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Foreign Affairs

Politics Of Constitutional Reform

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

The adjust of government in January 2015 in Sri Lanka turned the attention of the nation, at least partially, to constitutional reform. President Sirisena won the presidential election promising to make changes to the program of governance. With no wasting as well a lot time, the present government, initial released a draft proposal, then published the draft bill known as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and finally announced amendments to the 19th Amendment. The proposals entail numerous components. This write-up, even so, deals with the central aspect, i.e, powers of the president and the politics played about this concern.

First Proposal

The 1st proposal published by the government in February 2015 to reform the constitution entailed some radical rudiments as it proposed to transform the current executive presidential program into a parliamentary type of government. According to the original proposal the president was needed to act “always…on the tips of the Prime Minister” except of course “in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister.” The prime minister was also to be the head of the government.

MaithripalaThis was in a way intriguing since President Sirisena did not guarantee to abolish the executive presidential program in his election manifesto. He only promised to take away what he named the “autocratic” powers of the president. Nevertheless, the abolitionists who provided impetus to Sirisena’s election campaign had been elated.

Nevertheless, some of the nationalist Sinhala groups that consisted of political parties and ideological factions were up in arms, especially the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The group declared that it would not support the proposed adjustments. Why? These groups believed that a diluted political leadership is detrimental to the national security of the country. This notion possibly was based on two assumptions.

One, a robust political leadership (preferably the president) is a precondition to stop a feasible reemergence of the LTTE. The threat perception within this group still remains really strong. They believe that the LTTE will make a comeback with the assistance of the Tamil diaspora and friendly governments in the West. Two, a parliamentary type of government would potentially magnify the power and influence of Tamil parties, specially the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), forcing future governments to make unnecessary concessions. The possibility of an executive prime minister conceding to the Tamils on the far more critical question of devolution of power is not acceptable to these groups. Hence, the assault on the 1st proposal.

19th Amendment

The resistance forced the UNP government to renegotiate the constitutional amendment with concerned parties and alter its original concepts of constitutional reform. Consequently, the government officially published the draft bill of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The 19th Amendment might be observed as a victory for JHU and other nationalist Sinhala factions simply because the thought to transform the program into a parliamentary type of government was dropped. According to the proposed 19th Amendment the president is not required to act on the advice of the prime minister.

The draft bill of the 19th Amendment tried to attain two objectives. 1, it retained the executive presidency although curtailing some of the powers which abetted authoritarianism. For instance, according to the bill, the president shall be “the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.” The bill meanwhile proposed to reintroduce the two term limit for the president and restrict the term in office to 5 years as an alternative of the original six years. Two, it proposed to elevate powers of the prime minister. According to this draft the prime minister, for example, will be the head of the cabinet of ministers, decide the number of ministers and have the powers to assign and change subjects of the ministers.

As a result, the proposed 19th Amendment could be depicted as a compromised formula as it attempted to strike a balance in between agendas that seek to abolish and these that seek to retain the executive presidential method. As the stress mounted against the draft bill, the government not too long ago published what it known as the “Amendments proposed to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill,” which stated that “There shall be a President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, who is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.”

Regardless of these alterations, the JHU’s resistance continued, which indicated that the celebration was not in favor of constitutional reform at this point in time. It is crucial to note that the celebration, in spite of its meager electoral base, has exercised considerable energy and influence below the present method. Probably there is a nexus amongst the energy the celebration enjoys under the present method and the continuous resistance to any form of constitutional modify.

National Government

Meanwhile, in an fascinating turn of events, the Sri Lanka Freedom Celebration (SLFP), which hitherto performed tasks of the principal opposition party in parliament, accepted ministerial portfolios in the new government and became component of what is termed the national government. For the initial time in the history of Sri Lanka, the two significant parties, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP) are in the government at the exact same time.

The SLFP’s entry into the government should have raised the likelihood of obtaining the amended version of the bill ratified in the national legislature. The UNP does not have the required two-thirds majority in parliament. With the SLFP assistance, a two-thirds majority could be achieved. Given that both are in the government, theoretically, it must be straightforward to adopt the amendments now.

The SLFP even so is not budging. Party leaders declared that the SLFP would not help the proposed amendment sans provisions to reform the electoral system and want the next general election carried out beneath the new program. The fact that even if the electoral system is reformed quickly, sufficient time needed to provide for implementation does not look to be resonating.

These demands imparted the impression that the present electoral program is detrimental to its probabilities of winning the next general election. It is true that J. R. Jayewardene, the architect of the present constitution, thought that the proportional representation program would bestow an added advantage to the UNP. But the SLFP has won sufficient elections under the present technique. The party can give the UNP a run for its funds if an election is carried out below the present method even nowadays. It is amusing to see the party selecting a but to be determined technique to the present a single.

Consequently, one can argue that concern about the electoral program can’t be the actual lead to of the SLFP resistance to the proposed bill. Some think that the SLFP is covertly operating for President Sirisena. The president understands that weakening the office of the executive president at this point in time could be unsafe. It could pave the way for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to return to active politics and even enter parliament as the prime minister. Such a situation could be suicidal for Sirisena and his partners such as Democratic Party leader Sarath Fonseka and former president Chadrika Kumaratunga. Naturally, he can’t choose a strengthened office of the prime minister.

If he is not keen to reform the constitution as proposed, one of the very best approaches to delay or scuttle the method is to get the SLFP to make unrealistic demands. Following all, he is the leader of the SLFP. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has already accused the president of conspiring against the proposed constitutional adjust.

Supreme Court

Obviously, the bill was challenged in the Supreme Court. It was determined that some clauses of the bill had been inconsistent with the constitution. In order to be approved, they require the approval of the men and women in a referendum, in addition to a two-thirds majority in parliament. Importantly, the clauses that bestow powers on the prime minister need approval of the people. The government nevertheless, is not keen to go for a referendum right away. According to news reports coming from Colombo, these clauses will be dropped. This will eliminate any possibility of creating fundamental changes to the system. If approved, the proposals, in the present kind, will take away only a handful of powers of the president and the prime minister will stay a rubber stamp.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Division, Salisbury University, Maryland.

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