The constitution of a state describes the way the state is structured and functions, and identifies with the interests of the dominant social class. Successive constitutions of neo-colonial Sri Lanka represented mainly the interests of its big bourgeois class and their imperialist masters. Despite bourgeois democratic pretences, the constitutions were fundamentally flawed. The Constitution of 1947, with clauses meant to protect minorities against discriminatory legislation, let the Hill Country Tamils (then known as Indian Tamils) to be disenfranchised in 1948; and the Official Language Act of 1956 discriminated against Tamil speaking minorities.
Having the British monarch as formal head of state led to a crisis owing to the Governor General repeatedly exceeding authority vested in him as representative of the British monarch in ways that negated the sovereignty of the country. Meddling with the formation of government in 1956 was tolerated, but his alleged role in the attempted coup d’etat of 1962 was not acceptable. Thus, the Privy Council ruling overturning the conviction of the coup conspirators was among issues that forced the SLFP- led United Front that swept to power in 1970 to adopt a republican constitution.
Partnership of the LSSP and CP in the UF government did not make the Constitution of 1972 socialist, despite a few unspecific social democratic phrases. The government, however, took welcome steps like nationalizing the plantations and measures, however flawed, to build a national economy. But the notion that nationalization of small enterprises is a way to socialism helped neither government nor socialism.
The constitution which commendably declared the county a republic also pandered to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism by allocating a special place to Buddhism.
The Federal Party excluded itself from the drafting process on grounds that its proposals were rejected. If that was infantile, the government more than matched it with indifference towards not just the FP but also the grievances of the minorities. Prolonging the life of parliament by two years was irregular and the UNP later capitalized on it for its own abuses.
Following the collapse of the UF in 1975, the UNP returned to power in 1977 with an unprecedented majority and adopted the Constitution of 1978 which undermined the national economy and opened the country to imperialist plunder under a President with executive power. Greed for more power led to a series of amendments which also marginalized the minorities. The constitution also changed the electoral system so that another party could not single-handedly win a two-thirds majority and thus amend the constitution. The constitution also changed the electoral system so that another party could not single-handedly win a two-thirds majority and thereby amend the constitution. However, things went awry for President Jayawardene: escalation of the national conflict leading to Indian intervention dashed his hopes for yet another term from 1989.
The system of district-based proportional representation, as expected, ensured a minimum number of seats for the larger parties. It also enabled smaller parties which could not win a single seat in the earlier system to win several seats. Sadly for the big parties intra-party rivalry of candidates for ‘preference votes’ often superseded inter-party contest.
Resentment against excessive power in the hands of an individual forced Chandrika Kumaratunge to introduce the 17th Amendment in 2001 to curtail presidential powers through provisions for a Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions. But the proposed changes did not take effect and Executive Presidency continued as before.
President Rajapaksa found a way to muster not just a parliamentary majority but even a two-thirds majority. He bought over opposition MPs demoralized by successive electoral defeats of their party by offering ministerial posts to them. In 2010, Parliament adopted the 18th Amendment which effectively nullified the 17th Amendment to increase presidential powers as well as allow the President to be re-elected for an unlimited number of terms. That became part of the undoing of President Rajapaksa.
An increasingly dictatorial rule, abuse of power and corruption caused the defeat of Rajapaksa in January 2015. The new government formed in January 2015 pledged to abolish the executive presidency and a reform the electoral system in its proposed Constitution, but spoke nothing of the national question or the rights that the workers were robbed of by the 1978 Constitution. Disputes about the proposed Constitution mainly concern the mechanism of wielding state power and the basis of election. The government quickly nullified the 18th Amendment but made limited progress on other issues, especially electoral reform and reduction of the powers of the President, as safeguards built into the 1978 Constitution were resilient. Thus what the country is likely to have as new constitution is a half-way house between the 1972 and 1978 constitutions which will not resolve issues that concern the unity and sovereignty of the country.
The left and progressive forces cannot influence what will emerge as the new constitution, but have the duty make proposals, confined to the bourgeois democratic system but with a long term view of matters, to urge the right of every citizen to decent livelihood, fair minimum wage, safety and dignity at work, financially secure retirement, freedom from abuse and discrimination based on gender, race, religion or caste and equality before the law. The proposals must demand that the constitution defends the sovereignty of the country against foreign economic, political and military domination. They should emphasize that the constitution could secure national unity only by devolution of power to the people with all nationalities and national minorities placed on equal footing based on the right to self determination and the defence of human rights. They should assert gender equality at all levels including elected bodies, where representation is ensured for all significant ethnic and political identities. They should also urge writing into the constitution protection of the environment and national resources, both human and material, from unfair exploitation by big capital and foreign powers.
The purpose of proposals for the constitution should be with a long term perspective for the left and progressive forces to evolve a common minimum programme in their long march towards social justice.