Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • August 2018
    M T W T F S S

A new constitution for a better country

Posted by harimpeiris on August 10, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 10th August 2018)

  Professor G.L Peiris, trusted acolyte and nominal head of the Rajapakse brothers and their new political vehicle the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) has taken umbrage and fired warning shots across the bow of the ongoing constitutional reform process. The good professor’s pet peeve with the proposed new constitution is supposedly that it has been designed with malice towards the Rajapakse brothers.

Before delving into the merits or otherwise of Professor Peiris’ critique of the constitutional reform process, it would be worth noting that the Constitutional Council was established by a unanimous vote in Parliament after the mandates of 2015, in the context of the widespread public acceptance that the Sri Lankan State needs to be reformed, to better serve the sovereign people of Sri Lanka. Successive Sri Lankan governments, by Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led alliances, since 1994 has been trying to reform Sri Lanka’s constitution to strengthen democracy and to ensure inclusivity especially of marginalized and alienated sections of society. Hence it was not only Presidents Kumaratunga and Sirisena who attempted and did make some constitutional reforms, namely the 17th and 19th amendments to the constitution, but also President Mahinda Rajapakse during his period in office had the All-Party Conference (APC) and its progeny, the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) as an executive body and the Professor Tissa Vitharane headed committee of experts as a working group on constitutional reforms. Finally, the 18thamendment to the constitution which President Rajapakse did manage to enact, was all about transforming Sri Lanka from an imperfect democracy to an elected de-facto monarchy enthroning the Rajapakse dynasty.

Abolishing the executive presidency, term limits and foreign nationality

 Now Professor Peiris not unsurprisingly has objected to two clauses in the proposed draft constitution which he says are prejudicial to the interests of the Rajapakse, even though it is in the public interest. The first objection which Professor Peiris raises is to the abolition of the executive presidency, a near article of faith of the political establishment for several decades. Of the three major political parties in the country, the SLFP, the UNP and the JVP, the SLFP and the JVP have consistently opposed the executive presidency. The UNP which actually introduced this office through the 1978 constitution, most similar to the powers of the emperor in the declining phase of the Roman Empire and notable for the complete absence of checks and balances against the arbitrary and absolute use and abuse of state power, has been the late but now staunch supporter of abolishing the executive presidency.

The proposal to de-bar anybody who has held the office of president for two terms from being elected president is strongly objected to by Professor Peiris. Now term limits are an almost universally accepted check on power and is one of the commonest features of any democratic political order. Accordingly, the SLPP / JO position of opposing term limits can only be described as defying both reason and logic.

The proposed constitutional reforms also debar dual citizens and foreign nationals who even give up their foreign citizenship from contesting for elected office for a period of one year, after such a process is complete. Such a cooling off period, is eminently reasonable. The United States for instance, the country of dual nationality of possible Rajapakse standard bearer and brother number two Gotabaya, (the Khmer Rouge terminology being entirely coincidental) makes naturalized citizens ineligible to be president.

The US Department of Homeland Security makes eminently clear the process required to relinquish US citizenship and for Gotabaya backers, it should be an eye opener that the process is not easy. Specifically, the US seeks to prevent naturalized citizens from giving up their citizenship to avoid legal jeopardy and as a means of avoiding US jurisdiction for past crimes and misdemeanors. Relinquishing US citizenship is not a unilateral step which can be taken by the citizen concerned.

The numbers game in Parliament

 In the context of a protracted and seemingly futile exercise in pursuing the position of the Opposition Leader in Parliament, the informal parliamentary grouping, self-styled as the Joint Opposition (JO) claims that it has the support of seventy parliamentarians. This self-confession of relative weakness is interesting because constitutional reform requires a two third majority in a parliament of two hundred and twenty-five members and accordingly for the JO to conclusively prevent reform requires one third of the members of the house or seventy-five members, which it lacks. So essentially if the coalition of 2015, which was basically Rajapakses verses the rest, can agree on the contours of constitutional reform, be it abolishing of the executive presidency, electoral reform or greater devolution of power, the reforms can still be enacted. The impending electoral contest of 2020 though looms large in the viewing lenses of the various political formations and their leaders and the proposed reforms may only be enacted after the 2020 elections. Those elections though would provide Sri Lankans with a stark choice, a messy coalition whose good intentions translate into actions at a pace much slower than an impatient electorate demands or a return to the past, with a barely disguised fascist and militarized mono ethno-religious regime, whose inspiration and role model as recently and publicly proposed to a key protagonist, is to be Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.


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