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The Forgotten Voices of Sep 2001

The events that unfolded in Parliament on 24 September 2001 had all the marks of a story script written by a brilliant playwright for a cast consisting of veteran players from the political arena. It was all drama from start to finish, the audience being kept in doubt of the final outcome till the last stages. This was the day of the debate on the 17th Amendment, the debate which began at 10a.m. and went on till 10 p.m. with only an hour’s break at 7 p.m. The Amendment was passed with 210 members voting in favour, none against, one abstention, and 13 absentees. At the end of the proceedings the Speaker (Anura Bandaranaike) summed up the mood of jubilation by stating that it was a "unique achievement in the history of our Parliament" and more than anything else it was a "landmark victory for consensus democracy" for which both sides of the House deserved the warmest congratulations.

The Backdrop of the 9/11 Attack

The proceedings began on a sombre mood with the PM (Ratnasiri Wickramanayake) expressing the condolences of the Government on the tragic attack on the WTC in New York. The Speaker joined in calling for a "resolve to fight steadfastly against terrorism wherever it occurs". The Leader of the Opposition (Ranil Wickremesinghe) associated himself and the Opposition with the sentiments expressed by the earlier speakers.

The Preliminaries

After the PM had presented the Bill with a brief explanation of an amendment the Government was proposing to move at Committee Stage in regard to the composition of the proposed Constitutional Council (CC), the first speaker for the Opposition (Tyronne Fernando) expressed concern about the composition of the CC as explained by the PM. He wanted a nominee of the Leader of the Opposition (from among retired Judges of the Higher Judiciary) included in the CC in order to "balance" the nominee of the President. However, he expressed "one hundred per cent" agreement with the proposed independent Commissions and held out the hope that during the course of the day a proper alternative for the composition of the CC will be forthcoming from the Government. If not, he warned, that the Government will not be able to rely on the votes of the UNP. This matter of the CC became a recurring issue for the greater part of the debate.

The Ethnic Issue Drama

Parliamentary debates on whatever subject would not be complete without the "ethnic issue" impinging on it at some stage. And, so it was with this debate too. Very early in the day the TULF and TELO expressed their decision to walk out of the proceedings. Their position was that whilst they were in principle agreeable to independent Commissions, the composition of the CC did not provide effective representation to minorities. Furthermore, their main contention was that piecemeal constitutional reforms would further retard meaningful devolution to the North-East region. Hence, they had decided not to participate in the debate.

The sole representative (Champika Ranawake) of the Sihala Urumaya (SU) had a different viewpoint. Although there was an issue regarding democratic governance, that was not the most important problem facing the country. To him the main problem was terrorism, which was a local manifestation of an international pattern. Drawing inspiration from a recent statement made by the then American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, he asserted that a concerted attempt should be made to eradicate terrorism from this country. On the specific Bill before the House, his position was that the envisaged "quota scheme" whereby places in the CC are allocated to nominees of different political parties and communities will not lead to genuine de-politicization. He wanted these proposals to go further and ensure that truly independent and apolitical individuals will find a place in the CC and the Commissions. To this end he tabled a report prepared by the SU that explained alternative proposals that would guarantee the true independence of the envisaged Commissions. Unfortunately, this report in not in the public domain and is lodged somewhere in the Parliament’s library.

Despite the divergence of these views and the reservations expressed, one crucial point should not be missed. Both groups accepted in principle the good intentions behind the 17th Amendment. This is perhaps why they did not vote against it. The former walked out, whilst the latter stayed behind to abstain from voting.

Two Rebellious Voices

At certain stages of the debate it seemed as if the 17th Amendment would not receive the required two-thirds majority. Two speeches from the Opposition created this doubt.

Although there were several speakers from the Opposition who had raised some concerns and objections regarding the composition of the CC, their approach had been altogether conciliatory not confrontational. They wanted the Government to re-consider the need for a President’s nominee in the CC and also ensure the representation of minority communities in it. It was left to Rajitha Senaratne (UNP), who rose to speak at about 3.30 pm, to sound the warning signal that things were not working out well.

He explained at length that the vision behind the 17th Amendment was that of the UNP, although the JVP was now trying to hijack it. He explained that there had been a move recently to form a national government for two years with the participation of all political parties, but the JVP had upset this plan by forging a MOU with the Government to provide conditional support. He was not happy at this turn of events. His parting shot was very confrontational: a No - confidence Motion will be tabled on 26 September 2001 and the Government will be toppled despite the JVP support for it.

It was 6 p.m. by the time WJM Lokubandara (UNP) rose to speak. Even at that late stage things were not going well because he too hinted at an imminent No-confidence Motion. He put forward the theory that the insistence on the part of the then President to have her nominee in the CC was an act of political chicanery to scuttle the Bill. Her strategy (the Sinhala term used was Upparavettiyak) was to push the Opposition into a position of opposing the Bill so that she can put the blame on it for the failure. His explanation was that the PM, her nominee, was already a member of the CC; so, there was no need to have an additional person. His final appeal was to stick to what had been originally agreed upon between the Government and the Opposition so that the latter could support the Bill.

At the end of the day these two members followed the party line and voted for the Amendment though the membership of the President’s nominee in the CC was retained.

Attorney - General’s Intervention

The AG (KC Kamalasabeyson), who had been following the debate from morning from the Official’s Box, thought it prudent to send a note of advice to the Speaker at about 7 p.m. The note read that, in his opinion, the removal of the President’s nominee in the CC would necessitate the approval of the Amendment at a referendum in addition to the two-thirds majority. Nobody in the House wanted to push the matter to a referendum. Soon thereafter, the sittings were suspended for one hour to enable the members to have a meal, but it was the hunger for a negotiated settlement that was uppermost in their minds during this interval.

Two Stellar Roles

The one hour break for dinner gave the members an opportunity to iron out their differences and reach an agreement. This is not to say that negotiations did not take place earlier. They did during the entire sittings and even earlier, but the amendments to be moved during the Committee Stage were finalized only during this recess.

Two persons played a crucial role in these exchanges. They were the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. Usually, in parliamentary practice the holders of these offices are engaged in verbal battles. On this occasion however they appear to have worked with a single mission, to get the Amendment through with the required majority. Their speeches were moderate and accommodative, not confrontational. Actually, what took place outside the Chamber, in the Committee Rooms of Parliament, under their superintendence were more important than the speeches that were made within. The final icing on the cake was the agreement that all amendments to be moved at Committee Stage (there were over twenty) will be moved by the PM, regardless of who or which party had initiated them. This is a very rare occurrence and this occasion marked one of the finest moments in our parliamentary history. Fittingly, the Speaker at the conclusion of the event called it "a great day for democracy and a triumph for our system of parliamentary democracy" and praised the work done behind the scenes by the PM and the Leader of the Opposition.

Contributions from Current Government Members

The contributions to the debate made by members who are currently in Government make interesting reading. Snippets of their speeches are given subject to the clarification that they have to be understood in the context of the time of the debate at which the speech was made.

The present PM (DM Jayaratne) observed that the mere establishment of independent Commissions will not provide answers to the evils that obtain in society. He called for an internal cleansing within all political parties and blamed political parties for the moral debasement of society. In particular, he appealed to the UNP not to oppose the Bill simply because the President’s nominee will be in the CC. He also urged them to put aside petty considerations like who should take the credit (UNP or JVP) for prodding the Government to bring this Amendment.

The (then) JVP spokesman, Wimal Weerawansa, acted as the conduit between the Government and the Opposition. Participating in the debate he thanked both the Government and the UNP for introducing "a new democratic framework", a framework that would democratize elections, the public service, the police service and the administration of justice. He compared the 17th Amendment to a garland of many flowers, different flowers being contributed by different political parties in Parliament. He appealed to all parties to get together and adorn the general public with this garland. He also explained the intricacies involved in the final negotiations prior to the debate - negotiations that commenced at 7 p.m. on the 23rd and continued till 1 a.m. of the day of the debate (24th) - in order to break the deadlock in regard to the composition of the CC.

Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) explained that the 17th Amendment Bill was a reflection of the deficiencies in the 1978 Constitution. The issue before the Opposition was whether we take the country forward with this Amendment or abort it using a minor disagreement as excuse.He quoted the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Bill to argue that the presence of the President’s nominee in the CC was vital.

He traced the idea of an independent Elections Commission to a Select Committee that had been set up in July 1983. He had been a member of this Committee and also subsequent Committees, but for various reasons an agreement had not been possible. Today, all parties have agreed on establishing an Elections Commission. He explained that setting up the CC was the prelude to an independent Elections Commission. Finally, he stated that the Government had presented the 17th Amendment in order to effect a positive change in the manner in which the country is governed. Hence, it is the duty of all Opposition parties to rise above petty rivalries and support the measure.

Nimal Siripala de Silva reiterated the Government’s position in regard to the issues that had been raised, especially the need to have the President’s nominee in the CC. Additionally, he explained that, in the future, public servants will have a new independent institution, Administrative Appeals Tribunal, to adjudicate on disciplinary matters when currently they have to appeal to the Cabinet. He concluded his speech by appealing to the Opposition not to jeopardize a proposal that would further strengthen democracy.

Mahinda Samarasinghe (UNP) was fortunate in having to speak after the dinner recess. He stated that through careful backstage negotiations a consensus had been reached on the amendments to be moved at the Committee Stage, and that they will be moved by the Government on behalf of all parties. He acknowledged the dedication of many persons to accomplish this task "to ensure that this historic moment is indeed not missed but captured in full".

He outlined the wide consultations that had taken place earlier with civil society organizations like the OPA, all political parties, the Maha Sangha and other religious dignitaries, and representatives of different ethnic groups. He said that the UNP wanted the Amendment included in the Constitution with the broadest possible agreement, so that it would stand the test of time.

Postscript

Today, the 17th Amendment is being led to the guillotine for the crime that it stands in the way of the exercise of unrestrained executive power. Many who sang its praises then are today in the ranks of Government. The sad irony of it is that they are now poised with hands on the lever to bring the guillotine blade down.

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