At long last, president Maithripala Sirisena himself has spoken of a possible dissolution of parliament by the end of this month after the 19th Amendment is presented to parliament. President Sirisena has not mentioned the word ‘dissolution’ since he took power in January. It was always a case of the UNP demanding dissolution on the 23rd of April and either Champika or someone in the Sirisena faction of the SLFP saying that there is no need for an early dissolution of parliament. As such, the mere mention of a possible dissolution of parliament by MS is a massive step forward for the UNP. But even in this there is a catch. The president has not said categorically whether he is going to dissolve parliament no matter whether the 19th Amendment is passed or not. All the newspapers reported him as saying that he will dissolve parliament AFTER the constitutional amendment is passed but we do not know whether it will be dissolved regardless of whether the 19th Amendment is passed or rejected. This distinction is important given the hair splitting that has been going on regarding the question of doing away with the powers of the executive presidency ever since MS became president.
As we said last week, the implications either way are frightening. On the one hand, the 19th Amendment is a messy piece of legislation which can result in a constitutional gridlock if passed. If it is not passed, that will be exactly (as the JVP says) what Maithripala not-so-secretly desires – to retain full executive powers for his entire term in office. On the very day that Sirisena announced that parliament would be dissolved after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Tilvin Silva speaking at a function in Vavuniya challenged Sirisena to reveal to the country whether he was motivating his faction of the SLFP to vote for or against the 19th Amendment! President Sirisena is now deeply mistrusted by everybody. One local government head who attended the meetings called at the Abeyarama temple in Narahenpita to meet former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had said during his speech that Sirisena became president on UNP votes but that he was now trying to short change the UNP as well, and he queried how anybody could trust such a man!
The UNP is clearly a victim in this case. Since independence, all elected leaders have been loyal to those who elected him into power. The largest block vote that MS got was UNP and even of the Muslim and Tamil votes that he got, a good proportion belong to parties like the SLMC and the CWC which have a history of preferring to link up with the UNP at elections. So Maithri should be doing what the UNP wants him to do but he has been doing exactly the opposite. In fact if the 19th Amendment is passed that would represent a defeat for MS and his close cohorts in the JHU and the SLFP who want to retain full executive powers.
Even this talk of dissolving parliament appears to have been motivated not so much by the UNP’s demand but by the situation within the SLFP, with the Sirisena faction losing ground to the Mahinda faction with each passing day. Sirisena’s sudden announcement that parliament would be dissolved came immediately after the situation that Chandrika Kumaratunga faced at the SLFP District Balamandalaya meeting in Kurunegala. President Sirisena came for that meeting and spoke for more than half an hour but said nothing about dissolving parliament. It was only after CBK got booed while lighting the oil lamp at the start of the proceedings and booed and abused in foul language at the end of the proceedings that Sirisena appears to have decided that parliament should be dissolved and he announced it at a meeting in Polonnaruwa the same day.
Concerns about the 19th Amendment
Last Thursday, Prof G.L.Peiris speaking in parliament raised some pertinent questions about the procedure adopted with regard to the 19th Amendment. He pointed out that changes had been proposed to the gazetted 19th Amendment Bill before it was submitted to the Supreme Court for review. He had stated that the changes that were made to the gazetted Bill was unknown even to parliamentarians and that even he had managed to obtain a copy of the 12 page document purported to be the changes to the gazetted Bill, from a journalist. Dinesh Gunawardena had chipped in saying that he had seen only a part of it. Prof Peiris had raised the issue of the hurried and ad hoc manner in which this whole process was being conducted and he said that the public should have adequate time to study the new changes proposed after the Bill was gazetted.
The procedure is that when a Bill receives the approval of the Attorney General and the Cabinet, it is gazetted and then tabled in parliament for the first reading. If it is sent to the Supreme Court for review, the Bill is fixed for second reading only after the determination of the Supreme Court is received. After the Bill is read a second time, it is referred to a committee where more amendments can be made. The Bill is taken up again only after the committee tables its report in parliament. The attorney general has to certify that these amendments are in keeping with the Supreme Court determination on the Bill. It is only after this that the Bill is put to a vote. Prof. Peiris had outlined this whole process and raised objections to the fact that amendments were being made on the run to the original gazetted Bill.
He pointed out that some changes were introduced just before the Bill was taken up before the Supreme Court with some of the counsel appearing at the hearings being unaware of what these changes were. After the SC determination is delivered, it goes to the committee stage where more changes were possible and Peiris had warned that all that was required for these changes was the attorney general’s certificate that they were in keeping with the SC determination. While pointing out that the AG represented the government, Peiris had warned that once a Bill becomes law, even the Supreme Court does not have the power to review it. They can only review a Bill before it becomes law. There is much to be said about Prof Peiris’s arguments. This is the constitution – the supreme law of the land – that we are trying to amend – not an ordinary law.
Any attempt to prevent the powers of the executive presidency from being reduced is directly in Maithripala Sirisena’s favour. As of this moment he and the small cohort of political adventurers around him have only one thing in mind – preventing the reduction of presidential powers at all costs. Their very political survival depends upon Sirisena continuing to remain president with full executive powers. Despite this, the question is whether we can blindly vote for a confused piece of legislation like the 19th Amendment which in any case has loopholes that Sirisena can use to retain power in his hands. So the questions raised by Professor G.L.Peiris are certainly valid. The best option would be to take more time and draft a proper Amendment which does not pose the risk of precipitating a constitutional crisis so that all those opposed to the executive presidential system can with a clear conscience unite behind the amendment.
In normal circumstances, anybody would raise the question as to why constitutional reform has to be so rushed and ad hoc when parliament still has one more year to go. But everybody is in a hurry for various reasons. The UNP wants to rush through the constitutional reforms and hold a parliamentary election before they are forced to increase the prices of goods they reduced. They know that they have to capitalize on what they have been able to do before the prices start going up again. Maithripala and his closest cohorts were not in a hurry to hold elections but now even they are in a hurry because of the unfolding situation within the SLFP. Sirisena, CBK and the others who seized control of the SLFP in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat now obviously feel that the longer they delay the more they will lose to the Mahinda faction. The Sirisena faction of the SLFP may not want the 19th Amendment but for public consumption they have to go through the motions of presenting it to parliament before going before the people.
That President Sirisena is rapidly losing control over the SLFP is obvious. The clearest sign of this was the press conference held in parliament on Wednesday where 64 UPFA parliamentarians appeared in person to demand that Dinesh Gunawardena be made the opposition leader instead of Sirisena’s nominee Nimal Siripala de Silva. Since there are only 106 UPFA parliamentarians outside the government, this represents a majority and there was a possibility of more MPs backing Dinesh Gunawardena which means it was only a matter of time until the opposition leader’s position slipped out of the hands of the Sirisena faction. The dissolution of parliament would be a means of heading off this situation. Another crisis that was brewing was the holding of the SLFP May Day rally.
Given the balance of forces in the SLFP, the Sirisena faction would not have been able to hold a successful May Day rally without Mahinda. The ultimate disaster for the SLFP would have been if Mahinda had held a separate May Day rally which undoubtedly would have been many times bigger than the SLFP rally. This too was a looming crisis because the SLFP would have been decimated at a parliamentary election held after a May Day fiasco of that nature. In fact on the very day that CBK was hooted at in Kurunegala and Sirisena mooted a possible dissolution of parliament, SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa went to meet former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Abeyarama temple to personally hand over a letter inviting him for the SLFP May Day rally. At the moment that Yapa arrived, the Abeyarama conference room was jam packed with Southern Provincial Council representatives.
Inviting the former president for the SLFP May Day rally may sound nice in a touchy-feely kind of way, and may on the face of it look as if the crisis in the SLFP can be resolved if Mahinda, CBK and Sirisena appear at the May Day rally together. But things are not as simple as that. If Mahinda appears at the SLFP May Day rally, his supporters will vastly outnumber those of CBK and Sirisena. After the Kurunegala experience, it is almost certain that both CBK and Sirisena will be jeered at the May Day rally. If that happens, their political careers are over. Furthermore if parliament is dissolved in the last week of April, the battle lines between the two factions in the SLFP will be clearly drawn, and Sirisena will be forced to make a clear declaration whether Mahinda is going to be the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate or not. So whichever way Sirisena turns there will be no way to prevent the crisis in the SLFP from coming to a head.
The Tiran Alles escapade
There was high drama in Colombo last Wednesday after media organizations received a press release from the police outlining various allegations against parliamentarian Tiran Alles in relation to his role in a tsunami relief institution called RADA back in 2006. The press release stated that Alles’ passport had been impounded by a magistrate that morning and that two other suspects had been taken into custody. The indications were that Alles too would be arrested. As news of his impending arrest spread, many people including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, SLFP politicians like Mahindananda Aluthgamage, PHU leader Udaya Gammanpila, media institution owners and journalists flocked to see him and express solidarity. The next day, when Alles was called to the Special Investigations Unit, he was accompanied by about 20 UPFA parliamentarians and PC members. The show of force appears to have worked, Alles was not arrested but released after recording a statement.
There are two groups in the present government, the UNP on the one hand and a small coterie of non-UNP politicians around Maithripala Sirisena. The saner partner is definitely the UNP. Both groups in the government were talking about the corruption and malpractices of the Rajapaksa government. The UNP had only just released to the press the contents of a board of inquiry appointed to look into alleged malpractices that had taken place at SriLankan Airlines which was headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother in law Nishantha Wickremasinghe. The Sri Lankan Airlines board of inquiry report was never formally released to the public. Instead, the prime minister’s office had made public the gist of the allegations in a press release. Now when a similarly well written press release from the police department was issued to the media about Tiran Alles, everybody thought that too was orchestrated by the UNP.
The story looked all the more plausible because Alles and his father R.I.T.Alles had a long standing conflict with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a low intensity conflict that goes back into the 1980s. But speaking to the press after giving his statement to the SIU, Alles pinpointed the hand behind the persecution as that of Champika Ranawaka. It was in fact the JHU led outfit, the Anti-Corruption Front that had made the initial complaint that led to the investigation against Alles.
As we write this, news comes in of the decision taken by the SLFP parliamentary group meeting which met on Friday afternoon to discuss what stand they were going to take with regard to the 19th Amendment. The SLFP group once again decided to insist that the 19th amendment should be brought together with electoral reforms. A committee comprising of Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, Professor G.L. Peiris and Dilan Perera was appointed to look into the possibility of the electoral reforms being brought together with the 19th Amendment. Earlier the elections commissioner had put forward a proposal recommending that the number of seats in parliament be increased to 250 to be able to formulate a viable hybrid first-past-the-post and proportional electoral system. The SLFP group was willing to look favourably upon this suggestion.
The elections commissioner had said earlier that the process of delimitation of constituencies could be done quickly if the number of existing constituencies could be retained as it is. He had said that it was more difficult to reduce the number of constituencies than to increase it. Given the position that the SLFP has taken, of the electoral reforms having to be introduced simultaneously with the 19th Amendment there isn’t the slightest possibility of the constitutional Amendment being passed on the 20th of April. The electoral system has not even been formulated as yet let alone having the law drafted. The drafting of the law will in itself be a time consuming task. The decision of the SLFP parliamentary group basically puts paid to all attempts to reduce the powers of the executive presidency. The suspicions that the JVP had been expressing in public about the bona fides of Maithripala Sirisena have now been confirmed.
The plan that Maithripala Sirisena’s group had all along would now be put into action, which is to dissolve parliament, hold fresh elections and to form the next government with MPs from both the SLFP and the UNP on the claim that it was a national government. The law allows the president to appoint any member of parliament as a minister and if there are goodies on offer, there will be plenty of opportunists willing to turn their backs on their party and join the ‘national government’ under President Sirisena. In fact the Sirisena camp expects many UNP parliamentarians to eagerly join their national government. That in fact is a strong possibility because it was the decision making bodies of the UNP that decided to make Maithripala Sirisena the presidential candidate of the UNP. Now their candidate has become president. How can any UNP parliamentarian refuse an invitation to serve in a cabinet headed by their own presidential candidate?
The UNP as a political party is going to rue the day they decided to field common candidates against Mahinda Rajapaksa. By doing so, not only have they managed to get Rajapaksa out, they have also thrown the entire political system into disarray and are now at risk of losing control over their own MPs. There is essentially nothing that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe can do to prevent his MPs from accepting portfolios under Sirisena after the next parliamentary election. In fact if Sirisena seeks to consolidate himself within the UNP, we may see SLFP parliamentarians holding the most important ministries and UNP members given second rate positions. That is a distinct possibility after the next election. As things wind down for the festive season, what we are faced with is nothing less than the mother of all political crises that this country has faced.