Trouble once again in paradise

mahinda-and-singh4The fluid political situation in Sri Lanka, and the erosion of popular support for the Sirisen a – W i c k r e m e s i n g h e combine, have together created in the minds of the minority Tamils, doubts about the regime’s ability to draft a Tamil-friendly constitution and face the political storm that will certainly follow. Sensing a drift towards abandonment of the constitution- making exercise and its substitution by a few amendments to the existing constitution along with electoral reforms, the MPs of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in Parliament with 16 MPs, met President Maithripala Sirisena recently to air their concerns.

Sirisena assured the MPs that he is keen on a new constitution as promised to the Tamils in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, which he won thanks in part to the overwhelming support of the Tamils.

However, the President made it clear he will have to get the support of his political rival and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, especially for greater devolution of power to the Tamilspeaking provinces. He said he has asked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss the issue with Rajapaksa. While Tamil MPs do realise that support of Rajapaksa’s 50- odd MPs in Parliament will be necessary for the draft constitution to get the required twothirds majority, they also know Rajapaksa is a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner who has often said he will not give to the Tamils in peacetime what he had denied LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

Rajapaksa had trashed the idea of federalism and agreed to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council only because of intense Indian pressure and Japanese prodding. But he insisted on continuing with a military man as the Northern Province governor despite objections by elected Chief Minister Wigneswaran and the TNA.

Rajapaksa has very significant support among Sinhala- Buddhists who account for 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. And the dominant view among the Sinhalese is that devolution of power to a Tamil province will end up in secession, thanks to the Tamils’ ingrained separatist mentality and support from Tamil Nadu and the Western nations.

If Rajapaksa was defeated in the January 2015 presidential poll, it was because the minorities voted en masse against him while the Sinhalese were divided. But despite that setback, Rajapaksa bounced back in the July 2015 parliamentary polls when his faction of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came second behind Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP).

The faction led by Sirisena came third. In the past year, Rajapaksa has been gaining ground, despite the many misappropriation cases filed against his family members and political cohorts. A lack of cohesion in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, frequent changes in policy, an inability to deliver on economic promises, concessions to the rich and high indirect taxes on the common man have resulted in the Rajapaksa regime shining in contrast. The rising tide in favour of Rajapaksa was evident in the recent elections to rural cooperative societies where Rajapaksa acolytes are thought to have swept the polls.

Sensing lack of support among the rural Sinhalese, Sirisena has kept postponing long overdue polls to local bodies like the Pradeshiya Sabhas, urban councils and municipalities. With the tide turning in his favour, it is unlikely Rajapaksa will agree to Sirisena’s proposal to give Tamils more than what has been given under the partly implemented 13th Amendment of the constitution. But even this tattered document is viewed by the Sinhalese as an 1987 Indian imposition which ought to be repealed.

Tamil politicians have also noticed that Sinhalese MPs in the various constitution-drafting sub-committees do not take much interest in the proceedings and are irregular in attendance; they are interested only in electoral reforms.

Most Sinhalese MPs are keen on the re-introduction of the first-past-the-post system, which is favourable to them, while the minorities want the retention of proportional representation as much as possible. The Sinhalese MPs would rather not discuss devolution, and if at all they do, would propose the minimum.

The issue of abolition of the executive presidency could also wreck constitution-making. Not all want it to go. Some key government members like Champika Ranawaka have said they will not like to make any drastic change in the constitution which will require a referendum.

This means controversial issues such as a good devolution package to the Tamils and abolition of the executive presidency may be skirted and the new constitution may just be old wine in a new bottle.