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Lankan govt wants to change constitution

Lanka's minority govt has taken up the controversial issue of change in the country's constitution, reports PK Balachanddran.
PTI | By PK Balachanddran, Colombo
UPDATED ON APR 14, 2004 01:26 PM IST

As on date, the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is running a minority government in Sri Lanka, seven MPs short of a majority. But even before it has secured majority support in parliament, it has taken up the highly controversial issue of changing the constitution of the country drastically.

The UPFA may be putting the cart before in yet another way.Issues of economic development and economic equity which put the party in power in the April 2 elections, may be put on the backburner as a result of the preoccupation with the divisive political issue of changing the constitution.

Though the government is yet to prove its majority in parliament and there are doubts about its ability to get its nominee elected as the Speaker, the President of Sri Lanka, who also heads the UPFA, has appointed a committee to go into the intricacies of changing the constitution from the Presidential system to the parliamentary system.

The seven-member committee of legal experts, headed by Lakshman Kadirgamar, has also been asked to substitute the Proportional Representation (PR) system by the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system. Answering the criticism that the UPFA did not have a popular mandate to change the constitution, a Presidential secretariat release said on Tuesday that the party had the required mandate.

The idea of changing the constitution had been put before the people through the party's manifesto in the April 2 parliamentary elections and this was overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters, the release said. The UPFA had emerged as the single largest party in nearly 106 or 2/3rds of the island's 160 electorates and in 14 or 2/3rds of the islands' 22 electoral districts. This meant that the UPFA's manifesto had got the popular mandate without a shadow of doubt.

If the party got only 105 out of the 225 seats and was forced to form a minority government it was only because of the present constitution with its Proportional Representation system. The number of seats does not reflect the real will of the people, it is argued. If the constitution had the First Past the Post system, the UPFA would be enjoying 2/3 rd majority.

The Presidential Secretariat further said that before enactment,the new constitution would be put to the people in a referendum. Only if the change secured more than 50% of the popular vote,would it be submitted to parliament for enactment.This procedure would reinforce the peoples' mandate granted in the April 2 parliamentary elections, the President's Office said.

Submitting a new constitution to a referendum before enacting it would be a new procedure in the constitutional history of Sri Lanka.The 1948, 1972, 1978 and the very radical 13th. Amendment ( which set up Provincial Councils) were not put to a referendum.

Opponents of the bid say that President Kumaratunga has a personal political axe to grind in changing the constitution.It is pointed out that she cannot be Executive President after she completes her second term in two years' time, but she would like to continue to hold a powerful office, which could be the Prime Minister's office under a parliamentary system.

She also does not want her rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to occupy the powerful office of President, under the present constitution, when it is up for grabs in 2006. But the real reason for seeking the change is the unworkability and the undemocratic nature of the present constitution.

The present constitution is unworkable because the proportional representation system prevents parties from getting a two thirds majority, which is necessary for making important changes in the law. A splintered and fractious parliament creates political instability.

But as the Presidential Secretariat said: "Political stability is vital for securing permanent peace and economic development.We need to accelerate economic development.We must keep pace with other regional economies which had gone ahead of us,whilst our country had frittered away valuable development hours on political trivialities".

The present constitution also gives too much power to the President and renders parliament impotent. But a parliament under a party other than the President's can also act as a serious impediment to the President by holding back or denying funds to her. The present constitution calls for cohabitation but cohabitation has been difficult in Sri Lanka's highly personality oriented and divisive political culture.

President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Ranil Wickremesinghe belonged to rival parties, and they could not cohabit. Fresh elections had to be called in less than three years, to settle the matter.

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