By Visvanath

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena finds himself in an unenviable position. The Opposition’s no-faith motion against him will have to be taken up for debate in the parliament soon. Although the SLPP, which the Speaker represents, has a parliamentary majority to defeat the motion, the Opposition will have an opportunity to tear into him, and the charges against him will receive wide publicity. He has put a bold face on the situation, but he must be feeling like there’s a cloud hanging over him.  

According to the British Parliamentary traditions, the Speaker has many roles including presiding over parliamentary debates, representing the House on ceremonial occasions and events and the administration of the House. The UK Parliament website says, “Political impartiality of the Speaker is one of the office’s most important features. Once elected, the Speaker severs all ties with his or her former party and is in all aspects of the job a completely non-partisan figure’. This tradition is not followed in Sri Lanka, and hence the oft-heard complaint, under every government, that the Speaker is partial towards the party he represents.  

The Opposition’s no-faith motion against the Speaker is basically over the manner in which the Online Safety Bill (OSB) was deemed ratified, on 24 Jan. 2024 although it contained several sections that could not be passed with a simple majority. The issue raised many an eyebrow.

The Speaker declared the OSB as having been passed while the Opposition was protesting in the Well of the House and nothing was audible amidst the din. Leader of the House and Minister Susil Premajayantha hastily read out the committee-stage amendments, which he said had been incorporated into the OSB, and then the Speaker made the above-mentioned declaration much to the consternation of the Opposition, which said it had asked for a division. The government insists that the Speaker was right in deeming the bill as having been duly passed.

Speaker Abeywardena went on to endorse the certificate on the OSB on Feb. 01, 2024, during the prorogation of the parliament, and the Opposition has argued that he signed the OSB into law while Parliament was not in session and therefore that cannot be considered legislative action.

TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran, PC, filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court challenging the Speaker’s certification of the OSB. He has stated in his petition that the OSB could have been passed with a simple majority only if changes had been made to it in accordance with the SC determination. However, the SC, on Thursday (29 Feb.)  dismissed the petition in limine, saying it could not intervene in matter, which should be left entirely to the legislature.

The government has, under fire from the Opposition, and other stakeholders, agreed to amend the Online Safety Act, which contains some flaws. It would not have done so if the OSB had been passed according to the Supreme Court guidelines. It is making a virtue of necessity. Perhaps, the government has sought to prevent the Opposition from moving the no-faith motion against the Speaker, and avoid embarrassment.

Besides, the government has incurred the opprobrium of local and international organizations such as The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which has Apple, Amazon, Google and Yahoo as members, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). The AIC has warned that the Bill could impact investments in Sri Lanka’s information technology industry and called for extensive amendments to it. The US has also expressed concern about the OSA.

International pressure may have compelled the government to soften its stand on the OSA and be amenable to amendments. But the Opposition insists that the OSB cannot be deemed to have been ratified and, worse, what the Speaker certified does not contain some vital SC recommendations, which were made to make the Bill consistent with the Constitution so that it could be passed with a simple majority in the parliament.

The government has said it will defeat the no-faith motion against the Speaker. It is no doubt capable of doing so, but the question is whether it will be able to sell its arguments against the no-confidence motion to the public, whose opinion matters more than anything else in electoral politics, especially in an election year. In fact, the SLPP and the UNP will have to defend the Speaker because he has got into hot water because of his alleged partiality to the government. The government’s defence of the Speaker will be used by the Opposition to bolster its accusation of his partiality towards the ruling party.

Why has the Opposition chosen to move a no-faith motion, which it knows will be defeated? The government has a working majority, and its MPs will defend the Speaker to the hilt. But the Opposition can still gain some political mileage and render the government more unpopular by moving motions of no confidence against the ruling party members. The SLPP will try to go on the offensive during the debate on the no-faith motion, but it will have a hard time trying to defend the indefensible. Chances are that the Opposition will gain some political traction from the debate.

The no-faith motion against the Speaker has unified the Opposition. The SJB and the JVP-led NPP usually do not see eye to eye on any issue. But in a rare moment of unity, the SJB, NPP, the TNA, the SLFP and the SLPP dissidents have closed ranks. The government may have more MPs, but its MPs are no match for the Opposition speakers. It is the Opposition that scores much more than the government in any parliamentary debate.

The government has sought to ridicule the Opposition by claiming that the latter is moving the no-faith motion against the Speaker out of desperation to boost the morale of its MPs and supporters and shore up its electoral chances in this election year. This contention is not without some truth in that the Opposition parties have to keep their politicians and supporters active to prevent the sagging of their morale. But there are other reasons why the Opposition resorts to measures such as moving no-confidence motions against the government leaders. They help bring the wrongdoings of the rulers into public focus, and make the popular members of the government in power defend the wrongdoers, for want of a better alternative, and ruin their image.

The motion of no confidence the Opposition moved against Keheliya Rambukwella, when he was the Health Minister, over procurement rackets and the purchase of fake or substandard pharmaceuticals, made all SLPP MPs circle the wagons and ruin their reputations in the process. That no-confidence motion was defeated and the government MPs ridiculed the Opposition, but Rambukwella was subsequently arrested and remanded over the procurement of a consignment of fake immunoglobulin. The SLPP MPs who backed him were left with egg on their faces. But that will not prevent the government members from going all out to defeat the no-confidence motion against the Speaker—for two reasons; it cannot leave the Speaker in the lurch, and losing a parliamentary vote in this election year is the last thing it wants.