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Lokubandara’s dilemma

Whether Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara will preside over what will be the final session of the 13th Parliament which meets on Tuesday for the specific purpose of extending the State of Emergency, which has been in force for as long as anyone can remember, is a moot point. It is traditional that the Speaker, if available, will preside over important sessions of the House. Given that a dissolved Parliament has been reconvened for a purpose of national importance, ordinary people will expect Lokubandara to take the chair on this occasion and this, we are sure, under normal circumstances will be the case. However, we live in extraordinary times and it may be convenient for Lokubandara to let somebody else do the honours on Tuesday. An almighty rumpus is building up and avoiding presiding over it makes good sense. But our Speaker, whatever else he may be, is no coward and we are sure he will handle what comes with his usual good humour.

We say this with good reason. Lokubandara will be faced with the tricky situation of deciding whether he will or will not swear-in two new UNP MPs gazetted by the Elections Commissioner to replace Messrs. Johnston Fernando and Indika Bandaranayake, elected to the 13th Parliament on the UNP ticket who some weeks ago defected to the ruling party and, like their predecessors, were anointed with cabinet portfolios. They too chose the route of going to court to ensure that they will not lose their parliamentary seats should the UNP expel them. However, since President Mahinda Rajapaksa, using his constitutional prerogative, dissolved the 13th parliament, they withdrew their court action which in the context of the dissolution seemed irrelevant at that time.

But the reconvening of the dissolved Parliament, for the second time, has placed a new complexion on this whole business. The Secretary-General of Parliament duly informed the Elections Commissioner that two vacancies in the House had arisen; and the Commissioner who has much more serious things to worry about now with the parliamentary election due on April 8,in terms of Section 64(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, gazetted the names of three UNP nominees, Messrs. M.M.M. Mustafa, D.M. Bandaranayake and Anura Gopallawa to fill these vacancies. We don’t know why three nominations were made to fill two vacancies and can only wonder whether this was a `back-up’ measure in case one failed to turn up. Let us not forget that ours is a country where an MP once turned up late for a vital vote which could decide the survival or fall of the government to which he belonged. He claimed he had suffered a flat tyre! He is famously reported to have been told by a colleague when he did turn up too late at the old Parliament by the sea, ``thamussey ge kareke vitharak nowei, thamuselage anduweth hulang bahala! (``Not only you car but your government too has fallen flat!)

Although Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s last letter to the Speaker on the subject of filling parliamentary vacancies was dated April 1, we do not think Lokubandara will regard it as an April Fool’s joke. Wickremesinghe has made the point that the tradition in the British House of Commons – which we generally follow in most matters though, unfortunately, not in the way Members conduct themselves, has been to fill parliamentary vacancies immediately. That would mean that the two new MPs, who (lucky fellows!) will get a month’s pay for a day’s service if they are sworn, must be sworn on Tuesday before the House debates the extension of the Emergency for one more month. Although we proclaim to the world that things are normal in this free, sovereign, democratic socialist republic of ours now that the war is over, celebrate the lifting of adverse travel advisories etc. etc., we continue to extend the Emergency with monotonous regularity - possibly because LTTE `sleepers’ may be lurking in Colombo and elsewhere as we are regularly informed.

But we are straying away from Lokubandara’s problem. He’s had a jolly good ride as a member of the Uncle Nephew Party or GOP – whichever way you choose to look at it - been a UNP minister, had a good time as Speaker thanks to the UNP which ensured his election – according to some counts he’s notched over a century in foreign trips during his tenure, occupied the spanking new house built for the speaker close to parliament where he’s hosted some grand parties and then, voila! had his son appointed UPFA organizer for Haputale (Lokubandara’s old seat) and got his own name into the UPFA national list! Now he has to wrestle with this unfortunate problem of whether or not to swear two new UNP MPs just two days before the country faces another election According to Ranil Wickremesinghe, Parliament’s business is governed by standing orders mentioned in the Constitution itself. So will we have a party leader’s meeting to discuss the order of business in the House on Tuesday? If that’s the way the game is to be played, we can wager our last rupee that there will be quite a rumpus if not in the Speaker’s chambers in the House itself.

So the 13th Parliament will not end its business with just a whimper. There’ll surely be a big bang though on a very potty matter. Wickremesinghe has called on the Speaker to immediately summon a meeting of the Parliamentary Business Committee, that is a party leader’s meeting ``to discuss this matter.’’ At the time of writing, we are not aware whether such a meeting has been summoned. If not, it will be gloves off in the chamber. Given the perks he’s enjoyed since he gave up his employment in the Legal Draftsman’s Department to take to a political career, Mr. Lokubandara, to put it mildly, has had a jolly good time. Most of the public and notably his constituents in Haputale will not grudge him that because he’s always been a jolly good fellow; a most affable man always good for a joke, express a witticism or laugh something off before it becomes anything but a joking matter. Hopefully these talents will stand him in good stead come Tuesday.

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