Reforms without referendum, or referendum without reforms?

 DPF, Mano, Ganesan, Sri Lanka, Sirisena

Leader of Democratic People's Front and Tamil Progressive Alliance Mano Ganesan

Source: Wikimedia

Whether or not there is a national consensus of some kind for pushing through constitutional reforms, as promised by the present-day rulers, there are already differences if any consensus has at all been achieved. On that would also hinge the question if any of the proposed constitutional amendments, including a new constitution, if agreed upon, would require a nation-wide referendum.

The current phase of the issue started with TNA’s M A Sumanthiran claiming that the parliamentary steering committee had arrived at a near-consensus on contentious issues such as State and Executive Presidency, power-devolution and electoral system. He said that they could now move on to the next stage, and address minor issues as also the details.

Joint Opposition leader, Dinesh Gunawardene has promptly denied the emergence and existence of any such consensus. Specially, he has said that the JO and the official SLFP faction of President Maithripala Sirisena (forming a part of the incumbent Government) had not agreed to many/most of the propositions and formulations put forth at the steering committee. What Sumanthiran said was untrue, Dinesh G was quoted as saying.

Interestingly, senior leaders from the ‘Sinhala majors’ have ceased saying anything of any consequence. The last time anyone said anything of the kind, President Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that they were not ready for a referendum-centric initiative of any kind.

For the first time in months thus, the two leaders were talking in unison on any issue pertaining to Constitution-making. Whether or not it’s helpful or useful to their combined political/electoral agenda from 2015, Sirisena has once again proved that his style of tiring out the ally would pay off better than trying to take on the other.

It’s a quality that the UNP leadership does not seem to have encountered, either against the party or even within the party. So much so, there is also no knowing what the traditional challengers to the UNP throne are thinking, doing or whatever else they are occupying themselves with in political, self-promotional terms.

Convenience of ignorance

It’s a convenience of ignorance that the national media and national leaders have often given themselves to, with the result their readers and cadres have no easy way of knowing, what was going on in matters of ‘minority issues and consensus’ Thus, no national newspaper (read: English) got to highlight a recent statement of Upcountry Tamil leader and Minister, Mano Ganesan.

In his statement, Minister Ganesan, who is the leader of the Democratic People’s Front, spoke about a meeting of all the parties that had backed this government in the presidential polls of 2015 (barring the JVP). President Sirisena and PM Ranil participated in the meeting, so did representatives of all the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties that are with the Government. The TNA too was present.

Mano Ganesan indicated that the ‘Big Two’, namely the UNP and the SLFP, were happy to confine the constitutional reforms processes near-exclusively to electoral reforms. They were not keen now to introduce reforms to the character of the Sri Lankan State or the Executive Presidency and the extent of power-devolution.

But the political parties representing the ‘minorities’, including the TNA, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and his own DPF, would have none of it, Minister Mano G reiterated.

In this context, the minister clarified that the SLFP representative at the meeting made it abundantly clear that they were prepared neither for wholesale constitutional reforms, which meant a new constitution, nor a referendum to make it happen. President Sirisena and PM Ranil endorsed the views, as according to them, a referendum at this stage could cause avoidable embarrassment to the Government.

In this context, Mano Ganesan asserted that all minority parties that were present at the discussions and even others who had backed this Government would have none of it. “The Supreme Court cleared the 13-A on power-devolution by the narrowest of margin, 5-4,” he recalled, adding, “Only a new Constituton could thus serve the purpose of power-devolution.”

Referendum-centric

Outisde of the Government parties’ meeting, if it could still be called so, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera of the UNP said that they could not afford a referendum-centric Constitution, just now. Sympathethic sections of the civil society organisations would want the nation to believe that he was the one that had got the recent two-year reprieve for the nation at the UNHRC? Truth be sought, did the UNHRC really have any option – looking as it did into human rights affairs through the eyes of the West?

The West, in turn, cannot hope for anything more than what the incumbent government leadership was willing to offer, if at all, they have burnt the bridges with the predecessor Rajapaksa regime on the very same issues. To the TNA and the rest, President Rajapaksa too had said that he could not be seen as giving the Tamils whatever that would not clear a referendum.

In political terms, the Sirisena leadership of the SLFP could not yield more space than already to the Rajapaksa camp. To the extent, the UNP ally has to be sympathetic to the Sirisena plight. Otherwise, too, whether Sirisena or Rajapaksa, the SLFP could not afford a referendum-based power-devolution.

Not that the UNP could risk it, now or ever. While piloting 13-A in his time, UNP’s JRJ as President, would not try or test his luck with anything requiring a referendum. Should the UNP go ahead on that course now or later, it would imply that the SLFP, whether under Sirisena, Rajapaksa or any other, would be pitted against them.

The problem before the Government leadership is not power-devolution or other contentious issues involved in Constitution-making that would require to be passed in a referendum. As PM Ranil and others have outlined in recent times, the focus of such a referendum could well shift.

It would thus boil down to outside of the constitutional issues, and become a test of the people’s confidence in the current leadership. Any loss in the referendum could mean the end of this Government, one way or the other – or, at least an overnight advancement of the parliamentary elections, but only as a political principle. Under 19-A, President Sirisena is authorised to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections only six months ahead of the full five-year term of the present one. It would thus mean that any loss of face for the Government leadership in a Constitution-centric referendum, and of power, would force the President to call in the Rajapaksa camp to try and form an alternate government.

Such a course has consequences which neither Sirisena, nor Ranil, not certainly the UNP as a party can afford. Having not considered an anti-defection law when their popularity was still high, they cannot stop cross-overs from the present Government camp if they were to name a referendum, face it, and lose it.

Survival and denial

It’s thus not about Constitution-making, or referendum, either. It’s the question of political survival and/or political denial – survival of the present leadership, and denial of the nation’s leadership to the Rajapaksa camp. Fair enough, the nation denied power to the Rajapaksa camp twice in six or seven months, January and August 2015. But the nation’s calculations did not contextualise to the present-day calculus, either.

It’s no different in the case of the UNHRC, and ‘accountability probe’. There again, the ‘Sinhala consensus’ is not for going ahead with the probe, with or without foreign judges, as mandated by the UNHRC. Some may say it loud and clear, others may let the rivals say it for themselves, too.

It’s as much a question of political survival as it’s an issue of addressing international commitments. For honouring an international commitment after the other side had been certified as being insincere, it’s not always necessary that one has to show himself as being equally insincere. It’s enough one showed up the alternative, which is the ‘certified insincere’ rival. A merry-go-round of sorts, yes, first in the case of ‘accountability probes’ and now with power-devolution and other aspects of Constitution-making. So much so, even vocal sections of the nation’s self-styled civil society have stopped looking their faces in the mirror any more. They are either looking for new mirrors, or are borrowing mirrors that they had said would not present the nation’s face in the proper light.

This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

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