When the party leaders met last Tuesday, it was decided not to hold the debate which was scheduled for January 26 (Tuesday this week) on the prime minister’s resolution to set up a Constitutional Assembly until the prime minister returns from his trip to Davos.
It is to be hoped that this postponement is to amend the resolution as recommended by the Joint Opposition and to proceed with the constitution making process under the standing orders of parliament, the same way the previous 19 Amendments to the constitution were made.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record suggesting that the constitution making process be split up into manageable parts by bringing in the abolition of the executive presidency and the reform of the electoral system first, before going onto other matters.
The example he had taken is the way the executive presidency was first created as an amendment to the 1972 constitution which was later incorporated into the 1978 constitution.
This suggestion has much merit to it because the last parliament also debated the 19th amendment to abolish the executive presidential system and the 20th Amendment for electoral reform separately. The reason why the 19th and 20th Amendments failed last time was because the SLFP Maithripala group sabotaged the 19th Amendment and the UNP cold shouldered the 20th Amendment in retaliation.
Indeed, if there was going to be no abolition of the executive presidency, there was no reason why the UNP should agree to an amendment of the electoral process. In fact another reason why these two issues should be dealt with separately is because they are the two main issues around which the constitution making processes revolves. If these two issues can be overcome before we go on to the constitution making process, that will leave only the devolution of power as a possible cause for contention.
Admittedly, there isn’t as much agreement within the country over the devolution of power as there is over the abolition of the executive presidency and electoral reform. Hence the devolution of power, if brought together with the other two issues, has the potential to derail the entire process. So if anybody is serious about constitutional change, they will as was suggested by MR last week, split up the issues and deal with them one by one.
Last week, President Maithripala Sirisena was interviewed by Frontline magazine and when he was asked how much time he thinks will be required to for the new constitution to be adopted, his reply was “There will be a comprehensive national debate over a year on whether the existing Constitution should be amended or a new Constitution is required. We have to seek the views of the people, intellectuals, professionals, constitutional experts and civil society organizations. We will seek the mandate of the people at every stage…” When asked whether he was firm in abolishing the executive presidency, Sirisena had answered in the affirmative with a cryptic ‘Yes’. Of course, no one should take president Sirisena at his word. He has over the past one year made a fine art of going back on his word. Even after he took a solemn oath over the corpse of Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero that he will abolish the executive presidential system totally, he told members of the Joint Opposition that he had only agreed to constitutional changes that do not require a referendum.
In a situation where the supreme court had determined that the abolition of the executive presidency comes into conflict with entrenched Article 4 of the constitution and that a referendum is necessary, for Sirisena to say that his mandate at the presidential election extends only to constitutional changes that do not require a referendum, translates into an attempt to dodge abolishing the position he holds. If Sirisena tries to block the abolishing of the executive presidency once again, the only option left to force him to fulfil the most important pledge that he gave to the people may be to present a resolution in parliament asking for dissolution of parliament. With former president Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring that he will support the move to abolish the executive presidency, certain possibilities open up for those who wanted to see an end to the executive presidential system.
The only thing that President Sirisena obviously fears just as much as losing the executive presidency is another election. If presented with the option of either cooperating with the process of abolishing the executive presidency or a resolution asking for dissolution of parliament, he may relent and accept the less disruptive option. In any event there will be an element of carrying the incumbent kicking and screaming out of the executive presidency. It’s going to a messy process and the sooner those who want to see the executive presidency abolished realize this, the better. Even if parliament passes a resolution calling on the president to dissolve parliament, according to the 19th Amendment, the president has the discretion not to do so. This itself shows what an absolute farce the 19th Amendment was. A two thirds majority in parliament can make any change in the supreme law of the country other than in the eleven entrenched Articles, but it can’t make the president dissolve parliament!
If even a two thirds majority in parliament will not persuade the president to dissolve parliament, the next step may an impeachment and a head on confrontation between the president and parliament. The only question is how far the UNP is willing to go to get the executive presidency abolished. They should not start the process at all unless they are willing to go the whole hog. With former president Mahinda Rajapaksa saying that the SLFP will not be able to oppose an amendment brought by the UNP to abolish the executive presidency because it was the UNP that created that position and the SLFP had been opposed to it from the very beginning, a window of opportunity has opened up which did not exist earlier.