NOTES TO THE PEOPLE : Towards a New Constitution for a New Republic


Towards a New Constitution for a New Republic

By sumanasiri liyanage

Sri Lankan Parliament has enacted the 20th Amendment replacing some of the articles of the 19th Amendment and adding new articles entrenching the powers of the president. Nonetheless, the government spokespersons have informed the public that this would be a transitional measure and a new constitution replacing the second republic constitution in its entirety would be presented to the Parliament within next twelve months. There is a public announcement asking general public and peoples’ organizations to come up with their proposals. As some government spokespersons said that 75 per cent of the drafting had been done already, one may wonder why the government calls for public proposals. A new constitution may be introduced in two ways. First method is to adopt the constitutional amendment/ change procedure as laid out in the present constitution. According to the present Sri Lankan constitution, the new constitution requires it to be passed by two third majority in the Parliament and a referendum. The second method that may be called extra-constitutional though not necessarily undemocratic is to convene a constituent assembly to draft and pass a new constitution by a simple majority of the constituent assembly. In 1972 the second method was used even though the government had two-third majority in the Parliament while the first method was used in 1978. However, in both cases the question of referendum had not arisen.

Constitution and Democratic Challenge

The new constitution would pave the way for a new “republic” i.e. the state structured by the third republican constitution. What would the third republican constitution entails is a subject open for speculations. Because of the constellation of forces that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) represents, one may speculate three major changes. First, the third republican constitution would continue with the presidential system of government with the powers as promulgated in the second republican constitution and entrenched by the 18th and 20th Amendments while maintaining the hybrid nature of the 1978 constitution. Secondly, the new constitution would relegate or abolish the provincial council system introduced by the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Thirdly, it would introduce a hybrid electoral system on the basis of the consensus reached by major parties.

            The commentators who has developed their ideas within the liberal democratic paradigm would repeat that the changes that will be introduced on all these three counts would definitely make the third republic constitution more undemocratic. Of course, the orientation of the state that would be the outcome of the new constitution is towards an authoritarianism. But for different reasons. If necessary and in the context of different constellation of forces, those three changes can be made to advance democratic governance. The orientation towards an authoritarianism is a bourgeois response to the growing crisis of neo-liberal version of capitalist system. Hence, the issue of democratization would be an empty phrase since it is closely and inseparably linked with a need of systemic transition.

New Constitutional Principles

There are no general and omnipresent constitutional principles because the state is in the final sense an instrument of a particular class that yields power in the domain of economy, society and culture. Hence, it is structured and modelled in a way through which the long-term dominance of the ruling class is ensured. So, the state that serves the bourgeoise cannot be used by the working people when it overthrows the existing state. The working people have to remodel and restructure the state according to its needs. Therefore, we enter the debate on constitutional change not to propose means as to how the existing state should be democratized, but to educate the working people how they should restructure the future state that they should struggle to rebuild.        

            With regard to the steps that should be taken to control the spread of Covid-19, Dr Anurudhdha Padeniya, the President of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), has emphasized the importance of having smaller units as the main focus of control. This smaller unit may take decisions quickly and develop control mechanism effectively. He reminded us that when a villager had ‘deyyanne leda’ (diseases given by god), the entire village was informed, and necessary action was taken to isolate the infected person. I propose that this same unit should be made the foundational unit of the state of the people. 

Figure 1: The Structure of the Peoples’ State

            In Sri Lanka there about 35,000 villages. The average population of a village is 650 persons, around 150 families. So, direct democracy may be exercised in a gam sabha (village council). Every decision that affect the village life can be taken in the gam sabha. The powers that a gam sabha alone cannot and should not take may be devolved to cluster sabha. So, there may be 350- 700 cluster sabhas consisting 50- 100 gam sabhas. How to determine a cluster. Take an example. The number of villages that depend on Rajangana Tank may be organized as a cluster sabha. So, a cluster sabha may have an economic identity, or social and cultural identity. So, in that sense cluster sabha would be the most important unit of the state structure. The delegates from cluster sabhas form what is called Provincial Councils (PC). Either the existing 9 province demarcation may continue, or we may go for a new demarcation. The central government will be constituted by the delegates from the PCs and a similar number of representatives elected by multiple professional groups its function would be what left out by the three state bodies at foundational level.

            In this model power devolves upward, not like in conventional structures downward. This model can be enriched with more democratic content by integrating some of the principles laid down by the Paris Commune. Ernest Mandel has identified three main features in democratic state. They are:

  • No distinct separation between the executive and legislative powers. Bodies are needed which enact laws and at the same time enforce them.
  • Public offices to be elective, to the greatest extent. It is not only members of the deliberative assemblies who should be elected. Judges, high-level functionaries, officers of the militia, supervisors of education, managers of public works, should also be elected. This may be a bit of a shock to countries with an ultra-reactionary Napoleonic tradition. But certain specifically bourgeois democracies, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, or Australia for example, have conserved the elective character of a certain number of public functions. Thus, in the United States the sheriff is elected by his fellow citizens. This electing of public officials must be accompanied in all cases by the right of recall, i.e., voting unsatisfactory officials out of office at any time.
  • The payment for person holding public offices should not exceed the salary of a skilled worker. This is the only valid method of preventing people from seeking public office as a way of feathering their nests and sponging on society, the only valid way to get rid of the career-hunters and parasites known to all previous societies. 

 The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.