Non-Constitutional Requirements for Successful Implementation of Federalism

6 November 2017 - 177   - 0

Successful federalism requires a holistic approach encompassing not only constitution making but also effecting a transformation in the wider political culture.  


The objective of this article is to emphasize the point that successful federalism requires a holistic approach encompassing not only constitution making but also effecting a transformation in the wider political culture.    As Sri Lankan audience is new to the writings on federalism, I have made an effort to expose the readers to the wider discussion on the potential of federalism to resolve ethnonationalist problems in the world today. This is most relevant as the nation is engaged in an exercise of drafting a new constitution and federalism has been proposed by a segment of both the civil and political socieity as an ultimate solution to the ethnonationalist crisis in Sri Lanka.   

Sri Lanka, after going through one of the bloodiest ethnonationalist wars the world has ever experienced which has caused over 100,000 deaths and property damage well over 600 billion rupees since 1983 is now experiencing peace after the total eradication of LTTE terrorism in May 2009.      

Although the Tamil ethnonationalists and also the LTTE earlier demanded total separation from Sri Lankan state and the establishment of an independent Tamil state, they are now vigorously demanding a federal system of government  guaranteeing an acceptable degree of political autonomy for a future Tamil Province to be established in the present Northern and Eastern Provinces as became evident from the resolution adopted by the Northern Provincial Council led by its Chief Minister, Mr. Vigneshwaran earlier this year.   The efforts by the present government to adopt a new constitution has reignited the debate on federalism as a “constitutional solution” to solve the ethonationalist crisis of the Tamils.      

In this context, the exposure to federalism at the international level is essential for Sri Lanka as the country does not have a realistic experience in division of powers in spite of having provincial councils with constitutionally devolved powers since 1987.  This is largely because first the Colombo governments have not allowed the provincial councils to operate independently and exercise their full authority.  Second, the political leaders of the Provincial Councils themselves have lacked the political innovation and commitment to make the Provincial Councils effective within the sovereign state of Sri Lanka.   Very often, Provincial governments were mere extensions of the Colombo government or simply an added layer of bureaucracy or “politocracy” contributing nothing of substance to the Provinces either in cultural or developmental spheres.   The extremely centralized and hierarchical organization of all major political parties, in which the party leaders and the general secretaries have become the only effective power center,  have in effect nullified any independence or autonomy for Provincial Councils.   Thus, Provincial Council experience has added little to our understanding of separation of powers let alone as a solution to the ethnonationalist crisis.  

The renewed interest in federalism has led the government, the Tamil ethnonationalists, and also the larger civil society to explore the concept in depth.  However, the discussions on federalism have so far been confined largely to the constitutional aspect of federalism primarily concentrating on separation of powers between the center and regions.  Euphemistically, the only question asked by both sides has been what powers a future Tamil province should enjoy under federalism.

Limiting federalism merely to a constitution is an oversimplification to say the least.  Federalism is a larger political system in which constitution is only a component part, very important one at that, of course.   Other areas of the federal system that are conspicuously absent in the discussions here in Sri Lanka can be broadly described as politico-social and politico-cultural.  They  includes norms and traditions of governance, the nature of politics and political parties, politico-social behavior of the people, the leaders, and the political and civil society institutions facilitating and nurturing the federal system of government.   

The assumption that political leaders and the advocates of federalism apparently make that,  “good federal constitution will be the panacea for all ills of Sri Lanka”  is ill conceived, if not outrightly flawed. 

Undoubtedly, a well thought out federal constitution can steer Sri Lanka a long way along the road to resolve the current ethnonationalist crisis and to achieve  much needed political stability and economic prosperity.  But all these are possible only if the larger society accepts and upholds the federal constitution on a long term basis. Getting a federal or any other form constitution passed by the Parliament through political maneuvering is easy, Sri Lankan politicians have mastered this art. But making it effective over the long run is the fundamental challenge.  We have failed in this endeavor ever since 1972.  

In short, a political culture conducive to sustain a federal system of government is an essential prerequisite if the nation is genuinely serious in finding a solution to the ethnonationalist crisis.   The test of success of federalism is not the eloquence of the clauses in the constitution, but its durability in resolving the ethnonationalist problem in the Sri  Lankan society directing it  on the path of  democracy, peace and prosperity.    Here, it is important to explore the current thinking on the potential of federalism in resolving ethnonationalism, especially secessionist problem in multiethnic societies in many parts of the world.


Arguments for and Against Federalism

 Explanations on the potential of federalism to resolve secessionist movements fall into two categories, first highlighting its potential in resolving ethnonationalism and the other arguing the mirror opposite.  

That federalism can successfully resolve ethno secessionist forces is an argument often advanced by both political leaders of federal states as well as scholars celebrating the positive role of federalism.

 Based on the twin concept of “self-rule and shared–rule”  as stated by one of  the prominent scholars on federalism, D.J Elazar in 1997,  federalism has the potential to satisfy the political autonomy demanded by the ethnonationalist movements while remaining within a larger polity.   Empirical evidence of some states such as Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and Spain where the ethnonationalist issues have been either resolved or contained is presented in support of this argument.  Ironically, scholars who are critical of federalim’s ability to resolve the ethnonationalist crisis, the same states are presented as evidence of the inability of federal systems to resolve ethnonationalist problems!

Let me quote here a few prominent  political practitioners from federal states who have argued in favor of federalism at the International Conference on Federalism held in  St. Gallen Switzerland held in 2002. Although it was held almost over one and a half decades ago, the deliberations has a universal and timeless value and thus its relevance to contemporary debate on federalism in Sri Lanka.  Prominent scholars and practitioners of federalism from around the world attended the conference.   George Fernandez, the Defense Minister of India pointed out that “federalism is a glue to hold together a country with diversities” and elaborated in relation to Indian experience as follows: “ As the Indian policy and government began to function as a unitary state, it was realized that only under a federal structure could the unique socio-cultural diversities of the country as a whole and the states in particular be held together as a nation”.    However, he cautioned that  “for federalism to prosper, a climate of tolerance and a political culture of accommodation and consensus is a necessary condition”. 

            Ruth Metzler-Arnold, Federal Councilor, Head of the Federal Department  of Justice and Police, Switzerland  identified six basic points about federalism.  They are:

  1. Combining unity in diversity is the basic nucleus of federalism
  2. Federalism should be implemented with great openness
  3. More countries will adopt federalism in the future
  4. Federalism in itself is not a magic formula for the problem of local regional autonomy.
  5. Federalism requires responsibility at all levels
  6. Federalism is constantly renewing itself by centralizing some functions and regionalizing others.

He, however, cautions that there could be two threats to federalism.  First is the tendency for centralization when the functions of the state become more complex.  Second is the problem caused by minorities.  Metzler-Arnold points out that  “the problem of minorities is a further threat: even  federalist states with a long history to look back on are familiar with persistent  minority problems, some of them actually entailing the threat of secession” .   He also has an advice; “ But the most crucial aspect of federalism is proximity to the people, in other words the closeness of government and administrative bodies to the citizen.  But we must not allow it  to prevent us from acknowledging federal supremacy in complex matters such as foreign policy”. 

            Raol Blindenbacher, Executive Director of the said International Conference points out that  “ … federalism has become increasingly important as a way of peacefully reconciling unity and diversity within a political system”.  He points out that federal solution has had an increasing appeal in the context of two powerful yet opposing motives: first the desire to build a dynamic and efficient national or even supra-national modern identities based on states and  second, the search for distinctive ethno-cultural identities. 

            The main arguments in support of the potential of  federalism to resolve ethnonationalism can be summarized as follows.

1.         Federalism is  more flexible than unitary government in resolving issues of multi-ethnicity

2.         Federalism allows for the expression of cultures in a multi-ethnic society.

3          Federalism is flexible and can accommodate many grievances of the aggrieved.

4.         Federalism allows extensive powers for the regions.

5.         Federalism can accommodate socio-economic-cultural variations better and more effectively.

6.         Federalism has emerged as a solution to resolve multi-ethnic problems within a single states.


            Equally powerful set of arguments have been proposed against federalism as a solution to the ethno-secessionist problem.   A large number of prominent scholars and practitioners have not been as  optimistic as the practitioners about  federalism’s ability to resolve ethnonationalist problems in modern societies.  It is important that those who are seeking the federal solution in Sri Lanka  become aware of these arguments if at least to anticipate potential problems of the solution itself.  

The arguments against federalism are three fold.  First, that federalism intensify, if not perpetuate ethnonationalism as federalism provides political institutions and structure conducive to its continuation in the modern state.  For example, Radmila Nakarada, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies, addressing the above conference pointed out that “Federal arrangement themselves can create an appetite for the successive creation of new states within states, which becomes a barrier to the formation of a stronger civil society”.  Here, a prominent Political Scientist specializing on federalism,  Will Kimlicka’s (1998) observations  deserves our attention.   Summarizing the basic arguments on the inability of federalism to resolve the ethnonationalist problems Kymlicka points out that  “there are limits on the ways that boundaries can be drawn in a federal system, and on the way that powers can be distributed – limits which seriously reduce federalism’s ability to accommodate the aspirations of national minorities.  Moreover, even when federalism is working well to satisfy these aspirations, it is likely to reinforce the belief that the group is able and rightfully entitled to secede and exercise full sovereignty. This indeed is the paradox of multinational federalism: while it provides national minorities with a workable alternative of secession, it also helps to make secession a more realistic alternative to federalism”.

   Second, federalism has not led to the disappearance of ethnonationalism in any state;  ethnonationalism is only contained and may be passing a dormant state only to erupt at a later date as in the case of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.  Third, without a qualitative change in political culture  federalism cannot resolve ethnonationalist problems.  Thus, an  imposed federalism without the necessary political culture is bound to fail. 

One of the strong arguments against federalism’s ability resolve ethnonationalism is the intensity of pre-federal ethno-political sentiments; higher the intensity, lesser the ability to resolve it through federalism.  A prominent scholar on federalism,  Paul Gilbert,  elaborated that  the pre-federal stage politics of  minority ethnic groups claiming ethnonationalist sovereignty could jeopardize the federal solution. He argues that   “Nationalist cases based either upon alleged will of the people or upon supposed cultural distinctness are both to be mistrusted” .   The ability of federalism to resolve ethnonationalism “led by heresthetic politicians attempting to change political institutions for their own self interests” also will not be successful as pointed out by a political scientist, Keith Dowding.      John Agnew , a prominent political geographer has pointed out that in the recent past federalism has facing high incidence (e.g. USSR and Yugoslavia) of failures or to be in perpetual crisis (e.g Canada and Spain). Another political geographer, Graham Smith, also questioning the ability of federalism to resolve ethnonationalist crisis,  argues that  “federal systems that have continued to prosper, such as Switzerland, may owe their good fortune less to federalism than to the fact that divisions are overlapping rather than territorial.   P. Spencer and H. Woolman,  two political scientists  argues that  federalism could “reinforces the very divisions it seeks to manage and …  for elites to use local power bases, constructed and articulated in nationalist terms, to press for more and more power, even at the risk of pulling the system apart”.   The pessimism towards federalism’s ability to solve ethnonationalist crisis emanate from, according to Specer and Williams,  the fact that “most fundamentally, even the most diverse forms of federalism are after all grounded in a recognition of the temporal and logical priority of the national”.

            The main argument against federalism as a solution to ethnonationalist problem in modern state can be summarized as follows.

1.         Some of the most successful federal states (US and Australia) did not emerge to cater to ethno-territorial secessionist demands of minority ethnic groups.

2.         Minority ethno-secessionism has not been resolved  by introducing federal form of government in some states such as (India, Canada, and Spain)

3.         Having a federal system per se will not resolve secessionist problem. It is the political commitment of all parties to uphold federalism that is essential.

4.         Democracy and  rule of law in both the political and civil society must accompany federalism, if it is to be successful.

5.         Federalism should not be sought for vested interests but for its intrinsic objective of maintaining uniqueness within the larger state.

6.         Defining federal units can create entirely new and perhaps more substantial problems and conflicts than earlier.


Pointing out the potential of federalism to resolve ethnonationalist problems, Kimlicka argues that  “while there are some circumstances where federalism is relevant, these very same circumstances make it likely that federalism will simply be a stepping-stone to either secession or a much looser form of confederation.  In general, it seems to me unlikely that federalism can provide an enduring solution to the challenges of ethnocultural pluralism. It may restrain these challenges for a period of time, but federal systems which are designed to accommodate self-governing ethnocultural groups are likely to be plagued by deadlock and instability.  … where federalism is needed to keep a country together, the odds that country will remain together over the long-term are not great.  Federalism may be the best available response to ethnocultural pluralism, but the best may not be good enough”.

This is exactly the point I am trying to make here in relation to the present effort of introducing or imposing as some argue, a federal constitution in Sri Lanka.   Federalism, more to the point, a federal constitution alone may not be good enough.  The package to resolve Sri Lankan ethno-secessionist problem should extend beyond a good federal constitution.  The package must  include a fundamental metamorphism in both the political and civil society from their present level of expedient extremist ethnocentric politics into democratic politics where the welfare of the people and the country is given primacy.   Thus, it is of paramount importance that the current discourse on federalism also emphasize non-constitutional requirements needed for smooth practice of federalism.


What are the non-constitutional requirements for smooth practice of Federalism?.

My initial reading of the federal systems around the world exposed me to a wide variety of non-constitutional factors cross cutting culture,  politics, law and even simple common sense.   

J. Bednar , an authority on federalism pointed out that federalism will be successful only if two political conditions are met.

1.         National forces must be structurally restrained from infringing on regions and

2.         Regional temptations to renege on federal state should be curbed by independent judiciary.

Forsyth Murray, another scholar on federalism pointed out that federalism will not be successful on its own but it is contingent upon wide range of conditions  such as  “the depth of ethnic passion; the number of competing groups in question; their relative size and strength; the depth of economic and education disparities between them; the presence of a will to unite; the reality of concrete benefits to be derived from unity; the readiness to distribute the benefits of union equitably;  the political tradition of people concerned; the presence or absence of democracy at local level; the links between the groups within and beyond the borders of the state; the external situation in general”.    It becomes obvious that many socio-political issues beyond the purview of a constitution have to be tackled first to  make federalism successful.  Having a federal constitution first will automatically create these non-constitutional requirements of federalism is not only wishful thinking but also dead wrong.   Mr. Jojislav Koslunica , the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia stressed the importance of commitment and cohabitation of the two conflicting parties to make federalism successful. 

Stressing  the point that  civil society is a crucial determinant of the success or failure of the federal formula,  Radmila Nakaradha  argues  “success in resolving ethnic conflicts requires a double operation.  Firstly, there should be intervention into the social infrastructure and civil society. ..  The second operation is to establish the decisive balance between individual and collective rights, freedom and self-determination…”   Jonathan Fox, a scholar on federalism also pointed out the role of civil society accountability as an important requirement in successful governance and federalism.

Another scholar A.N. Roy pointed out with respect to Indian federal experience that “the success of federalism also depends on civil society and the political culture” and thus  “for a federal system to succeed, a climate of tolerance, compromise, and the recognition and respect for diversities is imperative”. 

Radmila Nakaradha highlighted that federalism will not succeed in a violent society.   The problems that are likely to arise in a federal system need to be resolved in a non-violent manner.  Otherwise, the whole rationale for moving into federalism is undermined.

 Amidst all these scholarly pronouncements and predictions, I was fascinated by the simple yet paramount concept of  “enduring principle proposed by AR Gitelson, a political scientist.  Gitelson has basically summarized in simple to understand language the fundamental non-constitutional requirements of federalism which are found scattered in other writings. 

These enduring principles were 

1.         the rule of law,

2.         republicanism,

3.         separation of powers,

4.         checks and balances and

5.         national supremacy. 

Gitelson’s simple but powerful argument is that the US political system, characterized primarily by federalism is maintained through these enduring principles.  These principles are universal requirements of a democratic society, irrespective of the form of government.    Empirical evidence from around the world shows that if these principles fall apart, so do the federal structures based on them.  The failure of federal states such as Soviet Union, Yugoslavia can be directly attributed to the collapse of the above principles.   In Sri Lanka too the future of federalism will undoubtedly depend on the degree of adherence to these principles.


Rule of  Law.

Rule of law is fundamental to a civilized society.  In a modern democratic society, rule of law is essential for its smooth functioning irrespective of the type of governmental system.  The most basic principle of rule of law is that all citizens respect the rule of law which applies equally to all.

 In federal states, the constitution is supreme as it alone guides the two parallel governments - the federal and regional.  Further, the constitution reign supreme in case of a disagreement or conflict between the two levels of government.   However, no federal constitution can anticipate all the potential problems within a federal system and therefore the judiciary – a Supreme Court - is empowered to interpret the constitution in a federal state.   Supreme Court decisions are the final interpretations of the constitution.  Federalism will function and survive only under the conditions of unquestionable acceptance of constitutional supremacy by all.   If either government – federal or regional – disrespects the constitution and the Supreme Court rulings, federalism will disintegrate into total anarchy and renewed violence and chaos.  


At the level of the civil society, people must not only uphold the laws of their own region/province, but also the federal laws which are applicable throughout the entire country.   Federalism will degenerate if the people living in a regional state/province defy the federal laws.   Even a brilliantly crafted federal constitution will not last a day if the society is not law abiding.  Federalism could be and should be maintained through consensus and rule of law and not disagreements and violence.

 Both the political and civil society in Sri Lanka does not have a respectable record on upholding the rule of law and enforcement of equality of under the law.  Laws and even the constitution are violated with impunity by the political and governmental leaders as well as the members of the civil society to protect and sustain political power.   Federalism cannot survive with these violations and excesses.  Thus, it is important that the leaders who are committed to introduce federal system of government also emphasize on the need to reestablish rule of law in the country and also practice it themselves first.  



Republicanism is about upholding democratic principles of governance.  It is not paying lip service to a concept of “good governance”. Republicanism starts with the acceptance of the most basic assumption that government is of the people, by the people and for the people.  It has been argued that federalism to be the most republican form of all systems of government.   Federalism, is not a political ideology or mechanism to justify authoritarianism, dictatorship, or defiance and last of all terrorism either at the national or provincial level.   Rule of law, free and fair elections held regularly as stipulated not at the time of most politically advantages to those in power, and democratic principles and human rights  are inseparable elements of the  large system federalism.   Federalism is not a license for provincial tyrants to act undemocratically in the name of political autonomy and/or self-determination of an ethnic group.   The peace loving people who desire, respect and uphold democratic rights should come first in any attempt to formulate a federal structure.   Sri Lankan federalism should not be contemplated only as an opportunity to satisfy the political aspirations of Tamil people as projected by the ITAK and TNA.  It has to be seen as an opportunity for all people, including the Tamils to fully participate in democratic politics and decision making at all levels of governance.   Whatever, the subsequent justifications, the real origin of Tamil ethnonationalism which escalated to the level of terrorism is precisely the lack of real opportunities for the Tamils to fully and actively participate in national democracy and governance in the Sri Lankan state.  Both Sinhalese and Tamil political parties and the governments since 1948 are responsible for this utter failure.   Federalism should reestablish republicanism in this country – both in Sinhalese and Tamil areas -  in its true sense of the word.  Federalism without republicanism is as good and real as ‘present Soviet Union’!


Separation of Powers

The concept of separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial - was introduced precisely to prevent concentration of all three powers on a single individual, political party or a body.   Separation of  powers is considered an essential requirement in any modern democracy to prevent corruption and dictatorship or tyranny.  Separation of powers is more important in federal system as the very purpose of federalism could be defeated if the leaders become national or regional dictators. 

In Sri Lanka, one of the arguments for the emergence of Tamil ethno- nationalism and its subsequent intensification into terrorism is precisely the continuing over-centralization and over-concentration of power in Colombo.  As the Tamil demand for regional autonomy intensified so did the Colombo’s effort towards centralization. 

The intended federal structure for Sri Lanka should strongly adhere to the principle of separation of powers both at the national and regional level.   The creation of a regional tyranny is not a solution to the ills of a national tyranny. Authoritarianism is not acceptable either as an end in itself or as a mean to an end, no matter how laudable the end is.  Thus from the point of view of the life and welfare of the ordinary  citizens of this country,  Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others,  separation of powers must be reestablished both in Colombo and provincial capitals.   Federalism is intended for the benefit of the people, not for the survival of the leaders. 


Checks and Balances

Checks and balances are mechanisms to ensure that separation of powers will prevail and that no one branch of government will exercise its power in excess or encroach into the domain of others.  The present constitution is poor with respect to checks and balances between the legislature and the executive and it is even poor in practice especially when the President, Prime Minister and the Cabinet are from same party or a coalition of parties  and as we experience today, even if they are from different parties.   The lack of checks and balances in Sri Lankan government, led one of its former presidents to say that only thing he cannot do is to turn man a woman and vice versa.  We have seen how both men and women turned not into each other but into dead bodies in the past.  Such is the ugly outcome the concentration of power.  

The concept of checks and balances cannot exist within extremely authoritarian political parties and organizations.  Thus, checks and balances is a set of rules that both Colombo and provincial capitals need to learn and practice if they want federalism to succeed in Sri Lanka.   A future federal structure needs to create the three separate branches of government in the first place and then to introduce stronger checks and balances so that the three branches of the government will not work for self-interest but for the interests of the people they represent.


National Supremacy

In all federal states in the world, national supremacy - acceptance of the supremacy of the federal state is accepted as an essential requirement both in political and civil society.  This is the difference between the confederacy and federalism where the regional states assume supremacy in the former.    Although both federal and state government derives their authority and legitimacy from the constitutions originally and independently, the federal government is treated supreme as it has powers over all the provinces in the nationally important issues such as the national security of the state, defense and international policy.

Citizens of the federal states such as  United States of America, Australia and  India consider themselves to be first the citizens of the respective national states and then the citizens of their respective regional states.   This dual identity which is sometimes identified as nested identity, should not pose a contradiction and in fact the two identities should reinforce each other.  National supremacy is not seen as a threat to the regional statehood and assertion of regional state identity is not seen as a threat to the national supremacy.  After all federal government is not a government of others.  It too is constituted by the elected representatives of and from the regional states or provinces.  

In Sri Lanka the majority Sinhalese have been traditionally identifying themselves with the whole of Sri Lanka  while the majority of the Tamils, as a result of over 30 years of anti-Sri Lankan Tamil ethnonationalist ideology have begun to identify only with “Tamil Eelam”.   For many Tamils,  the Tamil identity and Sri Lankan identity are mutually exclusive and contradictory. The utterances and pronouncement of the Tamil political establishments in the north in the post war period indicate that the above position has not been fundamentally altered from the LTTE ideology.

A concerted effort has to be made to reestablish national supremacy in the minds of Tamils in general and the extremist Tamil ethnonationalists in particular and activities that undermine the Sri Lankan state should be terminated.   Tamil ethnonationalists have to unlearn and unteach anti-Sri Lankaneness and the Sinhalese have to unlearn and unteach that Sinhalese are the only legitimate owners of  Sri Lanka.  Both have to learn to accommodate the other in civil as well as political society as the starting point of federalism. 

            The federal government and provincial or regional governments should learn to respect each other and work in collaboration.  Federalism should not be seen as a zero sum game where the success of one level of government  is seen as a loss for the other.  In fact, successful federalism is found where the federal and regional governments cooperate with each other.    For example, many of the programs in the US, Australia, Canada, Switzerland are implemented through effective collaboration of federal, State and local governments all work together very closely.   


Future Viability of Federalism in Sri Lanka

One of the prominent scholars on federalism – Will Kymlicka  in answering the question “Is federalism a viable solution to secession”  concludes as follows:


However, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about the extent to which federalism provides a viable long-term alternative to secession.  It is wrong I think to suppose that federalism provides a tried and true formula for the successful and enduring accommodation of national differences.  It provides at best a hope for such an accommodation, but to make it work requires an enormous degree of ingenuity and good will and indeed good luck. … A well-designed federal system may defer secession- perhaps into the indefinite future. But secession will remain a live option in the hearts and minds of national minorities.  Indeed, it is likely to form the benchmark against which federal systems are measured.


I am in full agreement with Kymlicka.   Sri Lanka too needs the ingenuity, good will and of course the good luck to successfully implement federalism.    

Extremist Tamil ethonationalist led by LTTE at one point  clearly indicated that federal formula was being contemplated only as a means to a secessionist end as was clearly pointed out by Thamilini in her recent book.    LTTE strategy, other than cessation of hostilities against the government and the Sinhalese, remained unchanged even during the period of cessation of hostilities.  Even in the post LTTE era, Tamil ethonationalist arguments, rhetoric as well as their local and interantinonal activities clearly shows the lack of genuineness for a viable federal solution within the Sri Lanka state.  On the government’s side, the President, the Prime Minister and the Opposition ( whatever the opposition we have in the Parliament) whose total support is required to adopt the federal constitution.  

Ingenuity is a scarce commodity in Sri Lankan politics.  Long lack of ingenuity in Sri Lankan political establishment clearly reflect in the continuing prevalence of corruption, poverty, erosion of democracy, breakdown of order and increase in violence in society.   The present experiment where the Prime Minister is working with the President  has shown some ingenuity with respect to finding a solution to the ethnonatinonalist crisis.  But the lack of transparency and national consultation in their approach push some to believe it is disingenuous ingenuity.   On the other hand, ingenuity is totally lacking  in ITAK and TNA when it come to finding solution to the ethnonationalist crisis of the Tamils.  The preoccupation of current political leaders with expedient political activities on the one hand and their failure to implement effective development programs on ground on the other and also the external interfearences have all led the people to suspect their ability to formulate an effective solution to the ethnonationalist crisis.   Drafting a federal constitution and getting it ratified by the Parliament should not be seen as the solution or as a victory.  The experience of the 13th amendment is still in our minds.

Good luck has to come from three different levels.   First,  Good luck is with Sri Lankan side as India is decidedly against secession in Sri Lanka  of course for reasons of Indian national security and internal political stability.   Second, Sri Lanka is lucky once again as the international community is opposed to the creation of a separate state within Sri Lanka.   Third  level is  the Sri Lankan society itself.  Unfortunately here the good luck is not with us yet as the real intentions of the major stakeholders on the federal initiative do not appear to be genuine.   The Tamil ethnonatinonalist appears to be interested in achieving the so called “aspiration of the Tamil nation”, a euphemism for Eelam.  The government is playing a game of appeasing Tamil ethnonationalist pressures both locally and internationally and does not show any serious commitment to work with all the political parties to build a national consensus – an essential requirement in adopting a federal constitution.  The opposition political parties are  trying to undermine the governments peace effort solely for the purpose of coming to power- a pathologically detrimental behavior of Sri Lankan oppositions since independence.    The majority of the citizens while selfishly enjoying the peace brought about by the eradication of LTTE terrorism seem to be indifferent to the outcome of the current constitutional making efforts.  A vast majority of them, as in the past, have put the political party ahead of the country and thus polarized along party issues aimed at power and not national issues aimed at solving the ethnonationalist crisis.   For good luck to be with us, the Sri Lankan citizens of all ethnic groups and their leaders need to be more civic minded, law abiding, genuine and responsible and most of all democratic.   

The present efforts could produce an excellent federal constitution (on paper).  However, if the ultimate goal is a successful federal system of government which can bring a lasting solution to the ethnonationalist problem, a lot more has to be done by all from the political leaders to the ordinary citizen in the street or village.   A fundamental transformation of the Sri Lankan society into a new paradigm of politics in which democracy, human rights, rule of law, provincial rights and national supremacy are respected is essential. Federalism will be successful only to the extent the society inculcates federal culture. Federal constitution without federal culture is still birth.

Prof. Shantha K. Hennayake, Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya

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