Editorial/Opinion

National govt. conundrum hits UNF

There’s a popular old adage in Sinhala folklore – Aandhi hath denage kenda heliya. It is of seven Indians from Andra Pradesh (hence Andhi) who meet in an ambalama (rest house) and decide to make a pot of kenda (porridge). Each promises to contribute a fistful of rice into the porridge. However each, thinking that he’s shrewder than the other six, just mimics the act of adding rice, but in reality, no one really adds any rice at all. At the end of the day, all seven are left with only the salty water and go to sleep in hunger.
Many see a resemblance of the national government and the porridge pot of the seven Indians (Andhis). Almost all Opposition parties, along with many civil society activists and concerned citizens, lambasted the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government, charging that the United National Party (UNP) led United National Front (UNF) is engaging in a mockery of the Constitution and indeed the people.
According to UNF sources, the proposal deeming that the party has managed to form a national government by claiming a majority in Parliament and with the majority at hand, to increase the number of cabinet ministers to 48 and the non-cabinet and deputy ministers to 45 in accordance with Article 46(4) of the 19th Amendment of the 1978 Constitution, would be taken at the next available session.
However many pointed out that this was hypocrisy as whilst the article in question (i.e. 46[4]) stipulated that when a national government was formed by a recognised political party or an independent group, the number of cabinet ministers, non-cabinet ministers, and deputy ministers shall be determined by Parliament, the succeeding provision (i.e. Article 46[5]) clearly spelt out that a national government was defined as a government formed by a recognised political party or an independent group which possesses the majority corroborating with other recognised political party/ies or independent group/s.
The UNP was adamant in submitting the proposal to Parliament and set up the national government as soon as time permitted.
Meanwhile, Chief Government Whip Minister Gayantha Karunathilake, issuing a communiqué on 6 February, informed all parliamentarians of the UNF that it was mandatory for them to be present in Parliament throughout proceedings and vote in favour of the proposal of the national government. Strict disciplinary action would be taken against anyone who failed to comply, he warned.

Backbenchers displeased

However, when the proposal was taken up at the UNF Parliamentary Group Meeting on Wednesday, the move was showered with much criticism from the UNP backbenchers. The young MPs castigated the party leadership for attempting to increase ministries, whereas many existing ministers had failed to deliver what was promised to the people. A strong government delivering what was promised with immediate effect was the need of the hour.
In addition, despite Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella publicly stating that the Government would suspend Standing Orders in order to present the proposal, it was also reported that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had vehemently rejected such a move and implored the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to follow the due process.
As such, the attempt was withdrawn and the Government would first include the proposal in the order book, after which it would have to wait for five days.
Nevertheless, UNF sources told the Black Box that the motion on the national government would be taken up at the next parliamentary sessions.
Despite opposition by governing party backbencher to the formation of a national government, senior UNF members have opined that it was important to hold majority seats in Parliament in order to function as a strong Government. Hence, forming a government with 113 legislators is the need of the hour, they have explained to the young MPs.
Meanwhile not only many Opposition MPs but even civil society activists were infuriated by a statement made by Leader of the House Kiriella, that the 19th Amendment/Constitution only dictated gaining approval from the Parliament for the number of ministers, deputy ministers, etc. when forming a national government but did not necessarily entail the House to know who the prospective partners of such a government would be.
In fact, the UNP’s former coalition partner – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – and its MPs insisted that in the event a national government was forged, other political parties that contested separately from the UNP at the 2015 general elections were only eligible to join a union of hitherto existing partners i.e. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) would not suffice. Many including former President and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) charged that that this was merely a ploy to increase the number of ministerial portfolios whilst technically only solo SLMC MP Ali Zahir Moulana would be joining.

More portfolios

It is in this backdrop that a request was made by the Muslim ministers to increase the portfolios with Industry and Commerce Minister Rishard Bathuideen and to assign “vocational training” under him. However, this was also turned down after President Maithripala Sirisena had scoffed at the move.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), led by Minister Rauff Hakeem, requested for two more state or deputy ministerial portfolios while the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), led by Minister Bathiudeen, has requested another ministerial portfolio.
Bathiudeen, it is learnt, requested for the vocational training portfolio to be included in his existing Industry and Commerce Ministry. However, President Sirisena turned down the request made by Premier Wickremesinghe stating that there was no scientific link between the ministries. In turn, the Prime Minister too had said that he agreed with the President, as pairing vocational training with industry and commerce seemed imprudent, in particular while delivering promises should ideally be the number one priority for all ministers in general.

Dayasiri’s dictates

Earlier, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara too, as the mouthpiece of President Maithripala Sirisena, pledged that the SLFP-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) duo would take all necessary steps to defeat the UNP’s unconstitutional and unethical formation of a national government.
“We will take disciplinary action against all UPFA MPs who vote in favour of the proposal,” Jayasekara charged.
Opposition Leader Rajapaksa is said to have advised Jayasekara to inform all UPFA MPs of this in writing and that this issue had to be taken up with President Sirisena immediately.
In addition, the UPFA Parliamentary Group meeting also took a decision to proceed against Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickama, who spearheaded the controversial Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, over numerous irregularities and for keeping President Sirisena in the dark over the finer points of the FTA.

Denying rumours

Although it was rumoured that Sri Lanka’s former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said that she would lead a team of SLFP MPs to defect from the party, build a new party, and join the UNF, she vehemently denied it at a function in Attanagalla.
The former President reiterated that she will not create a new party but would continue to rebuild the SLFP which was wrecked by the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo along the original policies and principles of her late father – S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
However, several Government and Opposition MPs including MP Ajith P. Perera hinted that several pro-CBK and anti-Rajapaksa MPs, disgruntled with the Sirisena-Rajapaksa’s 51-day illegal coup, were slated to join the proposed national government under a new party and thereby making the UNP eligible to form such a government.
However, Kumaratunga continued to maintain an anti-Rajapaksa stance and in fact issued a strongly-worded letter to present SLFP/UPFA Chair President Maithripala Sirisena claiming that the country was destroyed under the reign of terror from 2005 to 8 January, 2015 and alleging that a large number of party membership expressed their discontent over the issues that ravaged the SLFP during the 51-day illegal coup perpetrated by Rajapaksa in collusion with his successor.
She admonished Sirisena not to desert the SLFP by partnering with parties and groups that had been rejected by the people, further adding that she would not betray Sirisena’s vision and programme.
Lauding Sirisena for actions taken in the aftermath of the Bond Scam incident, the group however expressed their unwillingness to join the UNP, pleading with Sirisena to take leadership in converting both the party and the country under a new socioeconomic programme.

JVP, TNA backtrack

Meanwhile, the third force in the South – the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – denounced the moves by the UNP and the SLMC to forge a national government as being unacceptable.
During the parliamentary party leaders’ meeting held last Wednesday (6), JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake expressed his party’s utter displeasure over the move.
“There’s no need to suspend Standing Orders and brining this national government proposal. What is this urgency? This is a move to give portfolios in order to quell the internal crisis within the UNP. Can’t they just wait for one month? This is a move to waste public funds. We will not allow this national government proposal to pass. We want to make this clear to all those who are trying to find loopholes within the Constitution,” extorted Dissanayake.
Although the UNP is banking on the support of one of its greatest supporters during the 51-day illegal coup perpetrated by the Mahinda-Maithripala duo – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) – their support too is hitherto unclear, with several factions of the party opposing the move, alleging that the UNF Government had hitherto failed to deliver the promises extended to the Tamil people, as per TNA sources.

Flower bud protest

A meeting of the SLPP leaders was held at Prof. G.L. Peiris’ residence last week, but the party’s Founder Basil Rajapaksa had not attended this meeting.
However, it was reported that Basil avoided the meeting as the topic of the next presidential candidate was to be taken up for discussion.
The date for this meeting was decided upon two weeks ago and as the SLFP had nominated Maithripala Sirisena as their presidential candidate, the discussion was said to have been aimed at selecting the SLPP presidential candidate.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had also been present for the meeting at the Peiris residence.
Meanwhile, at the UPFA Parliamentary Group meeting, it had been proposed that another Jana Bala Meheyuma should be staged like the one held on 5 September last year against the UNF Government in order to muster the support of the disgruntled masses, especially over the move to increase the size of the Cabinet.

PC polls

Meanwhile, Sirisena is not too pleased with his UNF Government since the Memorandum of Cabinet presented by him two weeks ago to the Cabinet of Ministers on the holding of provincial council elections before the end of this May, had not yet been discussed and decided upon.
The cabinet paper was deferred by a week in order to allow Home Affairs, Local Government, and Provincial Council Minister Vajira Abeywardena time to make a presentation to the Cabinet on the President’s proposal.
The President in his cabinet paper proposed to hold elections to all provincial councils on a single day before the end of May, 2019 under the old proportional representation (PR) system, but with the inclusion of a minimum of 25% female representation in the nominations lists submitted by the contesting parties.
However, the cabinet paper could not be discussed at last week’s Cabinet meeting since the subject Minister had not presented his observations.
The President firmly called upon Minister Abeywardena to ensure that the relevant observations are presented to this week’s Cabinet meeting without fail in order to reach a final decision.
The Sunday Morning learnt that the UNP was trying to avoid going for a PC poll or even a general election prior to a presidential poll as on one hand it was disadvantageous to the UNP and on the other, winning either a general or PC poll and losing a presidential poll later on would mean returning to the prevailing stalemate.

Customs crisis

At last week’s Cabinet meeting, Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that he would be withdrawing the proposal presented by him the previous week to remove Director General of Sri Lanka Customs P.S.M. Charles and replace her with a retired Sri Lanka Navy officer.
It was explained at the meeting that the country was faced with a crisis situation with all Customs officers engaging in trade union action over the arbitrary removal of Charles, threatening to stop the release of essential goods in the event Charles wasn’t reinstated immediately, to which the Minister agreed, ending the impending crisis.
However, it is learnt that President Sirisena was the first to object to the removal of Charles and had pointed out that Samaraweera’s move would push the whole economy towards collapse.
“Last year, we gave a Rs. 1,061 billion revenue target for Sri Lanka Customs. However, we received only Rs. 921 billion which recorded a shortfall of Rs. 140 billion, which had a huge impact on the country’s balance of payment (BoP). This was the reason we decided to replace the DG. So we would be reinstating her and giving her a deadline of three months to deliver what she promised. As such, I would be withdrawing the cabinet paper I submitted last week,” said Samaraweera.

HRCSL hits back

Meanwhile, last Friday, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), in a strongly worded communiqué addressed to President Sirisena, countered unsubstantiated allegations levelled against the Commission.
Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama said the HRCSL “expresses its deep concern about the said statement and wishes to present to you the correct facts regarding the matter”.
“We emphasise that it is due to the independence of the Commission and the trust placed in the Commission that in 2016 the United Nations designated the Human Rights Commission to vet our military and police officers for deployment to UN Peacekeeping Missions. We consider the fact that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is the only national institution selected to undertake the vetting process, amongst all countries that supply troops for peacekeeping missions, as a triumph for Sri Lanka. Therefore, we strongly consider that it is our duty to undertake the vetting process with integrity and professionalism.
“Regarding the deployment of the Special Task Force to Angunakolapelessa Prison, HRCSL said one of its main functions was to monitor the welfare of detainees and protect their rights according to the recognised laws. As per Article 28 (2) of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act No. 21 of 1996, the Commission was granted the power to enter and monitor any place of detention, police station or prison…Thus, it is a misconception to interpret the Commission presenting facts regarding the rights of prisoners and the types of punishments, in accordance with human rights law, as an attempt by the Commission to protect criminals. Considering the principle, “prisoners are human beings”, as well as laws protecting the rights of prisoners, we hope Your Excellency too agrees that such misconceptions are unfair.
“We state with regret that holding the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka responsible for the loss of the lives of those officers caused grave dismay. In the past three years, we have worked tirelessly to build respect for and trust in the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. As a result of that, the Human Rights Commission was awarded international recognition in 2018 by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI). We know that it is the understanding of all reasonable people that this was an esteemed honour not only for the Commission but also for our country. We are also aware that it is a reason for elevating the recognition Sri Lanka gains from international organisations.
“Not only are we disheartened by the unjust criticism but are also discouraged. We appreciate any just critique and consider it to be a step to further growth and betterment, which we believe will serve the country better,” the letter stated.
Thereafter, several civil society activists such as Ven. Damabara Amila Thera castigated the President for his unsubstantiated comments.