Constitutional reforms and new political order | Daily News


Constitutional reforms and new political order

Parliament of Sri Lanka
Parliament of Sri Lanka

With less than a fortnight to the General Elections, the campaign focus has been shifted to the issue of constitutional reforms and the need to establish a new political order. Prof G L Peiris, Chairman of the main contestant party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) said earlier this week that the people have determined that a new political order is required because of the negative experiences from the past where the legislative and executive powers opposed each other resulting in instability.

There are many practical reasons why the present system needs changing. There is a dire need which is recognized across the spectrum that the constitutional division of powers needs to be fundamentally changed, while retaining a healthy balance between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

This is one of the consistent policies stated by the government. On January 3, 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his commitment to amend the Constitution. Delivering the Government’s Policy Statement at the inauguration of the Fourth Session of the Eighth Parliament, the President said the existing Constitution had given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions. “In order to safeguard the security, sovereignty, stability and integrity of the country, it is essential that changes be made to the existing constitution”. He said that reforms would be introduced to the Constitution to “establish a strong executive, legislature and independent judiciary that can ensure the sovereignty of the people”.

Immediately after his resounding victory at the Presidential Election 2019, he listed out his priority of constitutional reforms. During his Indian visit, President Rajapaksa, speaking to journalists Padma Rao of Hindustan Times and Suhasini Haidar of the Hindu, said the 19th Amendment is a failure and if there is a 2/3rds majority in parliament it will be dropped from the constitution.

In post-independent Sri Lanka, there were few significant political reforms in the past starting with the 1956 change of order initiated by S W R D Bandaranaike and later the first Republican Constitution of 1972 enacted by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government.

However, the most distinctive change was the switch over to the system of Executive Presidency, which was introduced in 1978 by the government of President J R Jayewardene. The Executive President of Sri Lanka has enormous political powers and they were exercised by all the Presidents since 1978. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was elected to power in 2005, showed strong leadership in the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ruthless terrorist organization, and defeated the LTTE in May 2009. The executive powers entrusted to him by the Constitution were very useful for him to take effective steps to eradicate LTTE terrorism and safeguard the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

The 2010 Sri Lankan Presidential and Parliamentary elections could be described as a watershed in Sri Lanka’s politics. The second term of President Mahinda Rajapaksa evolved a major social and political transformation with the desire to strengthen conditions conducive to indigenous values in the liberal democratic system inherited from colonial rulers and sustained with modifications over the years.

However, the attempt to devolve some Executive Powers to the Parliament though the 19th Amendment in 2015, resulted in many ambiguities. “The people of this country have had very negative experiences, in a situation where the Executive and Legislature were pulling in different directions. During the Yahapalana regime nothing could be accomplished because of a ferocious conflict between the different component elements of the Government. Eventually it was the public that paid the price of dissension, disagreements and internal tensions in the Yahapalana Government,” SLPP Chairman Prof Peiris elaborated.

Despite seeking a two-thirds majority at the upcoming Parliamentary Election, the SLPP would attempt to foster a balance of power in the Parliament by being a “self-reflective” party that would work with the Opposition to improve accountability through the vibrant function of Parliamentary bodies such as the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Prof. Peiris said. He added that necessary measures to protect democratic objectives through strengthening Parliamentary committee systems such as COPE and create a culture of “self- criticism” within the Government would be taken.

Therefore, the functions and responsibilities attributed to the Opposition cannot be carried out by a weak Opposition. This enhances the duties of the government in power. They will have to be self-critical and the Government will have to discharge some of the duties of the Opposition, he said.

The 19th Amendment was approved by all the MPs present, barring the sole exception of Sarath Weerasekera. Though well intentioned, the faults of 19A became apparent over the years. The inability for the President to hold Defence portfolio, instability due to policy differences between the President and Prime Minister, lack of powers to dissolve Parliament, undue delays in top level appointments due to differences between the Executive, Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions are some of issues that need rectifying to ensure smooth governance.

The 19A was widely felt to be crucial to the resilience of constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. The inadequacy of 19A is mainly due to the fact it was drafted hurriedly without proper study of possible repercussions. The crisis created by 19A demonstrated both the weaknesses and the strengths of Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy. Hence, before enacting new constitutional reforms, it is essential to have a prolonged national dialogue, a serious study and create awareness among the public, especially the intellectual community. There should be a discussion between the Government, Opposition parties, intellectuals and others on Presidential powers, balancing with the legislature and judiciary, the vulnerability of Sri Lanka’s political system, institutional characteristics of that system, and then consider the relationship between the executive and the legislature in order to determine the type of political regime model that is applicable to the system of Executive Presidency.

Far reaching reforms are required to take forward the country and they should also sufficiently address the issues of public apathy as it is of pivotal importance to restore public confidence in the system.

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