Question mark over 18th Amendment
Rajitha claims 37 PA MPs on govt side

by Shamindra Ferdinando
The government’s bid to introduce major constitutional amendments stripping President Chandrika Kumaratunga of her powers to dissolve or prorogue parliament and permit MPs to cross-over or cast a conscience vote has run in to stiff opposition with the PA hierarchy warning members against joining the move, political sources said.

The proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution was due to be presented in parliament on May 21 but has now being postponed presumably for the lack of sufficient opposition support.

But Lands Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne yesterday expressed confidence that the government will be able to secure the required support of PA MPs. He said that Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted him to finalise everything before the end of next month.

"We have been able to convince 37 PA MPs," he claimed, adding that the government was exploring the possibility of having the entire PA parliamentary group back the proposed 18th Amendment.

Sources further said that the UNP will be able to secure support of the majority of PA MPs if it seeks to introduce constitutional amendments to only make way for MPs to cross-over or cast a conscience vote. But they have reservations about clipping the president’s wings.

Senaratne told The Sunday Island that Premier Wickremesinghe was determined to have these amendments enshrined in the Constitution as soon as possible. The premier’s stance was obvious as under the Constitution, President Kumaratunga was able to arbitrarily dissolve parliament anytime after December 5 this year - one year after the last parliamentary elections.

But the proposed 18th Amendment which will require a two-thirds majority before dissolving or proroguing parliament, will direct the president to obtain the concurrence of the premier and the Speaker. It will also provide for the establishment of 20 committees headed by cabinet ministers which would lead the government’s accelerated development work - power sharing between the government and opposition on lines similar to the Executive Committees in the State Council.

PA spokesman Dr. Sarath Amunugama and chief opposition whip Mangala Samaraweera Friday said that the government will not succeed in its bid to divide the alliance. They also ruled out the possibility of the PA joining the government in any form while claiming that they were planning to go ahead with joint opposition protests involving the JVP against the government for allegedly allowing the LTTE to take advantage of the ceasefire agreement.

However, they admitted differences with the JVP with regard to the proposed devolution of powers to the provinces.

The JVP will not support the proposed Amendment, party sources said, adding that the need was not to strip President Kumaratunga of some of her powers which were detrimental to the government, but to abolish the executive presidential system altogether.

PA and JVP sources pointed out that the UNP will have to convince the UNF’s constituent partners, the CWC and the SLMC as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), that the proposed amendment will not be detrimental to their interests. The three parties believe that the executive presidential system is beneficial to minority parties and that provisions to cross-over or cast a conscience vote will invite danger.

However, UNP leaders have repeatedly assured them that their bid was only aimed at the PA and they have nothing to fear, the sources said.

The government is yet to present the proposed amendment to cabinet where President Kumaratunga will be able to have her say.