Rajan Philips in Sunday Island, 25 April 2015, two days before the vote on the 19th Amendment and where his title is “The 100-Day Question: Will President Sirisena dissolve parliament and call the Rajapaksa bluff?”
If there is ever a time for political leadership to act in disregard of consensus, it is now. There was a time in Sri Lankan politics when that master rhetorician Colvin R. de Silva presaged the governing style of the SLFP-LSSP-CP United Front as one that would be “characterized not by consensus but by leadership.” Dr. Colvin’s foretelling was in anticipation of the massive United Front election victory in 1970. It turned out to be ill-advised at that time. But it is thoroughly appropriate at the present time. In politics, consensus is the preferred means to a desired end, but it is not an end itself. President Sirisena has the power to act and dissolve parliament and let the people elect a new parliament to end the current political uncertainty in parliament and in the country. Will he do it? That is the 100-Day question. And there will not be much else to talk about the 100 Days if parliament does not pass the 19th Amendment on Tuesday, the day after tomorrow.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe obtained a mandate from the people on January 8 to change the constitution in a substantial manner. The 19th Amendment is the instrument to fulfill that mandate. It is an embodiment of the people’s will, of political compromise and judicial endorsement. There has never been anything so consensual like 19A, before in Sri Lanka’s constitutional politics. If the current parliament cannot muster the requisite two-thirds majority to pass the amendment, it deserves to be sent packing to the people. The President will have no alternative but to dissolve the truant parliament and call for a general election. Anything less will be an affront to the sovereignty of the people and a mockery of the constitutional provision affirming its inalienability.
The remnants of the Rajapaksa regime in parliament and outside are bluffing. Bluffing, bullying, disrupting parliament and disobeying court orders are the last resort of politicians who have abused power, run afoul of the law, and who do not want to face the people in a free and fair election. In parliament, Nimal Siripala de Silva is trying to be too clever by half for his own endowments. GL Peiris, the long lost seed fallen on hard Rajapaksa rock, is trying hard for a moral rebirth, but in a crooked way. Between them, they are trying to pretend that they are saving the Jayewardene constitution from the machinations of his Party, the UNP! The 19th Amendment is not a UNP (or Ranil’s) off-spring. It is the outcome of the abolition (of the executive presidency) movement launched by Sobitha Thero and his band of constitutional reformers led by Jayampathy Wickremaratne. They drafted the basic outline of the 19th Amendment long before Maithripala Senanayake defected from the Rajapaksa government to become the common opposition candidate.
If at all, as the common opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena diluted the abolitionist position in order to accommodate the JHU who did not want to abolish the presidential system, but retain it with reduced powers. Much of the confusion over the 19th Amendment Bill is the result of trying to reach a compromise between abolishing the executive presidential system, and attenuating it. The final outcome, vetted by the Supreme Court, is not the perfect product but a significant correction to the current constitutional contraption – the unholy cross between the original Jayewardene framework and the recent Rajapaksa deformations. 19A represents the choice between: EITHER staying mired in the current contraption and its accompaniments, viz. abuse of power, corruption and embezzlement; OR, moving forward with a positively modified constitution providing reasonable checks and balances, to end corruption and achieve good governance. The (Kierkegaardian) choice (between unethical and ethical) cannot be clearer.
What will happen on Tuesday?
President Sirisena, in the course of his address to the nation on Thursday evening to mark the end of his first 100 days in office, called upon all parliamentarians to unanimously vote for the 19th Amendment, which finally is scheduled to be debated tomorrow and voted on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, addressing a UNP meeting, the Prime Minister is reported to have gone into an aggressive mode and warned that MPs who do not vote for the 19th Amendment will be swept away at the polls by the people. Brave words are still better coming late than never. The same day, the SLFP Central Committee (CC) issued a statement announcing its decision to vote for 19A in parliament.
The SLFP statement caught me by surprise because only a day before Nimal Siripala de Silva, the majority leader of the opposition, was insisting that a new (19th) amendment bill incorporating the determinations of the Supreme Court should be presented in parliament and referred to the Supreme Court for verification before it could be debated and voted on. Before that GL Peiris was making a nuisance of himself by carping against changes being introduced at the Committee stage. Even after the Central Committee decision, GL Peiris has been reported as saying that although the SLFP accepts 19A in principle, the Party will be moving amendments to the Bill in Parliament before the final vote. Go figure! And this comes after yet another Party Leaders’ meeting last week, when the government reportedly agreed to delete the provisions in the Bill that the SLFP was objecting to.
It would be great if the 19th Amendment bill is carried unanimously, but no one will count on it. Achieving a two-thirds majority that is required for the bill’s passage would itself be a singular achievement, but nothing can be taken for granted given the bluffing opposition and, so far, pussyfooting government. The question is what will the government do, if the amendment does not secure a two-thirds majority, or the opposition once again thwarts the bill from being debated and voted on April 27 and 28? There is only one answer: Dissolve parliament and call for a general election.
While it is imperative that the President must show leadership and dissolve parliament immediately if the 19th Amendment is not passed with the requisite majority, it will also be ideal for him to dissolve parliament even if the Amendment is duly passed by Parliament. However, there appears to some consensus about achieving electoral reforms after the passage of 19A, but before dissolving parliament. If that is so, it might be worthwhile to delay dissolution until the electoral reforms are in place. But it would be a grave mistake to let the SLFP opposition delay the passage of 19A until the electoral reform bill is also ready for the vote. Nor should the operationalization of 19A be made conditional upon the enactment of electoral reforms. In either case, the opposition should not be allowed to get away with its bluff.
There are about half a dozen different proposals for electoral reforms floating around, including a draft 20th Amendment on Electoral Reforms currently prepared by the SLFP. The President is reported to have presented his own proposals for electoral reform to the Cabinet of Ministers. The Tamil and Muslim political parties and the Left Parties have also had discussions and produced another set of proposals for electoral reform. Going by the experience of the 19th Amendment, can we expect the parliamentarians to act rationally and agree upon electoral reforms? Or, is it more likely that the opposition MPs will go on abusing parliamentary privilege to stage protests inside parliament against the legitimate and lawful investigations of corruption allegations of the high flyers of the old regime? Again, the President must show leadership and dissolve parliament immediately to prevent the Rajapaksa cronies from degrading parliament in defence of the Rajapaksas.
In fairness, no one should be considered guilty unless charges are laid and proven in court in accordance with the law. But the burden of proof is not, and should not be, on the government as has been mistakenly suggested. That burden must rest solely on the law enforcement agencies – the police, the investigating commission and the prosecutors. These agencies should, and should be allowed, to act independent of the government and even the parliament, as well as the President. Even the Rajapaksas deserve a truly fair process, even though they broke every rule and bent every norm to get rid of their opponents, including a Chief Justice and an Army Commander among others. But the process must go on, without being sabotaged by those within the government and disrupted by those in the opposition. That would be good government, for starters.
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Jehan Perera: “President’s Commitment to give up his powers is his political strength,” Island, 27 April 2015
With the debate over the 19th Amendment to the constitution entering its final phase this week, the country is entering a decisive phase. The passage of this constitutional amendment will set in motion a process whereby Sri Lanka will become subject to the Rule of Law and not the rule of men as was advocated by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in its report after having consulted a wide swath of the country’s intellectuals, decision makers and community leaders. The presidential system in Sri Lanka was flawed at its very inception, as it did not provide for an adequate system of checks and balances found in democratic countries with successful presidential systems. The 19th Amendment will go a significant part of the way to create conditions for better governance in the country.
The abolishing of the presidential system has been part of the election manifesto of previous presidents. But it has been President Maithripala Sirisena who has been most committed to shedding his powers. He has had to endure barbs that he is not a strong leader. But he has shown strength in being committed to reform the presidency as he promised during the presidential election campaign. While most other political leaders will fight for their own powers, he is being true to the Buddhist ethos of his upbringing to transcend that fight in which he prevailed for a higher purpose. The President’s efforts to push through a constitutional amendment that will reduce his own power is a rare example of statesmanship, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide.
There is a great deal of international expectations about progress in Sri Lanka. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry will be taking place the following week. Sri Lanka is able to position itself as a post-war country with a message to other countries that are struggling to come out of their own conflicts. The Sri Lankan model of changing governments, even very powerful and seemingly entrenched ones, through the democratic process is one that the international community would wish to support in other parts of the world where change of governments are necessary. The Sri Lankan model of a president from one major party running a government with a prime minister from a rival major party, and a government that has almost all parties in Parliament represented in it is unique.
The new spirit of goodwill and openness to the world, which President Maithripala Sirisena spoke of in his address to the nation last week on the occasion of the 100 day anniversary of his government is also present in civil society. This was evident at an international conference on religious tolerance and harmony that took place at the Buddhist and Pali University last week. The university is meant primarily for the tertiary education of Buddhist monks. Therefore it has the potential to have a major impact on the leadership role of the Buddhist religious clergy. Most often those from the religious community who have taken to politics do so in a parochial spirit. However, there is an ethos of universality in the Buddhist teachings which is too often not manifested by politically motivated sections of the community. The international conference organised by the Buddhist and Pali University represented the universal and wholesome approach.
The conference attracted participation from different parts of the world, including India, Myanmar, Maldives, Norway and the United States. From within Sri Lanka there was participation from several universities, most notably Jaffna University which had a contingent of students and lecturers. At the conclusion of the conference, those who had come from outside, and been guests of the Buddhist and Pali University were full of praise for the organisers of the conference. The participants from Jaffna were also moved to defend the organisers who had come in for criticism from outside. There was negative commentary in a section of the media that the conference organisers had accepted financial support from the US embassy for the conference. There was also criticism that the Buddhist flag was not put up at the conference venue. The conference showed that when Buddhist monks are given the space and support, they will act in a universal manner as befits the leadership of any religion.
Until last week it seemed that nationalism was on the rise again. The impunity with which the Sinhalese nationalist supporters of the former government waved distorted national flags, from which the two strips that represent the Tamil and Muslim communities were removed, was reflective of the rawness of their nationalism. The rambunctious rallies organised by those who advocate the return of defeated former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the centre of politics were also based on the mobilisation of ethnic nationalism. Defeated at the presidential election on the main ground of corruption, they have been seeking to steer the political debate back to raw nationalism. Their nationalism was given a boost by the resolution of the Northern Provincial Council which accused successive Sri Lankan governments of having practised genocide against the Tamils from the time of Independence.
Since the last week the government seems to be more confident. Twenty six persons, including leaders of the pro-Rajapaksa group of parliamentarians who defied a judicial order preventing them from staging a protest in front of the Bribery Commission office, have been summoned by the police. They not only defied the judicial order, but also waved the distorted national flags. In many countries, desecrating the national flag is regarded as a punishable offence. In addition, the arrest of former minister Basil Rajapaksa for financial misappropriation of government funds belonging to his ministry would have come as a shock to those who believed in the continuing power and influence of the former government leaders. The public protest has been muted. It appears that people accept the Rule of Law, even as they acquiesce in the abuse of power by politicians.
Due to the three decades of violence and conflict in the country and the propaganda of the rival nationalist camps many Sri Lankan people at this point of time seem to be confused about the way forward. The government has done nothing that is anti-national. But the opposition claims it is, even though the Tamil people in the North especially complain that normalcy in their lives, and justice, has yet to come to them. At the same time there is a deep underlying social and cultural unity in the country, which was pointed out by one of the international participants at the conference organised by the Buddhist and Pali University. This unity manifests itself effortlessly when there is goodwill and hospitality, which the Sri Lankan people are capable of displaying from the heart. This unity makes the challenge of healing and reconciliation possible, rather than impossible. The freedom and space to meet, to dialogue and to get to know each other are important to protect.
In his televised address to the people on the occasion of the 100th day anniversary, President Maithripala Sirisena said that eliminating the culture of fear was one of the achievements of this period. It has taken away the fear that shackled the creativity and confidence of the people. However, in the North of the country, the full enjoyment of the right to be free from fear is yet to be realised. According to participants who came to the conference from Jaffna, the military presence continues to be oppressive. The military is less directive than it was in the past. There is no need to get permission to conduct events. But the military will come and ask questions and take photographs. This intimidates the people as they are fearful as to what use will be made of this evidence in the future. They too look to the president with hope, even as he fights for constitutional reform and power-sharing as no one else has, and to create a new polity in which the deep cultural and social unity in the country and amongst its different communities manifests itself as political unity also.