Colombo, November 28 (The New Indian Express): The fluid political situation in Sri Lanka, and the erosion of popular support for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, have together created in the minds of the minority Tamils, doubts about the regime’s ability to draft a Tamil-friendly constitution and face the political storm that will certainly follow.
Sensing a drift towards abandonment of the constitution-making exercise and its substitution by a few amendments to the existing constitution along with electoral reforms, MPs of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in parliament with 16 MPs, met President Maithripala Sirisena recently to air their concerns.
Sirisena assured the MPs that he is keen on a new constitution as promised to the Tamils in the run-up to the January 8, 2015 Presidential election, which he had won thanks in part to the overwhelming support of the Tamils. However, the President made it clear that he will have to get the support of his political rival and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, especially for greater devolution of power to the Tamil-speaking provinces. He said that he has asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss the matter with Rajapaksa.
While the Tamil MPs do realize that support of Rajapaksa’s 50-odd MPs in parliament will be necessary for the draft constitution to get the required two thirds majority, they also know that Rajapaksa is a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner who has often said that he will not give to the Tamils in peace time what he had denied LTTE leader Prabhakaran in war time. Rajapaksa had trashed the idea of federalism and had agreed to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council only because of intense Indian pressure and Japanese prodding. He had also insisted on continuing to have a military man, Retired Maj.Gen.G.A.Chandrasiri, as the Governor of the Northern Province against protest by the elected Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran and the TNA.
Rajapaksa has very significant support among Sinhala-Buddhists who account for 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. And the dominant view in the Sinhala-Buddhist community is that devolution of power to a Tamil province will end up in secession, thanks the Tamils’ ingrained separatist mentality and support from Tamil Nadu and the Western nations.
If Rajapaksa was defeated in the January 2015 Presidential election it was because the minorities voted en-masse against him while the Sinhalese were divided. But despite that setback, Rajapaksa bounced back in the July 2015 parliamentary elections when his faction of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came second only to the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The faction led by President Sirisena came third.
In the past year, Rajapaksa has been gaining ground politically, despite the many misappropriation cases filed against members of his family and political cohorts. A lack of cohesion in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, frequent changes in policy, a manifest inability to deliver on economic promises, concessions to the rich and high indirect taxes on the common man have resulted in the Rajapaksa regime shining in contrast.
The rising tide in favor of Rajapaksa was evident in the recently held elections to the Multi-purpose Rural Cooperative Societies. Acolytes of Rajapaksa apparently swept the polls.
Sensing lack of adequate support among the Sinhalese in the rural areas, President Sirisena has kept postponing the long over due elections to local bodies like the Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipalities.
With the political tide turning in his favor, it is very unlikely that Rajapaksa will agree to Sirisena’s proposal to give the Tamils more than what has been given to them under the partly implemented 13 th.Amendment of the constitution. But even this tattered document is viewed by the majority Sinhalese as an Indian imposition in 1987 which ought to be repealed.
Tamil politicians have also noticed that Sinhalese MPs in the various constitution-drafting sub-committees do not take much interest in the proceedings and are irregular in attendance. The only area in which they are interested in is electoral reforms. Most majority community MPs are keen on the re-introduction of the First Past the Post System, which is more favorable to them, while the minorities want the retention of the Proportional Representation System as much as possible. The majority community MPs would rather not discuss devolution, and if at all they do, would propose the minimum.
The issue of the abolition of the Executive Presidency could also wreck constitution-making. Not all want it to go. Some key members of the government like Champika Ranawaka have said that they will not like to make any drastic change in the constitution which will require a referendum. This means that controversial issues such as a good devolution package to the Tamils and abolition of the Executive Presidency may be skirted and the new constitution may just be old wine in a new bottle. Minister Susil Premajayantha hinted at this earlier this week when he said that government would either change the constitution or amend the present one.
Knowing the animosity to the term “federal structure” the sub-committee on Centre-Periphery Relations, chaired by TNA MP D.Siddharthan and assisted by S.Thavarajah, has avoided identifying the structure it has recommended as either “federal” or “unitary”. But it has recommended the grant of far reaching powers to the provinces, including power over land and police currently held by the Centre. It has also recommended a drastic reduction in the powers of the provincial Governor, transforming him from a de-jure and de-facto ruler to a figure-head. The sub-committee has said that the provinces should be part of the Finance Commission which allocates funds to the provinces and also bodies which formulate the “National Policy” on various matters. However, the final decision on devolution will be taken by the Steering Committee headed by the Prime Minister.
(The featured picture at the top shows Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena with Mahinda Rajapaksa, his challenger and former President)