By Kumar David –
There is not a soul in the country who does not see that a new constitution will not be enacted by parliament in its current term (max August 2020) and the JVP’s Twentieth Amendment repealing the semi-Executive Presidency will get nowhere unless Mahinda wants it. Neither can carry without a deal between the UNP and Mahinda as the latter can without difficulty pull together the minimum 76 parliamentary votes needed to block them. Who doesn’t know this? Ranil knows it and has said so, the UNP, TNA and JVP know it, so do the SLPP (plus or minus the SLFP), the Buddhist prelates and the racists outfits, and to folks like you and me it’s plain obvious.
Why then is everybody getting hot under the collar about a non-issue? The JVP tables 20A though it knows it has no chance, Ranil with pomp and ceremony tables a Steering Committee Report, a sort of draft constitution at the Constituent Assembly and the few members present struggle to keep awake. MR thunders that he will not allow the country to be divided by evil “separatists” hand in glove with UNP traitors though he knows he is thumping an empty drum. Who wants to divide the country except the phantom he is conjuring up for sale on election platforms? It’s all shadow boxing where everybody is punching someone and no two contestants punch in symmetry. To make sense you need to see that everybody is playing a different tune, dancing before a different audience and nobody, but a few deadly serious liberals give a hoot about the draft. For a good overview of the discussion in the Sinhala press see Verite Research, ‘The Media Analysis’, January 7-13, 2019.
Mahinda and his brigades are fanning plain-vanilla Sinhala chauvinism, as are innumerable chauvinist, Buddhistic and Gota-backing outfits. Acquaintances who know Mahinda well say, like SWRD and unlike JR, he is not a racist personally, but for power people sell their mothers. Says MR ‘The TNA and Ranil are in cahoots to divide Mother Lanka; the war victory which I delivered and for which so much precious Sinhala blood was spilt is being subverted by separatists, imperialists and their UNP agents. Never, never (lights, action, camera, beating of chest) will I Mahinda Rajapaksa permit it? Trust me, vote the way I tell you’. It’s as transparent as that.
And why is Ranil going through these weary motions on behalf of a constitution that will not be? First, he has to fulfil or appear to fulfil an election pledge; second, he has to show the Tamils (and the TNA) that he wishes to grant a degree of devolution in exchange for the support the community and TNA threw behind him; third, a UNP candidate will be the frontrunner for Tamil votes in a presidential election or runoff. However, at the same time to soothe agitated or incited Buddhists he wears himself thin affirming, reaffirming and tri-affirming the foremost place of Buddhism in this pristine land. He bums every mahanayake he sets eyes on. Such are the travails of political leaders in this land of deep religious devoutness and profound tolerance.
The TNA is caught by the short and curlies. For ever so long it promised the Tamils that constitutional progress was around the corner; but Sinhala polity led the FP/TULF/TNA round and round never-ending corners. The Tamils have remained rooted in exactly the same spot since 13A. The TNA helped defeat Sirisena’s screwball mischief and the Mahinda-Sirisena plot, but after so doing it has to protect its flank against wacky Tamil ultras Wigneswaran and Gajendran. Hence it lets the Tamils imagine that in return for favours done substantial goodies may be thrown their way. But many Tamils see that given Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony this is a daydream for now. The TNA has to welcome the promised constitution but Tamils who envision substantive goodies are fantasising about a land where no racism roams, no Rajapaksa soars and no Weerawansa, Vasudeva or Gamanpila roars “beware the Jabberwock, my son; the jaws that bite, the claws that catch!” The hegemony of extremist ideology is not unique to Lanka; Hindutva in India, Burman Rohingya hatred, white supremacists, Israeli contempt for Palestinians and dozens more fit the mould.
The other two sizable political entities are the JVP and the Muslim parties. The former has to feint as revolutionary champion of the battle against the executive presidency. The Muslims don’t really care too much and are split, mostly for the UNP, a few for MR. I am entirely in support of the JVP’s 20A proposal but I also know it is symbolic. So, you see how teams are fanning out all around the sports field, each playing a different game, all talk through each other and the cacophony is amusing if you could venture a smile in bedlam.
Mergers, rumours and chambers
The TNA and nearly all Tamils know that a merger of the North and East will not happen unless you frog march the East (about 60% non-Tamil) into a forced marriage. Frankly I doubt if even Batticaloa Tamils desire matrimony with the North sans a contiguous border. What for, what’s in it for them not only materially but even culturally and emotionally? Merger is a hot topic in Sinhala dissertations and among chauvinist rabble rousers; it is rarely mentioned in Tamil social circles.
There are three other substantive constitutional issues on the table; the Second Chamber, the choice of representative system and the choice between a ceremonial and a current-style president. Let me dispose of the last matter first. As things stand it depends on what Mahinda Rajapaksa wants. If he prefers to retain the present arrangement, he will block 20A and a new constitution for the term of this parliament – QED number 1. Right and wrong to one side, this is plain vanilla. He will opt for the current semi-executive presidency if he hopes one day to have term-limits lifted, or if he has deep trust and strong preference for a candidate from his camp. There is no way he will endorse executive power in the hands of a pluperfect idiot – he has been asinine enough to get himself burnt twice. Since I think MR will block 20A or a new constitution it follows the current-style presidency will stay. In that case Sirisena has as much chance as an ice-cream cone in a blast furnace of securing SLPP support for another round of aerobics – QED number 2. Mahinda is not such a clot as to stick a knife into himself a third time by entertaining a hare-brained coot who will be a danger to everyone.
Don’t tell me “Sirisena will be gone after one more term, but Gota or Chamal may have two-term ambitions and greedy progeny, and that’s a plus point for MR/Namal”. How Lanka will look and smell in 2025 is hopelessly hard to say now, and Namal is too thick to be a front runner 10 years after his papa crashed out. And don’t tell me MR wants Ranil (or a UNP candidate to win) to circumvent two-term ambitions of his siblings. What about two-term ambitions of Ranil or Karu or Sajith?
Let me in passing make a not carefully thought through remark: It seems Karu is the UNP’s best choice, be it current-style or ceremonial presidency. He has conducted himself with dignity and won a round of applause all round. He will be a strong sell against a Gota now arraigned on several criminal charges, and against pale and flaccid by comparison previous Speaker Chamal. But true the party machine is behind Ranil and UNP youth are enamoured of Sajith; so, let’s see. Mahinda on the other hand faces a genuine dilemma how to even start thinking about choosing a candidate.
The electoral system, proportional, first-past-the post or hybrid is in the air. While there is a year and a half to parliamentary elections and only a UNP with brain-fever will advance it to before the presidential elections, the electoral system has to be sorted out for the long overdue provincial elections. It is tactically advantageous for the UNP to delay provincial polls till after the presidential poll but I don’t know whether it can get away with such a ploy. I am not in the know of the UNP mind but an obvious line of thought is: “If we win the presidential election (the most favourable of the three for the UNP) then we can sail through provincial and parliamentary elections afterwards whatever the electoral system”. Let’s see if that’s the reasoning that eventually prevails with the hierarchy.
The Second Chamber is a complicated issue. The draft tabled by the PM specifies four members elected, from and by, each provincial council plus the chief minister (5×9=45) and 10 persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life elected by parliament, but not parliamentarians. Hence the Second Chamber will have 55 persons. The powers of the Chamber are not clear, for example when it rejects a bill can parliament override the rejection by a super majority (in the US, the Senate can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority). The role of the Senate in making constitutional changes is also unclear at first sight.
The Steering Committee Report tabled by the PM is a good starting point but a lot of work remains to be done. It is detailed and one may even think it too prescriptive. After the Sirisena shenanigans it is natural to want a constitution that ties eccentrics firmly down to earth, but that’s the wrong way to set about it. The right way is to not to put oddballs in office in the first place, not to tie down good presidents inflexibly. But no worry, we have three to five more years to sort all this out.