By P. K. Balachandran
Colombo, September 3 (Daily Express): The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led government is short of about three MPs for repealing the 19th Amendment (19A) and replacing it with the 20th Amendment (20A).
The ruling party now has an effective strength of 149 in the 225-member House. But it needs 150 to pass the amendment with the required two thirds majority. And to be on the safe side (to provide for absentees or last minute rebels) the government has to have at least 152, three more than now.
The question now is: how will it get the three or more MPs? The Tamil parties in the opposition will not give a helping hand, as they are strong supporters of the 19A, which curbs the powers of the Executive President who is invariably a representative of the Sinhala majority. The Muslim parties, which are ever willing to support, are not welcome. The government is pledged not to take the help of the Muslim parties, branded as perniciously communal and a political embarrassment. Among them Rishad Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress is completely taboo.
Therefore, the government is left with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa. The extra MPs will necessarily have to come from the SJB. With the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa firmly in the saddle for the next five years, joining the government side may be an attractive proposition for some SJB MPs who share the government’s nationalistic policies. Further, Premadasa may not be able to give the SJB the kind of leadership and image needed to reactivate the traditional constituency of the United National Party (UNP) of which the SJB is but an offshoot. Switching over to the SLPP citing the “need of the hour” could make sense to some SJB MPs.
It is said that Basil Rajapaksa, SLPP’s ace political organizer, is on the job to get the required numbers.
After a draft 20A is approved by the Cabinet, it will be presented to Parliament for a debate. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said that since the issues are complex, the draft will be debated thoroughly. SLPP sources said, this time round the amendment will be very carefully crafted, unlike the 19A, which was rushed through unmindful of the glaring inconsistencies.
The government has said some aspects of the 19A will find a place in the 20A, like the two-term limit for the presidency and provision for independent commissions. But some others will go. For example, the President would be able to hold any cabinet portfolio, especially the defence portfolio. The SLPP believe a person who holds the presidency, directly elected and armed with a popular mandate, should be able to direct the executive arm of the State as per his popular mandate. And as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and with power to declare war, he should be able to control the defence ministry as defence minister.
The 19A’s ban on dual citizens holding political office will also be lifted as the ban is tantamount to abridging a citizen’s rights. Its lifting will enable active political workers like Basil Rajapaksa to contest elections or join governments as ministers. The 19A had imposed the ban with a malafide intention of keeping Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa (both US-Lankan dual citizens) out of the electoral arena.
The government has promised the independent commissions will remain but their “independence” will be “ensured” by appropriate provisions in the 20A.
Rambukwella pointed out the independent commissions are hardly independent as they are not non-political. For example, the Constitutional Council (CC)consists of the (a) the Prime Minister;(b) the Speaker;(c) the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament;(d) one MP appointed by the President;(e) five persons appointed by the President, on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of whom two persons shall be MPs and(f) one MP nominated by agreement of the majority of the MPs belonging to political parties or independent groups, other than the respective political parties or independent groups to which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belong. Finally, the Speaker shall be the Chairman of the CC.
This utterly political body masquerading as an independent one, has over-riding power over the elected president. The 19A says the President shall, within fourteen days of the receipt of a written communication specifying nominations, make the appointments. In the event of the President failing to make the necessary appointments within such period, the persons nominated shall be deemed to have been appointed as members of the Council. So much for the powers of the directly elected Executive President.
On the dissolution of Parliament, the Speaker, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and MPs shall continue to hold office as members of the Constitutional Council, until a new Parliament is established. Every member of the Council shall hold office for three years.
The 20A is likely to allow the president to dissolve Parliament and order fresh elections when a stable government cannot be formed. As of now, Parliament cannot be dissolved before four and a half years unless Parliament itself votes for its dissolution by two-thirds majority.
The government might also amend the Removal of Officers (Procedure) Act No. 5 OF 2002, which makes it very difficult to remove the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police. Removal is the privilege of Parliament, and it has to go through an elaborate procedure to remove these officers. Sri Lanka has been having an Acting Inspector General of Police since last year, as IGP Pujith Jayasundara, now in detention, could not be sacked despite allegations that he had been negligent in attending to intelligent inputs about the plans of Zahran and his gang of terrorists.
For the Rajapaksas this is the only chance to bring about a change in the system. But it may not be a cakewalk for them.