The UNP’s Misplaced Priorities And The Government’s Blissful Ignorance

By Rasika Jayakody

The current government appears to live in a blissful bubble of ignorance.

It has prioritized the proposed new Constitution over many other burning issues concerning the country, and many front-line UNP MPs are worried about the “vicious propaganda” planted by the Joint Opposition about certain contentious proposals relating to the new Constitution.

All of this comes in the wake of the experts’ committee report on Constitutional proposals, which was tabled in Parliament by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week. The document is now in the public domain and has elicited diverse views on the content of the report.

Passing a new Constitution in Parliament was one of the key promises of the Common Opposition’s election campaign in January 2015. Eight months later, the United National Front For Good Governance (UNFGG) reiterated the same promise at the Parliamentary election and secured a mandate to embark on its process. It was based on this mandate that the Parliament was converted into a Constitutional Assembly, and a Steering Committee was appointed to initiate proceedings.

The first sitting of the Constitutional Assembly took place on April 05, 2016, under the auspices of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. In September 2017, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tabled in Parliament the draft interim report of the Steering Committee.

During the period between April 05, 2016 and September 2017, the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly conducted 73 sessions. Even after such extensive deliberations, the political parties failed to arrive at a common ground on several critical matters.

The experts’ committee report was tabled in Parliament16 months after the Steering Committee interim report was tabled. The new document demonstrated the widening rifts among political parties over the content of the new Constitution.

If the current Parliament serves its full term, it has less than 30 months to complete the entire process pertaining to the passage of a new Constitution. This includes drafting a new constitution, debating it in Parliament, obtaining the views of all Provincial Councils, holding a referendum and its enactment into law by the President.

It does not require complex logic to know this process cannot be completed in 30 months, especially given the current sharp divisions and strong differences of opinion among political parties. 

There is also a strong possibility that Parliament will be dissolved in March 2020 - after the next Presidential election. It can be safely assumed that the winner of the next Presidential election, irrespective of his or her party affiliations, will seek to dissolve the current Parliament and elect a new one with a stronger mandate. In that context, it is unrealistic to believe that the current Parliament will have a lifespan beyond March 2020 and that makes the proposed new Constitution even more unfeasible.

It is against this backdrop that the UNP must understand there is no rationale for spending time and energy on an unrealistic Constitutional process. If the UNP had the genuine political will to bring in a new Constitution, they should have expeditiously brought it forward during the early stages of the government, when they had the luxury of time.

One can, however, assume that there is the UNP’s renewed interest in the new Constitution is tied to the TNA’s political interests. The TNA supported Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to overcome the recent political crisis and the party should now justify this decision in the eyes of its voters. The TNA voters will view the attempts at bringing in a new Constitution with a broader devolution of power as a favourable outcome of the party’s decision to support Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. After all, both the TNA and Wickremesinghe are aware that the realpolitik is about ‘appearance’ and the TNA’s reasons for supporting Wickremesinghe must appear justifiable from the view of the party’s supporters in the North and East.

The UNP, on the other hand, has far more pressing issues to grapple with. The party has to stabilize the economy after a prolonged political crisis that lasted for 51 days. Although the President appointed a UNP-led government, the relations between the President and the UNP remain sour with the President launching sporadic attacks on the UNP and its leadership. The President continues to make controversial statements causing ripples within the government and generating instability. This jeopardizes the prospects of a meaningful socio-economic development programme by the UNP-led government before the next national election.

Although the new Cabinet of ministers took oaths three weeks ago, a large number of state institutions still function without chairmen or governing bodies. The government machinery is moving at a snail’s pace despite the appointment of a legal government after the 51-day political crisis.

The President recently appointed a committee to vet the resumes of all heads nominated to state institutions by Cabinet ministers. But he circumvented the mandate of his own committee by appointing two former Provincial Governors who did not have the stipulated educational, professional or managerial background as heads of state institutions. The President continues to make a mockery of the government while the UNP conveniently looks the other way. Instead of exploring meaningful solutions to the brewing crisis within the government, the UNP seems to be strategizing on how to convince the public of the need for an entirely unfeasible new Constitution.

Whether the UNP likes it or not, the task of passing a new Constitution in Parliament will have to be handed over to the next Parliament and the party must focus on other pressing issues that require immediate solutions. In the absence of such a pragmatic approach, the UNP will pay a hefty price for its misplaced priorities at the next national election.


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