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Inadvisable to race through with one sided constitutional changes

Sep 3, 2010 11:39:19 PM- transcurrents.com

by National Peace Council

The government has decided to amend the constitution in a manner that concentrates more power in the already over-powerful institution of the Executive Presidency and to obtain parliamentary ratification by September 8, 2010.

The constitutional amendments seek to remove the two term limitation on the Presidency and to replace the 17th Amendment to the constitution with an alternative that vests more power in the President. If the government sticks to its plans the constitutional amendment process will have taken less than two weeks from the time of its presentation to the general public to its implementation. Countries with stable and successful political systems have engaged in mass education and public consultations for a considerable period of time prior to changing the Constitution.

The government formally announced its decision to amend the constitution as soon as it had succeeded in persuading several opposition parliamentarians to cross over or to offer their support to giving it a 2/3 majority in Parliament. On the other hand, the National Peace Council believes it would be more in the national interest if the government were to take the politically more statesmanlike route of respecting the integrity of the opposition parties in Parliament by having proper consultations with them and obtaining their consensual support for constitutional change.

The country's previous experience is that unilateral constitutional changes by the government in power, without the support of the opposition, are invariably partisan and self-serving. Limits on the term of the President are found in most countries with a powerful Presidential system. The reasoning is that absence of change in an office in which power is so concentrated is a recipe for abuse of power and misgovernance. The passage in Parliament in 2001 of the 17th Amendment was in recognition of the need to ensure checks and balances to the power of the Executive, which had got increasingly concentrated in the hands of the President. Constitutional changes that do not win the support of all sections of the country's politically plural and multi ethnic society are unlikely to stand the test of time.

The National Peace Council also wishes to express its disappointment at the manner in which the opposition parties have been engaging in infighting and for failing to give leadership to the people by presenting to them a better understanding of the gravity of the envisaged constitutional amendments. What is at stake is participatory democracy and accountable governance. If the government is seen as making a genuine effort to reach out to the opposition partiesand to obtain the informed participation of the general population in the process of constitutional reform, they will also have greater confidence in the tasks that the government seeks to accomplish. We also believe that if the government adopts this approach, the constitutional changes that are adopted have a better prospect of being problem solving ones that bring sustainable and good governance to the country.