Both the UNP and the UPFA-SLPP combine are readying themselves for a grand showdown on the political front. The former flexed its muscles, on Tuesday, by bringing large crowds to Colombo in protest against the appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. That show of strength was a success; it must have boosted the morale of the beleaguered party leadership considerably. The UNP deserves praise for ending its protest without causing untoward incidents. So far so good!
The UPFA and the SLPP will try to upstage their rivals on the streets. Speculation is rife in political circles that they are organizing a series of demonstrations in support of the newly elected government. Grass on the Galle Face Green might have to suffer again under the feet of the Rajapaksa loyalists.
The campaigns of both warring parties are on a wing and a prayer. The government has gone into overdrive to consolidate its power by luring more UNP MPs into joining its ranks. Both of them pretend to be confident, but they are, obviously, on tenterhooks, for politics is full of glorious uncertainties just like cricket.
Interestingly, the UNP has chosen to engage the government only on the political front. It has enlisted the support of other political parties, civil society groups and the western members of the international community for its struggle to get Parliament reconvened. This is a tall order.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is reported to have said that as many as 125 MPs have written to him, urging him to re-summon Parliament. The UNP thinks it can have Parliament reopened soon. The Speaker is in an unenviable position. He is under pressure to do what he is not constitutionally empowered to do.
It is unfortunate that in the ongoing unprecedented power struggle, both parties seem to believe that the end justifies the means. They are blind to the consequences of their actions.
One may or may not endorse the prorogation of Parliament at this juncture, but the President’s discretion to prorogue the legislature cannot be questioned. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Even those who drafted the 19th Amendment have not removed that power. But the aggrieved party seems convinced otherwise.
Curiously, why hasn’t the UNP taken the issue to courts? An independent lawyer cum activist has filed a fundamental rights application against the prorogation of Parliament. The initiative should have come from the UNP, which sounds confident when it says the sacking of PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was a blatant violation of the Constitution. Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, flanked by a phalanx of legal experts representing the UNP, insisted at a media conference recently that the 19th Amendment had reduced the presidential powers to such an extent that, today, the President could not sack even a deputy minister. They declared that the arguments for the presidential action did not stand up to scrutiny. This has also been the contention of ousted PM Wickremesinghe. If so, they should have gone running to courts and put the matter to rest. What really matters as regards constitutional matters is the opinion of the apex court and no one else’s. Politicians and their lawyers cannot be expected to tell the public the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as someone has said in a recent newspaper article.
AG all at sea
Government Spokesman and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the media, on Tuesday, that the new administration had already consulted the Attorney General’s Department on the presidential action at issue and the Acting AG Dappula de Livera had said it was constitutional. He said the Speaker, too, had sought the AG’s opinion and been told the same thing.
The Speaker’s Office promptly denied having received any such response. It leaked to the media a letter sent by the Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya, who has chosen to refrain from expressing his opinion in response to some questions the Speaker has raised as regards the change of government. He thinks it is inappropriate for him to express an opinion.
Minister Samarasinghe showed the media, in support of his claim, an email the Acting AG had sent. Is it that the Acting AG’s opinion differs from that of the AG? Or is the AG’s Department divided on this vital issue and as confused as the public? The government spokesman who made the aforesaid claim owes the public an explanation.
There is a school of thought that though the 19th Amendment debars the President from dissolving parliament before the expiry of four-and-a-half years, the Constitution provides for an exception—the defeat of a budget or a vote on account. This was the contention of UNP crossover-turned Higher Education Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, who addressed the media on Tuesday. He has given a new interpretation to the constitutional provisions concerned and it will be interesting to see the counterarguments put forth by the UNP.
In 2001, we had what came to be known as a parivasa aanduwa or ‘probationary government’ after mass crossovers made the Kumaratunga government unstable. The JVP offered to shore up the minority government conditionally. That administration, however, did not last long. President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved it and conducted a snap general election, which the UNP-led UNF won, but not comfortably. Following the 2015 regime change, we had what may be described as a ‘broiler’ government, which came with a limited life span. It was programmed to expire after serving a specific purpose, which was to implement the 100-day programme.
The main objective of UPFA/SLPP is to have Parliament dissolved, Minister Rajapakshe has said. He must have spoken for the President and the Prime Minister.
How does the UNP propose to tackle this situation if Rajapakshe’s argument is not flawed?
Crossovers Vs people’s will
Meanwhile, crossovers make a mockery of the will of the people. There has been a campaign to have defections banned. The yahapalana government stopped short of brining in anti-crossover laws as it was planning to cause some defections to ensure its own survival.
If anti-crossover laws were passed, what would happen in case of a hung parliament like the current one? The national legislature would be in a perpetual state of chaos like many of the local government institutions, where losers have among them more seats than the winners. This problem should be taken into account when electoral reforms are formulated.
Allocating more district bonus seats to the winner and increasing the allocation of National List slots for the party which secures the highest number of seats in Parliament but fails to obtain a working majority are some of the measures that should be considered.
Some political observers argue that if such constitutional provisions had been in place, the UNP, which was short of only six seats to secure a simple majority would have been able to form a stable government and perhaps the present crisis situation would not have arisen. This argument is tenable to some extent, but given Sri Lanka’s political culture, where expediency takes precedence over parliamentary and democratic traditions and the needs of the country, no constitutional safeguards can ensure the stability of a government.
The UPFA government (2010-2015) was so strong that it was capable of mustering even two-third majorities. But it was sacked and the then Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe, whose party had only 47 seats in Parliament, was sworn in as the PM on the basis that people had given President Sirisena a mandate to do so!
The 19th Amendment may prevent the President from sacking governments, but ruling party members can always cause vital bills including the Budget to be defeated the way members of most local government institutions do to settle scores with their leaders.