Editorial/Opinion

Ruwan down to work; 20A comes to Parliament this week

  • decides against printing new draft 20A; Wimal and co. seek fresh draft
  • President meets Viyathmaga; discusses future role in active governance
  • Ruwan paves way for UNP leadership; Navin and co. step aside
  • Sajith congratulates Ruwan; agrees to meet in future for discussion

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been different in his approach towards governance as the Head of State from the first day in office. However, his difference from his predecessors seems to be clearer with the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution entering the political fray.

Rajapaksa has stood firm on his stances, something that had been lacking in most of his predecessors. He says it without any sugar coating and makes sure that it is implemented regardless of the various objections raised. The merits and demerits of such actions need to be analysed separately, but in the present situation, there is ownership to the actions of the Government – again, something that was lacking during the past years.

With the debate over the contents of the draft 20th Amendment (20A) intensifying during the past few weeks, even amongst coalition members of the Government and the national movements that backed the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), there was discussion of the Government retracting the 20A Gazette and issuing a fresh amended one.

National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Minister Wimal Weerawansa made public statements to the effect that the Government would be issuing a fresh gazette of the proposed piece of legislation with amendments to certain clauses.

“The Prime Minister has appointed a committee after we pointed out that there are some problematic areas in the currently gazetted 20th Amendment. The Committee will come up with a report and then we can gazette a new 20th Amendment,” Weerawansa had said.

He had said that the proper manner in getting a law implemented was to submit the piece of legislation and amend it before being taken up in the House.

He had noted that the previous Yahapalana Government, when implementing the 19th Amendment, had made changes during the committee stage, thereby preventing citizens from taking any legal action against the fresh amendments.

According to Weerawansa, the shortcomings in the 20th Amendment have been pointed out even by government parliamentarians and the new piece of legislation should contain clauses that are beneficial to the nation.

He had further noted that despite attempts to discuss the shortcomings in the 20A with the Justice Minister, he and several others had been unable to do so. “That is why the Prime Minister appointed a six-member committee to look into the matter. Following the discussion at the party leaders’ meeting, the Prime Minister intervened to prevent the 20th Amendment from being tabled in Parliament in its present form. Following the report submitted by the committee, relevant changes will be included in the fresh 20th Amendment before it is taken up in Parliament,” he had added.

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa the previous week had assured civil society groups, the National Joint Committee (NJC), and Yuthukama organisation that the concerns raised over the proposed 20A would be looked into.

The President had given this assurance at a meeting with President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva and MP Gevindu Cumaratunga on the 11th evening at the Presidential Secretariat.

De Silva is also a member of the committee headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva to formulate a new constitution.

It is in this backdrop that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a committee chaired by SLPP Chairman Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris to study the 20A and submit a report on its shortcomings and recommendations, to address them.

Accordingly, Ministers Udaya Gammanpila, Ali Sabry, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Weerawansa, and State Ministers Susil Premajayantha, S. Viyalendran, and MPs Dilan Perera as well as Premnath C. Dolawatte were appointed to this committee.

The report of the committee was handed over to the Prime Minister last Tuesday (15).

Prior to the handing over of the committee report to the Premier, certain sections of the SLPP said that a fresh gazette of the 20A would be released last week while some others in the SLPP maintained that changes to the proposed legislation could be made during the committee stage.

After the report was handed over to the Prime Minister, it was to be taken up for discussion at the cabinet meeting the following day, Wednesday (16).

However, the committee report was not taken up for discussion by the Cabinet of Ministers and it was immediately learnt that the Government would not redraft the 20A, but would incorporate any changes proposed by the Prime Minister’s Committee during the committee stage of the parliamentary debate.

Therefore, a senior SLPP source said the necessary additions and removals of clauses in the 20A will be carried out during the committee stage.

However, last week’s cabinet meeting had seen President Rajapaksa taking a firm stand on the 20A.

He had told the Cabinet that if there were issues with the 20A, everyone could work according to the 19th Amendment.

The President had also said that he had received the people’s mandate to bring about constitutional reforms starting with the 20A.

20A in the House

It is in this backdrop that Government Spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that the draft 20A Bill will be presented to Parliament in its present form and would be discussed widely before being enacted.

“The Bill will be presented to Parliament shortly and then it can be challenged in court if any party wants to do so and again it can be discussed at the committee stage,” Rambukwella had said at the weekly cabinet briefing.

He had noted that the Government was keen to make the process a transparent and democratic one, and is listening to different opinions.

“The 20th Amendment was discussed at length at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting. The people gave a massive mandate to the President and the Government to bring the 20th Amendment and we will enact it,” he had added.

Explaining the process followed after a new piece of legislation is gazetted, Prof. Peiris told the media: “As per the law, after being gazetted, we have to wait two weeks before it can be included in the cabinet agenda.

“The next cabinet session is on 22 September, and until then, it cannot be presented to Parliament. After being presented, the public has a week to file any objections with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court has a time period of three weeks to hear the case, and inform the Speaker and President of their decision,” he had said, adding that the proposed 20A is the beginning of constitutional reform and not the end of it.

Last week, Deputy Secretary General of Parliament Neil Iddawela announced that the first reading of the 20A Bill will take place this week.

He had noted that the 20A will be included in the Order Book of Parliament on Tuesday (22).

The missing architect

Last week also saw the build-up of an interesting question – who drafted the proposed 20A?

Interestingly, no one in the Government seemed to take ownership of the new piece of legislation.

Upon being questioned by the media, several members of the Government, including ministers, said they were unaware of who had drafted the 20A.

Ministers Weerawansa and Sabry as well as MP Cumaratunga said they did not know who had drafted it.

Members of the Opposition continued to question the Government on who had drafted the 20A.

However, Minister Namal Rajapaksa responded that instead of questioning as to who had drafted the 20A, anyone who had objections could take it up before the judiciary.

He added that when the 19th Amendment is repealed, the status quo returns to the period when the 18th Amendment was in place.

However, the President’s response to the criticism raised by governing party members over the 20A as well as the architect behind the proposed piece of reform, has now silenced all.

The President, at last week’s cabinet meeting, had said that he accepted full responsibility of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

President meets Viyathmaga

Last Sunday (13), Viyathmaga held a discussion with the President on possible future contributions of Viyathmaga in support of the implementation of national policies.

It was the first time that President Rajapaksa officially met with Viyathmaga for a discussion after assuming office last November.

Viyathmaga Ex-Co members and the regional co-ordinators attended the meeting at the Viyathmaga Head Office in Ethul Kotte.

During the meeting, the President had highlighted that Viyathmaga was responsible for formulating strategies and policies to move the country towards prosperity without getting involved in affairs that should be handled by political authority.

President Rajapaksa had said that Viyathmaga could guide state ministries in their future tasks by setting up subcommittees and presenting strategies and proposals.

“You can also advise and direct ministers to overcome challenges when they face difficulties in exercising their duties,” he had said.

The President had further noted that all development projects must adhere to environment preservation guidelines and no harm should fall upon the environment.

Negotiations

While the Government was engaged in addressing the issues that have cropped up along with the 20A, the onetime main Opposition United National Party (UNP) finally managed to resolve one of its longstanding issues – deciding on its next party leader.

The issue of a new leader taking over the UNP has been at the forefront for several years, but no progress was made until the party’s dismal performance at the general election this August where the party, for the first time in history, failed to win any seat in the House. The UNP only managed to secure a National List seat in Parliament, which is still vacant since the party decided to first resolve its leadership crisis before nominating a member to fill the slot.

While there were quite a few names that were tossed around for the UNP leadership including Karu Jayasuriya, Ruwan Wijewardene, Ravi Karunanayake, Vajira Abeywardena, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, and Arjuna Ranatunga, the “finalists” were Wijewardene, Karunanayake, and Abeywardena.

The previous week saw Wijewardene, Karunanayake, Ranatunga, and Navin Dissanayake having a discussion at the party headquarters, Sirikotha, about the party leadership.

Dissanayake was very critical of Wijewardene staking a claim for the party leadership, saying it was a move by Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to be the de facto leader of the party.

Wijewardene, holding his position, had said that Wickremesinghe had no hand in his decision to stake a claim for the party leadership and that it was purely based on the requests by the party’s youth front and the Buddhist clergy.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Abeywardena and Wijewardene was held last Sunday (13) night.

Abeywardena had reiterated his commitment to contesting for the post of party leader.

However, he had maintained that he would not come forward if there was going to be a vote for the leadership.

However, by then, looking at the claim for party leadership, Wickremesinghe had decided it best for whoever who should succeed him as the UNP Leader to work as Deputy Leader for a few months to catch the reins.

Working Committee

The UNP Working Committee (WC) met at Sirikotha at around 3 p.m. last Monday (14).

The 40 members of the WC are Wickremesinghe, Karunanayake, Kariyawasam, A.S.M. Misbah, Dissanayake, D.M. Swaminathan, Daya Gamage, Wijewardene, Nissanka Nanayakkara, Sagala Ratnayaka, Sunethra Ranasinghe, Palitha Range Bandara, Anoma Gamage, Shamal Senarath, Lakshman Wijemanne, K.K. Piyadasa, Abeywardena, Premadasa Champika, Vijayakala Maheswaran, John Amaratunga, Tilak Marapana, Sirinal de Mel, Ronald Perera, Jeyaraj Chandrasekera, Ananda Kularatne, Lasantha Goonawardena, Mahinda Haradasa, Chanaka de Silva, Sunil De Silva, Daya Pelpola, Sandith Samarasinghe, Nalaka Kolonne, Palitha Thevarapperuma, Ashu Marasinghe, Asmi Thaseem, Kasthuri Anuradhanayake, Shanthini Kongahage, Chanaka Ailapperuma, Karunasena Kodituwakku, and Ranatunga.

However, voting rights for the party leadership was going to be exercised by 38 members of the WC. Party Leader Wickremesinghe had said he would refrain from voting while Ranatunga, who was recently appointed to the WC, did not have voting rights as yet.

The WC, after being told of the need to first appoint the next leader as the party’s deputy leader to gain experience before taking over the party reins, had agreed with it.

Then it became the decision on selecting the new deputy leader of the party, the post formally held by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

When the post of Deputy Leader was announced, Wijewardene and Karunanayake threw the proverbial hat in to the ring, resulting in a secret ballot.

Wijewardene emerged victorious polling 28 votes while Karunanayake polled 10 votes.

However, it would be pertinent for Wijewardene to be mindful of the fact that there were still 10 WC members who had voted against him and would keep a close watch on his actions on reviving the party.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe will continue as the UNP Leader at least till the end of the year despite an earlier announcement that he was ready to resign and appoint a new leader.

“I will also compete for the party leadership in the future. The party will continue with the present leadership for a few months, after which a new leader would be selected,” Wijewardene told journalists after being elected as the UNP Deputy Leader.

“My only intention now is to reorganise the party and bring back the glory it enjoyed in the past. I will travel to every corner in the country and reorganise the party,” he said.

He thanked the party leadership and the WC members who elected him to the new post. “There was a cordial discussion among the WC members to decide on the post but it was decided to go for a vote at the end. There was a secret ballot but everything was done cordially. I have no issue with my contender Ravi Karunanayake and I am looking forward to working with him to take the party to great heights,” he added.

Wijewardene, indicating that his sole target was to reorganise the party, stated that he would not be filling the vacant National List slot of the UNP in Parliament.

Navin clears out

Even before the lapse of 24 hours since Wijewardene’s appointment as the new Deputy Leader of the UNP, the party’s National Organiser Dissanayake had cleared his office at Sirikotha.

Dissanayake had cleared all his files and documents in the office room on Tuesday (15).

He had arrived with a few of his close associates to clear his room at the party headquarters.

Meanwhile, addressing the media soon after Wijewardene was elected Deputy Leader on Monday, Ranatunga also expressed his displeasure at the new appointment.

Ranatunga said that he was thoroughly disillusioned by the fact that the UNP’s leadership was being passed down one family, making it a fiefdom of a group of people.

“I think I will stay out of everything for a while,” he said before leaving Sirikotha after the WC meeting.

Sajith wishes Ruwan

Meanwhile, Wijewardene’s appointment as the Deputy Leader and eventual succession as party leader saw many members of the SJB congratulating him on his victory.

Several SJB MPs have spoken to Wijewardene and said they were willing to meet for a discussion on the possibility of the SJB and UNP working together as an opposition force inside and out of Parliament.

SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara had also telephoned and wished Wijewardene.

Madduma Bandara had then handed the mobile phone to SJB Leader Premadasa, who had also been standing nearby.

Premadasa had congratulated Wijewardene and said the two of them should meet up shortly for a chat. Wijewardene had also agreed but they had not set up any dates for a meeting in the immediate future.

Wijewardene meanwhile is in the process of meeting with members of UNP-affiliated organisations and getting their proposals on party reforms before drawing up his final plans.

During the weekend, Wijewardene was scheduled to travel to the Matara District at the invitation of Upul Nishantha, who is opening his party office in Matara. The new UNP Deputy Leader is to also meet with religious leaders in the Matara District during the visit.

This Wednesday (23) and Thursday (24) will see Wijewardene travelling to Anuradhapura and Kandy to engage in religious observances and to meet with the mahanayakes.

UNP-SJB alliance

Wijewardene had also said he was prepared to work with the SJB when it came to the activities in the Opposition.

“SJB members were originally from the UNP. Some of them have been talking to me during the past few days and I am prepared to work with them in the future,” Wijewardene said after engaging in religious observances at the Hunupitiya Gangaramaya Temple last Tuesday (15). “My priority is to bring back the UNP’s glory days and give it a new outlook. I will have a dialogue with all concerned to unite the party once more,” he had added.

Wijewardene had further told the media that he would have a discussion with Assistant Leader Karunanayake and get his support for the welfare of the party.

Meanwhile, the SJB is hopeful of striking an alliance with the UNP without Wickremesinghe as its Leader.

“In the eventuality that Ranil Wickremesinghe is no longer Leader, we hope that some mutual understanding can be reached with the SJB,” SJB Youth Wing Chairman Mayantha Dissanayake told The Sunday Morning earlier last week.

He added the UNP had not responded, despite unofficial talks.

“There have been unofficial discussions but their party leadership doesn’t want to engage.”