Can A New Constitution Help Democracy
This country goes into bouts of periodic political convulsions only to come out of them like a patient from an epileptic fit and wonder what it was all about. The impeachment of Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake was the latest instance. Certainly the agitation was justifiable since it was a question of the independence of the judiciary where the future of the highest ranking judge of the Supreme Court was in question. But what was the outcome? For all practical purposes Dr Shirani Bandaranayke is no longer the official chief justice and even the judges who valiantly opposed the moves of the legislature and the executive president had to succumb. True, the agitation resulted in international repercussions, the consequences of which may only be known later but was that the objective of the protestors?
As a fall out of the impeachment process we are now witnessing attempts being made to drastically amend the present Constitution or re-enact an entire new Constitution removing the obnoxious features of the existing Constitution. This will indeed be a formidable task if it is not in consonance with the thinking of President Rajapaksa and his political front.
Most political leaders – save those in the UNP – opposed the executive powers vested in the president in 1978 Constitution, including President Rajapaksa till he was elected. In his second term he acquired more formidable power such as getting the 18th amendment enacted. With a president’s limitation of running for president only twice being removed, also by the 18th Amendment, it would be naive to hope that he would go along with a new Constitution with reduced powers of an executive president.
It was reported last week that a group of monks with the blessings of the Mahanayakas has appointed a council of prominent lawyers to draw up a new Constitution within three months which they hope to present to President Rajapaksa, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and all political leaders. Those opposing the government will hope that it will not be a damp squib like many of the political crises that arose recently and fizzled out.
A newly drawn up legal document is only likely to end up in the presidential WPB if we go by how the impeachment process was handled. The main opposition political party led by the UNP has well demonstrated it’s impotency to oppose the Rajapaksa government in the last three years. The JVP has been reduced to verbal tirades while the TNA is being smothered under a blanket of alleged terrorism.
Buddhist monks are still a potent political force. The proposed new Constitution has been discussed at a seminar of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP). In the fifties the EBP was one of the five forces (Pancha Maha Balavegaya) that brought S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to power and – as some say – destroyed him.
Highly respected monks such as Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero have been speaking out in recent times quite openly against the executive powers of the President. He has been quoted at the seminar of the EBP saying that leaders of the SLFP, who had earlier come out strongly against the present Constitution, given election pledges to change it, were still hanging on to it. He had called for a fresh constitution.
How President Mahinda Rajapaksa will face this new challenge is to be seen. Being a master operator in the local political scene he could well have the Bhikkus on his side as he did to some of those pliant UNP politicians.
Before drawing up a new Constitution the question whether the fount of political evil is the constitution or something else has to be determined. A fundamental flaw in Sri Lanka’s political system has been that there is no political infrastructure in most of the well established political parties, certainly in the UNP and the SLFP. The Leader has been the Centre of Gravity of the party and all powers flow from him or her. A study of both parties that have ruled the country, the UNP and SLFP, shows that the leader is the first and last word in all party matters. There is no inner party democracy. Thus a party leader becomes a dictator of his party even before being elected leader of the country.
Party conventions where the leader is elected – quite often for life – are jamborees organised by the leader’s henchmen. There is only one leader and when asked to elect him by acclaim, the vote is a one thunderous ‘yes’. It has, similarities to Hitler’s slogan: Ein Volks, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer (One People, One State, One Leader).In our country certainly ‘One Leader’ has been prominent. Even now the Leader is referred to as Nayakathuma. Only in the UNP has the leadership recently come under challenge and both leaders and challengers have yet to come to terms in a democratic style.
If there is a democratic infrastructure within the party when the party is in power the Leader cannot ride rough shod over his party members or the Opposition.
Democratic elections in each state of America for election of party nominees for presidency are now a worldwide phenomenon thanks to international TV. Even in the UK too the party leaders are chosen by a popular vote.
New Constitutions thus cannot guarantee democratic governance like in the US and UK because party elections here are not democratic.
Nonetheless, the present state of affairs in Sri Lanka is an open sesame dictatorship. With the media under near total control of a ruling party, key appointments to the police, public service, Elections Department, armed services and the judiciary being the responsibility of the executive president, a constitution with checks and balances between the executive, legislature and judiciary is sorely needed.
However, a new Constitution could also tempt an incumbent government to extend the period of government as what happened under Sirima Bandaranaike.
Constitutions however, cannot ensure flowering of democracy unless politicians and the people are committed to democracy.
Abraham Lincoln’s comment to protect the constitution is relevant: “We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the constitution.”