Editorial/Opinion

PC polls and 20A take centre stage

Former First Lady Senator Hillary Clinton (wife of United States President Bill Clinton) was famously quoted in an interview held 11 October, 2007 with Boston Globe that in order to ensure the checks and balances propounded in the classical theory of separation of power, it was crucial to rein in the (executive) presidency. Fast forward to 2019, Colombo is the hype of a hot debate on whether or not to abolish the executive presidency.

It is learnt that after four years of catfighting, the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and former president, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa are finally in agreement on the abolition of the executive presidency, which had weathered all storms for over four decades since its introduction in 1978.

Evolution

Sri Lanka saw the concept of presidency (albeit “nominal” executive) introduced in 1972 with the introduction of the First Republican Constitution under the Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led left-leaning United Front Government (Samagi Peramuna). The architect of the innovative and first-ever “autochthonous” 1972 Constitution (autochthonous meaning “homegrown” or “derived from the soil”) was one of the most erudite legal luminaries of the time – Dr. Colvin R. de Silva – who would have undoubtedly left out the autocratic, totalitarian US-styled executive presidency and settled for a “nominal” executive president, following the footsteps of our big brother India, due to his political farsightedness and pragmatism, when replacing the post of governor general.
Under the previous Soulbury Constitution of 1947, till it was repealed in 1972, the reigning monarch of the British Raj – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – was the head of hitherto Dominion of Ceylon’s executive and the administration of justice (i.e. the judiciary) which too was carried out under Her Majesty’s name.
Although Ceylon was independent with complete power in domestic affairs (albeit external affairs and defence) and its Parliament could legislate on any matter to do with Ceylon with the United Kingdom not being able to override any local legislation, the final appellate court for Ceylonese litigation lay with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
The Governor General, unlike the Governor of Ceylon who exercised executive control over the entire island since 1815, had a nominal role as a representative of the King with the ultimate “nominal” executive power being vested in the British Monarch.
Following the gaining of independence in 1948, the first chamber of Parliament – the House of Representatives – could legislate with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. Though more or less a ceremonial post, the governor general was appointed by the British Monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, to be his/her representative in Ceylon.
However, neither the Monarch nor the governor general had any real authority in conducting the internal governance of the country (however, both possessed reserve powers in terms of the Soulbury Constitution which allowed them full control of the Ceylon’s administration whenever in their opinion a case of emergency arose).
The “real” legislative and executive responsibilities rested with the elected representatives of the people – the Parliament. Reserved powers of the governor general ensued when instances of a state of emergency being declared, and represented the Queen on occasions such as ceremonial openings of Parliament, and guards-of-honour of the armed forces.
Although the governor general was replaced with the non-executive president under the 1972 constitution, the cabinet of ministers led by the prime minister who was responsible to the Parliament, together, exercised most legislative and executive powers whilst the president had to act on advice of the prime minister on most occasions.
Architect of the 1978 Second Republican Constitution and the first inaugural executive President J.R. Jayewardene, unable to wait till the passage of the full constitution, kicked off the executive presidency through the enactment of the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution, moved Sri Lanka from a prime minister-led Westminster Parliamentary System into a presidential system with the President serving as both head of state and head of government, for the first time in Lankan post-independent history.
As such, the head of state was no longer elected by Parliament but directly elected by the people with a longer six-year tenure ensuring independence from the legislature. In addition, he or she would be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of the cabinet of ministers, and could dissolve Parliament at his/her full discretion (albeit after one year had lapsed since the convening of Parliament after a premature dissolution). The prime minister was now a nominal figurehead – the first among equals (primus inter pares) and would serve as the deputy to the executive president. The rest is history.

20th Amendment

The most vociferous critique of the executive presidency, the Janatha Vimukthi Permuna (JVP) and its brainchild the 20th Amendment, have come to the limelight again with talks of abolishing the hot seat. It is learnt that Sirisena, Rajapaksa, and Wickremesinghe have all in principal agreed to the abolition which itself is a major turning point in Sri Lankan political history.
In fact, a major opponent of the executive presidency, Parliamentarian and President’s Counsel Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, expressing his views at a meeting of National Movement for a Just Society last week, triumphantly noted that since the leaders of the country’s main three parties had unanimously agreed with one voice to abolish this ill office, all Sri Lankans should unite without opposing this vital piece of reform on petty political agendas. This was the ultimate wish and final dream of the Founder of National Movement for a Just Society and the chief initiator of the Yahapalanaya movement – Ven. Madulawawe Sobitha Thera.
During a sequel to this momentous meeting, it was learnt that a senior minister and a right-hand man of Wickremesinghe, hailing from the Kandy District, had also met the President in discussing the nitty-gritties of implementing the 20th Amendment. President Sirisena is said to have requested the Senior Minister to inform the United National Party (UNP) leadership that he was agreeable to the 20th Amendment subject to three conditions.
First and foremost, was that the party did not oppose him being agreed to as the nominal/non-executive president (NEP). The remaining two conditions were that the portfolio of defence would be offered to the NEP whilst the powers to appoint governors to provincial councils (PCs) would also be retained.
It is learnt that Sirisena had agreed to transfer all other powers to the executive prime minister (EPM). The Minister had agreed to convey this to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, taking the responsibility to obtain consent from the UNP hierarchy.

Mixed signals

However, these developments had received mixed signals from the rank and file of the grand ole party i.e. UNP. It is learnt that discussions with the party leadership were ongoing albeit no final decision had been reached yet.
In addition, several ministers and MPs had raised concerns, stating that the UNP, which in the eyes of the party membership was instrumental in the introduction of this office, should not spearhead the initiative to abolish the same. The concerns of minorities who had historically played a pivotal role in defending the party and especially during the 51-day illegal coup had also been highlighted.
Most agitated were said to be the presidential hopefuls of the UNP (sans Wickremesinghe) including Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, Naveen Dissanayake, Champika Ranawaka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, etc.
Many believe that since a presidential election had to be held between 8 November and 8 December, 2019, and especially in the light of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-Sri Lanka Poduajana Peramuna (SLPP) being unable to decide on a presidential candidate, the best option available to the party was to opt for a presidential poll which would end the current political stalemate once and for all.
Many have stated that since a presidential election was the most favourable to the UNP, the party should not budge from this as the UNP membership was waiting to answer Sirisena at the next presidential poll.
Addressing Wickremesinghe, Minister Naveen Dissanayake is said to have opined that the party membership had been bewildered by talks of the UNP abolishing the executive presidency once and for all, stating that the rank and file was preparing for a presidential poll to be held before the end of the year, lamenting that even the ministers and MPs were kept in the dark.
To this, Wickremesinghe replied saying that 20th Amendment was an initiative of the JVP and that the UNP leadership had agreed to it way back in 2015 to empower the Parliament further and abolishing the hot seat. So it is learnt that the UNP in principle was fully committed towards the 20th Amendment unlike the SLFP and SLPP which are likely to face much opposition from its rank and file, especially the presidential hopefuls.
However, Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella added that minority parties were not too happy with the decision of the UNP to oppose the executive presidency and pointed out that the Parliament had to be empowered if so. The executive presidency had long been viewed as a safeguard for the minority parties with the contribution of the minority Tamil and Muslim votes being crucial, especially during the elections of 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999, and 2015.
Ultimately, the Premier did agree on expanding the scope and mandate of the 20th Amendment to include devolution of power, in line with the demands of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
It is also learnt that a UNP presidential hopeful from the Hambantota District, seeing that with the UNP leadership agreeing on the 20 Amendment, his political future would be jeopardised, will hold hands with a similar contender from across the divide in order to ensure that the 2019 presidential election was held.
This goes on to prove the age-old adage immortalised by Lord Palmerston of Great Britain – there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies…only permanent interests!
It is also learnt that JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is hopeful of convening meetings with the leaders of all political parties in order to muster their support for its 20th Amendment.

Cracks in SLPP

Meanwhile, a sequel to the above meeting is to take place on 6 February (Wednesday) between JVP Leader Dissanayake and Mahinda Rajapaksa in order to finalise an arrangement to gain the special majority needed for the passage of the amendment in Parliament.
It is learnt that Rajapaksa had also agreed in principle to muster the support of both the SLPP and SLFP in finding the 25-odd MPs needed.
However, in this backdrop, SLPP presidential hopeful Gotabaya seems to have jumped the gun, stating that his probable win at the 2019 presidential election could re-establish the SLPP’s lost glory. These comments were upset by the new-found love Mahinda had towards abolishing the executive presidency.
In fact, Gotabaya loyalists such as Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) Leader Udaya Gammanpila and National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa are said to be clamouring to get Mahinda to change his mind. The vociferous former comrade is said to have threatened to quit the “flower bud” in the event Mahinda agreed to the 20 Amendment, some sources claimed.
Basil and Namal are said to have agreed with Mahinda, which some political analysts say was because of the high probability of Gotabaya wining the SLPP candidature and finally the election. SLPP backbenchers are said to agitate during the coming days, with one SLPP contender being said to have joined hands with the UNP’s presidential hopeful from the Hambantota District.
Many feel that the hapless Mahinda, who sees no other means of ensuring Namal the candidacy in 2025, would have finally agreed, feeling that despite him being disallowed to contest in any forthcoming presidential election by virtue of the 19 Amendment, he could still assume the post of executive prime minister.

Truth and reconciliation

Last Tuesday, the main topic at the Cabinet meeting was the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was a brainchild of President Sirisena. Submitting his observations, Minister Champika Ranawaka said that in line with the South African model of the TRC, both parties should be pardoned as continuing to banter about retributive measures and punitive justice would only delay the long overdue reconciliation process.
As such, a general amnesty should be issued to those incarcerated from both sides. However, dealing a veiled blow to Sirisena, he cited that several commissions were appointed in the past but nothing substantial had ever been achieved. He said that a more practical approach should be taken at this juncture, such as issuing missing persons certificates onsite, resolving the land issues, etc.

Back to devolution

Last Thursday (28), a meeting on devolution was held under the auspices of the President with Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ministers Lakshman Kiriella, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Dilan Perera, Rauff Hakeem,, Rishad Bathiudeen, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Nimal Siripala de Silva, R. Sampanthan, M.A. Sumanthiran, Mano Ganesan, Palani Digambaran, etc.
Sampanthan, making a long speech, reiterated that the 13th Amendment and the setting up of provincial councils had been an utter failure in terms of achieving its main goal of resolving the national question of the Tamil-speaking peoples. Pro-devolution lawmakers Dr. Senaratne and Dilan Perera too had more or less agreed with the TNA’s sentiments.
However, Sirisena said he would not waver from his stance at the 2015 presidential election and said he would fully support a reform initiative agreed for by Parliament.
“It has been four years since the 2015 Government came into power, but it is regrettable that we were unable to find a solution to the national question. India was able to resolve its national question at the time of its independence. However, we are still unable to resolve this. Even during the eras of Chandrika and Mahinda, we were unsuccessful,” lamented Dr. Senaratne.
It is learnt that most participants were in agreement over the 13-plus concept i.e. devolving police, land powers to the provinces in principle. The head of the Provincial Police Force would be in the rank of the Senior DIG of the current Police force, it was noted.
In order to proceed further, Sirisena appointed a committee consisting Dr. Senaratne, Dr. Amunugama, Perera, and Sumanthiran to submit recommendations on a way forward within one week. Although one MP suggested that an all party conference (APC) should be held towards this goal, President Sirisena pointed out that APCs in the past had been unfruitful.

PC polls

Be that as it may, the holding of PC elections retains the number one position on the agenda for next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. President Sirisena pointed out that nearly 16 months have elapsed since the dissolution of Eastern, North Central, and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils whilst four months have elapsed since the dissolution of the Northern, North Western, and Central Provincial Councils. He has expressed much dissatisfaction over PCs being rendered inoperative and the consequent standstill of public services.
As such, Sirisena has proposed to repeal the Provincial Councils Election (Amendment) Act no. 17 of 2017 and to hold PC elections under the previous proportional representation (PR) system.
However, he has directed that the 25% representation of women should be ensured and to guarantee that elections are held prior to 31 May, 2019.

Budget 2019

Meanwhile, it is learnt that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) would not hinder the passage of the Appropriation Bill (Budget 2019) on 5 April. As such, a handful of SLPP-SLFP MPs would symbolically oppose it, whilst the majority would abstain, enabling its unhindered passage. The steps towards introducing the 20th Amendment would be taken after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year in April.