri Lanka’s first and only referendum to date has emerged from the Machiavellian politics played by the then President J.R. Jayewardene in 1982. A Constitution was introduced to replace the 1972 Constitution, and the new Constitution at the time guaranteed six years for Parliament.
Jayewardene was content that he had 83 per cent of the Parliamentary seats, and he was also worried he would lose his super-majority at the subsequent General Election. The worry emerged following his victory at the Presidential Election in 1982. All he did was put the matter before a referendum, and the referendum passed with 54 per cent of the votes in favour. It is one of the most undemocratic moves in Sri Lanka’s 87 years of democratic history.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, being a veteran politician, is quite a maestro in playing devious politics himself. His appointment as Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena bears testament to it. In any case, his partnering with the SLFP to oust former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from power was a strategic move that brought him the much needed two-third majority in Parliament to vote on crucial changes. Half way through his term, he does realize that this marriage of the SLFP and the UNP is heading in the wrong direction, and may have to concede defeat at a future election.
However, Wickremesinghe is capable of twisting politics to suit the need, and may prolong his tenure as Prime Minister through devious tactics. His first and more preferred ploy would be to enable an extended term by enacting a new Constitution and delaying delimitation. This is the case with the Local Authorities and Provincial Councils even at present.
A new Constitution, among other provisions, may silently include a provision to further the term of the present Parliament until delimitation is complete. This is a ploy that the Yahapalanaya (good governance) regime has already employed to good effect in the past. The many proposed electoral reforms, and in particular the proposed Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system of elections, could require a fresh delimitation to accommodate the First Past the Post system.
As a second option, the new Constitution could grant new life to the existing government in the same manner that Sirimavo Bandaranaike did in 1972. In both cases, a referendum to pass the new Constitution will be crucial.
In both cases, if a new Constitution is enacted, it shall declare the present limitations to the Parliamentary term under Article 62 (2) of the 1978 Constitution null and void.
Abolition of Executive Presidency
The promise of abolition of the Executive Presidency has proven futile over many years, until hope was restored through incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena. The calls for abolition may see fruition through the proposed Constitution, with the Steering Committee Report expressly calling for abolition and to empower the Prime Minister.
Abolition of the Executive Presidency may not immediately cripple the SLFP, given that that due consideration is given to the amendment under which President Maithripala Sirisena took oath. Nonetheless, that controversy shall remain for Courts to decide on the political nature.
However, if the Executive Presidency is abolished and Maithripala Sirisena is rendered a figurehead, then the Prime Minister becomes powerful and has the discretion to choose how he would rule. Without Maithripala Sirisena at the helm, the SLFP merely becomes a minority with no power.
The UNP stands to gain from this transfer of power to the Prime Minister. The SLFP would no longer be a threat, and the only worthy fight would emerge from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) whose de facto leader is Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even then, the UNP is likely to emerge stronger if the Constitution is approved.
The UNP has not been itself ever since it returned to power through underhand tactics in 2015. In certain instances it appears that a few party members have sold their souls to the devil. In particular, a few provisions are indeed a cause for alarm.
The most prominent of the features from the Steering Committee Report is the union of the North and East as a single province.
The events that occurred in 1990 are still fresh in the minds of many, and this was after the North and East was merged. For those who are unaware, an Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) Government of the then North-Eastern Province raised the Eelam flag and declared the province an Independent Tamil Eelam.
Further to this, devolution of Police power may not be the most welcome move, and the manner in which land powers have been split appear to be highly disconcerting. The electoral reforms seek to bring back the bicameral Parliament of the Soulbury Constitution, which again appears to be an unnecessary expense.
While Wickremesinghe may debate on the applicability of a Steering Committee Report, he needs to be reminded that he heads the Steering Committee which is empowered to draft a new Constitution.
Yes, many from the media have claimed that Wickremesinghe aims to divide Sri Lanka, and it appears highly likely given the odds. On 31 May, Ceylon Today published my article claiming the draft Steering Committee Report aimed at retaining Article 154A (3) which could merge two or more provinces as a single administrative unit. It was then speculated that it was merely a report and the proposal would eventually be struck off.
However, the final Steering Committee Report went on to claim that the Constitution will not facilitate a merger, but that the North and East will be a single province. If this was not a clear expression of intention, what is it?
It is quite obvious that this proposed Constitution aims at fulfilling the aims of a darker devil who rules from the horizons. It would seek to further empower a drive for a UNP led government. It could also mean that the people of Sri Lanka are mere pawns in this vicious game of chess, and nothing more. If the Parliamentarians do not decide in favour of the people, then only the people remain to fend for themselves at a referendum. The referendum would determine the power of the people.
It is important that the government keeps this in mind when proceeding with a new Constitution.
(The writer is a Political Analyst and an independent researcher of laws. He holds a postgraduate degree in the field of human rights and democratization from the University of Colombo and an undergraduate degree in Law from the University of Northumbria, United Kingdom)