As the Maithripala Sirisena government’s self-imposed deadline of April 23 nears, both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are flexing their political muscles as they vie for power at the general elections that could be called as in two weeks’ time.
The SLFP is insisting that it would support the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that seeks to prune the powers of the Executive Presidency only if electoral reforms aimed at combining the first past the post (FPP) system with the proportional representation (PR) system are incorporated into it.
The UNP contends that limiting the powers of the Executive Presidency takes precedence and that electoral reforms can wait until after this election is concluded. It wants parliament dissolved no sooner the 19th Amendment is passed by Parliament – for which it requires the support of the SLFP.
Both parties are attempting to steal a march over the other. The UNP feels it must have elections soon, so as not to lose the momentum generated by the January election of President Sirisena. The SLFP believes an election under the FPP system will enable it to return to power.
There has been a lot of political crosstalk over the issue. In an apparent attempt to end the confusion President Sirisena announced on Thursday that Parliament will be dissolved and a general election will be held soon after 19th Amendment is passed by Parliament, possibly this week.
The amendment itself cleared its first hurdle, albeit with some conditions, being approved by the Supreme Court, also on Thursday. The Court declared that provisions providing the Prime Minister with wide powers over the Cabinet and the allocation of ministries needed approval at a referendum.
The Supreme Court also held that provisions relating to the appointment of a Competent Authority to monitor the media during national elections needed approval at a referendum. It also recommended deleting a clause which said the ‘President was a symbol of national unity’.
The Court rulings will be dissected by legal experts and political pundits in the days to come but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has already responded, stating in Parliament that any clauses requiring approval at a referendum would be deleted.
If the 19th Amendment is approved by Parliament with a two-thirds majority in line with the Court recommendations, it would be a major victory for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, as it will be honoring its main campaign pledge of limiting the powers of the Executive Presidency.
The Court recommendations also provide solace for the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The party vehemently opposed removing all of the powers of the President as he is elected to office. This stance placed Minister Champika Ranawaka in a difficult position as he was also in the Cabinet.
The determination of the Court, which virtually restores the powers the President over the Cabinet, vindicates the JHU stance. It is left to be seen whether the JHU will now change its position vis-à-vis the 19th Amendment and vote for it. Even if it did though, it is the position of the SLFP that is crucial.
There have been several discussions this week between President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is understood that these talks have been aimed at securing the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament for the safe passage of the 19th Amendment.
Whether such a majority is possible is still in doubt. That is because a section of the SLFP is still sticking to its guns and insisting on electoral reforms at the same time. As if to prove its point, it ensured the defeat of laws relating to Treasury Bills in Parliament this week, giving the UNP a jolt.
In addition, a group of sixty parliamentarians, most of them from the SLFP, have submitted a letter to Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa demanding the appointment of Dinesh Gunewardena as Leader of the Opposition. Thus, SLFPers in this group are now openly defying the party leadership.
This is of course, the ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa faction’ of the SLFP. Even if the SLFP hierarchy were to crack the whip and get the party to vote for the 19th Amendment, this group would quite likely vote against it. Hence, a two-thirds majority would have to be secured without the support of this faction.
The President’s strategy to woo some SLFPers with Cabinet portfolios has paid dividends to some extent but it is unlikely that appointing more ministers could win more support because any such portfolio would be short-lived as general elections are due within weeks.
The next week will be a critical juncture in the country’s history and will decide whether the Executive Presidency as we have known it for the past thirty seven years will be retained or modified to strike a balance between the Executive and the Legislature.