Editorial/Opinion

Prez term debacle in limelight again

Political circles were abuzz last week with talks of a possible a grand alliance between the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
In fact, a comment by none other than United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera to the effect that the SLFP and SLPP had agreed to form a new alliance as “Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna” if both parties decided to contest the election jointly, sent shockwaves.
Many pointed out that Amaraweera’s statement contained the conditional particle “if”.
However, as the Black Box reiterated during the past few weeks, it is highly unlikely that the SLPP, which is riding high on popularity and clinched power in 126 local government bodies out of 141 that were able to record an absolute majority of seats during the 2018 local government elections, would partner the third player (i.e. SLFP) that mustered just 12.10% of the votes and only two local authorities outright.

Presidential term

After evaluating his options and likely failed chances of becoming the SLFP-SLPP common candidate at the 2019 presidential election, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena is likely to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court over the conclusion of his tenure by virtue of Article 129(1) of the Constitution.
The Article stipulates that “if at any time, it appears to the President of the Republic that a question of law or fact has arisen or is likely to arise which is of such nature and of such public importance that it is expedient to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court upon it, he may refer that question to that Court for consideration and the Court may, after such hearing as it thinks fit, within the period specified in such reference or within such time as may be extended by the President, report to the President its opinion thereon”.
Presidential legal advisers have advised the President that as the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was passed on 28 April 2015 and implemented in May 2015, the date of commencement of the five-year presidential term should be on the same day as the date when the 19th Amendment was implemented and as a result, would end only in May 2020, in an 11th hour bid to give an additional three months and 20 days to continue his term.
Sirisena’s purpose is to catch both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) off guard and thereby gain a supposed upper hand.
It is no secret that after being disgruntled and distraught with the grand ole party (i.e. the UNP), Sirisena went in for an “illegal” marriage with the former President (and incumbent Opposition Leader) Mahinda Rajapaksa-led SLPP during the 51-day coup, but now becoming wary of his latter ally (i.e. SLPP) as well, wishes to teach both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa a lesson.

Drawbacks

However, constitutional experts point out two main reasons as to why Sirisena can’t continue beyond 7 January 2020.
1. Constitutional drawback – Article 49(1)(b) contained in the transitional provisions on other consequential amendments in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution stipulates that “for the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that the persons holding office respectively, as the President and Prime Minister on the day preceding 22 April, 2015 shall continue to hold such office after such date, subject to the provisions of the Constitution as amended by this Act”.
2. Judicial drawback – This is not the first time President Sirisena sought the opinion of the apex judicial body of the country over the duration of his term.
In January 2018, after Sirisena sought a clarification under Article 129(1) of the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled that although Sirisena was elected for a term of six years, the 19th Amendment explicitly reduced this six year tenure to five years.
On reference made by President Sirisena, then Chief Justice Priyasath Dep appointed a five-judge bench on 10 January, to decide whether the President’s term was five or six years. Two different views have been expressed in legal, civil, and political circles about the duration of the term of presidency after the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
In order to dispel this confusion, the President has sought the opinion of the Supreme Court regarding the actual term of office.
President Sirisena, in terms of Article 129 (1) of the Constitution, has referred to the Supreme Court the following question for consideration and for an opinion to be submitted to the President on or before 14 January 2018: “Whether, in terms of Provisions of the Constitution, I, as the person elected and succeeding to the office of President and having assumed such office in terms of Article 32(1) of the Constitution on 9 January 2015, have any impediment to continue in the office of President for a period of six years from 9 January 2015, the date on which the result of my election to the office of President was declared.”
According to the powers vested in the President under the Constitution, the President has the right to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court. The matter was taken up before a Supreme Court five-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Priyasath Dep and Justices Eva Wanasundara, Buwaneka Aluvihare, Sisira de Abrew, and K.T. Chitrasiri.
However, the Third 3rd Amendment introduced by inaugural Executive President J.R. Jayewardene and enacted by Parliament on 27 August 1982, enabled the President to seek re-election after a lapse of four years.
Although the historic 19th Amendment introduced by Sirisena and the Wickremesinghe-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) reduced the presidential term from hitherto six years to five years with the restoration of the two-term limit, it retained a provision that enabled the sitting President to seek re-election in four years in the first term.
As per Article 3A(a)(i) notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the preceding provisions of this Chapter, the President may, at any time after the expiration of four years from the commencement of his first term of office, by Proclamation, declare his intention of appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term.
In its verdict, the Supreme Court went further and propounded that Article 31(3) stipulated that the poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office. As such, incumbent President Sirisena’s tenure ends on 8 January 2020 and hence the poll should be held between 8 November and 8 December the latest, the Supreme Court clearly stated in its ruling.

All is impertinent

Meanwhile, former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva was asked for his opinion on the tenure of the incumbent President when he arrived at the Superior Court Complex for the contempt of court matter against him. The former Chief Justice stated that the five-year period should be counted from the date of the swearing-in and that the presidential poll should be held in December 2019.
One must understand all things are impertinent. No one will try (to increase his or her worldly powers) if they understand this.

Two minds

When the Cabinet of Ministers met last Tuesday, the controversial subject of the Batticaloa Sharia University topped the list. The Cabinet was presented with the Parliamentary Education Sectoral Committee report which had recommended that the campus should be brought under the regulatory purview of the Ministry of Higher Education.
However, Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, vehemently objecting the move, claimed that mere regulatory purview was not adequate and that the campus should be vested with the Government and continued as a campus attached to the Eastern University.
However, Public Enterprise, Kandyan Heritage, and Kandy Development Minister and Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella, along with Health, Nutrition, and Indigenous Medicine Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, expressed grave concern, pointing out that, following the footsteps of SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine), if the Government was to nationalise/expropriate the Batticaloa Campus, foreign investors would be discouraged from investing in Sri Lanka. The duo was agreeable that it should be allowed to operate as a private university under the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education.
Both Minister Ranawaka along with Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunanayake raised the issue that there were serious concerns about where the investment came from and as to what funds went into whose pocket. Both categorically stated that the whole society was of the view that the controversial campus should be taken over by the Government.
Finally, the President commented that the campus in question should be regulated by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Higher Education Ministry. Without a final decision, the Cabinet came to the consensus that the report should be submitted to Parliament for its decision.

Cigarette conundrum

The issue of allowing cigarettes imported from China heated up last week’s Cabinet meeting. When the President inquired as to the status of the issue, Ranawaka inquired as to whether any permits had already been issued to Chinese cigarette manufacturers. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera explained to the Cabinet that although bids were called in order to break the cigarette monopoly, only one company had submitted a bid.
However, Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne vehemently objected, saying that Sri Lanka had carried out a successful crusade to eradicate smoking for which it had been lauded thrice by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The President concurred. Finally, the Cabinet agreed to do away with the Chinese cigarette imports.

Capital punishment

The Finance Minister, appealing to President Sirisena, said that he had never objected to any stance of the President but that he earnestly urged Sirisena to reconsider his decision on resuming the capital punishment.
However, infuriated by Samaraweera’s persistence, President Sirisena had retorted saying that it was the Judiciary that issued the death sentence and since the matter was now before courts, the Cabinet was now not the forum to discuss the matter.

Sajith to the fore

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Samaraweera made headlines again this week, when he said that the UNP leadership including Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya should come together and announce the presidential candidacy of Sajith Premadasa.
Samaraweera said party members were eagerly waiting to elect a UNP President at the forthcoming presidential polls, and to accomplish this, the right candidate should have the capacity to win with the help of the grassroots level supporters.
In this light, only Sajith Premadasa had that popularity and talent, he claimed. However, he stressed that the current leader should not be discarded and that the party should endeavour to carry forward the vision of Ranil Wickremesinghe and D.S. Senanayake.
With such strategic moves to the advantage of Premadasa, it is learnt that this has left fewer choices for Wickremesinghe, who was banking on business tycoon Dhammika Perera being fielded as a common candidate.

No-faith motion

Be that as it may, political circles have almost forgotten the No-confidence Motion (NCM) against the Government over its failure in preventing the 21 April Bloody Easter bombings, presented by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), scheduled to be taken up for debate this Tuesday and Wednesday (9 and 10). It is likely that the Opposition forces led by the SLPP will try to go all out against the UNP Government’s shortcomings.
In addition, the JVP is tirelessly working towards fielding a common candidate at the forthcoming presidential election and has been conducting discussions with leftist, progressive, and democratic political movements as well as civil society organisations.
Political circles are rife with the rumour that the JVP’s upcoming, budding leader Kalutara District MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa would be fielded as the common left candidate. It is learnt that this was the reason Dr. Jayatissa was also nominated to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the Easter Attacks as well. The JVP is slated to announce the common left candidate in the coming weeks.