The government is punching above its weight on the economic front, mustering as it does enough votes in the parliament to secure the passage of vital bills, motions and resolutions. Its domestic debt restructuring plan ran into stiff resistance, but it managed to have it ratified with 122 votes. Only 62 Opposition MPs voted against it. Forty other MPs were absent.

However, things are far from rosy for the government on the political front; former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his eldest son Namal were conspicuous by their absence in the parliament when its domestic debt restructuring plan was put to the vote on July 01. The latter has been publicly critical of the manner in which the government has chosen to set about handling the task of restructuring its local debt. Namal’s discordant note is widely seen as a sign of a widening rift in the SLPP as well as the Rajapaksa family, three of whose members in the parliament, namely Chamal, Shasheendra and Nipuna, voted with the government for the domestic debt restructuring plan.

There has been a considerable drop in the number of government MPs. Last year, 134 MPs voted with the SLPP to elect Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President; that number has decreased to 122. But the SLPP is acting in such a way that one wonders whether it is oblivious to the ground reality. It has in its wisdom decided to try to legislate for the dissolved local government institutions to be reconvened without elections. It has chosen to bite off more than it can chew.

It is only natural that SLPP MP Jayantha Ketagoda’s private member’s bill seeking to amend the laws governing the local government authorities and elections to them has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Two petitions have already been filed against it, one by Executive Director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections Rohana Hettiarachchi, and the other by SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) has condemned MP Ketagoda’s private member’s bill, as “anti-democratic” and said it will be a heavy blow to the people’s sovereignty enshrined in the Constitution. “Local Government Members are the grass-root level public representatives. Regular elections are essential for the people’s mandate to be reflected in the LGAs (Local Government Authorities). In addition, this amendment sets a bad precedent as it creates a risk of abusing the legal framework to prevent holding timely elections, including national elections.”

Ketagoda’s Bill as a non-starter

MP Ketagoda’s private member’s bill has not passed muster with the Attorney General (AG), according to the Opposition. If so, it will be a non-starter.

The SJB, on June 12 said that the AG had observed that the SLPP’s plan to reconvene dissolved local government bodies through a private member’s bill was unconstitutional. Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella told reporters at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Colombo, that the Attorney General had informed the Secretary General of Parliament that the bill contained some sections that were inconsistent with the Constitution and they would have to be passed by a two-third majority in Parliament besides being approved by the people at a referendum for the bill to become law. This is a tall order.

Claiming that he was quoting from the AG’s letter to the Secretary General of the parliament, Kiriella went on to say, “The Attorney General has observed that the draft bill, titled Pradeshiya Sabha (Amendment) by MP Ketagoda, has clauses inconsistent with the Constitutional provisions governing sovereignty and fundamental rights of the people. The AG has also said the clause 2 of the draft bill is inconsistent with the Constitution and will require a special majority of Parliament and approval by the people at a referendum in terms of Article 83 of the Constitution.”

Kiriella said that the bill that the SLPP had moved through MP Ketagoda was bound to backfire on the government, which was desperate to reinstate its local councilors in a bid to shore up its support base, which was disintegrating. The SLPP controlled the majority of the local government institutions that stand dissolved.

Reasons for SLPP’s gamble

Even a person with some rudimentary knowledge of constitutional affairs knows that the government’s move to restore the local government bodies without elections is violative of the people’s franchise, which has been enshrined in the Constitution, and the amendment of an entrenched constitutional provision requires a two-thirds majority and/or approval by the people at a referendum. The government could not have been unaware of the legal implications of the bill, and that may be the reason why the SLPP moved it through one of its backbenchers. But there is no way it can hide the fact that it masterminded it.

Ketagoda’s bill is indicative of the government’s desperation to retain its support base and keep the morale of its former local councilors from sagging further. The SLPP dissidents and the SJB are of the view that the government has sought to take its former local councilors for a ride by infusing them with false hope to prevent them from breaking ranks. This argument is not wholly untenable, but the fact remains that the SLPP has been left without any other way of preventing a further erosion of its support base. It has become heavily dependent on the local level politicians for that purpose because it has failed to have most of its district leaders appointed to the Cabinet. Some of its prominent members including several Ministers have thrown in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe for all practical purposes; even die-hard Rajapaksa loyalists such as Foreign Minister Ali Sabry are now praising the President in public. Sabry has said in a recent television interview that in his opinion Wickremesinghe should be given another presidential term, the implication being that he thinks the country is without a better leader. Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga and Dilum Amunugama have also spoken about the President in glowing terms, and the former has even gone on record as saying that he will not hesitate to support Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election. The SLPP is apparently troubled by a gnawing fear of the UNP eating into its vote bank through some of its disloyal MPs and ministers.

Whatever may have prompted it to attempt to reinstate its local councilors and shore up its support base with their help, the odds are that the SLPP will make another humiliating about-turn for want of a two-thirds majority in the House and its inability to muster popular support at a referendum.

No guesses should be ventured in respect of matters that are before the judiciary, but there is no way the government can secure the passage of Ketagoda’s bill even if it manages to clear the legal barrier ahead. How can a beleaguered administration that even fears to hold the local government elections and postpones them be expected to hold a national referendum, especially on a dicey issue, at a time when its popularity is extremely low, and the people are resentful?