As Sri Lanka completes 40 years as a Republic, we need not only to look back at the two Republican Constitutions but also address the question as to how we could build a true Republic.
1972- Whose Constitution?
Many in the Left saw the 1972 Constitution as ‘our’ constitution because of Colvin’s contribution towards it. This is a grave mistake. As Colvin himself said later, when a constitution is made it is not made by the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. The final product is determined by the resultant of the various political forces involved. When Colvin suggested that the constitution should not be labeled ‘unitary’ although it is in fact unitary so that there would be room for flexibility in the future, the SLFP rejected the proposal. Although the Basic Resolution on religion stated that Buddhism should be given its rightful place as the religion of the majority, the SLFP right wing later wanted Buddhism be made the State religion and Colvin had to accept giving Buddhism the foremost place as a compromise. These go to show whose constitution it was.
1972, 1978 and the National Question
The most positive features of the 1972 Constitution were the complete break from the British Crown, the retention of the parliamentary form of government and the recognition of fundamental rights. Its main drawback was the failure to address the national question. When the Federal Party’s Dharmalingam suggested that if the United Front had no mandate to go beyond a unitary state it should implement what it had promised in its election manifesto, namely the abolition of the Kachcheri system and its replacement by elected bodies at district level, none of the Southern parties responded to the proposed compromise. Instead, they all got together to attack the federal resolution. If such a compromise was agreed and some agreement reached on the language issue, the history of this country may well have been different.
Although J.R. admitted in the UNP’s election manifesto of 1977 that the Tamils had grievances and that the non-resolution of those grievances had pushed them towards separatism, the Round Table Conference he proposed was forgotten once he came to power. Instead, the unitary state was entrenched by the 1978 Constitution. Some devolution was reluctantly agreed to through the 13th Amendment only due to Indian pressure. Today, Provincial Councils operate under the authority of the Centre and the Government is reluctant to hold elections for the Northern Provincial Council.
With remarkable foresight, J.R. established the authoritarian constitutional basis necessary to support neo-liberalism that was emerging globally. Chandrika was unable to abolish the executive presidency or give the economy a ‘humanitarian face’ as promised in 1994. Although she was able to get the SLFP to accept that a political solution was necessary to resolve the national question, she could not take it to its logical conclusion. Ranil’s opportunism also added to this.
One practical limit on the executive presidency was the two-term limit. The 13th Amendment limited the powers of the President to some extent. By providing that appointments to the judiciary, certain high positions and independent commissions should be made through a Constitutional Council, the 17th Amendment paved the way for a national consensus on such appointments.
The Left parties have never contested an election together with a party that stood for the continuation of the executive presidency. When Tissa Vitarana and DEW Gunasekera queried about the future of the executive presidency from President Rajapakse before the presidential elections of 2009, the President’s response was that its abolition was already agreed upon. However, the 18th Amendment further strengthened the presidency.
Role of the Left
How do we move forward? There is now talk of a Parliamentary Select Committee on the resolution of the national question. There are signs that the Tamil Nationalist Alliance would join the process, probably due to Indian pressure. However, nothing meaningful would happen until the SLFP leadership takes a clear position on the national question. It is the responsibility of the Left and democratic forces as well as civil society to exert pressure on all political parties to forge a consensus on this issue. Although the Government has a 2/3 majority, Sinhala extremists may not support a solution. However, this should not be a problem if the UNP and Tamil parties offer support. The question is whether the SLFP leadership is committed to a political solution.
Left parties will face a serious problem at the next national elections. For Sri Lanka to be a true republic, the abolition of the executive presidency and the resolution of the national question is a must. These will be central issues at the next national elections. If the SLFP is not committed to either of them, the relationship with that party would be a critical issue for the Left.
The Left’s duty today is to bring the abolition of the executive presidency and a political solution to the national question to the centre stage of politics so that all parties would be forced to take a position on these two issues. To achieve that, the Left must to go beyond meek gestures and weak statements.