Groundviews

UNP constitutional proposals vs. the Rajapakse constitutional amendment

Photo courtesy Colombo Telegraph

Both the ruling Rajapakse Administration and the opposition United National Party are busy with their own versions of constitutional reform. The UNP with making constitutional reform proposals for dialogue and discussion, while the Government, was busy using its two third majority to rush through yet another constitutional amendment, this one reducing even further the very limited and truncated devolution of political power existing under the current 13th amendment to the Constitution.

The UNP proposals are a basis for a broader coalition

The UNP recently unveiled a set of proposals or rather a framework for constitutional reform and over the past weekend witnessed the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe personally under his own hand, writing to the papers explaining and explaining the rationale and thinking behind the UNP’s constitutional reforms process. It should be recognized that after a long time, the UNP has come out with a document and process that has significant political smarts behind it. Firstly Opposition Leader Ranil Wickramasinghe has been clear that the proposals are merely a discussion document, a statement or principles and a framework for dialogue and consultation with the people, rather than a hard and fast policy statement of the UNP. It cannot even escape the average citizen the difference between the UNP’s proposed public consultation over constitutional reform and the Government’s “urgent bill” hatched in secret approach to constitutional amendment.

Secondly the UNP document cleverly avoids dealing with the issues of devolution and post war reconciliation leaving this open for consultation, thereby depriving the extreme nationalist elements in the Government of a political stick with which to beat the opposition. However the most advantageous political move on the part of the UNP was to clearly demonstrate its willingness and openness to serious reform of or the abolition of the executive presidency. In so doing, the UNP and Ranil Wickramasinghe opens up the space and opportunity for a broader front and minimum common platform that brings together a much wider section of political forces, than that which previously existed. If the UNP had not offered the abolition of the executive presidency, then the UNP offer to the Sri Lankan public was just a straightforward, replace Mahinda with Ranil proposition, one that seemingly had insufficient currency within the country. It is also a choice between Mahinda and Ranil. Instead by offering to abolish the presidency, the argument is that even if Mahinda is not too bad, support the opposition for governance reforms, since our system badly needs it, an argument that certainly has greater appeal than the previous implied offer of replacing Mahinda with Ranil. Also a system of shared executive power, whether through a Council of State or a Westminster system or even with an executive prime minister, enables the accommodation of a wider variety of political actors and national leadership aspirants, all of whom would need to coalesce around a single challenger to the present incumbent of the presidency.

UPFA Government’s cracks begins to show 

The Rajapakse regime seemed unassailable in 2009 and 2010, having won the war in mid 2009, it pushed aside all opposition and in the nature of a juggernaut executing a political blitzkrieg brushed aside all political opposition wining the elections of 2010. However, three years past the election, in what would be mid way in a normal six year term, the gloss is off the regime and the cracks are beginning to show.

The impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranaike alienated the professional middle class, including even Sinhala nationalist elements of society and created some public doubt about whether the ruling Rajapakses’ were defenders of ethnic Sinhala interests or merely defending their own political interests.

There is also a strong perception in society about an erosion of law and order and a significant increase in corruption. There is also a general feeling of a government struggling to govern effectively, whether conducting examinations, providing health care services or providing higher education or other services, there is disquiet in Sinhala society regarding governance issues.

The recent increase in religious intolerance and the rise in anti-Muslim and also now anti Christian attacks, associated with extremist organizations, who seemingly have the support of the government, has  led to the Muslim political parties, all currently in government expressing fear and anxiety, while many Sinhalese have expressed their feelings and views that the government has taken a wrong turn by associating itself with organizations and agendas that does not really  reflect true Buddhism, which is tolerant and inclusive.

In the contest of this level of low level societal violence, moving unilaterally on stripping further the limited devolution of powers granted the 13th amendment poses some risks for the government. The SLMC may well not vote with the government and its break in ranks would be a serious crack in the UPFA armor. Even if the SLMC can be bullied and cajoled into supporting the government, it is likely a battle they win to possibly lose the war. They are alienating some friends while making no new ones through the exercise. The only people thrilled about the government’s proposed 19th amendment are the ultra nationalist JHU and NFF; both firmly entrenched within the government. While it alienates and will weaken the support of the SLMC and the old left, namely CP, LSSP, NSSP towards the government.

International dimensions

Another powerful ally the Rajapakse regime will alienate completely by its unilateral guttering of the 13th amendment is the people and government of India. Unusually for the Indian foreign policy establishment they face genuine grassroots popular political pressure regarding the Sri Lankan issue. India was instrumental in ensuring that the recent CMAG meeting in London went smoothly and laid the groundwork for a smooth and successful CHOGM. Having bailed Sri Lanka out of the difficulties it was facing through the Canadian challenge on its human rights and post war reconciliation limitations, the Rajapakse regime responds with a slap in India’s face. There are limits to how far and for how long such policies can be adopted with impunity.