Editorial/Opinion

GR sets agenda for 2020

  • 15 Jan. deadline to resolve UNP crisis; WC appointments this week
  • UNF to support GR; adjournment debate on policies to avoid vote
  • SLFP prepares for polls; discussion on alliance symbol continues

The black box by Capt. Vasabha -“We must establish an honourable governance that will allow this country to maintain its sovereignty, security, national pride, and deal with all nations on equal terms, without demonstrating weakness in our diplomatic or trading relationships,” said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, delivering the throne speech at the inauguration of the fourth session of the eighth Parliament last Friday (3).

President Rajapaksa became the first executive president of the country to address Parliament not having served as a legislator before being elected to office. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as a legislator for a few months before being elected to the office of executive president in 1994.

Rajapaksa, since assuming office last November, has managed to maintain the functions of his office as pledged during the election campaign. The President has given priority to simplicity, which he has been demonstrating from his swearing-in ceremony.

However, as for the inaugural session of Parliament, it was the first time in the country’s history that a head of state had turned down all pomp and pageantry involved in the ceremonial opening of Parliament. It was a refreshing sight to see the President’s small motorcade making its way towards the entrance of Parliament.

Rajapaksa even left former President Maithripala Sirisena, who played the card of being a simple leader, blushing with his true simplistic approach. Also, President Rajapaksa’s brother, former President and incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa could also learn a lesson on being a true people’s leader.

In fact, the President attending the New Year celebrations at the Presidential Secretariat last Wednesday (1) had expressed his simplicity even then. After wishing the staff at the secretariat for the New Year, Rajapaksa had stood in line with the rest of the staff members to serve himself some kiribath that was laid out on the breakfast table.

When serving himself, the President had asked some of the staff members whether the katta sambol contained any Maldive fish.

Be that as it may, delivering the throne speech on Friday, Rajapaksa outlined his not so simplistic vision and mission for the country.

However, the statements that caught the attention of most of legislators was when Rajapaksa said: “The success of a democracy rests upon the Constitution. The 1978 Constitution, which has since been amended on 19 occasions, has given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions.”

He went on to say: “In order to safeguard the security, sovereignty, stability, and integrity of our country, it is essential that changes be made to the existing Constitution.

“Whilst preserving the positive characteristics of the proportional representation system, electoral reforms are needed to ensure the stability of the Parliament and to ensure the direct representation of the people.

“Even though elections can be won through numbers, an unstable Parliament that cannot take clear decisions and remains constantly under the influence of extremism is not one that suits the country.

“We can solve this problem through constitutional reforms that will establish a strong executive, legislature, and an independent judiciary that can ensure the sovereignty of the people,” he added.

Listening to these statements, political circles were abuzz trying to figure out whether the President had already set his plan in motion through a proxy without depending on the backing of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Calculated move

A few days before the President’s throne speech in Parliament, Colombo District MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe announced his plans to move two constitutional amendments in the form of private members’ motions. The two draft pieces of legislation were identified as the 21st and 22nd Constitutional Amendments. The two proposals deal with the appointment of members of Parliament and the powers of the president.

MP Rajapakshe had presented them as private member bills.

The Government Printer had published the proposals presented by Rajapakshe as the 21st and 22nd Amendments to the Constitution and they can be presented to Parliament by the MP in a fortnight.

Accordingly, the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution, published on 30 December had outlined an amendment to subparagraph (a) of paragraph (6) of Article 99 of the Constitution.

The respective article currently stated that a minimum of 5% of the total votes polled should be secured by a recognised political party or independent group for a candidate from that party to be elected to the legislature.

Article 99 of the Constitution says: “Every recognised political party and independent group polling less than one-twentieth of the total votes polled at any election in any electoral district shall be disqualified from having any candidates of such party or group being elected for that electoral district.”

However, Rajapakshe had proposed to increase this limit to 12.5% of the total votes polled in any electorate.

In the proposed 22nd Constitutional Amendment, the MP had outlined the strengthening of certain powers of the president.

The president, according to the current Constitution, has to receive the approval of the Constitutional Council for appointments made by him to the positions of Chief Justice, Supreme Court Judges, Judge of the Court of Appeal, and the Judicial Service Commission, including the Chairman.

The proposed 22nd Amendment permits the president to appoint judges after “ascertaining the views of the Judicial Services Commission” and the president would not require the approval of the Constitutional Council for appointments to senior courts.

The draft amendment had also proposed that powers be vested with the president to remove members of the Judicial Service Commission without seeking the approval of the Constitutional Council.

The president, at present, requires approval from the Constitutional Council for his nominations to the posts of Attorney General, Auditor General, Inspector General of Police, Commissioner of Parliamentary Affairs, and the Secretary General of Parliament. However, the proposed amendment permits the president to make appointments to such posts by ascertaining the views of the prime minister.

The 22nd Amendment also proposed that “the president shall hold the Ministry of Defence and any other ministry”.

Speaking of the proposed 21st Constitutional Amendment, Rajapakshe, who supported President Rajapaksa at the last presidential election despite being a United National Front (UNF) MP, had said the current law related to the electoral process was introduced in 1988 by the late President R. Premadasa to appease Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader, the late M.H.M. Ashraff.

The late President Premadasa had then introduced the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

“Before that, the 12.5% cut-off point was mandatory. I am seeking to re-introduce it,” he had told the media.

The current electoral system has given much power to minor/minority political parties, especially when forming a majority power in Parliament.

In the event a main political party secures about 100 or 105 seats at the general election, the respective party is unable to form a government without the required 113-seat majority in the House. It is the minority political parties that hold the final word and play the role of “kingmakers” in providing the remaining numbers to form the 113 majority in Parliament.

Objections

As expected, the proposed constitutional amendments, especially the 21st Constitutional Amendment has earned the wrath of minor political parties in Parliament.

JVP Propaganda Secretary MP Vijitha Herath had noted that the move to table a bill in Parliament to give President Rajapaksa access to powers taken away by the 19th Amendment was detrimental to the country’s democracy.

“We view this as an opportunistic political move. We would like to know whether these proposals are for Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s personal interest or the Government’s. The Government should explain its stand on the matter to the country,” Herath told a news conference held at the JVP headquarters last week.

Referring to the proposed 21st Amendment, the JVP MP had said it would restrict the representation of smaller parties entering Parliament and that it would only strengthen the two main parties while reducing representation of minorities and moderates of the Sinhalese community as well.

As for the proposed 22nd Amendment, Hearth had said it would be equal to the 18th Amendment as it would undermine the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions that operate under it.

Meanwhile, SLMC General Secretary Nizam Kariyapper had told the media that he could not comprehend why Rajapakshe, who is an expert in law, had presented these amendments.

He had noted that the amendments not only limits democratic freedom and rights but also vests unlimited power with the executive presidency.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had maintained that it needed more time to study the proposed pieces of legislation and had refrained from making any comments.

Given the ongoing debate over the proposed constitutional amendments and the President’s vision of amending the Constitution while also making changes to the existing electoral process, the next few parliamentary sessions would be quite interesting to watch.

Interestingly, members of the Government, especially the SLPP, are disgruntled since Rajapakshe’s proposed amendments have caught them off guard. SLPP party leaders have called for a discussion on the proposed amendments and the proposal to vest more powers with the executive president has not been taken kindly by loyalists of the Prime Minister.

Seating arrangements

However, the House was an interesting place to observe at the opening session with new seating arrangements in place.

UNF MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, who was arrested over his alleged involvement in the “white van” press conference and later released, was not present in Parliament on Friday. It was said that he was unable to attend sessions as he was still recuperating in hospital.

However, UNF MP Patali Champika Ranawaka, who was also arrested recently over his alleged involvement in a road accident in 2006 and later released, attended the opening sessions. Ranawaka was assigned a front row seat on the Opposition side.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) senior MP Kumara Welgama was assigned a seat in the second row on the Opposition side.

Meanwhile, UNF MPs Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera and Wasantha Senanayake were assigned seats on the Government side. Ven. Rathana Thera was seated in a front row seat on the Government side.

Despite some media reports that the rift between United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had resulted in the former refusing to sit near Premadasa, the two leaders were seen sitting in close proximity to each other on Friday.

Premadasa was assigned the eighth seat in the front row on the Opposition side, which is the seat allocated for the Opposition Leader while Party Leader and former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was assigned the ninth seat in the Opposition’s front row.

On Premadasa’s right hand side, which is the seventh seat, was MP Gayantha Karunatileka, who is the Chief Opposition Whip.

On the Government side, the seventh front row seat is occupied by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa while the sixth seat is assigned to Leader of the House Minister Dinesh Gunawardena; the fifth is allocated to Chief Government Whip Minister Johnston Fernando.

Meanwhile, the most interesting seating arrangement was witnessed when MP Waruna Priyantha Liyanage, who was sworn in to fill the vacant seat of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Ratnapura District MP, the late Ranjith Soyza, joined the Opposition ranks.

Liyanage crossed over to the Opposition after being sworn in on Friday.

MP Liyanage, delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, criticised the constitutional crisis and noted that the anti-constitutional moves of the UPFA had motivated him to join the Opposition.

“I must say that I have no issues with MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, but I took a different decision having witnessed the anti-democratic behaviour of Opposition lawmakers before the last election. However, I will not do politics in a place where anti-constitutional forces are active. So, I stood for the UNP and took a seat in the Opposition, to support the new Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa,” he said, explaining the reasons for his crossover.

Supporting GR

Meanwhile, the UNF parliamentary group that met on Thursday (2) decided not to object to the President’s throne speech and to extend Opposition support to the progressive steps proposed by the Government for the betterment of the country.

Several UNF MPs said after the meeting that it was decided that support will be extended to the Government in fulfilling the pledges which President Rajapaksa made in his manifesto.

“We have decided to support the Government in implementing pledges such as providing fertiliser free of charge to paddy farmers and reduction of taxes,” several UNP MPs had said.

When some members of the UNP had proposed to defeat the President’s throne speech since the Government was engaged in a witch-hunt against members of the Opposition, UNP Leader Wickremesinghe had explained that it was not appropriate to do so. He had said that the throne speech had not been challenged since 1977.

“The Governor of Ceylon earlier delivered the throne speech on behalf of the Queen, but now it is a speech delivered by the President and it is not appropriate to do so,” the UNP Leader said, adding that without challenging the President’s speech, the UNP could discuss all other issues in Parliament.

Meanwhile, MP Dr. Harsha de Silva had tweeted saying that Sajith Premadasa addressed the MPs for the first time as the Leader of the Opposition at the group meeting.

Premadasa had pledged to build a strong Opposition which would play a constructive role in safeguarding democracy and to also strengthen the powers of the legislature.

Convening the meeting of the UNF’s parliamentary group last Thursday, Wickremesinghe had said: “The meeting today will be chaired by the Opposition Leader.”

Premadasa had responded saying: “No sir, you go ahead.”

“No. Let’s start our work. Sajith, you go ahead,” Wickremesinghe had added.

The first statement made by Premadasa was of Karunatileka’s appointment as the Chief Opposition Whip.

MPs Ranjith Aluvihare, J.C. Alawathuwala, and Ajith P. Perera were named as Deputy Opposition Whips. Additional whips were also named – MPs Ashu Marasinghe, Hector Appuhamy, and Sydney Jayaratne.

During the meeting, members of the parliamentary group had expressed opinions about the UNPers who had been politically victimised. The meeting had ended on a positive note with all MPs discussing the need to strengthen the UNF’s role as an opposition force.

Resolving crisis

The UNP last week also held several discussions on resolving the ongoing internal crisis.

Several meetings were held last Monday (30 December).

The meetings were convened soon after Wickremesinghe returned to the country after a vacation in Ooty, India.

A group of 12 parliamentarians were summoned by Wickremesinghe for the meeting scheduled at 11 a.m. on Monday at the party headquarters, Sirikotha.

The discussion had focused on how to transform the party into becoming an acceptable one for all party members.

However, all members participating in the meeting had agreed that the UNP needed a new look.

In order to resolve the existing crisis, the pro-Wickremesinghe group had proposed the appointment of a moderator to ensure the resolution of the ongoing crisis.

The method proposed was the formation of a national committee that would be chaired by Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya.

However, the pro-Premadasa faction had not agreed to the proposal, claiming the whole pound of flesh.

They had demanded that Premadasa be appointed as Party Leader.

Nevertheless, the Premadasa camp was stumped when asked how they could justify Premadasa’s defeat at the presidential election by taking the party’s candidacy by force, claiming mass support.

Another meeting was held at 6 p.m. that evening with party leaders of the UNF at Wickremesinghe’s 5th Lane residence in Colombo. The party leaders had also noted the same concerns that were discussed at the meeting held with a group of UNP MPs earlier that day.

The party leaders had underscored the need for a quick resolution of the UNP crisis and the need for proposer reforms to take place in the party.

Meanwhile, former UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake had also met with Premadasa and discussed the need to resolve the party’s internal crisis.

Attanayake had requested Premadasa to meet with Wickremesinghe for a one-on-one discussion on the existing issues and resolve all contentious issues. The former UNP office bearer had said that the best solution to address the issue was for Premadasa and Wickremesinghe to have a direct conversation without allowing second and third parties to carry out discussions.

Attanayake had also proposed the same to Wickremesinghe via telephone.

Setting a deadline

Despite the many discussions that had taken place on resolving the UNP crisis, both the Wickremesinghe and Premadasa camps had set 15 January as the deadline to resolve the issues in order to gear up for the general election.

Also, the constitution of the new Working Committee (WC) of the UNP is to take place this week.

The UNP WC consists 96 members out of which the party leader appoints 20 members. The five office bearers – chairman, deputy leader, general secretary, assistant leader, and national organiser – are included in the WC. The remaining 71 members are appointed by the five office bearers.

Therefore, the office bearers are to meet this week to decide on the 71 members.

Preparing for polls

Meanwhile, the SLFP is to convene a meeting of its organisers on Tuesday (7) at 9 a.m. at the party headquarters to discuss preparations for the upcoming general election. The meeting is to be chaired by SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena.

The discussion is to focus on the proposed alliance between the SLFP and SLPP – Sri Lanka Freedom People’s Alliance (SLFPA) – which will be the electoral front for both parties at the upcoming general election.

However, there is now an ongoing debate over the symbol of the proposed alliance with the SLFP maintaining that the symbol should be the “chair,” which both parties had agreed upon when signing the memorandum of understanding (MoU) last November, and the SLPP claiming that the matter of the alliance symbol was still an open discussion since a final agreement had not been reached on the subject.

Nevertheless, the SLFP organisers’ meeting on Tuesday is expected to take up the issue of the proposed alliance symbol as well.

Last month, President Rajapaksa told media heads that while the SLFP and SLPP would contest as an alliance at the upcoming polls, a final consensus had not yet been reached between the two parties on the symbol. He added that the MoU signed by the SLFP and SLPP did not contain any details about the alliance symbol.

The SLPP meanwhile had decided to field a host of new individuals at the 2020 general election.

A senior SLPP member said that the party was looking at fielding around 100 new faces at the elections, consisting of intellectuals, professionals, youth, and women. The programme is being backed by the President and the new faces are currently being identified at district level.

Modernising the kurahan satakaya

The iconic kurahan satakaya (maroon-brick brown shawl) adorned by the Rajapaksa family for several decades has now been given a modern look by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The President has opted to don Western attire, contrary to the national kit worn by his siblings for official events, and has refrained from wearing the kurahan satakaya.

President Rajapaksa, who has pledged a new country and a modernised one that would be geared to meet the challenges of the future, has opted to wear a tie that is of the same colour as the kurahan satakaya.

Delivering the throne speech at the opening of the fourth session of the eighth Parliament, the President said: “From the first day, the honourable D.M. Rajapaksa, known as the Lion of Ruhuna, appeared in the State Council, he wore a maroon-coloured shawl. What he symbolised through this maroon shawl was the millet farmers of Giruvapaththuwa.”

He further noted: “Following D.M. Rajapaksa, my father D.A. Rajapaksa and each member of the Rajapaksa family who was elected to Parliament, wore the maroon shawl. Even though I do not wear this shawl, I stand for the same profound philosophy of constant dedication to the poor that is symbolised by the maroon shawl. It is this same philosophy that is embodied in the policy statement I presented during my presidential election campaign.”

However, the origin of the kurahan satakaya and the Rajapaksas is quite interesting.

During the state council elections in the 1930s, no symbols were used for voting. It was done on colour and each candidate was assigned a colour.

The colour chosen by the Rajapaksas was maroon-brick brown; it was then given a theatrical dressing as the colour of the kurakkan grower of Giruvapaththuwa.

After the late D.M. Rajapaksa and D.A. Rajapaksa, it was the eldest son of D.A. Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, who first wore the kurahan satakaya in the political arena.

It was later on that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa commenced wearing the kurahan satakaya.

Mahinda Rajapaksa became a broader figure in the political scene with the Pada Yatra he organised from Colombo to Kataragama on 16 March 1992. The procession ended on 2 April.

The Pada Yatra was carried out under four slogans – voicing opposition to the then UNP Government’s privatisation policy, a commission of inquiry and compensation for the disappearances in the South, addressing the cost of living, and a negotiated settlement to the North-East war. The latter slogan even attracted the support of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) for the Pada Yatra.

It was also during the Pada Yatra that Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted his position as being with the common man.

At the end of the procession, G.I.D. Dharmasekera (Castro Dharmasekera), had taken the brick brown shawl worn by Chamal Rajapaksa at the event and put it around Mahinda Rajapaksa, saying that he too should take up the colour of the common man – the colour of the kurakkan (millet) grower of Giruvapaththuwa.

From then on, the kurahan satakaya has been worn by every Rajapaksa entering politics until the newest entrant, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Making history

The eighth Parliament has now gone down in history as the House that has held the largest number of opposition leaders.

There have been three opposition leaders during the tenure of the eighth Parliament – MPs R. Sampanthan, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Sajith Premadasa.

Sampanthan served as Opposition Leader from 2015 till 2018 when Rajapaksa was appointed to the post till last Friday (3). Premadasa will now serve as Opposition Leader until the next general election.