We are watching a protracted polls drought straggle to an end. An election year is about to dawn. Political parties are apparently limbering up for electoral contests if their reorganizing attempts are anything to go by. President Maithripala Sirisena has asked SLFP electoral organisers to gird up their loins. The UNP has also called upon its organisers to get ready for elections.
If the dissolution of Parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena had gone unchallenged, there would have been a general election early next month. As it stands, much-delayed Provincial Council elections are likely to be held first. The presidential election is also due next year. However, the possibility of the government doing everything in its power to postpone the PC polls so as to prevent its real strength being exposed prior to the presidential election cannot be ruled out.
Political double bill
What is unfolding in Parliament may be considered the second part of a political double bill with the UPFA and the TNA fighting for the Opposition Leader’s post.
The TNA has urged Speaker Karu Jayasuriya not to grant the Opposition Leader’s post to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Jayasuriya is in an embarrassing position, having already recognised Rajapaksa as the Opposition Leader. He, however, has undertaken to look in to the objections raised by others. In a letter TNA MP M. Sumanthiran has sent to the Speaker, the TNA has given the following reasons for objecting to the appointment of Rajapaksa as the Opposition Leader:
- There is no dispute that the leader of the political party in Opposition with the most number of seats in Parliament ought to be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition. However the question that now confronts us, is whether the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is a party in Opposition.
According to established parliamentary tradition a party in Opposition, is one that does not participate in the government. The UPFA cannot be considered as a party in the Opposition, since the Leader of the UPFA President Maithripala Sirisena, is the Head of Government and the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers. In addition he also holds the portfolios of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment. Presently the President holds the Ministries of Law and Order and Media also. In this context where the Chairman of the UPFA is not only the Head of Government, but also a minister in the Cabinet with at least five ministries under him, the UPFA cannot be considered to be a party in the Opposition.
3. Three members of the UPFA have crossed over to government ranks. Previously another three members did the same. The Cabinet of Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers are yet to be appointed and I have information that at least two of the above six MPs have been named in the lists of Cabinet Ministers nominated by the Prime Minister. It is probable that more UPFA MPs will be accommodated as State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. There can also be more cross-overs of UPFA MPs to the government in the coming days.
4. In the totality of the circumstances stated above, it is submitted that UPFA can in no way be described as a party in Opposition and consequently no member of the UPFA, in such capacity, can be appointed as the Leader of the Opposition.
5. The precedents cited: People’s Alliance government during President [D. B] Wijetunga’s tenure, UNP government during President [Chandrika] Kumaratunga’s tenure. In both instances the President’s did not function as a Minister in the Cabinet except President Kumaratunga who retained the functions of the Minister of Defence, after an opinion given by the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Sarath Silva.
6. In any event Mahinda Rajapaksa and several other MPs cease to be members of Parliament by operation of Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution. It is public knowledge that they resigned from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and obtained membership of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). In terms of the Constitution of the SLFP and UPFA, a person would automatically cease to be a member of the UPFA, when he or she ceases to be a member of the SLFP. The provision enabling a member to invoke the jurisdictions of the Supreme Court is only in the event of an expulsion, which is not the case here. Thus without the requirement of any further actions (such as, communication from the party General Secretary) by operation of law, the said members of the UPFA have vacated their seats in parliament.
7. Since there may be the necessity of establishing certain factual positions in relation to the loss of membership of a political party, a Select Committee of Parliament can be appointed for the said purpose and a Motion for same has already been presented. The composition of Parliament is a very serious and fundamental matter. Therefore this question needs to be resolved early and until such time Mahinda Rajapaksa or any other MP is found to have vacated his seat in Parliament, should not be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition. For all of the above reasons, I request you not to recognize Mahinda Rajapaksa as Leader of the Opposition.
Interestingly, the TNA unwittingly contradicts its own arguments in paragraphs (1) and (2) when it admits in para (5) that President Kumaratunga held a Cabinet post (while Mahinda Rajapaksa functioned as the Opposition Leader from 2002 to 2004). President Wijetunga held the Defence portfolio while UNP MP Gamini Dissanayake was the Opposition Leader.
The argument in para (3) does not make any sense in that a party does not become part of the government due to defections from it ranks. Conclusions in paras (06) and (7) are based on premises which have not yet been proven. The burden of proof is on the TNA and the UNP.
The TNA has given a written pledge to back Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. Therefore, can it be considered a party in Opposition?
It will be interesting to see the Speaker’s decision. If Rajapaksa happens to lose the post of the Opposition Leader, he will be faced with another crisis. In case he and other JO members are stripped of their seats for having obtained SLPP membership, political Opposition will emerge far more formidable and aggressive than the parliamentary Opposition.
Ball in the govt.’s court
Chairman of the National Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has gone on record recently as saying that the mixed electoral system has reached a dead end and the PC polls will have to be held under the Proportional Representation (PR) system; parliament should bring in new laws to that effect without further delay, he has said.
The Polls Chief has thus shifted the onus for preparing the ground for elections to Parliament. It is doubtful whether the government, which has been trying every trick in the book to avoid an electoral contest will take the initiative in making laws for the PC polls to held soon; it is not yet prepared for an electoral showdown, having enlisted the support of the JVP and the TNA for amending the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act to postpone the PC polls. However, if the UPFA campaigns hard, both in and outside Parliament, for conducting PC polls under the PR system without further delay, the government will have to make necessary laws so as to pretend that it is not scared of elections.
Are the UPFA and the Joint Opposition ready for an election? The SLFP, which is in total disarray, needs polls like a hole in the head, at this juncture. It is planning to piggy back on the SLPP, which the Rajapaksas formed to further their own interests. The SLPP was election-ready before the change of government on Oct. 26, but has suffered a considerable setback due to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failed attempt to capture power in Parliament and the subsequent resignation as Prime Minister.
Misfortunes do not come singly. The dissident MPs of the UPFA, in a bid to prevent themselves being unseated, had to deny having obtained SLPP membership. Everyone knows that their claim is a barefaced lie, but there is no way it can be proved that they are lying because they have not officially resigned from the SLFP and the SLPP insists that they have not been given formal membership. The UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera has written to the Speaker that the MPs concerned are still members of the UPFA. The membership issue has also impacted the newly formed party adversely. Given this situation, the SLPP, too, may be wary of facing an election in the near future.
One need not be surprised if nobody tries to pressure the government to legislate for the PC polls to be held under the former electoral system.
Sampanthan and ankus
The TNA has become a kingmaker. Its leader R. Sampanthan is now controlling the UNP or the Elephant as it is popularly known. He is like a mahout wielding the ankus.
The TNA may be able to justify its alliance with the UNP; it can convince its constituency that the end justifies the means and it has provided the UNP with a political crutch as a tactical manoeuvre. But the same cannot be said about the UNP; the means it has adopted to remain in power may even lead to the end of its rule. The UNP may be able to retain the support of its faithful voters who want their party to remain in power regardless of the methods used, but its problem will be to enlist the backing of the other electors who are opposed to the TNA’s agenda. Whether the TNA has given the UNP the kiss of death remains to be seen.
PM Wickremesinghe has brought ‘Northern Development’ under his purview. He seems keen to look after the interests of the TNA, on whose support his very political survival depends. Northern development will also help him garner votes at a presidential election.
The TNA now has power without responsibility.
That the 19th Amendment has made inroads into some entrenched clauses in the Constitution is evident from the recent Supreme Court ruling on the dissolution of Parliament. President Sirisena has asserted himself and chosen to confront the UNP following his defeat on legal and political fronts. That does not mean the executive presidency remains as strong as it was in the past. The UNP has elected to refrain from antagonising the President further because it will not gain anything from clashes with him. What we are witnessing on the political front is a victor’s peace.
Why should anyone try to be the President, whose powers have been greatly reduced? What if the next President fails to secure control of Parliament and his rivals obtain a comfortable majority in the House? Even if his or her party manages to control Parliament, he or she will have to contend with an assertive PM, unlike in the past. But the President is technically the head of state; he or she also heads the government and the Cabinet. Neither the UNP leader nor his SLFP counterpart will be able to remain party leaders if some else is fielded as his party’s presidential candidate.
So, President Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe are left with a choice between contesting the next presidential election and retirement. The UNP has had enough of common candidates and its top guns want the party to field its own presidential candidate.
Maithri and Ranil in same dilemma
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are faced with the same dilemma. The former’s plan to secure the backing of the SLPP to win a second term by joining forces with it to topple the UNP government went awry. The 26 Oct. government change dashed the hopes of those who were campaigning for fielding former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. But the defeat the SLPP-SLFP combine suffered at the hands of the UNP and its allies has renewed the hopes of the Gotabaya loyalists. Sirisena cannot depend on the SLFP rump alone to win even a local government election.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is reportedly on a mission to form a grand coalition for the next presidential election. Her efforts might lead to another split in the SLFP with some of its prominent members siding with her. This is a worrisome proposition for President Sirisena.
PM Wickremesinghe may have thought his problems would be over after turning the tables on Sirisena and Rajapaksa in Parliament. The Opposition’s abortive bid to oust him made UNP supporters rally behind him. But his problems are apparently far from over.
SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, one of his trusted lieutenants, has said the UNP should field a young presidential candidate. Minister Ajith Perera, who was one of the few UNP MPs who took to the streets in defence of Wickremesinghe on Oct. 27 itself, said the other day that UNP Deputy Leader and Minister Sajith Premadasa would be the next President. Several other UNP MPs are of the same view as he.
Minister Lakshman Kiriella told the media in Kandy recently that the UNP’s presidential candidate will be none other than PM Wickremesinghe. Several other senior UNPers have expressed similar views favourable to the party leader. But Minister Thalatha Atukorale has said something totally different; she says the UNP has not yet decided on its presidential candidate.
Contradictory statements of this nature are bad for the UNP leader because they show that his party lacks unanimity as regards his suitability for running for President.