There is a raging debate on the merits and demerits of a new Constitution. This is a healthy feature of a vibrant democracy where debate and consensus go hand in hand. Significantly, all the political parties represented in Parliament participated in the Constitutional Assembly process that seeded the new Constitution, even though some parties pulled out in the latter stages. Even the parties not represented in Parliament got an opportunity to make oral and written submissions to panels that sought public views. Thus all the stakeholders had an opportunity to present their views on a new Constitution.
The new Constitution is one that ensures a strong economy based on a progressive framework, where its benefits will be shared by all citizens, said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who is also the Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. The Prime Minister made this comment when the Interim Report of the Constitutional Steering Committee was submitted to Parliament on Thursday.
There was near-universal agreement among political parties, civil society groups and the public that the 1978 Constitution was well past its prime. Changing times require different approaches. Post-conflict Sri Lanka faces a myriad of new challenges to address which we require a different Constitutional framework. This is in essence the raison d'être of the new Constitution.
Post-conflict, the biggest challenge is fostering reconciliation among different communities and religious groups. The conflict pitted brother against brother and affected communal and religious harmony that had existed for centuries. The onus is on the Government to resolve this issue, ensure lasting peace and reconciliation and create a truly Sri Lankan identity among the populace. President Maithripala Sirisena, in his well-received address to the United Nations General Assembly, focused extensively on this issue and urged the International Community to support the Government in this endeavour.
But reconciliation is anathema to communalists in both the North and the South who espouse extremist and virulent views that aim to perpetuate the ethnic divide. Ethnic strife is their oxygen, without which they can longer deceive their communities. Hence their attempts to scuttle the movement towards a new Constitution by spreading various lies about it.
They created a phobia among Sri Lankans that the new Constitution would take away the country’s unitary status and also nullify the foremost place given to Buddhism. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have unequivocally stated that the country will firmly retain the unitary character and the foremost place given to Buddhism. In fact, the Prime Minister noted that the formulation of our new Constitution is being done on the very principles of Buddhism.
Many moderate Tamil politicians including Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan and Minister Mano Ganeshan have categorically stated that they do not want to see changes on such issues. On the other hand, all parties, even the extremist parties on both sides, have agreed in principle that devolution of power to some extent is essential to resolve the outstanding issues facing the country. It is up to the parties to decide the nature and units of devolution.
We already do have devolution of power in the form of Provincial Councils and Local Government Institutions. Those involved in formulating the Constitution must necessarily examine whether these institutions are sufficient or whether we need alternative mechanisms that take devolution further. However, the fact that all parties are keen to contest the next Provincial Council Election shows their commitment to the concept of devolution. Prime Minster Wickremesinghe stressed that safeguards will be built-in to ensure that no province can secede.
The voter is at the heart of any democracy. Recent events in Parliament have reinforced the value of the vote. Parliament this week voted overwhelmingly to amend the Provincial Council election Act giving greater representation to women and also making it possible to hold all PC polls on the same day. Moreover, the Polls will be held mainly on the First-Past-the-Post system which enables a level playing field for all candidates.
All parties and independent groups will now have to ensure that their nomination lists have at least 25 percent women. This is long overdue, because we have one of the lowest rates of political participation by women even in South Asia. One of the prime reasons for the lack of women’s representation (especially professionally qualified women who had no family political connections) was the Proportional Representation (PR) system, where each candidate had to spend at least Rs.100 million to campaign within an entire district as opposed to a single electorate under the First-Past-the-Post system. Other factors such as election violence and elections law violations by strong-arm male candidates also kept many women away.
Holding all PC (and Local Government) elections on the same day is another praiseworthy idea. This will reduce overall administration costs and also ensure that no Government can pour in all State resources to a single province or two to win an election, a la Wayamba 1999. These measures, as well as the new Constitution in the offing, will make Sri Lanka a more mature, even more vibrant democracy.
Daily Times, September 25, 2017