The new constitution that may never be

Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of intellect and the optimism of will. How does this relate to Sri Lanka today? The deafening silence around the process of constitution making, justified by key architects as inevitable in order for progress around tenacious issues to be made, indicates to all but the most delusional the reform process has little to no traction in the public imagination. This is a problem. Basic intelligence suggests a process as vexed as writing a new constitution, without public traction or debate, dumped by government elites for approval just before a referendum risks confusion at best and opposition or rejection at worst. And yet, Sri Lanka really needs a new constitution. If the constitution expresses the will of the people, it needs to be one that guides us away from the structures of power and identity that led to what we are still hostage to – a violent, racist State, largely unable as a first step to even recognise the degree to which it excludes and discriminates. The optimism of will, when embodied in a constitution, is what can guarantee to the extent possible a better future for all citizens, independent of what government, Executive or Prime Minister are, say and do.

Disturbingly though, things are not going well. And that is an understatement.

An islandwide poll conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (to which I am attached as a Senior Researcher) on perceptions around and attitudes towards the new constitution makes for very depressing reading. The official topline report will be released to the public this week. Some of the key findings bear mention.

Contrary to what the President, Prime Minister and the whole of government may believe, a quarter of Sri Lankans have no clue that a constitutional reform process is taking place at present. 34.1% know a reform process is taking place, but have no idea about the details or where the process is currently at. The twenty-member Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the PM, held public sittings in all districts of the island earlier this year. Just the written representations to the PRC numbered in the thousands. And yet, echoing concerns made at the time around publicity and awareness raising, the Social Indicator poll brings out that over 70% of Sri Lankans hadn’t heard of the PRC or its activities. It gets worse. A staggering 76.8% hadn’t heard of the Constitutional Assembly, which held its first sitting on the 5th of April 2016 in the Parliament Chamber. Even amongst those who had heard of it, there was no awareness around what it was doing. Unsurprisingly, nearly 60% of Sri Lankans said that the Government hadn’t been successful in communicating the constitutional reform process – such as its importance or progress – to citizens.

Fundamentally, this means that the majority of Sri Lankans today don’t know about the constitution making process, haven’t heard about the PRC much less its final report and are clueless, even if they have a vague idea of what’s going on in government regarding the reform process, around key outcomes and output. There is simply no other way to interpret the data. It is a slow onset catastrophe. The public or political communications aspect is worth flagging. Television remains the single most important vector for news and information, with private channels consumed more than state owned media. This isn’t surprising. What however the data also confirms is, I would argue, an irreversible, growing trend around the importance of Facebook in particular and Internet based sources in general as vectors of news and information. 15.7% from the Southern Province and 11.1% from the Eastern Province said that Facebook is one of their main news sources while 29.5% from the Northern Province and 15.8% from Sabaragamuwa said that emails from friends or family is a main news source for them. Pegged to an earlier social poll conducted in the Western Province by Social Indicator late-2015, what this suggests is that there is increasing opportunity to engage directly a demographic between 18 – 34 through social, web and mobile media and, importantly, that investments in engaging this demographic can in fact also influence an older age group, because of the nature of sharing and forwarding content. Given this data, the tragedy is in the fact that the government is doing nothing at all around an opportunity to proactively define the contours of the new constitution amongst those whose votes placed the President and this government in power.

Flowing from last week’s column, reservoirs of goodwill still run wide and deep for this government. The majority of Sri Lankans believe it is good that the two main political parties have come together in a National Unity Government and also think the two parties should remain together. The challenge is leveraging this enduring appeal to address what can only be politely put as a deeply conservative socio-political outlook by Sinhalese, and the South. Take for instance Article 2 of the present constitution which marks the country as a unitary state. 77.7% of Sinhalese want to retain the phrase ‘unitary state’. Only 14.3% of Tamils, 18.1% of Up-Country Tamils and 28.8% of Muslims concur. There are clear, perhaps growing ethnic divides which are very likely to be the contours of constitutional contestation in the near future. On the question of giving Buddhism a special place in the Constitution, 77% of Sinhalese strongly agree. 73.3% of Tamils strongly disagree. Almost 90% of Tamils and Muslims strongly agree that the new constitution should give all religions equal status. Yet, less than 64% of Sinhalese concur.

There are other interesting insights. 49.3% of Sri Lankan said that for them, a unitary state means one united, indivisible country. The realisation of precisely this is independent of labels given to the architecture of power and its precise configuration between or within centre and periphery. But labels matter, to some more than others. The Sinhalese (55.7%) want labels – they want the new constitution to be identified with markers like ‘unitary state’. Just 15.2% of Tamils, 11.9% of Up-Country Tamils and 22.2% of Muslims concur. Minorities in Sri Lanka want meaningful, systemic reform no matter what the label is. The majority community can’t see beyond what specific arrangements are called. This is a playground for spoilers in the South.

The final section of the report is anchored to the Provincial Council system and its future. One figure stands out, given the current tensions in the North and within the NPC. 69.2% of Tamils believe powers of the Provincial Councils should be increased. Just 37.8% of Sinhalese concur. Support is highest in the Northern (77.8%) Province. In comparison, only 29.5% in the Southern Province agree.

Should we be pessimistic about the potential for change or optimistic around what may happen, despite government? Damningly, there is clearly no real political leadership to what is ostensibly a priority for government. Will publication of this data inspire, even at the 11th hour, action, vision and direction? Gramsci wrote what he did from prison. We are in a prison too, called the ’77 constitution.

Time for a historic jail-break.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 October 2016.

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