Yearning for national renewal | Sunday Observer

Yearning for national renewal

Who was right and who was wrong in the dire political confrontation that pitted two arms of the Sri Lankan State against each other last month? While many would accuse one side of riding roughshod over the Constitution, others will praise those who attempted to usurp power as patriots wanting to protect the country from what they saw as an unpatriotic government.

Still others waited in suspense to see if those elements that plagued the ethnic minorities would entrench themselves in government again. Most shocked were those who had thought they had, permanently, rid themselves of perhaps the most corrupt and autocratic political cabal that has led this country.

By the time the Supreme Court made its historic rulings, many citizens were exhausted with the suspenseful waiting as well as the desperate, makeshift arrangements to tide over the economic doldrums and market instability caused by the crisis. Entrepreneurs who had presumed that the uncertainty and instability caused by racial riots, political thuggery and crony capitalist mayhem had ended in 2015, suddenly had to deal with a slide in economic performance ratings that threatened their own business outlooks.

Even if the country was divided over the minutiae of political responsibility, what brought consensus was the recognition of the severe inadequacy of the current Constitution, despite numerous amendments, to enable a less disruptive navigation of the crisis by the country’s political leaderships. Indeed, some commentators also directly blamed the Constitution as being the framework that enabled such political gimmickry and blatant power grabs.

That the current Constitution is wholly inadequate for an emergent capitalist democracy seems to have been a consensus for at least two decades. Even if the reasons for dissatisfaction were varied according to the perceptions and interests of different constituencies, the desire for constitutional renewal was broad enough to prompt many political parties to include either full constitutional reform or partial reform in their election manifestos at successive presidential and parliamentary elections since the mid-1990s.

Such has been the collective yearning of Sri Lankans for constitutional change. Leaders were swept into power often with constitutional reform topping their list of promises.Today, many political party leaders, including President Maithripala Sirisena himself as well as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, are veterans of many different initiatives to either drastically amend the Constitution or to draft a wholly new one.

And many are the processes of constitutional reform that were launched by leaders taking up either governmental or presidential office.

However, virtually all the top leaders today are guilty of failing to take the reform process to completion. Some simply ran out of time as their tenures ended with the reform process bogged down due to heated – sometimes dangerously emotional – opposition.

Others, notoriously, only pretended at such reform and then went on to do the exact opposite. Most infamous in this regard was the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.

Mahinda Rajapaksa himself promised an end to the executive presidency in his first bid for that post. This promise was believed by an electorate also seeking change because Rajapaksa had associated himself with previous initiatives for constitutional reform. Certainly, that promise would have added to the votes he got.

Notwithstanding his pious election promises (made with poojas and all), Mahinda Rajapaksa, as President, was perhaps the national leader who did the most to further concentrate power for himself. If he had previously enthusiastically voted for the 17th Amendment that sought to diffuse the concentration of executive power, that did not stop Rajapaksa from pushing through an 18th Amendment that completely reversed the democratic framework into one that actually brought the Sri Lankan presidency even closer to one of near-regal potency.

Today, with the issues of governance now clarified, national political management is back on track for substantive reform and the creation of a new and genuine platform for national recovery from both war and corrupt autocracy.

Barely a month after surviving an attempt at usurping power, the Prime Minister has not wasted time in firmly placing the constitutional reform process on the national agenda once more. At stake is not simply some rarified ideal of democracy. Rather, it is a very pragmatic drive for political stability based on a new framework of political management that would reduce uncertainties as well as close current institutional loopholes that enabled usurpers to try to grab power.

As the father of the current Constitution, the first Executive President J. R. Jayewardene himself argued, what is needed is a political structure that will enable social harmony on the one hand and empower a rigorous development thrust on the other. In his time, Jayewardene did much to achieve a platform for rapid development but his Constitution also encouraged individual power rivalry and autocracy.

Today, after thirty years of bloody conflict, the economic platform Jayewardene helped create has brought us a modicum of ‘development’ but, at the cost of a near-breakdown of the political structures – as demonstrated by last month’s crisis.

Clearly, only those who benefited from the loopholes in our basic law and who still see (personal) profit from further autocracy and nepotism, will seek to stymie constitutional reform. And as they have done in the past, they will use whatever trick and ruse, whether it is ethnic chauvinism or religio-linguistic exclusivism, to achieve their dark purposes.

The citizenry knows this well. And it is important that, along with the formal political machinery now moving toward constitutional reform, there is substantive input and participation by civil society that will enrich the creative formulations on the one hand, but also help legitimise the reform process as one that has the backing of a nation that rejects the violence, decadence and corruption of autocracy.