by Dayan Jayatilleka
Much of the contemporary political comment in Sri Lanka is on the tale of two constitutions, the country’s basic law and that of the main democratic opposition party, the UNP.
The commentary is also characterised by a zero-sum perspective, revolving around the question of whether or not the talks on changing the country’s constitution will dwarf and derail/deadlock the move for change in the UNP’s constitution and leadership. While there can be little doubt that one of the aims of the dialogue and its timing is to prop up the leadership of the main opposition and forestall a change, it does not seem to me that such an antinomian approach is the only possible or most productive one. In any event, the news that the UNP’s Working Committee has given its assent to the party reforms makes that assumption and line of discussion rather redundant.
I fail to see a reason why both the country and the main Opposition party cannot undergo a parallel or overlapping process of reform. This would be most apposite given that both are in need of change, comprising an overall moment of national reform.
Let us start with the basic law of Sri Lanka. We didn’t have the kind of founding fathers with the sagacity that the US and India had, endowing those countries with Constitutions that have not only stood the test of time but have accommodated and facilitated change. Both Constitutions act as a beacon for their own societies and those further afield.
It is transparent that the motive force for Constitutional change today is exactly what it was during the second term of President Kumaratunga, namely the striving to overcome the two term limit and prolong incumbency or the chance of incumbency by any other name. Our predominant political culture seemingly fails to enshrine the principle of the social contract, or even the simpler one of a trade-off, whereby a plenitude of power is vested in a single person in exchange for a strict limit on the period during which that person shall enjoy such enormous power.
No matter: Nelson Peery, an old black man in Chicago, decorated veteran of the bitter fighting on the Pacific front in WWII, and hardcore communist militant used to tell those of us gathered in his party office in the early 1980s during the Mayoral campaign of Harold Washington (a mayoralty which was a seminal political experience for Barack Obama according to his autobiography) that serious reform is possible only when the need for reform on the part of the people coincides with the reformist urge or perceived interest of a faction of the power wielders, though the motivations would widely differ. So, the country’s current leadership desires reform and the country needs reform, though these may be two different sets of reforms and for two different sets of reasons. The task is to ensure that the hunger for reform on the part of the ruling elite is not at complete variance with the interests of the people and is not fulfilled at the expense of the reforms which the country as a whole requires.
The method by which this happy coincidence can be ensured is to observe the principles of holism, linkage, reciprocity and consensus. I see no political or ethical reason why the reform process should be front-end loaded with the change of the Executive Presidency to an Executive Prime Minister-ship. That is surely not the most pressing of the country’s problems. The merits or demerits of such a change can be judged only when it is embedded in a matrix of other changes, revealing the altered structure as a whole. In short, the reforms have to be placed on the table as a bundle or package.
It would be silly, of course, to imagine that the Constitutional changes would not be weighted in favour of the incumbent President and his administration. So favourable is the post-war, post-election balance of forces for the President and the ruling coalition (and inevitably so) that the reforms are bound to be skewed in their direction. The question is to what degree; whether that degree of tilting is kept to a minimum and the public interest represented sufficiently in the final shape of the reforms.
This is where the UNP’s own reform process comes in. Conventional wisdom – usually wrong—has it that there is a zero sum relationship between the larger and smaller reform processes, and that Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP’s current leader, is the best bet for the overall process of Constitutional reform. This perception is not only false it is the exact opposite of the truth.
The truth is that Mr Wickremesinghe needs the endorsement, recognition, support and patronage of the President, just as he needed and obtained them from President Kumaratunga when his leadership of the UNP seemed threatened. This much is well-known. What is not recognised is the inevitable corollary that Ranil will therefore need to make more concessions in negotiations than would any other UNP leader less dependent upon the regime or independent of it. He will do with the Government that which he did with the Tigers during the CFA: sell out. Any other UNP leader would of course have to give more than he gets from the government at the negotiating table, but that would only be because of the political asymmetry between this government and the Opposition, and would approximate that degree of asymmetry. Since Ranil needs the Government to prop him up, he is certain to concede not just that which is objectively inevitable but quite a bit extra. Going that extra mile is not in the public interest, just as his unilateral concessions in and during the CFA were decidedly not in the national interest.
This is why it would make for somewhat more equitable negotiations, reducing the chances of the national and public interests being placed on the backburner in a deal between two personalities, were the UNP to be under a new leadership. This is why the process of Constitutional change would be helped and not hindered by such a leadership change. This is why the two processes of bipartisan negotiations on constitutional reform and inner-party struggle for constitutional and leadership change are inextricably linked, mutually supportive and positively – not inversely – related. They must be viewed, if not as twinned processes, at least as two sides of a single coin of long deferred democratic structural change.