By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, June 16: Since the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, every Sri Lankan President had come to power with a promise to abolish the overly powerful Executive Presidency and usher in a system to give more powers to parliament approximating the British Westminster model.
But the very same persons, from President Chandrika Kumaratuga onwards, have not only failed to shed power but have sought additional powers and privileges.
According to reports on Sunday, the incumbent President, Maithripala Sirisena, is planning to hold a referendum to ask the people whether parliamentary polls should precede the next Presidential election due at the end of this year.
According to the Joint Opposition (JO) MP, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, this is nothing but a move to postpone the Presidential election. Abeygunawardena warned that the JO would oppose, tooth and nail, any bid to postpone the Presidential election.
Sirisena’s bid to postpone the Presidential election and hold the parliamentary elections first, stems from his need to have an amenable parliament and Prime Minister for the next few months to fulfill his political and economic agenda so that he could seek re-election.
Sirisena has been at odds with the parliament dominated by the United National Party (UNP) and its allies, and a Council of Ministers headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The clash has been on a variety of political, economic and foreign policy issues.
The latest issue is the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the April 21 multiple suicide blasts and making its proceedings public.
Given the fact that most of the high security officials have blamed him for the security lapses, and also the fact that vital State secrets were being exposed by these public hearings, Sirisena has demanded an end to the proceedings of the PSC. He even threatened not to hold cabinet meetings if the PSC continued to exist. He did not call a cabinet meeting last Tuesday, its due date.
On the other hand, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya argued that the President has no right to make such a demand as constituting a PSC is parliament’s prerogative. Also, the President cannot prevent officials from testifying before the PSC. Therefore, the Speaker allowed th PSC to proceed with its work as usual.
The next move by the President and the Speaker in this matter will be known only after the return of the President from Tajikistan and the Prime Minister from Singapore in the next few days.
There will be a constitutional breakdown if the matter is not resolved within days. Opposition MP Rohitha Abeygunawardena has already warned that “there will be chaos in parliament” on Tuesday June 18, if the cabinet meeting is not held as per practice on that day.
In early April, Dayasiri Jayasekara, General Secretary of Sirisena’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) said that the party would seek the Supreme Court’s opinion on extending the term of President Sirisena by six months.
Though Jayasekara couched the demand in legal terms, it was obvious that Sirisena wanted to hang on to office for six more months to increase his political clout and make a bid for a second term.
Stating the legal case for an extension, Jayasekara said: “The Supreme Court was previously questioned whether the President’s term of office is five or six years. It has been decided that the term is five years. The problem now is, when does that five year term begin and end?. The constitution clearly states that a bill comes into effect only after the Speaker has granted approval to it. The Speaker had signed the 19th amendment to the Constitution on the June 22, 2015. Therefore, the 19 th. Amendment ,which brought down the term of the President from six to five years, came into effect on June 22, 2015. Therefore, the term of President Sirisena should begin on June 22, 2015, and come to an end in June 2020 and not in December 2019.”
“Further, Sirisena was elected in January 2015 for a six year term, before the 19 th.Amendment was passed. And the 19 th.Amendment cannot be applied retrospectively. So the 19 th.Amendment does not apply to him as he predates the amendment.”
However, the Supreme Court was not approached on this matter probably because of the confusion, tension and instability created by the April 21 suicide bombings in which 259 died.
October 28 Presidential Coup
In October 2018, President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Joint Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. By doing so, he had disregarded the 19 th. Amendment which clearly states that the President has no power to remove the Prime Minister so long as he has majority support in parliament. The Prime Minister will go only when he resigns or ceases to be a Member of Parliament.
Following court orders, Sirisena ate humble pie and re-appointed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The 19 th.Amendment also says that the President cannot sack Ministers unless recommended by the Prime Minister and that the cabinet remains in office unless the government is voted out in a No Confidence Motion, loses the vote on an Appropriation or the government’s address on policy.
Rajapaksa’s Bid For Extension
When Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, he brought in the 18 th.Amendment of the constitution in September 2010 after he won the Presidential and parliamentary elections handsomely earlier that year.
The 18 th. Amendment removed the two-term cap on Presidents and enabled him to contest the next election which was due in 2016.
He advanced the election by an year and held it in January 2015. But he lost both the Presidential and parliamentary elections in that year. In June 2015, The new government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe got parliament to pass the 19 th.Amendment which not only put back the two-term cap but reduced the Presidential term from six to five years.
Through former Minister G.L.Peires and former Chief Justice the Rajapaksa group is now arguing that the two-year cap does not apply to Rajapaksa as the 19 th.Amendment cannot be applied retrospectively. It applies only to an “incumbent” President and Rajapaksa is not the incumbent President.
Kumaratunga’s Bid For Extension
In 2005, Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, tried to get an year’s extension of her term on the grounds that her second term begins not on the day she was sworn-in after the Presidential election in November 1999, but when her first six year term ends in December 2006.
Kumaratunga assumed office for the first time in November 1994 for a six year term, which would end in November 2000 and not November 1999. She had a second oath-taking ceremony in November 2000 to make that date the beginning of her second term.
But Rajapaksa challenged it and the Supreme Court ruled that her second term would end in November 2005 and a year later in 2006.
Jayewardene’s Parliament Extension
In December 1982, President J.R.Jayewardene held a referendum to extended the life of parliament by six years to 1989, without an election.
His argument was that elections would hinder government’s ability to tackle what he described as the “Naxalite menace” and carry out his new Open Economy policy.
The life of the parliament elected in 1977 was due to end in August 1983 but it lasted till 1989.
The referendum was marked by violence, intimidation and fraud. But Jayewardene succeeded in grabbing more power, unlike his successors whose efforts failed miserably.
(The featured image at the top shows incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena making a point forcefully)