18 October 2015

The 20th Amendment: An opportunity for President Sirisena

Maithripala Sirisena needs to press the F5 key on Electoral Reform!
The majority of those who cast valid votes on January 8, 2015 wanted ‘change’.  The ‘change’ candidate and his supporters outlined in manifesto what that ‘change’ was going to be.  There was change.  An incumbent was removed.  We got new face in the President’s office and a new Government.  But ‘change’ was not to be just that.

The pledge was to right a lot of wrongs within 100 days.  That was quite a bold promise.  Realists would say ‘over ambitious’.  But then again, people in this country have a decent enough idea about promises that are not kept, delays in implementation and of course the fact that rhetoric is several times larger than what actually gets done.  Big on talk, small on delivery; that’s a given, almost.

The 100 days came and went.  It was beautiful the way it went.  It was almost as though the completion of the number of days was more important than accomplishing the said tasks.  There was no insistence by the general public that the Government finish what it started, never mind the delay.

The work was derailed first by the announcement of a General Election, then by the campaign, then by the long drawn out process of appointing a Cabinet and then by the second of the twice-a-year UNHRC Circus in Geneva.  There’s nothing ‘major’ left to distract the Government from revisiting its to-do list.   A word of caution, though: distractions can be manufactured, for example a huge ha-ho can be conjured over the UNHRC Resolution, hybrid courts and relevant prosecution.  Let’s hope that such noises are left for the Opposition to indulge in.  Deep down they would know that there’s no regime-change on the horizon.  The Government can get (back) to work.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has promised to get the Code of Conduct for MPs done.  The Government has promised to bring the Right to Information Act.  So far there’s been absolute silence on one of the most significant pieces of reform pledged by Maithripala Sirisena: the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, namely Electoral Reform.

President Sirisena is secure in this regard because a) he has vowed that he’s already contested his last election, and b) the 20th Amendment won’t have any bearing on his office or the powers vested in it.  He can and must take the lead in this all-important democratizing process.  

The United National Party, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, dragged its collective feet from January onward to the point that they could cite ‘not enough time’ with respect to the 20th Amendment.  There’s delimitation that’s necessary.  The 19th Amendment refers to a Delimitation Commission and the appointment of the same was not possible without the Constitutional Council (CC) being appointed.  Problematic though the composition of the CC, it’s now in place.  We are told that the Commissions will be constituted soon.  

Such things, however, come into play later.  First the draft 20th Amendment has to be tabled, debated, amended if necessary and passed.  First there has to be a public debate on a draft 20th Amendment.  If delay was orchestrated so that incumbents had a better chance of re-election, now that problem does not exist.  MPs can feel safe for the next five years.  Those among them who see further than the others may not want this kind of ‘change’ of course, but if President Maithripala Sirisena puts his foot down everyone, including those in the UNP, will have to play ball given political realities and how fragile coalitions are.  

He has a strong ally in the UNP leader.  His nominee to the CC, Patali Champika Ranawaka, is also the General Secretary of the UNP-led coalition that won the August Parliamentary Election.  He is a strong advocate of electoral reform.  It’s easy to get the ‘Change-Chorus’ to sing again, if some public ‘demand’ needs to be shown.  

This is President Sirisena’s moment to set the ball rolling to the point that lasting and progressive changes are realized.  The rationale is crystal clear: better representation.  Poor representation has been a major drawback in the democratizing process.  President Sirisena knows it and he should be honest and humble enough to acknowledge that he hasn’t exactly helped.  But he’s seasons enough to know that he can still redeem himself and very easily too.  All he has to do is to make a short statement.

Something like this:  “We are going to being a new chapter in the democratic political life of our country — we are going to get the 20th Amendment passed.  If this is the only thing that I accomplish during my presidency, it will still be enough I feel.  Support me.”