New Constitution:National perspective versus political aspirations

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By 2017-11-20

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe

This month began with the Parliament convening specially to debate about the Constitution. While one camp demands a new Constitution, another insists on only amendments. Pressures outside the Parliament oppose any tampering to the Constitution.

They find the Constitution surgeons not trustworthy. Amidst these sharp divisions, the outcome from the four day debate is unclear. Parliamentarians are not addressing the issue from a national perspective, but based on their own political aspirations and political survival.

The United National Party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and Tamil National Alliance are determined to throw the existing Constitution out and draft a new one. The earlier generation of the UNP introduced the Executive Presidency along with the present Constitution (in 1978). Yet, since 1994 the prestigious Executive Presidency has eluded them.

Under Ranil Wickremesinghe (the party leader since 1994) the UNP suffered at the polls. Yet, their party Constitution does not give them sufficient power to oust their party leader - though they tried. In 2011, certain individuals gathered behind Sajith Premadasa in order to challenge Ranil Wickremesinghe's leadership. However, at the last minute, Premadasa backed out, letting down everyone who risked their political careers for him and Ranil Wickremesinghe continued to be the leader.

Wrong decisions

Under Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP took all the wrong decisions. Their role in the Millennium City Betrayal and the infamous 2002 Ceasefire Agreement are cases in point. When the wartime Rajapaksa Administration opted for a military strategy, the UNP ridiculed the efforts. They believed their Western allies and were under the impression that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could never be defeated.

When Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE in 2009, the UNP knew that if Ranil Wickremesinghe is fielded as their presidential candidate, they will be doomed to be in the opposition. America rescued the UNP.

Robert Blake was the US Ambassador during the war and played a pivotal role in assisting the wartime administration to get essentials to those trapped in the war zone. He convinced Ranil Wickremesinghe to step aside for a common candidate for the 2010 presidential campaign. They chose General Sarath Fonseka - a key figure in the war winning team.

They chose him even though the US Ambassador at that time, Patricia Butenis accused Fonseka of war crimes. Interestingly, they got the support of the TNA. The TNA was not only the LTTE political proxy, but is a main accuser of war crimes allegations.

Fonseka lost both the election and the sympathetic support he since got due to his own folly. Now that he is utterly discredited, he is once again associated with war crimes. The American Government that brought Fonseka out as a presidential candidate in 2010 refused him visa to attend the 2017 UNGA, citing war crimes allegations.

For the 2015 Presidential Campaign, too, the UNP, again, with the support of the US, fielded a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena - another close associate of the war winning team. It was only after he won that Ranil Wickremesinghe managed to secure the consolation prize of Premiership. Ranil Wickremesinghe knows that the Executive Presidency is beyond his grasp, so he needs to convert the Executive Presidency into an Executive Premiership.

Weak hierarchy

With the weak hierarchy, many aspire to become the next UNP leader. Apparently, it is not only the old salts of the UNP, but also those like Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Champika Ranawaka who got marooned in the UNP camp during the August 2015 General Elections. If Ranil Wickremesinghe succeeds, they would be better off seeking the Chief Minister post in a province than the country's President or Premier. This is obvious, but they seem keen not to upset the apple cart.

Former Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe played a pivotal role in bringing Fonseka as a forerunner and spearheaded the Constitution making process for the UNP. Yet, his recent attacks of conscience had him impressively rebelling against the Government he helped to form. Many saw him as the next UNP leader. He was soon shown the door.

Last week, he wrote to the Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya and stated that the conduct and process of the Constitutional Assembly is unconstitutional. He asked the Speaker to either annul the motion or accept the blame. He too has now joined the camp that are of the view that the country's situation is not conducive for drafting a new Constitution and the incumbent Parliament is not suitable for the task.

The TNA just wants their piece of the pie. Once they get their much hankered self-determination, they would not care whether Sri Lanka has a presidential or parliamentary system. The two things that stand in their way are the people who oppose federalism and the Executive Presidency that retains a grip on the provinces. Their solution to the first obstacle is to hoodwink the public with a new federal Constitution called a "unitary" Constitution.

Devolution for the North and East

Some of their supporters while denouncing federalism push for devolution for the North and East. They argue that failing to do so gave birth to Prabhakaran and failing again is to repeat the folly.

The Government, however, is of the view that terrorism can never rise again. The TNA also agrees as they, too, pressurize the Government to reduce military presence and to hand over military establishments including the strategic Palaly Airport to the civilians.

The JVP wants power in Parliament, because that is their ceiling. As a party with a despicable history, they can never be the king.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party Sirisena faction is equally vociferous that it is not a new Constitution that is needed, but amendments. Other Sirisena loyalists are also in this group such as Ranawaka, though he contested on the UNP ticket.

Abolishing the Executive Presidency was one of the main pledges made at the 2015 Presidential Campaign by the then candidate, Maithripala Sirisena. After becoming the President, the pressure to abolish the Executive Presidency mounted.

The architect of the new Constitution, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne reminded us recently that the original plan was to abolish the Executive Presidency during the first 100-day programme and to hold a referendum ahead of the August 2015 Parliamentary Polls. However, when Sirisena could not get the required support from the UPFA, the plan was shelved.

Dr. Wickramaratne refrained from referring to the deliberate confusion created by the Sirisena camp soon after ascending to power. During the campaign, the pledge was to abolish the Executive Presidency with its arbitrary powers. Soon after, this was twisted into removing the arbitrary powers of the Executive Presidency.

Interestingly, Senaratne - considered as a Sirisena loyalist - was also in the same stage as Dr. Wickramaratne. According to the grapevine, Ranawaka and Senaratne are President Sirisena's key advisers. The two are apparently bitter political rivals, eyeing the same position.

Contesting for President

Though pledging that he will never contest for President again, President Sirisena has since indicated otherwise. He won the sympathy of his supporters by pointing fingers at his predecessor. He conveniently ignored the collective parliamentary responsibility to relieve himself as a powerful cabinet minister of the previous administration.

He is still utilising the same strategy. Despite being the President, with executive powers, he claims ignorance of all contentious issues. He audaciously claims he found matters from the newspaper - long after the incident. The 2018 Budget was presented on 9 November, but he chose to address the Army officers at the Army Hospital Auditorium, instead of addressing them in Parliament.

The new Finance Minister called for liberalization and globalization of our already open economy. He proposes to remove safeguards on the premise that competition will challenge us to improve our local industries. It is a budget that is received with a muted applause, much to Premier Wickremesinghe's annoyance. Dr. Nalaka Godahewa has aptly named the budget bandumkarabadu (bond scam taxes).

It is so with the Geneva Resolution. President Sirisena claims he saved our war heroes from the "electric chair." Pablo de Greiff was categorical that "if the Sri Lankan Government would not, those alleged with war crimes would be tried elsewhere." What the President and his ministers discuss with UN rapporteurs behind closed doors is confounding. Soon after this, we hear two different versions from both sides.

Whether voters will still relieve President Sirisena remains to be seen. It appears that the Sirisena Camp thinks it is a worthwhile shot to heap the blame on the UNP as they did to the Rajapaksa Administration to ride to the next power wave.

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