Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe says that while in possession of all executive presidential powers, President Maithripala Sirisena has said that presidential powers should be reduced. We should praise President Sirisena for that. I have not seen any world leader, who of his own volition, has sought a reduction of his powers. This actually translates into a huge victory for the people of this country who voted for him……….. read all
BY UMESH MORAMUDALI
New Year festivities not- withstanding Sri Lanka’s political landscape has captured unprecedented public interest as the debate on the 19 Amendment and electoral reforms picks up steam. Ceylon Today interviewed the Deputy External Affairs Minister Ajith Perera about the current political situation.
Excerpts of the interview.
? :The Supreme Court had given its opinion on the 19th amendment to the constitution and the President has said that the 19 Amendment will be tabled in Parliament on 20 April. At the same time the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) keeps calling for electoral reforms as well. Are you conﬁdent that the 19th Amendment will be passed
A : I believe that we will be able to pass it. The President as the leader of the country and as the SLFP leader has agreed. He has asked Parliament to approve it. The UNP, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have already agreed with the 19th Amendment provisions.
I hope the Communist Party and other leftist parties and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) will also agree and vote for the Bill.
The only faction that will oppose this are the MPs who support former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in order to stand for his narrow objectives. However, there are less than 75 MPs supporting Rajapaksa. So I think we will be able to muster enough votes to pass the 19th Amendment since we have the support of more than 150 MPs which amounts to more than a 2/3 majority in Parliament. With there will be no more emergency bills. It was through an emergency bill that 18th Amendment was passed. This was continuously misused by all, including the UNP Government, and it is to ensure democracy that we abolished emergency bills. Every legislation should come in to effect in the form of a normal bill.
? : Although you said that the government has the majority in the parliament, the government proposal to issue Treasury bills worth Rs 400 billion was defeated. Isn’t this some kind of a warning to the Government
A : Well at the time opposition leader Nimal Siripala said there was no Oppositione to the proposal. Therefore, we were not ready for a vote. Even Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was not in Parliament at that time. However, Rajapaksa’s backers organized and defeated the bill.
It is a special situation. That is not the opinion of the SLFP which is headed by President Maithripala Sirisena. I personally believe that the President has control over the SLFP.
? : The major aim of the 19th Amendment is to reduce the powers of the executive presidency. How exactly are the powers of the president reduced through the 19th Amendment
A : with the implementation of the 19th Amendment the public will be able to challenge the President in the Supreme Court regarding any fundamental rights violation. The exception is that any decision regarding the war taken by the President cannot be challenged. However, if any citizen’s fundamental rights are violated due to any action of the president, that action can be challenged in court. Also the President will no longer have the power to dissolve parliament after one year of its tenure. It will be possible to dissolve parliament only after the completion of four and one half years. If parliament needs to be dissolved that has to be done with the consent of a 2/3 majority of parliament.
? : How does the 19th Amendment strengthen the independence of public institutions
A : Under the 19th Amendment independent commissions would be set up and the existing commissions will be further strengthened. Accordingly, there will be a National Audit Commission, Finance Commission and existing commissions such as Human Rights Commission, University Grant Commission, and Election Commission which will function independently.
? : One major election pledge of the government was to introduce a code of conduct for politicians. Is it in the process of introduction or is the government yet to start it
A : It had already started and we will be able to introduce it shortly. I cannot promise that it will be introduced within 100 days. However, we will bring it in before Parliament is dissolved. The primary responsibility was taken by the JVP to prepare it. It should be noted that the code of ethics is not about criteria to select an MP , but about how an MP must conduct himself.
?: There has been much talk about electoral reform. The SLFP consistently calls for electoral reforms and emphasizes implementation of recommendations of the committee headed by Dinesh Gunawardane. What is your view on this ? Is electoral reform needed and if so how soon can the Government introduce those reforms
A : We believe that the electoral system should change. It is essential and should be quick. As you noted the SLFP too is of the same view. However, we have to ensure that parties like the JVP and SLMC will not face any injustice due to electoral reforms and such parties too get seats in Parliament. I believe parties like the JVP which stand for their own ideology should not face any injustice. Therefore, I am not in favour of setting up electoral reforms with the consent of two major parties alone because that seems they will benefit from the first past the post system. Other smaller parties’ rights too should be secured. The preferential voting system which is a part of the proportional system is a bit of a mess. This is the major reason.
The preferential voting system opens opportunities for the wealthy to win elections.
? : It seems that in the ﬁrst past the post system MPs would be able to concentrate less on issues of national importance. Do you agree with that
A : No. in fact it is easy to be a representative of an electorate rather than of a district. At present, we have to attend funerals and weddings in an entire district. Also, being a representative of one electorate does not mean that an MP cannot engage in activities or policy making at national level. MPs who were there before 1977 did it.
? : The SLFP demands the inclusion of electoral reforms in the 19 Amendment. How do you see that
A : The executive presidency is not inherently intertwined with electoral reform and this has been made very clear. Now we should do what we need to do first and do other things later.
There’s no need for undue haste. Nowhere in the Dinesh Gunawardane committee report is it said that electoral reforms go hand in hand with reduction in the powers of the Executive Presidency.
? : Sri Lanka is to play a role in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in September. What is being done regarding that
A : We had a great diplomatic victory in March by being able to stop the release of the UNHRC Report temporarily. We made it clear that there’s no need for an international inquiry and said that we have an independent judiciary and independent public service. They have accepted that. Hence an inquiry can be conducted internally. The UN has asked us to ensure the independence of the Judiciary, Police and other institutions, so that we can carry out a credible domestic inquiry instead of an international inquiry. Then it becomes a domestic problem and there will be no room for any international intervention. We have to sub- mit a report to the UNHRC as to how we will be conducting the domestic inquiry. That inquiry will only begin after September this year.