First things first!

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The government apparently does not care to get its priorities straight. It also bites off more than it can chew. It is now talking about a new Constitution and a different electoral system instead of doing something to ameliorate the suffering of the people, who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa came forward to run for President, he may not have had the foggiest idea of the mess he as well as the country was getting into. Today, he finds himself in an unenviable position. He has many seemingly intractable problems to contend with on all fronts. The pandemic is far from over, and the people are behaving in such an irresponsible manner, ignoring as they do the Covid-19 prevention protocols, that an explosive spread of the disease may come sooner than expected. It is doubtful whether the country will be able to afford another lockdown to save lives. The prices of essential commodities have gone into the stratosphere and are still rising. The economy is in very bad shape. The country’s foreign exchange reserves are woefully low. The rupee is unstable. As if these problems were not enough, there have been warnings of threats to national security, according to media reports. The President thus has his plate full, and why he has undertaken to introduce a new Constitution expeditiously is the question.

True, the present Constitution has some serious flaws, which need to be rectified. But the real problem is not the flawed supreme law as such but the kind of leaders we elect. The late J. R. Jayewardene, who was long in the tooth when he became the Prime Minister in 1977, wanted to savour as much power as possible in the shortest possible time. He appointed himself the Executive President by introducing the existing Constitution, and changed it according to his whims and fancies. His successors were no better except perhaps D. B. Wijetunga. What else is to be expected of politicians who cannot think, much less act, like statespersons?

There have been only two progressive constitutional amendments, and both of them came into being under weak governments. Unfortunately, they are now defunct. The 17th Amendment was passed to whittle down some powers of the executive presidency while President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government was on the verge of collapse in 2001. The 19th Amendment was introduced after the 2015 regime change while the yahapalana government was wooing the public to win the general election, which came a few months later. President Maithripala Sirisena was enthralled by euphoria, and therefore did not mind being stripped of some of his executive powers. When he wised up to what was going on, he objected. All draconian constitutional amendments were introduced by powerful governments at the behest of their leaders. The 18th Amendment (2010) was the brainchild of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the incumbent President, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, had the 20th Amendment enacted.

It, however, needs to be added that the 17th Amendment was not without flaws, which were mainly due to the mighty hurry on the part of its architects to secure its passage. They telescoped the process of drafting it into a few weeks. The 19th Amendment contained some questionable provisions introduced to empower the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to act as the de facto head of state.

So, in our book, before pressing for a new Constitution, we need a radical rethink about our assessment of the persons we elect as our leaders; given their insatiable greed for power, even if we were to write the best Constitution in the world, some leader down the line thirsting for self-aggrandisement would still change it in case of being able to secure a two thirds majority in Parliament. Electing the right people as our representatives is half the battle in ushering in good governance with or without the present Constitution.

President Rajapaksa has not mentioned when he is planning to unveil the new Constitution, but as for his offer at issue, it is better to let sleeping dogs—feral ones at that—lie at least until the many problems that the country is beset with are sorted out. Street demonstrations for or against a draft Constitution is the last thing we need while struggling to contain the worst-ever health crisis and make ends meet. First things first!

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Disclaimer: First things first! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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