By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The curtain falls today on the Constitutional Assembly debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee. So what happens now?
It doesn’t look good. The curious coincidence that the curtain falls roughly on the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia should remind us, especially those Constitution makers of a left background, that what is happening on the street is quite as or even more important than what happens in the chambers. ‘The Street’ is as important or at certain points of time, more important than ‘The Suits’. As anyone who watches TV news knows, the mood on the street is of barely suppressed rage.
For a government that boasts of having won over the whole world, it is pathetic that none of its many friends, near and far, frequent visitors to our ports, have or can be counted upon to rush a tanker filled with good quality fuel, to ease the travails of a friendly administration in a mounting social emergency!
The Street is mad at the preoccupation of the government with Constitution making and focusing on the needs of ‘the Other’—pro-UNP big business and the assertively autonomy demanding, politically ‘pushy’ Tamil minority– rather than on the everyday existential needs (as Anton Balasingham used to put it) of the people; the provision of basic goods and services to the majority of the citizenry.
Anything can set off a riot which can turn rebellious. A push too far in the wrong direction at the wrong time on the controversial Constitution can be the single spark (‘Iskra’). Having a tame, semi-gentrified JVP as quasi-ally on the Constitution won’t help the government or stop a quick slide back to the late 1980s.
Unfortunately, it is clear from the latest statement of the main drafter of the new Constitution that the UNP-led United National Front is going to keep on moving recklessly forward towards the precipice.
In an iconoclastic and whistle blowing interview on Derana 360, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, former Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana, named Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne and M. A. Sumanthiran as the co-framers/drafters of the new constitution, and assumed full responsibility for his revelation.
The next morning (Nov 7th) a leading daily carried an interview with Jayampathy Wickremaratne in which he displayed a sad and faded caricature of a trait which characterized his old party the LSSP in its heyday. The party’s theoreticians such as Doric de Souza and Hector Abhayavardhana were accused by detractors of “Trotskyist intellectual arrogance”. Jayampathy Wickremaratne displays the arrogance without the intellect. That utterly unwarranted and misplaced insouciant arrogance is dangerous in the current context of social anger, rising majoritarian hyper-nationalism and imminent electoral warfare including within the ruling coalition.
Jayampathy commences his interview graciously granting that he has “no issue” with President Sirisena’s proposed all-parties conclave “so long” as it doesn’t interfere with the Constitutional Assembly process. In other words, the Constitution is being drafted by someone whose support for the President’s political decision-making is overtly conditional!
“Q: You are involved in constitution making through the Steering Committee. Now, President Maithripala Sirisena has proposed to call for an All Party Conference (APC). How do you view this?
A: It’s very important that there is the widest possible discourse on this subject. I will support any initiative taken to discuss the constitution making process, without undermining the process that has been initiated in Parliament. I have no issue as long as it doesn’t undermine the parliamentary process.”
So he, Jayampathy Wickremaratne has “no issue” with the President’s planned move “so long as it doesn’t undermine the parliamentary process”. That’s real big of him. Who on earth does Jayampathy think he is and who does he think is the leader of country– Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga or Mangala Samaraweera? Does he think the President doesn’t know enough to make that decision and even if he decides to act in a manner that Jayampathy thinks “undermines the parliamentary process”, what on earth is Jayampathy going to do about it?
He then goes on to pontificate and obfuscate the situation about Swiss federalism.
“Q: There is an argument that Sri Lanka is too small to have a Federal structure. What is your response?
A: That is an old argument. It is probably older than your whole journalistic career. Then, what about Switzerland? In such a small country, you have strong Federal features. Switzerland is much smaller than Sri Lanka…”
As President Rajapaksa said to a spokesperson of the Tamil Diaspora who made the same point as Jayampathy at a meeting in Geneva (at which I was present), Switzerland has 23 communes and Sri Lanka has 23 districts. If the Tamil politicians are willing to have the district as the unit of devolution rather than the province, then we in Sri Lanka too can consider the example of Swiss federalism, but otherwise it is utterly irrelevant to the discussion and should not be brought up as an example.
What is most significant are his remarks on the Executive Presidency, coming AFTER and NOTWITHSTANDING the detailed statements in the Constitutional Assembly debate by SLFP seniors Nimal Siripala de Silva and Susil Premjayanth, representing the main partners of the UNP in the Yahapalana coalition. Jayampathy pontificates:
A: “…What will happen if the Executive Presidency isn’t abolished? On the Executive Presidency, they will be two power centres- the President and the Prime Minister. There won’t be a problem as long the relationship between the present President and the Prime Minister continues. If that relationship is soured under a new President and a new Prime Minister, there will be clashes between the executive and Parliament. This has to be resolved.”
Q. How do you view the abolition of the Executive Presidency?
A: People have been discussing it for 40 years. People gave a clear verdict on January 8, 2015. Now, it is up to us to implement that.
Q But, the party headed by President Sirisena himself is opposed to it. What is your response?
A: It is unfortunate. But, then, I heard Ministers Dilan Perera and Dayasiri Jayasekara saying that the parties shouldn’t ask for the pound of flesh from the stomach. We need to find a formula, a win-win situation. I have no doubt that Maithripala Sirisena is of the same view that the Executive Presidency should be abolished; that there won’t be another presidential election. That is what he said on every platform during the last Presidential Elections. We, in the United Left Front, have proposed. In fact, our party instructed me to go public regarding this. We propose a win-win situation. We pass the Constitution on the basis that the President is elected by Parliament. We, or the parties agreeing on the constitution, should also agree on electing President Sirisena for a second term.”
Jayampathy Wickremaratne doubtless thinks that President Sirisena, the SLFP and the people of the country are fools.
Firstly, he doesn’t say if the President elected by parliament will be an Executive President, as in South Africa.
Secondly, he forgets that devolving much more power to already semi-autonomous Provinces (as he proposes) while there is an overarching Executive Presidency is quite different—and much safer—than such devolution once the Presidency is downsized and elected by parliament rather than deriving its power and legitimacy from the people of the country as a whole. Let alone a generous replacement, even the present 13th amendment without the overarching Executive Presidency, will be tantamount to federalism, or in our case, a dangerously centrifugal ethno-federalism!
Thirdly, Jayampathy’s abolitionist formula eliminates any political office being elected by the whole of the country and thereby from representing the whole of the country. Instead all we shall have are representatives of parts of the country. The whole will be undermined and atomized.
Fourthly, Jayampathy deliberately overlooks the fact that a President elected by the Parliament will be dependent upon and the captive of the minority parties, especially the Tamil nationalist parties in that Parliament.
Fifthly, his formula undermines economic stability and rapid growth which was JR Jayewardene’s rationale for the introduction of a nationally elected executive Presidency “free from the whims and fancies of the legislature”.
Sixthly, he ignores the possibility/probability that the UNP and its minority allies in Parliament will double-cross President Sirisena and the SLFP, and pick their own candidate.
We must know where all this dangerous nonsense comes from: the insidious Singapore Principles of 2013. The recent incarnation of the idea of abolishing the executive Presidency does not date back to the Maithripala Sirisena candidacy. His was an utterly ambiguous pledge. The recent revival of the ‘abolitionist’ slogan dates back to a conclave and a document dating from 2013, when Maithripala Sirisena was a loyal Minister of the Rajapaksa administration with no idea of breaking away and running for the country’s top post. The abolition of the Executive Presidency is in actuality, a vital part of an agreement between Mangala Samaraweera, MA Sumanthiran, Jayampathy Wickramaratne and representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), arrived at in Singapore in 2013. TamilNet (Thursday, 22 January 2015) released the text. The abolition of the Executive Presidency was a top priority, probably because Sumanthiran and the GTF knew that without it, any devolution including the existing 13A, would automatically federalize the country.
“Mangala Samaraweera came as a ‘beggar’ urging Tamil support for regime change and abolition of the executive presidency. It was 2013,” said one of the participants, reflecting on the Singapore meeting.’ revealed the TamilNet report.
The Interim Report as well as the points reiterated by Jayampathy Wickremaratne in his latest newspaper interview clearly reflect the agreed upon 10 point Singapore text, of which I reproduce what is most obviously salient to the Constitutional drafting today:
“In describing the nature of the State what is important is the substance; the labels are secondary.
The Constitution shall be based on basic constitutional principles and values including sovereignty of the people, participatory democracy and supremacy of the Constitution which shall form an unalterable basic structure.
Power sharing shall be on the basis of self-rule and shared-rule within an undivided Sri Lanka.
The Executive Presidency shall be abolished and the form of government shall be Parliamentary.
The Republic of Sri Lanka shall be a secular state. The Foremost place to Buddhism and equal status to other religions shall be assured.”
So, is this the philosophy and concepts and are these the objectives of the proposed new Constitution? And is Jayampathy Wickremaratne who holds these national/state-debilitating views, to remain the main drafter after tomorrow’s final session?
What is made crystal clear by the latest Jayampathy interview is that this key drafter of the new Constitution reflects the views of those who regard the main partnership in the reform process, and the direction of the country, as NOT that between the UNP and the SLFP, but that between the UNP and the TNA!
Shouldn’t the drafting exercise from here on in, be handled by the only ‘third/intermediate force’ and therefore ‘balancer’ in the Assembly, the centrist-moderate SLFP-MS, which is also the formation closest to the President? Shouldn’t the drafting be only of a workable modification of the 13th amendment and the existing system of Provincial Councils?
And for the sake of safety, stability and sanity, shouldn’t the actual negotiations and drafting of a revised 13th amendment be handed over from the poseur and adventurist wrecker Jayampathy Wickremaratne, to the most educated and literate man in the Constitutional Assembly, an internationally acknowledged scholar and intellectual who has been closely involved as Gamini Dissanaike’s top official, in intricate negotiations on the ethno-constitutional reform issue since the 1980s: Dr. Sarath Amunugama?