Impasse over 19th Amendment will trigger early parliamentary election



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by Rajan Philips


Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, President Sirisena was optimistic that the modified Amendment will be passed on April 21, and that the current parliament could be dissolved soon after to end the current political uncertainty over parliamentary government. As things are, he may have to remind the squabbling parliamentarians that if they do not pass the 19th Amendment as modified after the Supreme Court ruling, he will have no alternative but to exercise his constitutional power (which ironically will be removed after the 19th Amendment is enacted) and dissolve parliament and send the whole bunch to face the people. Although it is not unreasonable for the SLFP-opposition to ask the government to implement electoral reforms before dissolving parliament in return for their support of 19A, it is utterly unreasonable for them to insist that the 19th Amendment and the electoral reforms should be passed at the same time. In any event, the current Parliament is fast losing its usefulness and it needs to be put out of its misery sooner than later, and with or without electoral reforms. Tragically, it may have to be dissolved even without passing the 19th Amendment.

The January New Year brought in a new era in Sri Lankan politics. So we thought. After watching much meandering by the new government through its 100 Day Programme, politically minded Sri Lankans took a break for the April New Year enthused by the Supreme Court’s determination on the 19th Amendment. It was a demonstration of judicial independence. With the government agreeing to remove the provisions in the Bill, that were determined by the Court as requiring direct approval by the people in a referendum, many would have thought the new Amendment would see swift passage in parliament after the Avurudu break. We were wrong. The passage of the Amendment can no longer be taken for granted. In fact, it may not be passed. And no one seems to be in charge, or in control of anything. The haggling and quibbling between the UNP-SLFP-government and the SLFP-opposition has become intolerable.


The Maithri-Ranil-CBK Troika that was supposed to mobilize parliamentary support for the Amendment’s passage has gone missing. The others in the Common Opposition, who successfully joined forces to bring down the Rajapaksa juggernaut, are now accusing one another of political conspiracy. First, the JVP levelled the charge of conspiracy against President Sirisena, and now the JHU is accusing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of conspiracy to have parliament dissolved without passing the 19th Amendment. The parliamentary remnants of the Rajapaksa regime (GL Peiris, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, DEW Gunasekera, Tissa Vitarana, and Wimal Weerawansa), who stood on their hind legs and slavishly supported every constitutional and parliamentary impropriety under the Rajapaksas over the last five years, have suddenly become puritanical defenders of parliamentary procedure.


Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, President Sirisena was optimistic that the modified Amendment will be passed on April 21, and that the current parliament could be dissolved soon after to end the current political uncertainty over parliamentary government. As things are, he may have to remind the squabbling parliamentarians that if they do not pass the 19th Amendment as modified after the Supreme Court ruling, he will have no alternative but to exercise his constitutional power (which ironically will be removed after the 19th Amendment is enacted) and dissolve parliament and send the whole bunch to face the people. Although it is not unreasonable for the SLFP-opposition to ask the government to implement electoral reforms before dissolving parliament in return for their support of 19A, it is utterly unreasonable for them to insist that the 19th Amendment and the electoral reforms should be passed at the same time. In any event, the current Parliament is fast losing its usefulness and it needs to be put out of its misery sooner than later, and with or without electoral reforms. Tragically, it may have to be dissolved even without passing the 19th Amendment.


An early parliamentary dissolution and election without passing the 19th Amendment will not look good on any of the political parties in the South. But every one of them would deserve that infamy. Even if it is a UNP conspiracy to cause the dissolution of parliament without passing the 19th Amendment, as alleged by the JHU, it will only backfire on the UNP. The UNP leadership must take the lion share of the blame for failing to live to up to the mandate given by the people in the January election. And the UNP leadership will be under tremendous challenge to explain to their supporters and the electorate as to what they were thinking and what they were doing during the 100 days of the promised land of yahapalanaya. The JVP and JHU will not be able to go far electorally merely by respectively accusing President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of political conspiracy. They will all be talking at cross-purposes in a parliamentary election, unlike in the January presidential election when they worked for a common purpose behind a common opposition candidate.


The SLFP’s problems would be even worse. It has now become an open question if the SLFP will be able to cover its many cracks and contest the election as one entity, or split along the main Horogolla-Hambantota fault line. And what will be the platform of an SLFP without the Rajapaksa baggage? Equally, what will be the platform of Rajapaksa-restoration front initiated by the other (Dinesh-Wimal-Vasu) Troika and supported by SLFP dissidents, if it were to materialize as an electoral competitor outside the SLFP? President Sirisena, has indicated that he has no objection to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa being an SLFP candidate at the parliamentary election to become a new MP, but that he will not endorse Rajapaksa as the parliamentary leader of the SLFP and potentially become Prime Minister because of the many corruption charges against the former President and his government and because of his alienation of Sri Lanka’s minorities. Both are valid points, of course. But to what extent can President Sirisena exercise his power within the SLFP, even though he has absolute power to dissolve Sri Lanka’s parliament without consulting anyone?


Allegations of corruption and misdeeds of the Rajapaksa regime were a central part of the common opposition campaign during the presidential election. These questions will intensify during the parliamentary election and will likely involve much finger pointing between the former common opposition parties. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be under fire for allegedly going soft on the Rajapaksas and for his haughty appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as the Governor of the Central Bank. It will be a good election topic for the chattering classes to mull over - how a reputed bank professional who came from Singapore in good faith to accept a job in Colombo, on the invitation of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, could become a victim of circumstances and have his passport impounded, whereas all those accused of corruption in the previous government could be still at large and be returned to parliament and to power. Strange indeed, are the ways of politics.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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