The Constitution conundrum

In Sri Lanka, the biggest obstacle to constitutional reforms comes from within the government

November 20, 2017 12:26 am | Updated 01:24 am IST

 “The cold war between President Maithripala Sirisena (left) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to further weaken the government’s capacity to advance constitutional reforms.” The leaders in Colombo.

“The cold war between President Maithripala Sirisena (left) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to further weaken the government’s capacity to advance constitutional reforms.” The leaders in Colombo.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team’s attempts to change the Constitution have been facing a series of obstacles. President Maithripala Sirisena and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are not enthusiastically backing the reforms initiative and almost all Buddhist monks are opposed to any constitutional change.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s constitutional reforms project envisages the abolition of the presidential system and return to a revised version of the Westminster model, replacement of the proportional system of elections with a mixed system, and greater devolution to provincial councils.

Attempts of the past

This is the second time that a serious attempt is being made to replace the 1978 Constitution enacted by J.R. Jayewardene, who became Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister in 1977 and then the President upon the enactment of the new system. Chandrika Kumaratunga as President initiated a reform process in 1994, which ended in failure in 2000. Taking forward her politics of reform, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2005 and 2009, promised to change the Constitution, but did not take concrete steps apart from appointing two committees to make recommendations. Nonetheless, Mr. Rajapaksa did an unusual thing by amending the Constitution in 2010 in order to enhance, not reduce, the powers of the President, despite the fact that ‘executive presidency’ was the darkest feature of the Jayewardene Constitution.

History appears to repeat itself. The most ardent opponents of the reform initiatives now are Sinhalese nationalist forces, led by Buddhist monks. Parliamentary opposition, led by Mr. Rajapaksa, is in the forefront of the secular campaign against constitutional reform. The opposition by Buddhist monks revolves around two points. One, further devolution would amount to giving in to the demands of the Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as appeasing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam diaspora and foreign powers. Two, abolition of the presidential system would weaken the Sri Lankan state. The Sangha leaders are also worried that the new Constitution might drop the “foremost place” position that is accorded to Buddhism as per the current Constitution.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seems to be aware of all this, which is why he has adopted the strategy of drafting the new Constitution through the Parliament acting as a Constitutional Assembly. The proceedings of the Constitutional Assembly were conducted in a low-key fashion with little controversy. Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to have thought, quite wisely, that avoiding political drama over the reform process would be the best option.

Political drama over reform

However, constitutional reform is nothing short of state reform being carried out partly to resolve the ethnic conflict politically, which its opponents, more than its proponents, are acutely sensitive to. This is why political drama over constitutional reforms, the very thing that Mr. Wickremesinghe wanted to avoid, has erupted.

Three weeks ago, an interim report of the Assembly’s Standing Committee was released. It is neither a final report nor a constitutional draft, but a statement of the various positions of groups in Parliament on reform topics. However, the political debate it unleashed in Sinhalese society has conveniently ignored this fact. This too is for strategic reasons. The opponents appear to be determined to block any progress in the reform process beyond its present state of being confined to an interim report. Preventing a sober national discussion by unleashing an ideological war is a time-tested strategy.

A divided government

Meanwhile, something different seems to happening in Sri Lanka this time around. The opponents to constitutional reform seem to have exhausted their energy and arguments, ironically amidst the government’s own inertia and reluctance to publicly defend its positions. The government is divided on the nature and scope of reform. While the Prime Minister wants a new Constitution and abolition of the presidential system, President Sirisena wants only electoral reforms. Interestingly, the discord within the ruling coalition is paralleled by the loss of political energy in the opposition campaign. These two unconnected developments appeared clear when the Constitutional Assembly debated the interim report. The best ideas that were contributed to the debate were from the proponents of reform. The joint opposition’s speakers, led by Mr. Rajapaksa, lacked any new ideas.

Despite this, Mr. Wickremesinghe will still find it difficult to manage the politics of constitutional reform. First, there is the timing of the whole exercise. The government of ‘good governance’, as the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition regime calls itself, is no longer as politically strong as it was a year ago. Corruption scandals, slowing down of investigations against individuals of the previous government, and economic stagnation have all seriously undermined the political credibility of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s side of the coalition.

Also, personal and political differences between the Prime Minister and the President have surfaced in a manner that continues to baffle even the government’s supporters. The Sirisena camp believes that Mr. Wickremesinghe has a secret understanding with the Rajapaksa brothers to prevent the SLFP from becoming a future electoral threat to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party. The Prime Minister apparently believes that a divided SLFP would be to the UNP’s electoral advantage. After two and a half years of working together, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe seem to have discovered that there are serious differences between them. There are signs of them even trying to undermine each other in order to reconfigure the balance of power within the coalition.

Sensing the arrival of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s weak moment amidst the corruption scandals, Mr. Sirisena has recently moved in the direction of further weakening the Prime Minister’s position by asserting his own authority within the ruling coalition government. The balance of power between the two within the coalition regime may or may not change. Yet, the unfolding cold war is likely to further weaken the government’s capacity to advance the constitutional reforms initiative. A weakened government with self-inflicted wounds can hardly be the agency for a crucial project of state reform.

Thus the biggest obstacle to the progress of the constitutional reforms initiative comes from within the government, not outside. This is the real political conundrum in Sri Lanka today. Although the 19th Amendment to the Constitution created a system of diarchy in the structure of government, the two centres of power managed to function in a spirit of cooperation. That relationship has been damaged. Unless the two leaders repair it, their relationship might even degenerate into competition and antagonism. That will not be good for Sri Lanka’s democracy and political stability.

Jayadeva Uyangoda recently retired as professor of political science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo

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