President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterated in his address to Parliament last Thursday, something that he had been saying for some time—that the 19th Amendment will be ‘removed’ and a new Constitution suitable to the country will be enacted. He also said that while salutary aspects of the proportional representation system would be preserved, changes will be made to ensure stability of the Parliament and people’s direct representation.
However, Ministers and leaders of constituent parties of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna have not all being sending out the same message. Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who the whole country knows is very close to the President, was quoted as saying that not all provisions of 19th Amendment will be changed; for example, the 5-year term of the President and the two-term limit for the Presidency would continue. Ultra-Sinhala-nationalists like Gevindu Kumaratunga, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, participating in the debate on the statement of Government policy, called for the abolition of the 13th Amendment. Reacting immediately to these calls, Minister Douglas Devananda, a staunch supporter of the 13th Amendment, assured that the 13A will not be changed.
Sinhala nationalists would ideally like to go back to the first-past-the-post (FPP) system but this is unlikely to happen. What may be attempted is the re-introduction of the 12.5% cut-off point found originally in the 1978 Constitution. This was applied to local elections in 1979 resulting in smaller parties being ‘cut-off’ from representation. The cut-off point was brought down to 5% in 1988. The widely-held belief is that President R Premadasa changed the cut-off point in return for SLMC leader Ashraff’s support but DEW Gunasekera rubbished such claims recently and said that smaller parties had been agitating for such a change for a long time and that it was done with cross-party support.
Thus, smaller parties are likely to oppose an increase in the cut-off point. Dinesh Gunawardena is known to be strongly opposed to any change. His MEP has had bad experiences even with the 5% threshold. In 1994, the MEP would have got a seat in Colombo if not for the minimum 5% required. The same happened to Left parties, contesting as the Socialist Alliance, in Galle in 1989. A higher cut-off point is likely to be opposed by Devananda’s EPDP, Athullah’s National Congress and Pillayan’s TMVP who would not have secured representation if the cut-off point was higher. Sinhala representation in Vanni would also be in danger.
What changes would be brought to 19A is still not clear. It is very likely that the dual-citizen clause will be removed and the President would be permitted to hold Ministries. Under 19A, Parliament cannot be dissolved for 4 years and 6 months, unless a 2/3 majority requests. Even SLPP Parliamentarians would not be happy going back to the pre-19A position which permitted the President to dissolve at any time— a certain Sword of Damocles over their heads. In any case, the SLPP has a 2/3 majority to ensure early elections if the need arises.
Commenting on changes to 19A, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya recently reminded the country that it was passed with cross-party support. He urged that the ‘baby should not be thrown away with the bathwater’. Rather, 19A should be analysed for any technical shortcomings and changes made with cross-party support, in the same way it was adopted.
A constitutional lawyer aligned to Sajith Premadasa’s SJB told the Colombo Telegraph that the Government should not take it for granted that any change can be made to 19A with a 2/3 majority only and without a referendum, just because 19A was passed without a referendum. His argument is that 19A strengthened the sovereignty of the people. Any dilution of sovereignty would therefore require approval at a referendum. ‘The pre-19A Constitution is not the minimum standard of people’s sovereignty’ he opined.
What about a brand new Constitution, now that the Government has a 2/3 majority? Sinhala nationalists have been pressing hard for a new Constitution. ‘Yuthukama’ leader Gevindu Kumaratunga been advocating a “sabhyatva rajya”, a civilizational state, a strongly unitary one. Dr. Asanga Welikala, writing for Groundviews, had the following to say on the Kumaratunga’s proposals: “The Yuthukama proposal can be described as a mixture of radicalism and conservatism. It is radical in the way it seeks to reformulate the constitutional philosophy of the state from the nation-state to the civilisation-state paradigm. But it is conservative in the way it seeks to change the text and institutions of the 1978 Constitution. This is an entirely rational strategy for those seeking to instantiate a Jathika Chinthanaya constitution in Sri Lanka. All they have to do is merge the legal and the political dimensions of Sri Lankan constitutionalism, so that the legal constitution derived from the West better serves the aims of the political constitution derived from the Jathika Chinthanaya of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation-state.”
Any proposal for the abolition of devolution is likely face stiff opposition from within the SLPP, from the Opposition and from across the Palk Strait. The EPDP’s Devananda has fired the first salvo. The LSSP’s Tissa Vitarana and the lone CP MP from Matara are bound to make some noise but what they would finally do is uncertain. Left parties opposed the 18th Amendment too initially but finally voted for it. Devananda, Pillayan and Angajan Ramanathan will find it extremely difficult to face the electorate having supported the abolition of Provincial Councils.
What of India? The TNA leadership met the Indian High Commissioner last Friday. The Indian view has been “leaked” to the media by MP MA Sumanthiran, obviously with Indian blessings. According to the TNA spokesman, the High Commissioner “reiterated India’s longstanding position on peace and reconciliation and the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment”. High Commissioner Baglay had assured the TNA delegation that India has a “strong commitment to the principles underlying the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and that the Accord cannot be viewed as a mere piece of paper” and further that New Delhi is “closely watching” developments in Sri Lanka in regard to all issues including the 13A. If the Government moves to abolish 13A, the High Commissioner said, that there would be “interactions at the highest level” between India and Sri Lanka.
A political scientist in Colombo, speaking to Colombo Telegraph, said that those who are pushing for a new Constitution forget that it would necessarily have to be approved by the people at a referendum. That would give the Opposition an opportunity to unite. “It would be the Government versus all others”. The lakhs of opposition-voters who did not trek to the polling booths on 05 August would now have a reason to go and vote. Also, the reform process is certain to take long, one year at the least. “God knows what the economic situation will be in post-Covid Sri Lanka then and we are still not even in a post-Covid situation”. Hard decisions will surely have to be taken in the coming months, the call for tightening belts is a matter of time.
He opined that the SLPP Government is unlikely to abolish Provincial Councils for another reason. “PCs also serve another purpose; they provide positions for the second-level leaders at district level who failed to enter Parliament”. The Government will the victim of its own rhetoric, he stated. India will not stand by watching PCs being abolished. 13A is part of the Indo-Lanka accord. On the other hand, a new Constitution that does not abolish PCs will be opposed by the very forces that propelled the Rajapaksas to power. As the well-known Sinhala saying goes: “Gedera giyoth ambu nasee; maga hitiyoth tho nasee”. Like the man into whose sack a snake had crept— “your wife will die if you go home; you will die if you don’t”. (By Ranmal Weerasekera)