Major constitutional changes next week

News Courtesy: Sunday Times

There were two persons in Sri Lanka who could not contest presidential elections, declared President Mahinda Rajapaksa to a United National Party (UNP) delegation which met him at ‘Temple Trees’ last Monday.

One was himself and the other was former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, he said. Both are debarred from going for a third term under existing provisions of the Constitution. “Do you want to give her nomination,” asked UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe somewhat jocularly at the reference to Ms. Kumarartunga. Not to be outdone, shot back Rajapaksa, “I thought you all are looking for a candidate.”

That light-hearted banter came when the UPFA and UNP leaders talked about the proposed constitutional changes. In addition, present was Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem, who has already held two rounds of one-on-one talks with Rajapaksa in Kandy. He also met Rajapaksa when he visited Parliament on August 19. This is besides his talks with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

For Hakeem, there is a big dilemma. At least three of his parliamentarians want to support the constitutional changes and are in favour of joining the government. Does he let them go or does he decide together with them and support the government on the constitutional changes? Just before Iftar (breaking fast after sunset in the holy month of Ramazan), the party’s high command decided they will en masse support the government. They met at ‘Darussalam’, their headquarters at Kompanna Veediya on Friday. Hakeem later addressed a news conference.

He said: The High Command met today and decided to vote in support of the proposed constitutional amendments. Some of the media have reported that we will be joining the government. That is not correct. We have no such idea. I had discussions with the President early this week in Kandy. It was after that, I discussed the matter with the High Command. Our Party has resolved to support the constitutional amendments which were discussed with the President two days back. This is particularly the restriction imposed on a candidate who has been the president twice. The particular provision is to be removed by the constitutional amendment. The other was the alternative scheme instead of the current constitutional council. We have decided to support the amendments. That would mean eight members of the SLMC will vote in support of the amendments.

How will you work in the future?

We will protect the identity of our party. We will protect this identity while taking such important decisions. On various issues, we will take a stand. This would not be a problem to take our own stand. Even in future, it will depend on the situation. During the recent discussions, we have seen this. We do not expect the government to seek our support frequently to obtain the two-thirds majority.

What are the proposals, which were discussed?

Proposals have been put forward by the President on the constitutional amendments. I discussed these with the High Command. Even on devolution of power he (President) has an idea. Regarding the 17th Amendment he has submitted some proposals.

Your party opposed the Executive Presidential system?

It is not only us. Some parties which supported the government also wanted to scrap the Executive Presidential system. In that context, these amendments are contrary to the mandate given by the people.

What about the progress of the opposition (UNP) talks with the President?

We do not see any progress in these talks. If there was some progress in those talks we would have been happy. It would have been good if decisions could be taken collectively. However, politically we have now taken this decision because of the current situation.

This development has come as acute embarrassment and even an indictment on UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Hakeem and his five elected MPs were given nominations to contest the April parliamentary elections on the UNP ticket. In addition, Wickemesinghe named two SLMC members on the UNP National List. The recent Reforms Committee of the party also drew its attention to the UNP’s alliances with minority parties at the expense of its own vote base and said that any coalition pacts with such parties would in future require the approval of the Working Committee. Minority Tamils and Muslims within the UNP, especially the Muslims now are seething with the SLMC riding on the UNP truck to enter Parliament and then supporting the government after getting elected.

Now, the party whip will not apply to a group who are technically UNP parliamentarians. Naturally, other UNP MPs could take the cue, vote in favour of the government and defend themselves quite justifiably. They could easily say what is good for Hakeem is good for them too.

Others from the UNP who took part in talks with Rajapaksa were General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Joseph Michael Perera and Lakshman Kiriella. Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya was away in Kandy and party Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera was in Somawathiya. Kabir Hashim, who was to take part was addressing a seminar. Ministers Basil Rajapaksa, G.L Peris and Susil Premajayantha were associated with the President on behalf of the UPFA.

Rajapaksa was to confirm that he has decided to amend constitutional provisions to contest another term. The Sunday Times of August 15 reported exclusively that the Government was likely to continue with the existing Executive Presidential system instead of creating an Executive Prime Minister. The report said that the change in thinking was the result of advice given by Attorney General Mohan Peiris. He had opined that a change from the executive presidency to an executive prime minister would require a national referendum.

Rajapaksa told last Monday’s meeting with UNP leaders that government parliamentarians wanted the existing system to continue. Basil Rjapaksa explained the background including the workshop for parliamentarians and ministers held in Beruwala early this month. On this occasion, most had wanted Rajapaksa to contest further terms for the presidency and give leadership to the country. Thus, they were not in favour of an office of Executive Prime Minister. “The President should not be a lame duck,” Rajapaksa noted.

Earlier, both President Rajapaksa and UNP leader Wickremesinghe had agreed in principle to create an office of Executive Prime Minister. In fact, Wickremesinghe gave Rajapaksa a six-point note on a proposed Executive Prime Minister system. This is how Wickremesinghe wanted it done:

The executive power of the people including the defence of Sri Lanka shall be exercised by the Prime Minister elected by the people through the Cabinet of Ministers.

2. The Prime Minister shall be elected at the General Election concurrently with the Parliament.

The Prime Minister shall be the head of the Executive and the head of the Government.

The Cabinet of Ministers shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament.

The Prime Minister shall be the head of the Cabinet of Ministers.

6. The present Parliamentary election has ensured a stable majority for the government. The new system that has been discussed will also ensure a stable government. Therefore, the problems of the Israeli system will not apply to Sri Lanka.

In an explanatory note, Wickremasinghe agreed that the Israeli model was not the answer. In 1992 Israel changed its Basic Law to require a direct election of the Prime Minister to be held concurrently with balloting for the Knesset (Parliament). Both elections, he said, were held on the same day. He added: “Article 3 (b) of the Basic Law: The Government: “The Prime Minister serves by virtue of his being elected in the national general elections, to be conducted on a direct, equal and secret basis in compliance with The Election Law (The Knesset and the Prime Minister). Article 13(a) The elected Prime Minister will be the candidate receiving more than half of the valid votes, provided that he is also a Knesset Member. (b) if no one of the candidates receives the number of votes prescribed in Section (a), repeat elections will be held.”

Wickremesinghe noted that the direct election of the Prime Minister was introduced to have a strong government. However, he said “up to date no party has received enough MPs to form a government by itself. The entire country, he pointed out, constitutes one electorate and the members are elected on the PR list system.” While the Prime Ministerial candidates won with large majorities in the direct election, weak coalition governments were formed to obtain majority in the Knesset (Parliament),” he said. He added, “Unfortunately, the Parliamentary election system did not provide a stable 2/3 party system. Neither were the small parties willing to change the Parliamentary system to bring about a stable government. As a result the experiment was abandoned in 2002.”

During talks earlier, Rajapaksa had pointed out that in countries like Israel, a strong government was not possible due to the executive prime ministerial system. Hence, constitutional amendments are to be made to delete article 31 (2) which states: “No person who has been twice elected to the office of the President by the People shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the People.” The deletion of this provision will enable a candidate at a presidential election to contest any number of times.

Rajapaksa also dealt with changes to existing provisions in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. It was to be followed by a briefing by Dr. Peiris. The UNP had wanted these provisions, particularly those with regard to the independent commissions to remain. However, he said that changes would be made. The existing Constitutional Council is to be re modelled on the lines of the Public Service Commission. To be headed by the President, it is to comprise five members from Parliament, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition.

The UNP had wanted a four-member team comprising the President, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker. The Speaker was to use his vote only during situations where there is a deadlock. Joseph Michael Perera, a former Speaker, was to urge Rajapaksa to give in writing the government’s proposals once they are approved by the Cabinet.

In terms of existing provisions of the Constitution, (Article 41A), the Constitutional Council consists of the Prime Minister; the Speaker; the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament; one person appointed by the President on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; one person nominated upon agreement by the majority of the Members of Parliament 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 belongs and appointed by the President.

Rajapaksa was livid about a strongly-worded statement Karu Jayasuriya had issued last week calling upon opposition parties to unite. Jayasuriya said, “I believe that the time is opportune for all Sri Lanka’s political forces who are opposed to the tyrannical course the present regime has set for this country to come together to preserve the future of this nation. That Sri Lanka is in the midst of a crisis is now well understood, by politician and public alike. The euphoria of the war victory can no longer overshadow the grave economic peril, the lawlessness and obvious power hunger of a single family – all direct results of unfettered, unchecked Rajapaksa rule.”

Rajapaksa said Jayasuriya, who was in his cabinet and quit thereafter, was going around saying that he (the President) had used bad language against him. He had claimed that was why he quit. However, the President said the reason was different. He had given 3,000 Grama Sevaka appointments, when he was Minister of Home Affairs and Public Administration in his cabinet, to UNP supporters. He had raised this matter with the Secretary to the Ministry. Jayasuriya, he said, had been miffed by this. The query was raised because UPFA parliamentarians had complained to him.

Wickremesinghe was elated when Rajapaksa mentioned, “you can’t have people throwing out leaders once they are elected.” He cited the case of former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. ickremesinghe was to hurriedly add, “yes, yes, they could not even form a government thereafter. See what happened.”

Basil Rajapaksa was to observe that the UNP lost over 1.5 million votes because of fielding former General Sarath Fonseka. “Oba thumaa thamai vediya arang thiyenney. Eka api piligannawa” (You have gained the highest number of votes. We accept that). He was alluding to the presidential election where Fonseka polled much less than Wickremesinghe during the 2005 poll.

Changes are also to be made in the appointment of other independent bodies including the Elections Commission, the National Police Commission and the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. The only area where there has been some accord during UNP-UPFA talks is on election reforms, particularly with regard to polls to local bodies.

All sides have reached agreement in principle on the re-creation of ward systems in local authority areas. Whilst there will be no preference votes, elections will be a mix of proportional representation and the old British style, the first past-the-post system, which we had earlier. President Rajapaksa told the cabinet at the re-scheduled meeting on Thursday evening, copies of the draft proposals about changes in local authority polls will be circulated to MPs and Ministers.

He said his criteria were to continue to win elections and build public confidence in the UPFA. He called upon them to study these proposals and consult grassroots level organisations to determine their thinking and take into account their suggestions. He has assured that copies would also be given to the UNP for study and observations.

Last Monday’s one-hour long talks between the UPFA-UNP leaders had effectively brought the curtain down on their dialogue. In the final audit, it becomes clear that the UNP gained little and literally groped in the dark. Rajapaksa came out the winner since he could not be accused of not consulting the opposition, however sham a consultation it turned out to be.

Wickremesinghe’s talks on replacing the Executive Presidency with an Executive Prime Minister have come a cropper. The party’s deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya was able to have only one round of talks on changes to the 17th Amendment.

That too, with only Minister Peiris. At the end, they have been able to see eye to eye with the UPFA only on a relatively less important issue, the conduct of local government polls. In this backdrop, Wickremesinghe on Friday named a seven-member committee to plan the party’s strategy for the upcoming local government elections. Headed by Karu Jayasuriya it includes Joesph Michael Perera, Kabeer Hashim, Sajith Premadasa, Vajira Abeywardena, P.Yogarajan and Rosy Senanayake. The futility of the UNP’s exercise is highlighted by its inability to urge the UPFA to place its proposals in advance. This would have helped it not only place the party’s views but also provoke a public discussion.

At Thursday evening’s re-scheduled cabinet meeting, Ministers approved a memorandum by Local Government Minister A.L.M. Athaullah. That was an acceptance of the main outlines of the proposed changes in the local government laws. A detailed document, as Rajapaksa told ministers, is to be circulated.

President Rajapaksa has summoned a special cabinet meeting for Monday. The proposed constitutional changes, which the government wants to seek passage in Parliament as urgent legislation, will be taken up for discussion. Upon approval, it will go before the Supreme Court for scrutiny on whether the new provisions are consistent with the existing provisions of the Constitution. The Government proposes to table the Constitutional amendments in Parliament on Septmeber 8 and take a vote on them the next day. This week, Rajapaksa will also undertake an official tour of the Ratnapura and Badulla districts.

With the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) MPs deciding en masse to support the constitutional amendments, the government would have a comfortable two-thirds majority. The cross-over of two MPs who contested on the UNP ticket, Palani Digambaram (Nuwara Eliya District) and Prabha Ganeshan (Colombo Distrct) has swelled the government ranks to 146. Of this number, 144 MPs were elected during the April parliamentary elections.

In addition, UNP’s Kandy District parliamentarian Abdul Cader is expected to vote in favour. Last Tuesday, Cader arranged an iftar at his Gampola residence. Rajapaksa attended it and was escorted later by Cader to a nearby three-storied mosque where over 2,500 Muslims had gathered for iftar. The President came in for praise after he mingled with the Muslims chatting to them on various matters. Eight votes from the SLMC, which is veering towards supporting the government and Cader’s own vote would bring the UPFA strength to 154, (with the exclusion of the Speaker), four more than the two thirds required.

Adding to the worries of more and more of its parliamentarians deserting ranks is the continuing internecine problems within the UNP. Last Monday, a group of UNP leaders met at the Amerasekera Mawatha (Colombo 5) residence of deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya. They included Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Joseph Michael Perera, Tissa Attanayake, Lakshman Kirella and Kabir Hashim. The purpose was to resolve differences between leader Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa.

The talks began on a serious note after Premadasa accused his leader Wickremesinghe of leaking information to the Political Editor of the Sunday Times. He charged it was Wickremesinghe who had given an account about the one-on-one between the two. Wickremesinghe was quick to say, “We all know who leaked it” and looked at the faces of those present. It prompted party Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera to name a Premadasa loyalist. Both were engaged in a guessing game and neither was right. Even more importantly, the debate was not over the facts reported but who was the cause for it.

There was laughter all round. Premadasa appeared incensed over reportage that he sought the post of deputy leader of the party. As revealed in these columns last week, he told Wickremesinghe that he was more popular than him (Wickremesinghe) at the grassroots level. However, he would accept his leadership and would work as a deputy leader, Premadasa had said.

During that discussion, it has now come to light that Jayasuriya offered to resign his post as Deputy Leader and make way for Premadasa. However, Wickremesinghe has held the view that Jayasuriya need not step down. Later, Premadasa was quoted in sections of the media as saying he would not seek any office now and accused the party leader of leaking information. Premadasa had earlier declared publicly that he would not meet Wickremesinghe alone for a one-on-one meeting. Yet, he chose to do just the opposite when he met him to discuss issues that included an official position for him. On the other hand, Ravi Karunanayake (Colombo North) had insisted that whatever is given to Premadasa should also be given to him.

At last Monday’s discussions, Premadasa insisted that his proposal to enable UNP provincial councillors and local authority members to vote when selecting a leader and other senior positions in the party should be accepted. Wickremesinghe left the meeting before it ended. Now, a section backing Premadasa has come up with yet another proposal to make Wickremsinghe the opposition leader, Jayasuriya the UNP leader and Premadasa as the deputy leader.

Wickremesinghe this week named Mangala Samaraweera (Matara District) to chair a new Message Committee of the UNP. The committee, yet to be named, will be responsible for the party’s propaganda activities and evolving strategy to win the support of those at the grassroots level.

This week’s events should come as another bitter lesson for the UNP leadership. They are unable to resolve their internecine problems. Even worse, their short honeymoon with the UPFA is over. Their role as a worthy opposition is way short of the people’s expectations. And yet, will there be any lessons learnt.