The Wigneswaran-Sampanthan tussle dims hopes for a new Constitution

The most important but intricate task the government has assigned itself in the New Year is to fulfill  the adoption of a new Constitution. The whole exercise would apparently focus on three major issues; abolishing of the Executive Presidency, bringing in electoral reforms and the resolution of the ethnic problem.

President Maithripala Sirisena has already announced that he would make a special statement on January 9, on the first anniversary of his elevation to the Presidency, proposing the conversion of  Parliament to a Constitutional Assembly, in order to draft a new Constitution. Also the government has announced that the new Constitution drafted by the Constitutional Assembly need to be approved by the people at a referendum. The Constitutional Assembly, though it has local precedent, is not a mechanism specified in the present Constitution.

But as reflected in the manifesto of the United Front government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, put forward at the 1970 General Elections, Parliament was simultaneously converted to a constitutional assembly.

This was to draft the first Republican Constitution that severed the umbilical cord that tied the country to the British Crown once and for all and made Sri Lanka a fully independent country, free of British rule. This happened at a time when there was no provision for a constitutional assembly in the hitherto valid Soulbury Constitution of 1947. 

Electoral reforms and resolution of the ethnic problem through these means would definitely be more thorny and vexed than the abolition of Executive Presidency under the present circumstances. Since political parties, when they were not in power, had always supported the scrapping of the executive presidential form of governance at a time when the political will of the incumbent government had been the only prerequisite for the purpose. 

Marksman_news_1328120564671This time too, there is every possibility of an Opposition group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa supporting such a move as it would pave the way for him to regain the opportunity to capture power he was deprived by the 19th Amendment in May last year, during the so-called 100 Day Programme.

On the other hand President Sirisena had expressed his willingness to totally relinquish the executive powers vested in him as the President of Sri Lanka.

However, the moves to bring in electoral reforms would be different. The attempts made through the proposed 20th Amendment before the August 17 Parliamentary Elections were futile due to stiff resistance by both minority political parties and other minor parties to the original draft of the amendment.

Since both sides – the two main parties on one hand and the minor and minority parties on the other – still stick to their guns, government would have tough times ahead in finding new strategies to break the impasse and move forward.  Although almost all political parties in the country had agreed upon a formula of a mixed system of both first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems – after nearly a decade of negotiations  the bone of contention still remains on the number of MPs elected under each system.

That would be a hard nut to crack even in the coming months.

10678640_732681696802609_2218721532253055532_nFinding a solution to the ethnic problem through the Constitution has always been an acid test for the incumbent governments since the 1980s in the face of the Opposition of the day tending to rouse communalism against whatever the proposal government would put forward or consider. The only exception was the federal agreement with the LTTE during the peace process initiated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002 which was not opposed by the chief adversary of the government, President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However, the situation would be extremely difficult for the present government in the light of ousted groups in the South being hell bent on stirring communal tensions with two groups in the North vying for political supremacy in the region using  ethnic strife.

The resolution of the ethnic problem is not only a duty burdened on the government by local situations and history but also a duty towards the international community, especially after the adoption of four resolutions incorporating the ethnic issue at the UNHRC sessions in four consecutive years since 2012.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake recently questioned in Parliament the rationality of the linking of the ethnic issue with human rights by the UNHRC.

In fact it was first done by the LLRC in its report which openly stated that it was compelled to explore a solution to the ethnic problem even going beyond its mandate. The first Geneva Resolution in 2012 only recommended the implementation of that report.

With the clashes between the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the UN human rights body intensifying and the situation becoming more complicated, the UNHRC in its 2013 resolution spoke about devolution of power and even set a time period to hold the Northern Provincial Council election.

There was a time soon after President Sirisena took office when the leadership of the main Tamil coalition, the TNA had a cordial relationship with leaders of the new government.

It seemed to be more flexible than earlier in finding a solution to the vexed Tamil issue.

WIGNESWAREN (3)However, with the intensifying of differences between TNA leader R.Sampanthan and the TNA nominated Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran in recent months which culminated in the formation of the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) on December 19 by the latter, mainly with a view to draft proposals to resolve the national problem, the situation is fast becoming bleak.

This infighting in the TNA would create a race between the two groups in presenting more nationalistic or sometimes extremist approaches towards the problem.

This would in turn put the government leaders in trouble because the more the northern nationalistic groups go to extremes the more their southern counterparts would also be dragged to an extreme.In such a scenario, unless the government leaders are successful in striking a balance between the North and South, they might be forced to bring in piecemeal constitutional amendments.

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