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The party that will have the largest number of seats in the new parliament will have a major say in the shape and form of the constitution | (Picture-File photo)

The most significant achievements of the Sirisena/Wickremasinghe regime maybe taken as the restoration of the independent commissions under the 19th Amendment to the constitution and the establishment of a Constitutional Council.

This is a significant achievement without qualification. Although some may have a contrary view, this achievement would not have been possible had the SLFP not supported it considering the UNP government did not have a majority in Parliament to pass the amendment.

It is also a moot point whether the SLFP would have supported the amendment (with its revisions) without the implicit backing of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who still holds sway over most of the SLFP parliamentarians.

In this context, it is interesting to note how former senior Minister and the LSSP Chief Professor Tissa Vitharana responded to question posed to him during an interview with the Daily Mirror on the 25th May 2015.

It is worthwhile for all political parties to remember that politics is the art of the possible, keeping in mind that it’s not always about what’s right or what’s best, but it’s about what one can actually get done

Q : Do you think a fully- fledged new Constitution is necessary to address all these drawbacks?
Yes. It was for this reason that when the LSSP politburo members met the leaders of the SLFP and the former President before the Presidential Election we stressed the importance of total abolition of the Executive Presidency, the implementation of the improved 17 Amendment, electoral reform on the basis of a mixed PR (Proportional Representation) and FPP (First Past the Post) system and a solution to the national question. We suggested that the next general election should also be made an election to establish a Constitutional Assembly, as was done in 1970, so that all these matters could be discussed by the chosen representatives of the sovereign people and the necessary substantial changes made in a new Constitution. As the existing 1978 Constitution is based on executive powers being vested in the President, removing it requires a new Constitution to be drafted. Accordingly this was included in MR’s Election Manifesto. This should in fact be a matter for public debate and a paper prepared by Prof. Lakshman Marasinghe on this matter could help to make the politicians and the public aware of its importance. As it stands even the limited changes made in the 19 Amendment can be removed by a mere majority, even without a referendum. –

It is clear from this statement that the former President had agreed and included the following undertakings in his manifesto

1. The total abolition of the Executive Presidency

2. Restoration of the independent commissions

3. Appointment of a constitutional assembly to frame a new constitution

Although the man elected as the President, Maithripala Sirisena could not abolish the Executive Presidency as he had promised during the election, he did manage to transfer some of its powers to the Parliament via the 19th Amendment.

The momentum for constitutional change, including the framing of a new constitution is there, and that momentum should not be lost, although whether the task of framing a new constitution should be left entirely to a set of parliamentarians is another matter.
Parliamentarians are bound to follow a party line and as a consequence, the party that will have the largest number of seats in the new parliament (after the next general election) will have a major say in the shape and form of the constitution.

This is not necessarily a good thing although Professor Vitharana had stated “so that all these matters could be discussed by the chosen representatives of the sovereign people”.
In 1970, the constitution that was framed by the then chosen representatives who met as a constitutional assembly, a majority of whom (two thirds in fact) were from the SLFP led coalition, was a document very heavily tilted towards the majority community the Sinhalese, with the Tamil community left feeling they were virtually disenfranchised as a consequence.

A constitutional assembly therefore needs to be broad based, to include a cross section of the civil society, and representatives from the provinces. A process for public consultation should also be included and a mechanism to synthesize the views and suggestions submitted. Fundamentally, the task of framing a new constitution should not be rushed for many reasons.

Firstly, there is no need to rush as there is a constitution that has advanced significantly since it was promulgated in 1978. The Sri Lankan community, all sections of it, is on a different and higher platform than where they were in 1978. No doubt more has to be done, but the current priority should be to implement what is already in the present (1978) constitution, including what is included in all its amendments.

Secondly, while it has become almost a fashionable to refer to the “national question” and to make out as if the country is some kind of minority hell hole, it is time to recognize that constitutionally, there are no discriminatory policies against any community that could deny them equal rights or hamper their progress.

From an implementation perspective, yes, there are several constitutional inclusions that need to be implemented, but as stated earlier; essentially, the issue is one of implementation and not the absence of constitutional provisions to further equality amongst all communities.

Thirdly, it is time all political parties, including the Tamil and Muslim parties, worked together to develop and agree on a staged approach to implement provisions in the constitution and its amendments, particularly those non-controversial provisions, and leave those that have attracted controversy for discussion and implementation at a later date.

In this context, it is worthwhile for all political parties to remember that politics is the art of the possible, keeping in mind that it’s not always about what’s right or what’s best, but it’s about what one can actually get done.

It’s associated with Realpolitik, a political philosophy of setting pragmatism over ideological goals. Getting everything one wants is near impossible, and often, there have to be compromises on all sides to get something out of a situation or an opportunity.

In the end, refusing to compromise could mean one gets nothing whatsoever. The term “art of the possible” is sometimes generalized in the sense of avoiding perfectionism. The goal is to get something that is good enough and move on rather than being driven into complete immobility by a desire or a demand to be perfect.