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Back to the freezer

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-

By not putting the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka Bill to vote, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has possibly saved the new Constitution from being dumped for good.

IT is a thumb rule for which most democratically elected governments have a healthy respect: never try to introduce legislation that is controversial or politically explosive at the end of the term, just before going to the people to seek a fresh mandate .

President Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to break that rule by attempting to bring in a new Constitution aimed at resolving Sri Lanka's protracted ethnic conflict, in the last few days before the country's Parliament was due to be dissolved. It was not surp rising that the plan failed.

As Buddhist monks and other Sinhala hardliners took to the streets in Colombo describing the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka Bill as an attempt to divide the country, the government found it impossible to muster the required support for it in P arliament. Sensing defeat, it decided to put off voting on the Bill. With just a few days to go before the dissolution of Parliament, it was really a withdrawal, and it effectively pushed the hopes of a political solution to the ethnic conflict back into deep freezer until perhaps after the general elections.

On August 3, making one of her rare appearances in Parliament, Kumaratunga tabled the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka Bill. It was exactly 21 days before the House was due to be dissolved. Nevertheless, astrologers had identified the day as aus picious for Kumaratunga. It was also the fifth anniversary of Kumaratunga's historic announcement of the "package" of proposals to amend the Constitution and devolve powers to the minority Tamils.

The presentation of the Bill was the culmination of the process kick-started by Kumaratunga in February this year, soon after her re-election, to put together a political solution to the conflict. Kumaratunga and the Leader of the Opposition United Natio nal Party (UNP), Ranil Wickremesinghe, met more than 30 times along with delegations from their respective parties to finalise the Bill. The President also had more than a dozen meetings with representatives of Tamils, and many of their amendments to the devolution provisions were accepted.

But with a general election looming over the horizon, it was doubtful whether the UNP, despite its apparently cooperative attitude during the discussions, would actually support the Bill to ensure its approval in Parliament with the mandatory two-thirds majority. The UNP's support was crucial because the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) has only a slender majority.

The UNP got the excuse it was looking for in the transitional provisions of the Bill. While under the new Constitution it was proposed to switch to a prime ministerial system of governance, these transitional provisions laid down that the executive presi dency would continue for the full term of the present incumbent, who would also assume the powers assigned to the Prime Minister in the new Constitution.

With the P.A. refusing to back down on these provisions during the discussions, the UNP said it would oppose the Bill. Kumaratunga said she would nevertheless go ahead and present the Bill, while her Cabinet Ministers talked alound about plans to break t he Opposition in order to get the required numbers in Parliament.

As the UNP leadership braced itself for desertions from among its parliamentarians, help arrived, clad in saffron. Two important Buddhist prelates, the heads of the Asgirya and Malwatte chapters of the Siam Nikaya, a sect of Sri Lankan Buddhism based in the temple town of Kandy, pronounced that they had not been consulted in the making of the new Constitution and that it all looked like a "secret conspiracy" by the two main parties to hand over the country to the minorities. They wrote individually to a ll Sinhala Buddhist parliamentarians asking them not to support the Bill if it was introduced. The opposition from the monks was not entirely unforeseen. It was almost as if the UNP was waiting for this to happen. For the party, it came as a welcome oppo rtunity to cut loose from the process and simultaneously manage to become the school head-boy.

All through the process of consultations between the P.A. and the UNP, Wickremesinghe's refrain had been, "show this new Constitution to the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)". For this the government painted him a stooge of the separatist group an d all but called him a terrorist, a ploy to chip away at the Sinhala-Buddhist vote base of the UNP.

Now there was a chance for the UNP to regain some lost ground on that front, and party leaders began saying that it had always been the UNP's view, made clear to the government at the very beginning, that the Maha Sangha should be consulted on the new Co nstitution. "If the government rushes through with this Constitution without consulting the Maha Sangha and all the Tamil parties including the LTTE to build a wider consensus, we will not be able to support the Bill in Parliament," declared UNP general secretary Gamini Athukorale.

The party then stood back and allowed the clergy to take over. As D-day approached, the opposition to the Bill from hardline Sinhala groups grew in strength and rose in pitch. There were demonstrations organised by groups such as the Sinhala Urumaya and the National Movement Against Terrorism, and by the Maha Sangha itself.

But confident that it could cobble together the numbers required for the passage of the Bill through Parliament by breaking the UNP, the government ignored the protests and sent the Bill to the Supreme Court for a final word on its constitutional validit y after its approval by the Cabinet on July 31.

On August 3, as the President set out before Parliament the vision behind the new Constitution, UNP members heckled and jeered for the full 100 minutes and, in order to warm the hearts of the protesting monks outside, burnt copies of the Bill inside the House. Buoyed by the President's steely performance in the House, which sent her popularity ratings up by several notches, the P.A.'s backroom boys intensified their efforts to rustle up 150 votes in the 225-member Parliament. The targeted Opposition MPs were reportedly offered millions of rupees, vehicles, houses and positions. But the main carrot that the government held out was a new electoral system under which the defecting MPs would be accommodated in the government's nominated list of parliamenta rians after the next elections. The UNP responded by sending all the vulnerable MPs abroad on an extended holiday so that they would not defy the party line on the day of voting.

The Bill was to be debated just for three days. It was to be put to vote, on the second day, and if it won 150 votes then it would go into the third day of debate during which members were to suggest amendments, each of which would be put to vote individ ually and adopted if it won the support of a two-thirds majority.

By the morning of the crucial second day, the P.A's number-managers realised that their arithmetic had gone horribly wrong. Not only had the UNP made potential defectors hard to reach, but doubts about the new Constitution in the face of the growing oppo sition had made even several ruling party members reluctant to support the Bill. Among them was the Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Mahinda Rajapakse, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) strongman from Hambantota in the deep south, who canno t be trifled with especially in an election year. Thumping his nose at Kumaratunga, Rajapakse, a potential contender for party leadership, walked out of Parliament in the middle of the debate to greet the monks who were on a sit-in outside and assured th em, amidst loud cheers, that "everything would be all right". By then, the government had decided not to put the Bill to vote. Despite face-saving assertions by senior members of the government that the vote would be taken later in the session, it was cl ear that the postponement was a thinly disguised withdrawal.

Kumaratunga has vowed that she will bring in the new Constitution, if not by August 24 within two months after the general elections. But for that to happen, first the election has to be won. Only too aware of that, Kumaratunga lost no time after the deb acle in Parliament to prepare for the next round, to be fought out at the hustings.

Kumaratunga persuaded her mother, the ailing and aged Sirimavo Bandaranaike, finally to step down as the Prime Minister. That enabled the appointment of Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, a hardline SLFP member, to the post, thereby sending out conciliatory signa ls to the monks and Sinhala nationalists who were baying at her. With that Kumaratunga set the tone for campaign for the coming general elections.

It is impossible to predict what will happen to the proposed Constitution, although Kumaratunga has said that after getting a fresh mandate from the people, she will convert Parliament into a Constituent Assembly, where only a simple majority is required to enact it. But that is in the distant future. Last fortnight was a sad one for Sri Lanka, one of political mismanagement and failure of leadership at all levels. In the drama that was played out, none of the actors emerged smelling of roses. Not Kumar atunga, who failed to take the nation into confidence in a task as important as formulating a new Constitution for the country, in the belief she could bring it off by purchasing a few parliamentarians. Even the most eminent constitutional experts in the country were in the dark about what the document would contain, while vested interests found it easy to spread misleading stories about its substance, setting the stage for chauvinistic fervour. In the end, the disregard for due process was one of the r easons for the failure in Parliament.

Also, as the late Neelan Tiruchelvam once said, the first half of the government's term was the best time for bringing in constitutional reforms. Saving it all up for the last two weeks was courting disaster.

In recent weeks the attitude of the leadership of the UNP was as good as to abdicate its responsibility to the people it claims to represent by virtually handing over the reins of the polity to the Buddhist clergy, which apparently believes that any conc ession made to the Tamil minority is like a goal scored against the Sinhala-Buddhist community. Instead of going out to educate the people on the points of consensus between itself and the government on the issues of devolution, the UNP began distancing itself from the new Constitution.

The less said about the Tamil parties, the better. In public, the Tamil parties other than the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) opposed the package and threatened not to support it in Parliament, keeping Kumaratunga in suspense until the very last day. In private, however, they expressed the hope that the new Constitution would be through without their support because at the very least, it would be "something on the table".

By not putting it to vote, Kumaratunga has possibly saved the new Constitution from being dumped for ever. That would have certainly happened had it been voted out. How that sliver of a silver lining develops depends not just on the general elections, bu t also on the military situation in northern Sri Lanka, where the LTTE and the armed forces are locked in a tense stalemate. But one thing is certain: the only beneficiary of last fortnight's cheerless saga was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran, who must have gloated over yet another unsuccessful attempt at a political solution to his separatist war.