Redesigning the legislature | Daily News

Redesigning the legislature

The government last week began grappling with its latest and most daunting challenge- the task of introducing a new Constitution to replace the Executive Presidential system of government introduced in 1978. This is while the de-facto opposition, the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which has styled itself as the Joint Opposition (JO) suffered twin political setbacks.

It was only last week that the government succeeded in passing the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill in Parliament with a two-thirds majority. This meant that the elections to three provincial councils- in the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces- would be deferred for at least several months, until these regions are subjected to a process of re-demarcation of electoral divisions.

This was a severe blow to the JO because it was aiming to test its electoral strength, at least in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces where it believed it has significant grassroots level support. A Supreme Court verdict declaring that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution required a referendum had given hope to the JO that the polls would be held, if not later this year, at least early next year. That is not possible now.

Hot on the heels of that came another court verdict- from the District Court of Colombo- where a lawsuit seeking the re-instatement of Rajapaksa as President of the SLFP was dismissed by Colombo District Judge Sujeewa Nissanka who upheld the preliminary objections that were raised.

Election victory

It will be recalled that shortly after President Maithripala Sirisena’s election victory, a discussion was held between President Sirisena, Rajapaksa and then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa at the latter’s official residence where it was decided that Rajapaksa would hand over the leadership of the SLFP to President Sirisena.

That itself was a consequence of Rajapaksa’s actions. Keen to wrest control of the SLFP from former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa, soon after he became President, had the SLFP’s Central Committee approve a resolution that if a SLFPer was the leader of the country, he or she would also take over the mantle of party leadership. It was a resolution that came back to haunt Rajapaksa after he lost the presidential election to President Sirisena in January 2015.

However, the petitioners in the District Court had a different argument. They submitted that President Sirisena was not entitled to that privilege because he contested from an opposition party and ran against a candidate from the SLFP. That submission however was not put to the test as the District Court held that the President had immunity from legal action under Article 35(1) of the Constitution.

This verdict is a setback to the JO because many saw this as a last resort attempt by the Rajapaksa camp to remain as stakeholders within the SLFP. Now, whether they like it or not, they will be compelled to market themselves as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), nominally led by G. L. Peiris.

The mainstream SLFP, on the other hand, is now keen to forge ahead, without seeking alliances with the Rajapaksa faction, if and when the provincial polls and elections to local government institutions are eventually held. Towards this end, President Sirisena met with SLFP stalwarts last week, urging them to reactivate the party machinery in preparation for polls.

Constitutional reforms

Another course of action the President Sirisena is likely to pursue is disciplinary action against dissidents. Ever since he assumed office, the President has been extremely lenient on rebels from his own party, even though they have brazenly flouted party discipline by staging rival rallies on May Day and criticising the current leadership in numerous public pronouncements. This is likely to change now. At an electoral level, JO members are likely to lose their organiser posts and be replaced by other party members.

Meanwhile, the government has also announced proposed Constitutional reforms that could very likely lead to a new Constitution. This was a key pledge by both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during the election campaigns in January and August 2015. These proposals are included in the interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, which was appointed to draft a new Constitution. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe chairs the Committee.

While there is consensus regarding abolishing the Executive Presidency as it exists today, it has been proposed that the President should be elected by Parliament for a fixed term of office. It has also been proposed that the President should be conferred with powers, including those in relation to Provincial Councils in specified situations.

Earlier it was believed that while the SLFP wanted to retain the Executive Presidency as it stands now, the United National Party (UNP) was keen to have it abolished altogether. There was even some apprehension that this issue could drive the two partners in the National Unity government apart. Now, there appears some compromise on the issue.

The interim report also addressed two vexed issues: the system of election and the unit of devolution of power. On the issue of election, there is agreement that it will be a hybrid between the first past the post Westminster system and the proportional Representation (PR) system. It has been suggested that the new legislature consist of 233 seats- eight more than the current 225- of which 140 seats will be directly elected while the others will be through the PR system.

It has also been proposed that, within these 233 seats, a specified number of extra seats shall be allocated to the Northern Province for a specified period of time, to compensate disparities caused due to displacement of persons.

Differences of opinion

A senate style second chamber, consisting of 55 members, 45 of them drawn from the Provincial Councils, has also been proposed. The other ten members should be persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life. It is not proposed for the second chamber to have veto powers. However, it is envisaged that it may refer legislation back to Parliament for reconsideration.

On the issue of devolution of power, there appears to be consensus that the main unit for the devolution of powers shall be the province. However, the steering committee has provided three options regarding the possible merger of provinces for consideration: that mergers not be allowed, that they be allowed subject to a referendum of the provinces concerned and that the Northern and Eastern provinces be considered as a single province. Clearly there are differences of opinion on this issue.

It has been stressed that while these are proposals where wide ranging consensus has been reached, they are still only the basis for further discussion. There is no doubt that there will be much deliberation and more analysis before a final consensus is arrived at.

Already generating controversy in this regard are concerns raised mostly by the JO that Buddhism will lose its special status which it now enjoys under the current Constitution. The government has been at pains to state that this is not so and the Mahanayaka of the Malwatte Chapter, Most Ven Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera this week publicly stated that the assurances provided by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe about this should suffice.

In this respect, the interim report has suggested two options to set out the relevant clauses of the Constitution. Both options include the words, “Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”.

The government does not anticipate an easy passage of the new Constitution through the processes it must navigate. It is only too aware of the difficulties it has in repealing the 18th Amendment and enacting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution early on in its tenure of office, amidst stiff opposition from the JO. So, it expects the possibility of numerous challenges both in Parliament and outside it, in the courts of law.

Therefore, there is a sense of expectation within government ranks that there would be a referendum on the issue. In any event, replacing a Constitution, that too after nearly forty years is a major event in a nation’s history and it would be more viable if it receives the stamp of approval by the people at a referendum. This is the major next hurdle the government is gearing itself for. 


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