By Kassapa

Last week, we wrote in these columns about United National Party (UNP) General Secretary Range Bandara’s proposal to conduct a referendum to extend President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s term of office and posed the question, was Range losing the plot or was Ranil using him as a cat’s paw to test the political waters?

Range Bandara’s proposal was blasted by all and sundry, including by those in the UNP. Ravi Karunanayake urged him not to become a ‘supplier of jokes’ to the public. The opposition had a field day, claiming that Wickremesinghe was indeed planning to stall the presidential election, just as he did with the local government elections that were scheduled for March 2023, but have never been held citing a flimsy excuse, insufficient funds.

If one thought that Wickremesinghe had scored a spectacular own goal with that proposition and would shelve it forthwith, perish that thought: latest reports indicate that the ‘extension project’ is still very much under consideration, but not in the manner in which Bandara proposed it.

When Bandara fronted up to the media for an encore, he read off a prepared script. Officially, he was trying to set the record straight. More to the point, he began reeling off Article after Article of the Constitution and explained his proposal. Obviously, he had been briefed by legal experts of the UNP. In doing so, what he was trying to impress upon anyone wanting to listen to him was that what he was suggesting was not unconstitutional, as had been suggested by some other legal experts.

What Bandara did not wish to say was that, while his proposal was not unconstitutional, it was also highly improbable. It would require the co-operation of at least two-thirds of all parliamentarians at a time when the government just gets over the line to pass other legislation with a simple majority. Even if this were somehow achieved, it is highly likely that the proposal would be defeated at the referendum that would follow. So, just as much as Bandara’s suggestion is technically not unconstitutional, it is simply not possible practically.

This is what has got the UNP’s legal pundits to put their thinking caps on- and they seem to have come up with yet another ingenious, if not outrightly devious, strategy. This plan is based on what transpired with the introduction of the 19th Amendment under the ‘yahapaalanaya’ government which ironically, was under Wickremesinghe’s watch.

The 19th Amendment reduced the term of office of the President from six years to five years. This required only approval in Parliament by a two-thirds majority and was not subjected to a referendum. Therefore, using the same logic to reverse the process, it is being argued by some who provide legal advice to the President that the constitutional change can be now reversed to extend the term of office of the President from five years to six years again with just a two-thirds majority in Parliament. These ‘experts’ are of the view that this should be put to the test to see whether that could buy Wickremesinghe at least a further year as President.    

These experts are convinced that. If all that is required is a two-thirds majority, that can somehow be hustled through, no doubt by offering various ‘incentives’ to parliamentarians to vote for the proposals. For their efforts, they could also be offered an extension of the life of their Parliament, again from five years to six years, using the same process. This proposal is receiving active consideration, and the nuts and bolts of how its safe passage through the legislature can be ensured is being studied at the highest levels of government.     

There is a legal loophole which these experts are planning to exploit, Article 83(b) of the Constitution. This states that notwithstanding other clauses, any proposal to extend the term of office of the President or Parliament ‘over six years’ requires ratification at a referendum. This has been interpreted to imply that any extension less than six years does not require a referendum.   

If given effect to, this would be a worse transgression of democratic norms than what was undertaken by Wickremesinghe’s uncle, J.R. Jayewardene, the original ‘Old Fox’ of Sri Lankan politics. Jayewardene extended the term of the 1977 Parliament where he enjoyed a five-sixth majority by conducting the country’s only referendum in 1982, where widespread electoral malpractices were the order of the day.

JR at least had a mandate to begin with and a considerable one at that and he did conduct a referendum. For the seats which were ‘lost’ at the referendum (the electorates which voted against an extension of Parliament), he conducted by-elections. In stark contrast, Wickremesinghe has no mandate to begin with: he is only an accidental, ‘stand-in’ President. He violated his own party’s guideline of not appointing defeated candidates to National List vacancies to enter Parliament through that ‘back door’ after he was rejected and sent home at the August 2020 general election. He is also trying to avoid a referendum at all costs because he knows that will be the end of his political career.

Yet, from Wickremesinghe’s perspective, extending his term of office by a year without conducting a referendum makes perfect sense. He must know, if he has any sense of public perception of his performance and if intelligence reports are what they are supposed to be, that he has a snowflakes chance in hell of winning the next presidential election.

The graceful option would be to bow out of the race but then, that would be curtains for Wickremesinghe’s political career and he would go down in Lankan history as being in politics for nearly five decades without ever being elected as Head of State. That is still an option but he is not attracted to it because, at seventy-five years of age, he knows that this is absolutely his last chance. Moreover, he must also fear the consequences if, for instance, a Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) government assumes office and probes all the ‘deals’ that were done in the name of privatisation over the past two years.

First it was talk of abolishing the Executive Presidency and enacting a new Constitution allowing Wickremesinghe to continue until that is done. Then it was Range Bandara’s referendum proposal. Now comes the proposed Constitutional amendment. Make no mistake, this is not the last we will hear of this diabolical attempt to subvert democracy.

If Ranil Wickremesinghe actually treads down that path, it will bring about the second ‘aragalaya’ and he will have to go anyway- but he is not the type to flee through the backdoor and board a ship, not before he fires several rounds of live ammunition. Seeing such a bloodbath should be what every Sri Lankan should be worried about if this proposal sees the light of day.


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