After a brief lull, Sri Lankan politics has turned hyper again with the draft of a new constitution scheduled to be tabled in parliament on January 11 (today). The controversial draft constitution is seen by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a bid to encourage a separate Tamil North-Eastern state.
The draft, prepared by a steering committee presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is based on the report of an experts’ committee appointed to study it.
Critics in the SLFP and SLPP see the submission of the draft constitution as initiated by the government, as a move to please the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which provided crucial support during the UNP’s struggle to have its leader Wickremesinghe reinstated as prime minister following his removal by Sirisena on October 26 last year.
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The SLFP and SLPP pointed out that on January 9, 2016, Wickremesinghe set up a Constitutional Council and 33 points were presented as factors for a new constitution. They allege that instead of pursuing these points the experts’ committee was trying to directly submit a draft to parliament.
Once the draft constitution is submitted, a date will be fixed for a debate, but it is likely that there will be a major difficulty in obtaining the two-thirds majority in parliament.
In the backdrop of there being many drafts which were considered by the steering committee, it is not known which version would be tabled in parliament. According to sources on the expert committee, there is a general agreement that Sri Lanka should be characterised as an undivided country with Buddhism continuing to hold the “foremost status” in the constitution and fostered by the state. Alongside this, other religious groups will have full freedom to practice their faith.
The fogginess around the draft is mainly on the exact nature of devolution of power to the provinces, one of the most controversial issues that has failed to see consensus among Lankan politicians. What the nature of the presidency would be in the proposed constitution is also a question, amid calls by the UNP for the abolition of the office, which was promised by several heads of state, including Sirisena.
Given that Wickremesinghe had declared last year that a new constitution would not be ushered without the approval of Buddhist monks (after chief Buddhist prelates objected to a new constitution) it is likely that the tabling of the draft in parliament would be a token move to please the Tamil minority whose vote the UNP cannot afford to lose in the presidential elections expected to be held in December 2019 or January 2020.
A new constitution or amending the current one to introduce aspects of devolution and power sharing, primarily for Sri Lanka’s North and East as a means for permanent solution to the Tamil problem, was one of the pledges made to the Tamils prior to the January 2015 presidential elections when the UNP put up Sirisena as its candidate.
With Sirisena making a 360 degree turn by taking the SLFP out of the alliance government with the UNP, sacking Wickremesinghe and appointing Rajapaksa as PM in October last year and finally being forced by judicial decree to reappoint Wickremesinghe, it is still unclear what the dynamics of the presidential race would turn out to be.
It is still early to speculate who the candidates would be for the UNP, the SLFP and Rajapaksa’s SLPP. However, a new constitution or at the very least an attempt to present one, will have both positive and negative implications for all political parties.
For the TNA, it will be deemed a reward for all the support it extended to the UNP to after Wickremesinghe’s unceremonious removal by Sirisena. The support of TNA’s 14 MPs was vital for Wickremesinghe for him to display a 113 majority in the 225-member parliament and thus ensure that Sirisena reappointed the UNP leader as PM.
Therefore, for the UNP, presenting a new constitution will appear to be the keeping of a promise made to the TNA, irrespective of whether it gets passed in the House or not. For the SLFP, it will be a chance to claim that it opted out of the coalition government on October 26 because the UNP was planning to ‘divide’ the country through a new constitution. For the SLPP, it will be a platform to begin rousing up the Sinhalese and repeating the core aspects of the Rajapaksa exit speech when he resigned from his month-long premiership in December. His speech was almost fully dedicated to the bogey of separatism, alleging that plans were afoot to divide the country through a new constitution.
The numerics of the voter-based ethnic division in Sri Lanka is such that disillusionment over the UNP’s overall governance among its traditional voters who consist of Sinhalese liberals among a 74 percent majority population and the rest which consists of Tamils, Muslims and Christians, could help the SLPP.
Although there are technically three political parties—the UNP, SLFP and SLPP—it is expected that the SLFP, which weakened considerably with crossovers to the SLPP, will have no choice but to contest any forthcoming elections in a tie-up with the SLPP. In the event of this, the chances of the SLPP attracting more Sinhala voters will rise, ably assisted by the Rajapaka clan drumming up Tamil separatism fears among the Sinhalese.