Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Polls: What Lies Ahead?

Dayan JayatillekaDr Dayan-small
Visiting Senior Research Fellow, ISAS

The government wants a two-thirds majority in order to replace the Constitution, it says. The UNP opposition hopes to form a coalition with other Opposition parties. It would be unhealthy for the body politic if the electorate were to grant the wish of either side. What would be healthy is for the Opposition to have a strong enough representation in the legislature so that a two-thirds majority is out of reach for the government even by defections.

The most authoritarian administrations we have had have been those with a two-thirds majority and the worst experiences we citizens have undergone, have been at the hands of governments enjoying a two-thirds majority.  I refer to the SLFP-led United Front coalition of 1970-1977, and the years of JR Jayewardene’s UNP administration.

Of the three Constitutions we have had, those produced by a two-thirds majority, in 1972 and 1978, were far less enlightened and prudent than the one we started off with at Independence, the Soulbury constitution.

The government wishes a two-thirds majority to ‘strengthen its hand’, ‘ensure stability’, ‘protect the country from foreign conspirators’ and draft a new Constitution. These were achieved without a two-thirds majority by previous administrations. Since independence, administrations headed by DS Senanayake, SWRD Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Premadasa kept the country safe from ‘foreign conspiracies’.  It is far more a question of the right foreign policy (and foreign minister) than a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

Does the government need a two-thirds majority so as to effect ethnic reconciliation between our constituent communities by changing the structure of the state? Hardly, because the President himself has ruled out a federal system and is unwilling to go beyond the 13th amendment making for provincial autonomy, minus police powers. This is already part of the Constitution.

There is however, an important caveat: if the governing coalition were able to secure a two-thirds majority not on its own volition or by means of defections, but solely by means of negotiation with the main Southern and North-Eastern Oppositions, namely the UNP and the TNA, it would not be a bad thing.  It would compel the incumbent to revise the present equation, include the aspirations and ideas of the opposition , thereby balancing the influence of the small chauvinist parties in the government’s ranks and establishing something close to a broad national consensus which could be reflected in the architecture of a new basic law; a new Constitution for a post-war Sri Lanka. Such an equation could generate the synergies for the reforms needed to restore democracy to the full.

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