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Mahinda’s roadmaps: Constitutional Reform and (not ‘or’) Development

Rajapaksa knows that Wickremesinghe will not cooperate. He can now say ‘give me 150 seats’ and when the voters decline, he can shed all the tears he likes and say ‘I tried, you didn’t help, so I can’t help it now’.

By Malinda Seneviratne

(February 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sarath Fonseka may not be ready to accept it, but everyone else has acknowledged that Mahinda Rajapaksa roundly defeated the man at the Presidential Election. There will be a little bit more foul-crying, licking wounds and what not, but sooner rather than later, Fonseka and all those who along with Fonseka did the ultimate no-no of believing one’s own propaganda will have to live with the fact of defeat.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is now secure in power again and positioned to become even stronger after the general election to be held shortly. He has only one thing to worry about: legacy. How does he want to be remembered? How will history write his story? If he is interested in doing what all politicians seem to do – wealth acquisition – then it’s going to be very easy for him. If, on the other hand, he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest post-Independence leaders of this country (and he is ideally positioned for this, the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit having been vanquished during his stewardship), then I visualize the man with two maps before him, two cartographies that are not unrelated but which can be treated separately.

The first pertains to ‘Constitutional Reform’. That’s a destination that requires him to make several decisions and one which can change its form depending on whether he says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following questions: 17th Amendment? Abolishing the Executive Presidency? Preferential voting system? Proportional representation? Devolution? Well, let’s admit these are not necessarily black or white propositions, but still, the man, even if he walks to stand in ‘grey’, needs to determine the degree of greyness, how much of ‘yes’ and how much of ‘no’ and spell it all out in, yes, in the black and white of relevant constitutional amendment.

Will he or won’t he? One hopes he will, but one has to acknowledge that ‘will’ alone may be insufficient, given the formidable roadblocks that J.R. Jayewardene scripted into the journey called constitutional reform. He will need a two-third majority in Parliament. Even after an emphatic victory at the presidential election, the realities of the system of proportional representation will stump him at the general election. He would get a majority but would certainly not get the 150 seats he requires. He will have to purchase some opposition MPs to put it crudely. The fact that even a well meaning president has to stoop to such measures to push through progressive constitutional amendments speaks volumes about the vile character of the 1978 constitution. There is a way out of this, and we will get to it presently.

There is another map that lies opened before President Rajapaksa. It is titled ‘Development’. Wimal Weerawansa summed up the election result this way: ratata aadare ayata rata giya, badata aadare ayata bada giya. That is a great laugh-line, but nevertheless only a half-truth, for it is silly to think that all those who voted for Fonseka do not love this country or were worried only about the stomach. It must also be remembered that those who voted for Rajapaksa are not stomach-less. They too much eat, must feed their children.

There is a serious need for poverty alleviation interventions at the household level. And that’s not all. If education is a solid weapon against poverty, we have to consider with alarm the fact that there are 350,000 births per year but only 20,000 enter university. The lack of a comprehensive occupational classification and factoring in of labour markets relevant mismatches constitutes a social time-bomb.

There is a conspicuous absence of attempt to clear bottle necks and a proper regulatory mechanisms to ensure fair play and promotion of national interest when it comes to trade. Are there regulations and safety nets to prevent rogue companies masquerading as financial institutions robbing the savings of investors? All these are issues that are landmarked on the Development Road Map.

The first map, one can argue, was what Fonseka’s backers drew up or at least chose as campaign flag. Rajapaksa waved the development flag. The Rajapaksa camp earlier wanted comprehensive constitutional reform but has now called upon Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP to do it bit-by-bit, ‘in order to activate the 17th amendment’. Rajapaksa knows that Wickremesinghe will not cooperate. He can now say ‘give me 150 seats’ and when the voters decline, he can shed all the tears he likes and say ‘I tried, you didn’t help, so I can’t help it now’.

Mahinda the Politician, like all politicians, including Ranil Wickremesighe and the UNP and Tilvin Silva and the JVP, fear the full implementation of the 17th Amendment. His argument is that the independent institutions envisaged by the 17th Amendment are not really independent. There’s a simple question he needs to answer: do you believe that (truly) independent institutions are necessary? If the answer is ‘no’ we need not discuss it further.

If the answer is ‘yes’, then the question is ‘do you accept the 17th amendment in the present form?’ The indication is that his government tends towards a ‘no’ response, citing administration-subversion and ‘ungovernability’. That of course is flawed logic, for if we applied it to other spheres, then we would have to agitate for the suspension of the legal system for it has been an ‘impediment’. We have had lots of ‘banana-republic’ decisions from that quarter in the past few years, including the determination of fuel prices, jailing of S.B. Dissanayake, rapping P.B. Jayasundera on a knuckles without any Bribery Commission report while letting other respondents go scot free, and promoting self-serving litigation such as the one regarding salaries of High Court Judges.

The truth is that a police commission, a human rights commission, a public service commission, an election commission etc. will not hinder the implementation of the Mahinda Chinthana. They will not obstruct the construction of bridges, roads, schools, universities, ports, airports etc.

What they will ensure is that there won’t be wrong doing. There is no reason for Mahinda Rajapaksa to fear. He has the support of close to 60% of the population and implementing the 17th Amendment will go a long way in winning over a significant number from those who stopped short of saluting his performance over the past four years.

When Fonseka talked of abolishing the executive presidency, a lot of us asked ‘how?’ and Fonseka and his backers didn’t do much except babble about turning parliament into a constitutional assembly, a ridiculous and potentially an anarchy-precipitating mechanism. Rajapaksa does not have to leave things to law-makers. He can appoint a constitutional commission that is made up of relevant professionals and not just politicians and lawyers who, we must understand, need not and should not have a monopoly in constitution making. Such a commission can be given a time frame to come up with a concrete set of proposals which Rajapaksa can ask the people to approve or reject.

If he wants to do it in a hurry it can be done in 60 working days. The current parliament can wait or if needed its life can be extended by him for a few more months specifically to debate the amendments for independent institutions alone.

There is something that Mahinda Rajapaksa probably understands. Close to 60% of the people expressed trust in him. He knows that they don’t necessarily trust his government. This is part of the reason why ‘150’ is a number that is beyond his reach. This is why he has to go for constitutional reform along a different road. Through it all he has to ensure that poverty alleviation is not neglected. Power is a trust. He has to use it wisely, taking into full consideration the issues outlined above. That’s only if he is interested in that thing called ‘legacy’ of course.

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