Monday, 16 October 2017 04:19

Too Soon for Constitutional Change - Jehan Perera

The release of the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report on constitutional reform gave the hope that it would be the government’s priority in the coming months. This calculation was buttressed by the government’s repeated postponement of local government elections which became extended to the postponement of provincial council elections also. The problem facing the government is that any local election would pit the coalition partners against each other, possibly to the detriment of their alliance. This led to speculation that the government would go into a referendum on a new constitution on the basis that this would be the best way to reunify the government alliance. It was argued that a referendum would impel all parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of 2015 to get together again as a unified force to win the referendum.

However, it now seems more likely that the long postponed local government elections will take place prior to the referendum. The report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reforms has not yet reached the stage of being a draft of the new constitution. At the present time it is only a set of principles and proposals that are 26 pages in length. It is not written with the requisite degree of detail and specificity to be a draft constitution. This is also immediately visible in the fact that the Steering Committee report is unsigned. It is still far from being a consensus document which can be seen by the fact that the eight annexes to the 26 page Steering Committee report from eight political parties amounts to 65 pages in length.

A perusal of the set of 9 documents that comprise the Steering Committee report with annexes would reveal that political parties are still far from reaching agreement on many of the principles of the new constitution. Although the Steering Committee report asserts there is general consensus that the Executive Presidency as it exists today should be abolished, most of the political parties want it to continue albeit with reforms. Although the Steering Committee report proposes an alternative formulation of the unitary state, most of the political parties are in disagreement with it. These parties include the SLFP, headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and co-partner with the UNP in the government which takes a stand that is contrary to the Steering Committee report on both these issues.

The government has announced that the Steering Committee will meet once again on October 19 to discuss its report and annexes. The government has also set aside three days beginning October 30 to discuss these matters in parliament. There is anticipation that these deliberations will yield a sufficient consensus for the constitutional drafters to get on with the task of preparing a draft constitution. This is likely to take several months. This process is unlikely to be completed by January next year when the local government elections are most likely to take place according to the Election Commissioner. It is unlikely that the constitutional drafters on the government side will wish to bring the outcome of constitutional discussions to the public attention until after the local government elections.

Constitutional reform is highly charged for both political actors and the general population. It is liable to be distorted and misinterpreted. The mere fact that the government is engaging in constitutional reform in the context of international pressures on it due to war time excesses has enabled the opposition to attack the government. The opposition has claimed that the government’s reforms are meant to surrender to the demands of the international community and to pave the handing over of war heroes to international tribunals. The opposition has been claiming that constitutional reform is meant to appease the international community rather than to protect the national interest.

Therefore, in the next three months the government will be focusing its attention on how best to win the local government elections. A key instrument for electoral advancement will be the forthcoming budget, which will be out in November and is expected to contain many attractive features for the general population. There is unlikely to be much progress in terms of advancing the constitutional reform process. If at all the government will engage in a strategic retreat to the existing conservative formulations of the unitary state and the granting of foremost place to Buddhism. This is the common denominator to which all Sinhalese-led parties will accede. The government will wish to avoid alienating its majority Sinhalese voter base.

The repeated postponement of local government elections has given rise to a belief that the government has lost much of its popularity and that the opposition is strong. This impression is given credence by the fact that people are ever willing to complain against the government for its failure to transform the economy into a high performance one in which the cost of living is reduced, salaries are increased and exciting new job opportunities are created. This has enabled the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to project itself as a strong force that can capture state power in a few years if not topple the government immediately. The prevalence of strikes by various trade union groups is attributed to the strength of the Joint Opposition which is seen as having a hand in every trouble for the government.

The ideal scenario for the government would be to use the opportunity presented by the local government elections to dispel this negative image. The government will go into these elections as rival political parties represented by the United National Front (UNP and allies) and United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP and allies). They will be contesting each other, which is the situation that they tried to avoid by postponing the local government elections. However, their main opponent, the Joint Opposition will not be in an advantageous situation either. The main party of the Joint Opposition will be the newly formed SLPP which comprises SLFP members loyal to the former president as its main component. The new party will be hard pressed to break the monopoly the UNP and SLFP have long enjoyed.

Reports from the field indicate that ordinary SLFP members prefer to stay with their traditional party, the SLFP, which is part of the government and enjoys the benefits of state power rather than join the SLPP, which is given leadership by the former President. It is also reported that the SLPP is having difficulty in some areas in finding suitable cadre who are prepared to contest the elections. Prospective candidates are aware that voters at the local level are more likely to vote for a candidate who has access to the state machinery. This lays the ground for victory by the government parties at the local government elections. Such victory may also lay the ground for victory of the government at a referendum on a new constitution. The post-election challenge will be to come up with a consensus document that harmonises the Select Committee report with the annexes of the political parties.