Colombo Telegraph

A Misguided Proposal To Avoid A Referendum?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

If we preach democracy, we should practice it. That should be our utmost attempt. If someone fails in those attempts, that may be excused under certain circumstances, primarily on the basis that those would be corrected in the future. Otherwise one should gracefully retire from politics or public life.

We are talking about a new constitution, that should go before the people at a referendum. That is the fundamental law of this country and that is the existing constitution. Even if there are defects or unclear provisions in that referendum procedure, that is not an excuse to bypass or manipulate the fundamental law. If someone is talking about ‘tinkering’ of the constitution, that should be very clearly stated and explained to the people. People should be beware of dubious behaviour or hanky-panky.

I was completely disappointed to see Jehan Perera’s recent article suggesting that the government should not go for a complete new constitution but change it “to the extent possible utilizing the coalition government’s 2/3 majority in parliament but without going for a referendum.” He unashamedly says, “it does not necessarily mean that the changes made will be any less far reaching or important.” Here he talks about a manipulation. ‘Far reaching’ amendments, but without people’s consent or referendum!

Let us leave aside the ‘artfully possible’ 2/3 majority that he talks about for a moment. His title of the article “Logic of the Coalition Politics as Art of the Possible Will Continue” (2 January 2017) gives the impression that this is what is going to happen, as if he has some inside information. This is even without a question mark to the title. This is also confirmed by what he has written as “The most likely scenario in 2007.”

Colombian Model?

The most interesting aspect of his article is his reference to the ‘Colombian model.’ He says:

“This is the model followed by Colombia to consolidate its peace process between the government and rebel FARC militants. The Colombian government failed in October to win a referendum that sought the approval of the people for the peace agreement, much to its own shock and the shock of the international community which awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to those who were architects of the peace agreement. However, in December this peace agreement came into force by being passed by parliament with a unanimous vote in favour.”

As the referendum failed in Colombia at the first turn, “to its own shock and the shock of the international community,” then the right thing to do was to put the revised agreement again to a referendum. That is what I know as democracy as a political scientist. But Perera’s field and orientation might be different. Therefore, he is jubilant that it was not put again to the people but it “came into force by being passed by parliament with a unanimous vote in favour.” This is what I call political manipulation. In between, as he says, ‘the international community awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to those who were architects of the peace agreement.”

I am not going into the details of the FARC agreement in Colombia here. However, there is a young Colombian woman who comes for cleaning jobs in our apartment building here in Sydney. I recently asked her about the situation back home and the referendum. She first said she was sent by her parents here to Australia because of the terror activities of, as she said, the ‘guerrillas.’ Second she said her parents and family fear the reappearance of their ‘drug and violent’ activities under a different guise under the new situation. I believe this is the same sentiment of the people that gave a negative verdict in the October referendum.

This is the model Jahan proposes to Sri Lanka through by-passing a referendum. If I am not mistaken, Jehan once before refereed to the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, saying that their peace agreement was modelled on the lines of the ‘peace agreement’ in Sri Lanka (2002). Santos must have said it to please the Norwegians. Now it appears that Jehan proposes the (new) Colombian model to please the same benefactors.

The origins of the two models, by passing democracy and referendum, have the same source. If some Norwegians are behind the new proposal in Sri Lanka ‘not to go for a referendum’ but have ‘far reaching and important’ amendments, then those should be ashamed of their role. They may be ‘naïve or cunning,’ but if they believe that people in countries like Sri Lanka don’t understand democracy or referendum they are mistaken.

New Threats

This is not merely an East-West problem as some extremist nationalists might like to picture. Even in the West, there is a strong group of ‘globalist elite’ who wants to by-pass people’s verdicts, whether Brexit or US presidential elections. They are the subtlest enemies of democracy in the world today. The problem with Norway is that they are the most hegemonic in the political/academic system in that country. They believe what they believe to be true and good for other countries. In Britain, there are still attempts to overturn or by-pass the Brexit verdict through Parliament. They are late in blaming Putin for Brexit manipulation. Therefore, they blame the people directly.

In the US, the claim on ‘Putin manipulation’ is still going on whether it is correct or not. If Russia could manipulate the US elections or if the candidate who cannot win the popular vote (Trump in this case) is the presidential winner, then there is something fundamentally wrong with that system. Therefore, before preaching others, they should fix their own systems. It would be interesting to know what actually happens in Norway at elections. The way some of the Norwegian elites try to manipulate the other people’s systems, we can hardly think that their system is fool-proof. If they have too much money (they do), they should give them to the poor, without using them to manipulate other people’s countries.

If the so-called ‘international community’ admits most of the problems of democracy world over are largely common and try to resolve them cooperatively, then there is some reasonableness. However, if they try to manipulate and cobble out some elitist solutions in poor countries, those cannot be considered favourable to democracy or conflict resolution. Common international endeavours in resolving problems are quite welcome, but not manipulations. I would not be surprised if the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 is offered to the President and the Prime Minister jointly to cobble out a constitutional tinkering to their liking, not to the liking of the people or the conditions of the country.

What is increasingly problematic is that ‘who is going to preach the international preachers? They have become a force unto themselves, creating more problems than resolving them worldwide.

A Strange Coincidence?

By a strange coincidence, Perera’s proposal coincides with the proposal of the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). That may be the reason why he had started his article also with a tribute to MR. As he says “He [MR] is demonstrating the same tenacity that stood him in good stead during his long stint in politics prior to rising to become the undisputed leader of the country.

Mahinda Rajapaksa also argues (with the ‘same tenacity’ I suppose!) that the country does not need a new constitution but amendments. First to do away with the executive presidency. Second to fix the electoral system. Obviously, now MR cannot become the president after the 19th Amendment. The difference between the two is that Jehan obviously prioritize the centre-periphery relations or the national question while MR wants now a prime ministerial system. Perhaps there is a suggestion from overseas to possibly horse-trade between the two. It is this ‘horse-trading’ that some people call ‘peace building’ or ‘conflict resolution.’ The Norwegians are maestros in this approach.

Jehan’s analysis not about democracy or the people but about the power of the politicians. The following is his categorical statement in this respect.

“Power lies in the control of government. The stability and strength of the government lies in the continued willingness of the president and prime minister to work together in the realization that each needs the other’s support to continue to stay in power until the next general elections which are three years away.”

It is on that basis that he argues that 2/3 in Parliament is (artfully) possible for ‘far reaching and important’ amendments but not people’s consent at a referendum. This is outright opportunism. It is possible that some politicians in the Tamil community also might go along with this argument. However, perhaps not the intelligentsia or the people. When Jehan’s article was posted in the Colombo Telegraph, Dr Rajasingham Narendran completely disagreed.

As he argues, a referendum on a new constitution at this juncture will definitely be defeated not because of its contents, but because of the escalating dissatisfaction with this government. He categorically says, “The answer lies in firstly governing as promised, eliminating corruption, punishing the corrupt and being sensitive to the crying concerns of the people.

While I request all interested readers and parties to go through what he has said fully, I opt to quote his sentiments about a referendum from a genuine ‘minority’ perspective.

“I personally prefer postponing the referendum than avoiding it. I and likely all minorities want to know the so-called Sinhala-Buddhist opinion on the minority issues and modes of resolving them. Much sin has been committed in their name and on their behalf. Let us assess the truth through the referendum. The minorities can then deal with the fact accordingly. Let the cat and mouse game stop. Let expediency be buried six feet deep.”

What is to be Done?

The new constitution making process has undoubtedly come to crossroads. The scheduled debates in Parliament on sub-committee reports are suspended. If I understand correctly, these were not meant for Parliamentary debates but for the Steering Committee to draft a constitutional proposal. That should be done. It is good that the sub-committee reports were available for public scrutiny, and for the scrutiny of all political parties and politicians. Now that is fairly completed. Therefore, the Steering Committee should come up with a new Constitutional Draft and publish it as a Sessional Paper.

This must be done with utmost care, considering the future of the country and keeping in mind both the required 2/3 in Parliament and the referendum. There is no need to have a long and legally convoluted document. Unnecessary controversies emerge, in my opinion, when a draft is too detailed. This is a constitution and not legislation. American constitution might be the best example. It is my considered view that the expansion of the devolution of power and strengthening of the local government system would get the people’s acclaim, if it is framed without going to the extremes.

In my opinion and experience, the general public is more accommodating of minority rights, plurality and diversity than the power-hungry politicians and their activists. The draft should not go for an immediate voting in Parliament or a referendum. There should be about a year’s period for public discussion. The success or the failure of the new constitution also would depend on the public trust of this government. That means their performance. Anyway, the people would like to see a constitutional draft now and not different proposals. The ‘art of the possible’ does not mean what is ‘artfully possible.’

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