Will the new Constitution become a mere dream?

Will the new Constitution become a mere dream?

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BY GAGANI WEERAKOON-2017-07-23

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has pledged that the Local Government Elections will be held in January 2018 when civil society activists led by Puravesi Balaya met him at Temple Trees, Friday evening.

When they protested against government delaying elections, Premier Wickremesinghe has made it clear that the elections will be held in January.

While the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is currently facing an internal crisis of securing unity within party and aiming to form a single-party government in 2020 and United National Party (UNP) on the other hand while mulling to do the same with the support of few Joint Opposition members, discussions to contest LG polls jointly are also being held at another level, informed sources said.

However, the government seems to face another challenge with pressure now mounting from various groups to go for a referendum. President Maithripala Sirisena will once again face the challenge of winning the hearts of his peers in the party with the SLFP clearly having a different opinion on the new Constitution. They, the SLFP, are against going for a referendum at once.

With Wimal Weerawansa led NFF Parliamentarians leaving the Constitutional Assembly, the delay in the Constitution making process has once again come to the limelight.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and several civil society organizations are mounting pressure on the President and the Prime Minister to make it compulsory that the new Constitution obtains a proper public mandate through a referendum.

JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that the new Constitution will have to use the current Constitution as the base , even though it was ‘forced’ on the people by then President J.R. Jayewardene in 1978 with his 5/6 majority in Parliament.

“Both 1978 and 1972 Constitutions were not passed through a referendum. Yet, the 1978 Constitution, based on which the new Constitution is drafted, has pointed out how a new Constitution should be passed in the event the need arises. It clearly says that such draft needs a two-third majority in Parliament and with a referendum. Therefore, we urge the government to make the Constitutional making process open to the public and go before people and get their approval,” Dissanayake said.
He said because the Constitution is the main piece of legislation that determines country’s rule of law, the public as the subject that is ruled by the Constitution has a right to decide whether they want rule to govern them.

“In any case, having it approved through a referendum is the most democratic way”, he added.
Meanwhile, in a discussion with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Friday, Puravesi Balaya – a collective of civil society organizations – insisted that the new Constitution should face a referendum.

SLFP yet to give their proposals

“When we asked about the delays in drafting the new Constitution Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pointed out that the delay was mainly because the SLFP is yet to give their set of proposals in salient areas. However, he promised that a draft will be presented to Parliament by the end of August 2017. From our side, we put forward a condition that there is no need of a Constitution if it doesn’t go through a referendum”, Saman Ratnapriya of Puravesi Balaya said.

Prime Minister’s response to the demand was that there is no change in their ideology that a new Constitution should get approved by a referendum.

President Sirisena also has pledged support for the idea of going for a referendum and has said that the social and political environment in the country for such an event should be created first through rigorous campaigning.

While it is said that President Sirisena did not get a mandate to go for a referendum, the civil society activists pointed out that the agreement they (49 civil organizations) reached with Presidential Candidate Sirisena, clearly stated that a new Constitution will be presented with the approval of people.

“This means it needs to be passed by a referendum. On the other hand while this agreement was in the public domain, another internal agreement was reached with a group led by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera. We do not know what’s in it and based on that only some are saying that President Maithri does not have a mandate to go for constitutional amendments that gives rise to the need of a new Constitution being passed through a referendum”, civil activists opined.

However, when contacted, SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake said that his party is of the view that the first phase of drafting the Constitution should avoid anything that would create the need for a referendum.

“First we must present a draft to Parliament without further delaying it and our party believes we should do so without going for a referendum. However, we can go for a referendum if the Supreme Court determines that there is a need for certain clauses be passed at a referendum”, he added.
When asked as to why they are delaying in submitting proposals as alleged by the UNP, Dissanayake clearly said that they have actively participated in all meetings and have given their guidelines that are in line with the party principles.

Even though Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is confident of presenting the steering committee’s draft to Parliament by end of August, it is learnt that clauses on devolution of power have not even been discussed. While, political parties have agreed to almost 80% of proposals on the electoral system, reaching a consensus on the Executive powers and devolution of powers remain untouched.
According to sources, majority of the political parties on principle have agreed to abolish executive powers being given to one individual, while few others are of the opinion that there should be a person who has executive powers – a President or a Prime Minister.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to reach some consensus on that issue as well. What we have failed miserably is on the matter of devolving powers. We have not reached any agreement on anything that has been proposed”, sources said while noting that the situation is such despite the fact that nothing has been even talked about changing the status given to Buddhism in Constitution or changing the unitary status of the country, signalling things could get worse if these topics were also being discussed.

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