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Constitutional games Sri Lankans play

by Gamini Weerakoon

Sri Lankans make and break constitutions with relish. Is it for the sake of good governance, which is supposed to be basic objective of constitutions, or for crass political gain?

The constitution-making-and-breaking process resumed last week with flashbacks in history going back to the mid- fifties. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented to Parliament, reconvened as the Constituent Assembly, some documents prepared by a panel of experts. They included proposals for a draft constitution. Soon echoes in history going back to 50 years or more were heard — ‘Menna Rata Bedanna Hadanawo’ (They are trying to divide the country) inside and outside the assembly. The document was not even a draft to a constitution but only proposals, but this was incendiary stuff with an election round the corner.

The provincial councils proposed in the document were being viewed — as before — to be fragments to a cracked unitary state. Meanwhile, raucous demands are being heard for elections to be held for provincial councils. But why have elections and rejuvenate these potentially subversive units? Implement the law — the 13th Amendment — it is the law, is the stern reply. ‘You want to eat the cake and have the cake,’ is the rebuttal.

And so the Great Constitutional Game of half-century vintage is played according to established conventions and we are assured of continuing encounters.

The new Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa wants an ‘election’, and not a constitution. He does not specify whether it should be provincial, parliamentary or of a presidential kind. With elections bribery, corruption and all the evils that have beset the country after Yasapalanaya administration can be eradicated, he contends. Mahinda, the visionary, seems to ignore the fact that the people in two elections — presidential and parliamentary — not very long ago, threw him out in the hope of eradicating bribery, corruption, nepotism et al.

So can elections transform this troubled isle into a Rajapaksa utopia?
Mahinda cannot contest the presidency once again with the maximum of two terms of presidency having been served. But his brothers are willing and able. The hitch is that two of them, Gota and Chamal, have already declared themselves as runners. Observers say there could also be one or two colts from the Medamullana stables, age permitting. Also Pohottuwa and Sirisena backers are asking whether the Sri Lankan Derby is confined only to the Medamullane Stables.

The UNP has almost gone dumb on constitutional change even though the proposals for a draft documents were presented to the Constituent Assembly by Wickremesinghe. He squashed the usual canards about the new constitution enabling the breakup of Sri Lanka and Buddhism being relegated from the preeminent place given in earlier constitutions. However, they have been silent on any fresh moves that could rejuvenate and enthuse their supporters. It does appear that Ranil is still firmly on the Sri Kotha saddle though the now mature stallion Sajith Premadasa is occasionally rearing up and is ready to run.

Only the TNA is pushing ahead for constitutional reforms and this should be so because Tamil voters can still be kingmakers as they demonstrated in elections before. In the 2005 presidential election, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s fiat prevented Tamils expected to vote for Wickremasinghe from doing so and enabled Rajapaksa to scrape through. But in 2015, they successfully backed the winner, Maithripala Sirisena. They want their demands on the lost rights of Tamils restored.

There has been a surfeit of constitutional authorities after the rumpus recreated by Sirisena in attempting to sack Ranil. Notable among them are the new variety of PCs — not President’s Counsel but ‘Padipelle Counsel’ — those who stand in stairways of court and are freely issuing their opinion on Constitutional Law to any media person in search of a story. This variety in addition to TV pundits — who seem to consider the ability to merely read out relevant provisions of the Constitution in support their party leader’s stand — is sufficient enough for them to be considered authorities on the law. They have made confusion worse confounded.

Any opinion that goes against their leader and party line is unconstitutional, unpatriotic, anti-national, treasonous and a part of an international conspiracy. Their party leader’s thinking and party line is absolutely correct, constitutional and patriotic. Thereafter, this opinion is offered to religious dignitaries who are knowledgeable in their doctrines but not in constitutional law. Words are put into their mouths and then given wide publicity in the media. And, Abracadabra, the correct position in the Constitutional Law is expounded to the public!

History shows that all constitutions are hard to create and even more difficult to make them last long. The British and American constitutions are the exceptions. Yet Sri Lanka is attempting to create the fourth Constitution in 70 years. The first the Soulbury Constitution survived 24 years and proved to be the most stable. But the ‘progressives’, Marxists and the like considered it as an imperialist legacy and threw it out. The 1972 — Sirima-Colvin constitution — lasted only six years. The 1978 JRJ Constitution is still lasting (now 40-years-old) despite several attempts to distort, amend and destroy it. JRJ, wherever he may be, would be guffawing at these attempts.

With a presidential or parliamentary election round the corner a new Sri Lankan constitution appears to be a remote possibility. For all those interested in a new constitution, the words of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, regarded as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, will be of interest: ‘However good a constitution may be if those implementing it are not good it will prove to be bad. If those implementing are good it will prove to be good.’

In this context a question to be asked is: What kind of constitution would be able to withstand legislators who attempt to amend it by throwing chairs, chillie water and punching one another in the Chamber of the House?

The writer is senior Sri Lankan journalist 

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