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Govt. may lose referendum on new Constitution

2017-10-07 00:01:44
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Possibility of a drastically-altered final report

Strategists count ethno-religious factors in referendum-voting estimates

Overwhelming support of minorities might augment shortfall in Sinhala-Buddhist votes

Making political calculations on the basis of 2015 could prove dangerously-wrong in 2017 and years to follow

 

 

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has - as one of its primary objectives - the political project of enacting and passing a new Constitution. This requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament and endorsement by the people in an islandwide referendum. 

 

More importantly, the government has been trying to justify its move to introduce a new Constitution saying the envisaged Constitution would be sanctioned by the people. While the government appears to be optimistic about garnering the necessary parliamentary majority and obtaining the people’s approval at a referendum, current political trends as well as ground realities suggest holding a referendum in the current context may very well backfire on the government.


The Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe released its Interim Report on Proposals to be considered in the envisaged Constitution. The report was presented to the Parliament/Constitutional Assembly by the Premier on September 21. The parliamentary debate on the Interim Report will be held for three days on October 30, 31 and November 1 respectively. Thereafter, if everything goes according to schedule, the final report would be compiled and completed by year end and placed before the Parliament/Constitutional Assembly in January 2018. But then as observed by Robert Burns, in life, “the best laid plans of men and mice often go awry.” 


It is understood clearly that the Interim Report, though referred to as a consensual document, is not so in reality. The differing viewpoints expressed by the parties concerned in the annexures, euphemistically-described as observations and principles, make it crystal clear that there is a serious divide among the would-be Constitution-makers. Thus the ongoing Constitutional conversation could breakdown or suffer serious setbacks as discussions progress towards the final report. There is also the chance of a drastically-altered final report as a result of compromises and adjustments to bring about consensus. 


Whatever may or may not be its transformed version, the Steering Committee’s final report of draft Constitutional Proposals is expected to be submitted for the consideration of the Constitutional Assembly early next year. If the proposals were accepted and approved by the Constitutional Assembly, it would be submitted to the Cabinet. The Cabinet will then approve it with or without changes and present the Constitutional provisions to Parliament as a Bill to get passed by a two-thirds majority. The Constitutional Assembly would stand dissolved. If passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority, the approval and sanction of the people would be obtained by way of an islandwide referendum. Winning the referendum on the Constitution therefore is of crucial importance for this government legally, politically and above all, morally. 


It is in this context that the question of the government winning the Constitutional referendum arises. Of course the draft Constitution or final report is not ready yet. The result of the referendum would very much depend upon the contents of or the substance of the envisaged Constitution. The fate of the referendum would also be determined by the relative strengths and merits of the respective for and against campaigns. The opposition to the new Constitution right now relies more on imagined or speculative complaints than on tangible evidence. It is only when the final version materialises that the opposition can train its guns more effectively on it. The final version would also facilitate the government campaign to market the new Constitution. 

 


Buoyant optimism
Notwithstanding these realities, it is obvious that the dominant line of thought within the government and its allies at the present juncture is one of buoyant optimism that the referendum could and can be won. It is most unlikely that the government would have embarked upon the Constitution project and proceeded so far without some degree of confidence that the referendum battle can be fought and won. Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leader and National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan summed up the government’s position aptly when he observed that winning the referendum would be difficult but it had to be won and so it would be. 

 

It would be foolish on the part of the government and even the respective leaders of ethnic-oriented parties to take the minority voters for granted. The hiatus between pledge and performance by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo and the so-called ‘Good Governance’ government headed by them is so vast that there is a rising groundswell of resentment against the ruling regime

 


The government’s greatest source of confidence in winning a referendum would naturally be its reliance on the strength of numbers. Numerical strength in this instance would mean the number of votes. At the January 2015 Presidential election, Maithripala Sirisena secured 6,217,1625 votes and skunked Mahinda Rajapaksa who obtained 5,768,09047. In the parliamentary elections of August 2015, the United National Party (UNP) led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) polled 5,098,916 votes. The opposition United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) garnered 4,732,664. A significant number of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs elected on the UPFA ticket in 2015 crossed over and currently are part and parcel of the ruling regime. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government is today called a UNP- SLFP coalition government. 


Government strategists opine that the electoral results of 2015 would be repeated in a referendum too. Political support demonstrated by the UNP at the 2015 polls along with the fresh support brought in by the pro-Sirisena SLFP MPs is calculated to be greater than the prevailing strength of the pro-Rajapaksa joint opposition. It is surmised that the UNP-SLFP strength in Parliament would be reflected at the referendum. In addition, the government has the support of two key allies. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) polled 515,963 and 543,944 votes respectively at the 2015 hustings. Besides, parties like the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) are also expected to support the new Constitution. Sheer arithmetic therefore makes the government hopeful of winning the referendum. 

 

Already, several Provincial Councillors in the East and North-Central provinces have deserted Maithripala and crossed over to Mahinda. President Sirisena may have given them posts and perks, but it is to the Mahinda Rajapaksa star to which they must hitch their political wagons to gain electoral victory

 


If politics could always be determined by arithmetic alone, the expectations of the government may succeed. But then politics is not a numbers game always. As Leon Trotsky observed, “Politics is more like algebra than like elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher rather than elementary mathematics” (Oft quoted by Dayan Jayatilleka in his writings). In this instance too, an assumption that arithmetic or numbers based on the votes polled in 2015 alone would deliver the goods at the referendum could be proved wrong. 


Greek Philosopher Heraclitus stated, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” If I may adapt and adopt it to present circumstances, the electoral rivers of 2015 do not flow now in Sri  Lanka. Likewise, the political strengths of the different political parties in 2015 are not the same now. The electorate has changed. The electoral mood has changed. The perceptions and political views of the voting public have changed. The stock of political parties has risen in some cases and fallen in other. Making political calculations on the basis of 2015 could prove dangerously-wrong in 2017 and years to follow. 

 


Voting  pattern
In the first place, people voted for political parties and individual candidates at elections. There were a number of issues, options and preferences involved. This is not so in a referendum which is conducted to determine a single idea or decide upon a single case. 


In this instance, the referendum would be on whether to accept or reject the new Constitution. While a large number of voters may let party or personal loyalties influence their voting at the referendum, an equally-large number of voters could also treat the matter on its own merits and cast their vote for or against. If that happens, a large number of people would cut across traditional party lines and vote. This would render calculations based on the 2015 polls irrelevant in assessing the referendum voting pattern. The possibility of some government constituents like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) going against the new Constitution cannot be ruled out. 


Government political strategists also take ethno-religious factors into account in referendum-voting estimates. 


It is widely-acknowledged that Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the single most popular mass figure among Sinhala Buddhist voters. Already, several Provincial Councillors in the East and North-Central provinces have deserted Maithripala and crossed over to Mahinda. President Sirisena may have given them posts and perks, but it is to the Mahinda Rajapaksa star to which they must hitch their political wagons to gain electoral victory. 


In the current political environment, it is expected that Mahinda would spearhead the opposition campaign against the new Constitution at the referendum. In that situation, a larger percentage of Sinhala votes may be polled against the new Constitution. If that happens, the government could lose the referendum as the Sinhalese are the numerically-large ethnicity in the island.  


Government strategists hope to counter that possibility by relying on the minority vote. It is expected that the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, up-country Tamils of recent Indian origin and Sinhala Christians would vote in large numbers for the Constitution. The overwhelming support of the minorities is expected to augment the shortfall in Sinhala-Buddhist votes. This prognosis is on the basis that there would be a re-play of preponderant minority support shown in 2015 for Sirisena at the presidential poll and for the UNP at the parliamentary elections. 


Once again, this assessment could be erroneous. It would be foolish on the part of the government and even the respective leaders of ethnic-oriented parties to take the minority voters for granted. 
The hiatus between pledge and performance by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo and the so-called ‘Good Governance’ government headed by them is so vast that there is a rising groundswell of resentment against the ruling regime. This has rubbed off greatly on its constituents within the government and parties supporting it from outside. 


Besides, the minorities are likely to be disappointed if the new Constitution does not accommodate all of their aspirations or redress their grievances; virtually impossible. Even those from the minority ethnicities could vote against the new Constitution or not vote at all. 


The greater portion of minority community voters could vote in favour of the Constitution, but a significantly-large number of minority community voters may boycott polls openly or refrain from voting at the referendum. This would cause a deficit in the number of minority community 
votes expected. 

 


Sinhala Buddhist 
The minority ethnicity votes may influence the people’s verdict one way or another, yet the ultimate factor that would determine the result of a referendum of this nature would be the majority or the Sinhala-Buddhist vote. This is because a referendum on the Constitution is being depicted and portrayed as a ‘life or death’ situation concerning the future of the predominantly Buddhist Sinhala population. It is being propagated already that the new Constitution would pave the way for division of the country. It is also being said that some powerful Western nations, Non-governmental Organisations and Tiger-ish elements in the diaspora are conspiring to roll back the territorial re-unification achieved by the armed forces and establish Tamil Eelam. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has formed the ‘Eliya’ (Light) movement with the single point agenda of opposing and/or preventing the new Constitution. 


This columnist does not propose at this juncture to delve in detail into the merits and defects of the propaganda by the Sinhala ‘nationalist’ lobby that the new Constitution would result in separation and setting up of Tamil Eelam. What is noteworthy is the growing perception or suspicion among many members of the majority community that the new Constitution is indeed a conspiracy to divide the nation and establish Tamil Eelam. This perception, however wrong it may seem, is the prevailing reality. 


Such a perception can only be challenged and changed by an effective counter-response. Such a response can only be mounted by Sinhala political leaders within the government. Sadly, such a powerful response has not surfaced so far. What we have seen are apologetic semantics by the President and evasive backtracking by the Prime Minister. In essence, the government is on the defensive with weak arguments in the aftermath of just an interim report. What is needed here is a powerful political offensive in support of the proposed new Constitution. I doubt very much whether any senior minister in this Cabinet other than Mangala Samaraweera or Rajitha Senaratne would and could lead a proactive campaign in support of the Constitution at the time of the referendum. 


The tragedy of the Sinhalese and by extension Sri Lanka has been the deep seated insecurity and fears of the majority community. The Sinhala psyche has often been called a “Majority with a minority complex.” It is only a strong, secure and confident numerical majority that will be more tolerant, accommodative and magnanimous towards numerically-smaller minorities. Sadly, the majority within the Sinhala majority continues to feel threatened and vulnerable even after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was militarily-defeated by the armed forces. 

 


State of mind
I was speaking to a Sinhala, left-leaning academic, hailing from the Southern province, about the current situation. This long-standing friend of mine was one who supported Sirisena and even the UNP-led front in 2015. He belongs to a family that has abhorred the ‘green elephant’ for decades. Yet, he voted in 2015 for the elephant symbol in order to bring about change. Today he is disgusted at the turn of events. In a long, insightful conversation, a point he emphasised strongly was the confused, indecisive state of affairs under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation. This has affected the people on the whole and was leading to a breakdown in society. He used the term ‘anomie’ popularised by sociologist Durkheim to describe the condition of the people. He also concurred with me about the beleaguered state of mind among many Sinhalese. 

 

It is most unlikely that the government would have embarked upon the Constitution project and proceeded so far without some degree of confidence that the referendum battle can be fought and won

 


Again I do not wish to comment on the prevailing Sinhala state of mind and say whether it is right, wrong or in between. What is of importance here is to recognise the reality of its existence. In such a beleaguered, insecure state of mind, people believing themselves to be besieged and vulnerable can only be on the defensive and somewhat defiant. Against that backdrop, the referendum provides them an opportunity to articulate their suppressed feelings and strike a blow for themselves and against the perceived enemy. They will most likely vote against the proposed Constitution at the referendum.The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government has aggravated the issue by its economic policies and bad governance. Agriculture, the backbone of the nation, is being neglected while grandiose schemes to turn Lanka into a tourist and shopping paradise are being mooted. 


Cost of living keeps rising. It took about four to five years for the term ‘Dharmishta Aanduwa’ coined by J.R. Jayewardene to fall from grace and be mocked by the people. But in the case of ‘Yahapalana,’ the fall has been in less than two years. Furthermore, it is being ridiculed as ‘Yamapalana.’  

 

In such a situation, disappointed and frustrated people will like to display their feelings democratically at some sort of poll. Here, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government has erred badly by denying the voters of their franchise. The local authority polls have been postponed for long, followed by the denial of provincial council polls. The amendments to elections, both local authorities and provincial councils, were passed in Parliament through ‘unorthodox’ procedures during committee stages. Denying the people of the right to vote for long periods and then providing a chance to vote at a referendum can lead to a crushing defeat for the government. 

 


‘Us and Them’
Finally, there is the emotive ‘us and them’ syndrome in politics. The proposed Constitution with some progressive provisions to help resolve the national question through maximum devolution will cause consternation (already begun) among those perceived as Sinhala ‘hawks.’ The anti-Constitution referendum campaign will definitely be conducted within the Sinhala community on ethnic lines with an emotional appeal in terms of race and religion. 


This in turn would result in similar sentiments rising to the fore among the Tamil and Muslim communities. Ultimately, the appeal to voters would turn primordial and the referendum would become an ‘us versus them’ contest. In such a context, a closing of ranks among the Sinhala people will result in the government facing defeat. 


For all these reasons and more, the government is very likely to lose the referendum on the Constitution, unless a political miracle occurs. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government needs to proceed carefully before rushing into areas where even angels may fear to tread. Furthermore, the referendum - whatever the result - can fracture ethnic relations and further divide 
the country. 


The country needs to reconcile and the government and its allies feel the new Constitution could hasten the reconciliation process further. Winning the referendum on the Constitution is expected to boost reconciliation and ethnic harmony. It would be a cruel irony if the referendum backfires on the government and defeats the very purpose for which it was conducted.  


D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com