Editorial/Opinion

20A continues to dominate political arena

  • Basil adopts wait-and-see attitude while MR says no retirement
  • SLFP experts’ panel to make proposals to 20th Amendment
  • SJB launches 19A+ campaign to safeguard democracy
  • Ruwan gathers momentum; continues to lead UNP leadership race

The draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution has stolen the spotlight from all other political discussions these days. Clauses of the proposed piece of legislation are being dissected.

One of the key topics has been the return of the all-powerful executive presidency created by the late J.R. Jayewardene in 1978.

However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week addressed the issue of the 20th Amendment by making a statement on the matter.

The President addressed the concerns raised by the Opposition during a meeting with state ministers held at the Presidential Secretariat.

President Rajapaksa said the objective of the 20th Amendment was to remove the obstacles imposed by the 19th Amendment and move forward.

“Everything cannot be changed overnight. It takes a long time. Various views have been expressed. We want to retain some of the features of the 19th Amendment. The primary objective is to keep the tenure of the President unchanged and to move forward,” the President has observed.

Among the other clauses in relation to the 20th Amendment that are commonly discussed, are the possibilities of the Government, led by President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, increasing the number of cabinet and state ministerial portfolios after removing the limits imposed in the 19th Amendment and the removal of the ban imposed on dual citizens entering Parliament.

The rise to speculation on increasing ministerial portfolios was mainly due to several senior governing party parliamentarians not been assigned any portfolios when the new Government assumed office following polls.

However, it is learnt that the Government does not have any immediate plans on increasing the number of ministerial portfolios.

As for the discussion on the clause on enabling dual citizens to enter Parliament, it has been mainly focused on the return of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Founder and former Minister Basil Rajapaksa to Parliament.

Basil’s return was believed to be to eventually replace Premier Rajapaksa, a claim which the Prime Minister has openly denied.

According to the Prime Minister, he has no intention of stepping down from office in a few years.

Meanwhile, Basil also maintains that he has no need to return to Parliament as he is happy in the work he is presently engaged in.

However, Basil noted that the reason to enable the involvement of dual citizens in the government process was mostly aimed at receiving the support of Sri Lankan professionals who currently are serving overseas, but keen on positively contributing to their motherland as well.

“This clause is not about me. We are looking at a broader engagement with the Sri Lankan expatriate community,” he explained.

Therefore, Basil has adopted a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the issue of returning to Parliament while pushing for the ability to obtain the support of Sri Lankan expatriates in nation-building activities in the future.

While the nationalist organisations within the SLPP have objected to the inclusion of dual citizens in the country’s governance system, progressive forces in the Government have expressed support for the move, claiming there was a considerable contribution the Sri Lankan expatriate community could offer to the country.

As for the issue of presidential immunity, it was SLPP Chairman and Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris who had to disentangle the motive behind the 20th Amendment clause.

The “Immunity of president from suit” as proposed in the 20th Amendment is not for the President’s benefit but to provide an uninterrupted service to the people, Prof. Peiris said last Monday (7) at a news conference.

Article 35 (1) of the proposed 20A says: “While any person holds office as President, no proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in any court or tribunal in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him either in his official or private capacity.”

Prof. Peiris had explained that the President would not have time to serve the people effectively, as long as the 19th Amendment prevailed, since the President will have to make appearances in courts.

He had observed that considerable time had to be allocated for courts and court-related matters if cases were filed against the President.

“I know this personally. Before getting elected, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was taken to courts, and had to appear in commissions and special courts established out of usual procedure based on revenge. Will he have to do the same when elected president? If that’s the situation, the time allocated to implement the pledges made in ‘Vistas of Prosperity (and Splendour)’ will be limited. That’s why immunity is needed,” Prof. Peiris had said.

Pole vaulting to return?

However, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is likely to bring about another season of political pole vaults where members from the Opposition would switch allegiance to be on the side that enjoys power.

While rumours of several Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) legislators looking at crossing over to the Government when the 20th Amendment is taken up for debate was making rounds in political circles last week, it had been heightened by comments made by Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage during a parliamentary debate last week.

He had observed that one would be able to witness that a number of SJB members would cross over to the Government during the process of getting the 20th Amendment passed in Parliament.

The Minister had added that the 19th Amendment was introduced in 2015 to make then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe more powerful.

“Wickremesinghe knew he cannot become the executive president of the country. Therefore, he needed a position with power. This is why the 19th Amendment was introduced. It is true that I too voted in favour of the 19th Amendment. We did so because the Yahapalana Government pledged to bring in a 20th Amendment. However, that promise was never kept,” Aluthgamage had said during the debate.

The Government already enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament, leaving no necessity for any members of the Opposition to join government ranks.

Nevertheless, going by Aluthgamage’s words, it seems like the Government is looking at getting the 20th Amendment passed with a two-thirds-plus majority in the House.

SLFP conundrum

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) politburo met on Tuesday night under the patronage of Party Leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena at his official residence at Mahagamasekara Mawatha, Colombo 7.

The meeting was aimed at discussing the draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

After discussing the pros and cons of the proposed piece of legislation, it was agreed in principle that there were certain changes that are required to be made to the Constitution. However, several politburo members had raised concerns about whether the clauses in the current draft 20th Amendment were acceptable in its present form or needed to be re-evaluated.

During the discussion on the 20th Amendment, the politburo members have also expressed concerns over the party’s plight, given that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was formulated and implemented during the time of the Government led by Sirisena while the SLFP were stakeholders.

The SLFPers in Parliament at the time voted in favour of the 19th Amendment and now to vote for its repealing and implementation of the 20th Amendment could make it difficult for the SLFP legislators to save face before members of their constituencies.

Therefore, the SLFP politburo decided that the party should formulate a balanced stance that could reason out the party members’ previous decisions to support the 19th Amendment and now to repeal it.

The politburo had decided that an expert committee be appointed to look into the proposed constitutional amendment and submit recommendations to the SLFP politburo.

Senior SLFP sources said the party, which is a key stakeholder of the Government, expects its proposals to the 20th Amendment to be incorporated in the draft piece of legislation during the committee stage of the debate in Parliament.

The SLFP politburo has discussed that there were several clauses in the 20th Amendment that required further scrutiny.

The SLFP’s expert committee is to comprise SLFP parliamentarians and non-political professionals.

The SLFP politburo had also discussed the reorganisation of the party and the party’s preparedness for the impending provincial council elections.

The SLFP Youth Wing had also submitted a report on its future activities.

SJB opts for 19A+

The main Opposition SJB, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, last week announced that the party would launch an agitation campaign against the 20th Amendment by pushing for a 19th Amendment plus.

SJB ally, Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader Mano Ganesan, who earlier expressed interest in participating in the Government’s constitutional reforms process, last week said that there were certain aspects of the 20th Amendment that were difficult to agree with.

He had said that there are some aspects of the 20th Amendment that he didn’t agree with, but noted that there was nothing wrong in the clause that permits dual citizens to enter Parliament.

According to Ganesan, it was not in contravention to the TPA’s policies.

Referring to the rumour that the Government was repealing the clause that banned dual citizens from entering Parliament in the 19th Amendment to accommodate Basil Rajapaksa, Ganesan had noted that there was nothing wrong in Basil returning to Parliament.

He had explained that since Basil already plays a key role in the country’s governance process from outside Parliament, there was nothing wrong in him returning to Parliament and carrying out governance work more openly.

It is in this backdrop that the SJB parliamentary group last Monday (7) unanimously adopted a motion to defeat the proposed 20th Amendment in Parliament.

The SJB parliamentary group met under the patronage of Opposition Leader Premadasa.

The resolution was proposed by SJB Matara District MP Buddhika Pathirana and was seconded by Kurunegala District MP Ashok Abeysinghe.

The parliamentary group also decided to hold an agitation campaign against the proposed piece of legislation near the statue of the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera near Parliament.

Meanwhile, the SJB led by Premadasa held a meeting with media heads last Tuesday (8) morning.

During the meeting, Premadasa had said that while strongly opposing the proposed 20th Amendment, the party would work towards 19A+.

He had also noted that there will be a strong emphasis on national security.

According to Premadasa, the proposed 20th Amendment was a “death blow” to democracy.

He had further explained that the global trend at present was to move towards decentralisation and the consolidation of the separation of powers among the different sectors of the Government, while the new piece of legislation proposed by the Government would concentrate power in one person.

The SJB had appointed a committee headed by MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne to gather more democratic forces in the country to defeat the 20th Amendment.

The SJB is also looking at presenting an alternative to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which Premadasa claims would address the weaknesses in the piece of legislation implemented by the Yahapalana Government, of which he too was a member.

It is this alternative that would be promoted by the SJB in the coming days as 19A+

According to Premadasa, 19A+ will give prominence to national security with the intention of ensuring a sovereign and unitary country while strengthening the independent institutions and providing the necessary human resources for its successful functioning.

As for the conflict created between the President and Prime Minister during the former Government caused by the 19th Amendment, the Opposition Leader had noted that all attempts needed to be made to ensure that legislation should not be formulated based on individuals or targeting individuals.

The 19A+ focus therefore is expected to lay on strengthening institutions based on policies and principles and not based on personalities.

Meanwhile, Dr. Senaratne had piped in saying that the 19th Amendment came about due to the initiative taken by late Ven. Sobitha Thera in 2015.

He had said that the SJB would stand for the positive features of the 19th Amendment while acknowledging the shortcomings in the piece of legislation that could be addressed in order to strengthen the democratic institutions in the country.

UNP against 20A

Meanwhile, the onetime main Opposition party, the UNP, is also opposed to the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

UNP Deputy General Secretary Ruwan Wijewardene said the party and its members will fight against the new piece of legislation as it as an attack on democracy.

He noted that the Yahapalana Government had managed to take several positive steps to ensure the democratic rights of the people through the 19th Amendment and the people should therefore stand together to ensure that these democratic rights are safeguarded and further strengthened.

Another UNP senior said that the party was exploring the possibilities of legally challenging the proposed 20th Amendment.

However, with the UNP’s main focus being laid on the leadership change, all other issues including the 20th Amendment seem to have been put on the back-burner.

UNP leadership

As for the UNP leadership issue, this week is expected to see a positive change with the party’s Working Committee (WC) expected to make a final call on the new leader.

“The issues that arose with several ministers of the UNP contesting for leadership will be solved through discussions this week,” he told The Sunday Morning.

The UNP WC is scheduled to meet tomorrow (14) to discuss and finalise the new leader.

However, last Tuesday (8) saw a decisive meeting take place between UNP seniors on the issue of the next party leader.

A meeting chaired by Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was called at the party headquarters, Sirikotha, and among those who had attended the meeting were former MPs Ravi Karunanayake, Arjuna Ranatunga, Navin Dissanayake, and Ruwan Wijewardene. Former MPs Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Vajira Abeywardena had not been present at the meeting.

Since two of the contenders for the post of UNP leader were not present at the meeting, it had been decided to postpone the discussion on the party leadership to the following Monday (tomorrow).

However, once Wickremesinghe had said to postpone the discussion till this week, the frontrunners to the leadership post who had attended the meeting had sat down for a discussion.

It is learnt that Karunanayake, Ranatunga, Dissanayake, and Wijewardene had held a lengthy discussion on the new leader of the UNP and the need to resolve the issue amicably without creating a division within the UNP.

However, after discussing the party’s future and the leadership issue, the meeting had concluded without any positive outcome.

It is nevertheless evident that Wijewardene is the popular choice of the UNP youth, who have continuously been calling on him to take the reins of the party.

Wijewardene, for his part, had also been travelling around the country meeting with the youth and religious leaders to galvanise support for his political journey.

Meanwhile, Wijewardene, issuing a statement on the occasion of the party’s 74th anniversary last weekend, said: “We have to stand up amidst destruction and defeat. It is obvious that one could meet a precipice once he or she reaches the top of a mountain. We fall into a precipice if we are too weak to stay on top of the mountain. We have suffered such a fate today.

“It is essential that the party should understand its errors and come up once again. It is also essential to unite all sections within the party and walk towards victory. This should be done to safeguard the county’s democracy, for the sake of the working class, for the people whose minds are distorted by gimmicks. However, people will embrace reality soon. We should be ready for the final battle as that happens. The time has come for us to get together.”

He had further noted in the statement: “The pro-people programmes which the UNP has undertaken in the past should not be confined into a document. Its journey which continues amidst conspiracies and obstacles will not end. We have been forced to light the torches of expectation in a situation when there is an administration which suppresses the rights of the people which we won for them.”

Wijewardene had also recalled that the UNP was able to introduce programmes such as Enterprise Sri Lanka, Suwa Seriya, Gamperaliya, and Langama Pasala Hondama Pasala and was able to reduce the prices of 50 medicines.

SJB-UNP

Several SJB seniors continue to express their keenness in forming an alliance with the UNP.

However, SJB National Organiser MP Tissa Attanayake said that their party was still waiting for the UNP leader to be appointed in order to commence a dialogue on forming an alliance.

“We are waiting for the leader to be appointed to begin discussions. How can we begin talks without them having a leader?”

Attanayake further denied that any official talks had begun.

“No talks on any level have started with the UNP,” he said.