The Political Column

22nd July 2001

Anura's attitude jolts UNP

By our Political Correspondent
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Adding to the confusion that followed a presidential proclamation to prorogue parliament, there was chaos in the country on Thursday when the opposition-led people's movement for democracy took to the streets, protesting against the President's action.

The prorogation at a time when parliament was to debate a motion of no-confidence against the government was condemned by all opposition parties and several civic organisations.

Those who support the presidential action say that President Chandrika Kumaratunga acted under the provisions of the 1978 Constitution and therefore her move is not illegal or unconstitutional.

But her critics say the action undermined the authority of parliament. 

They ask whether parliament is playing second fiddle to the executive presidency under the 1978 constitution which is a blend of the American, French and the Westminster systems of governance. 

In a conflict situation such as one we see today, it is important to look into the intention of framers of the constitution and legislators who approved it.

Unlike the Westminster system, the President is not required to either to consult the Prime Minister or act on his advice when decisions are made. The Prime Minister largely holds an ornamental position under the present constitution. 

It could be argued that the legislators who approved the present constitution had done so with the knowledge that the supreme law of this country gave absolute power to the executive President, though he or she who holds the office of the president is required to use this power with restraint and only to enhance democracy and not to suppress it.

Prorogation is a mechanism which enables the President every year to present the government's policy statement. But the provision to prorogue parliament has also been invoked for political reasons as well. It happened during the Premadasa regime. 

It is no secret that President Premadasa made use of the prorogation provisions to protect himself from being impeached by a group of parliamentarians. In other words, he resorted to prorogation to subvert the democratic process of impeachment. And now President Kumaratunga is following in his footsteps to frustrate efforts by opposition MPs to overthrow the government through the no-confidence motion. 

In these two instances, the so-called concept of supremacy of parliament, the institution that can check the overwhelming presidential powers, has been challenged. Parliament is the only institution which can impeach the President. Framers of the 1978 constitution had made it difficult, ostensibly to avoid invocation of the impeachment procedure on flimsy grounds. But in reality the parliamentary check on the executive president through impeachment is a near impossibility. Under the present electoral system it is difficult for one main party to obtain a two thirds majority. Thus an impeachment motion should involve the participation of the rival main party. 

In short, the 1978 Constitution vests in the office of presidency immense power with few practicable checks. Certain presidential acts may look autocratic or morally incorrect, but they are legally correct.

President Kumaratunga's action is in accordance with the constitution, but she is required to use powers associated with her office in a manner that would not undermine parliament. Only her hardcore party loyalists would disagree that she took cover under prorogation to avoid defeat. 

One may ask that how can the opposition blame her when she has acted within the bounds of the constitution. The answer may lie in sentiments expressed by Speaker Anura Bandaranaike in his response to a petition submitted by opposition MPs.

While stating that he had no power to overstep the legal limitation he was placed in as the Speaker, Mr. Bandaranaike said his personal opinion might be at variance with what had been done on this occasion in the matter of the prorogation.

"I am myself bound by the Constitution and cannot, therefore, overstep the limits of my powers," the Speaker said.

In short, he told opposition MPs that their interpretation was correct from moral and ethical perspectives but President was also correct in a constitutional sense. 

The decision to prorogue Parliament helped the main opposition UNP to muster the support of other opposition parties such as the JVP and Sihala Urumaya. It has brought together virtually all opposition parties into a common front against the government. But such an occasion is rare in the political history of this country.

But the JVP appears to be having some reservations about the common opposition front the people's movement for democracy.

The JVP wanted to maintain its identity. It apparently does not want its light lost in the glow of the UNP. 

In an apparent bid to convey its stance, the JVP did not join the Monday's opposition party leaders' meeting at the parliamentary complex, though it has signed several opposition-sponsored petitions.

The JVP has another reason to assert its identity. It feels the UNP is playing some sort of a double game, holding secret meetings with the President while taking measures to topple the government.

JVP's propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa used the air time given by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini last week, to make its position clear regarding the prorogation and the referendum. He said the President had taken refuge under the provisions of the very constitution she had described on many an occasion as "bahubootha" or being without any substance in it.

The President had blamed the UNP on several occasions for not cooperating with her to abolish the executive presidency. But she has squandered several opportunities offered to her by the UNP. 

Gamini Dissanayake when he was the leader of the opposition during the 1994 Kumaratunga premiership said the UNP would support moves to abolish the executive presidency. Then the present UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged his support to scrap it. 

Perhaps Ms. Kumaratunga saw some sinister moves behind these offers or she was not keen on abolishing the executive presidency. Now she is trying to do it with a vague question at a referendum. 

The question itself is not properly formulated was the contention put forward by Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris at a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago.

While the government is to exploit the referendum to the maximum to convince the country that it has a mandate to formulate a new constitution and to subsequently convene a constituent assembly aimed at promulgating a new constitution, the opposition gives a distortion to the question to ask the people whether they want Ms. Kumaratunga to continue as president.

The next 30 days are going to be critical for the government. Its campaign is not going to be easy as some ministers are reported to be not toeing the President's line. 

To keep her flock together, the President is likely to hold dissolution of parliament as a threat. 

As far as the UNP is concerned, it seems to be a united lot. Even the so-called rebels are falling in line with the thinking of Mr. Wickremesinghe though his recent secret meeting with President Kumaratunga had caused some concern among party seniors.

The government insisted on saying that the meeting was initiated by one-time police officer Sudath Chandrasekera through the President's Security Chief Karunaratne. But Wickremesinghe loyalists deny this vehemently. They say the meeting was initiated by the President herself through Chandana de Silva, the Country Manager of SriLankan Airlines who got through to Malik Samarawickrema to communicate with Mr. Wickremesinghe.

But others say that the meeting was arranged by one Kithsiri Manchanayake who maintains close links with the President's security chief Superintendent of Police Karunaratne.

It was after this meeting on July 4 that the Prime Minister called off the dialogue with the government for some reason not known to many.

However, soon after the Prime Minister's move to call off the dialogue with the UNP, the UNP had desperately attempted to get in touch with the President. For this, it is mentioned among UNP circles that Malik Samarawickrema contacted Chandana de Silva of SriLankan Airlines who apparently has a direct pipeline to President Kumaratunga. But this, too, did not materialise and eventually Mr. Wickremesinghe met Speaker Anura Bandaranaike the following Monday. Mr. Bandaranaike subsequently met President Kumaratunga on Tuesday.

A few hours later, she decided to prorogue Parliament to the surprise of Mr. Bandaranaike himself.

The prorogation is a very tacit message to the UNP that President Kumaratunga was not willing to work with a government headed by Mr. Wickremesinghe.

By this time it appeared that the government was determined not to invite Mr. Wickremesinghe to form a government under his premiership.

Obviously the Kumaratunga government was looking for a way out and exploring options available to bypass Mr. Wickre-mesinghe. In the circumstances, some UNPers believe that she might switch the positions between Anura Bandaranaike and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and invite Mr. Bandaranaike to form a government with a group loyal to him in the UNP.

While this was brewing in some political circles, Mr. Bandaranaike had a meeting with opposition leaders on Tuesday to discuss the issue involving the treatment meted out to the opposition MPs by the police on Monday.

Police barricaded all roads leading to parliament to prevent opposition MPs converging in the well of the Parliamentary chamber to hold a meeting to defy prorogation of parliament by President Kumaratunga.

The opposition took up the position that the police had no right to interfere with parliamentarians and demanded an immediate inquiry.

Mr. Bandaranaike acted accordingly to appoint former diplomat Vernon Mendis to inquire into the matter with the assistance of former parliament secretary general Nihal Seneviratne.

UNP whip Tyronne Fernando submitted recorded statements of several MPs including that of Ravindra Randeniya, Manilal Ratnatilleke and Ranjit Madduma Bandara for the perusal of the Speaker.

However, some UNP MPs see the Speaker's response as lukewarm and negative. They say that whenever the UNP raised a question, Mr. Bandaranaike responded saying: "I'll have to consult Nihal," referring to his consultant Nihal Seneviratne.

Mr. Bandaranaike also indicated that he would have to go abroad shortly. But when UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya said that it would be better if he remained in the country since the country had plunged into a crisis situation, the Speaker brushed it aside saying there was nothing to worry.

It appears that the UNP is now perturbed over Mr. Bandaranaike's attitude and the stance he has taken when they complained about police harassment.

It was Mr. Bandaranaike, who directed Police Chief Lucky Kodituwakku to remove barricades for the UNPers to have access to the parliamentary complex since the opposition had already allocated a committee room for a meeting on Monday. 

Though the UNP expected the JVP to back its move to have a meeting in parliament, the radical Marxist group retracted as it felt certain steps taken by the UNP were not in conformity with the agenda of the joint opposition.

But now, the JVP had agreed to extend conditional support to the opposition parties to defeat the government. It said that it would support only those decisions which are taken with the consent of all opposition parties. All actions that do not have the consent of all opposition parties, including the JVP, should not be branded as a joint opposition move, the JVP said. Accordingly, the JVP did not take party in the opposition protest on Thursday. But it warned that if the government tried to suppress the peoples' right to express themselves, it would join all opposition parties.

The JVP which met with a delegation of the UNP on Wednesday also agreed to meet the Speaker, Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris and the Elections Commissioner to discuss the validity of the referendum.

According to the 1978 Referendum, there are three kinds of referenda that the President could hold under Article 85(1), 85(2) and 86.

Right now, there is some misconception about the proposed referendum. The majority of the people think that the non-binding referendum a waste of time and money. It has a limited scope and is aimed at assessing the public opinion.

According to government sources, this referendum to be held under Article 86 could be a basis for decision-making and nothing else.

However, if a referendum is held under Article 85(1) or 85(2) it would have a different objective and purpose 85 (2) deals with bills other than amendments to the Constitution.

Under this provision, if a bill other than an amendment to the constitution is rejected by Parliament, the President could go before the people for their approval.

Article 85 (1) deals with constitutional amendments and a referendum is held after Parliament approves it with a two thirds majority.

The 1982 referendum was held under this provision to extend the life of Parliament.

It first came before parliament, as the Fourth Amendment to the constitution and later was put before the people at a referendum for their approval.

This too was challenged before the Supreme Court and was finally approved with a division.

Be that as it may, Thursday's protest by some opposition parties including the UNP, took a violent turn when the police turned their guns on the unarmed civilians, killing two youths and wounding more than 70 people.

Observers say the government mishandled the whole issue with the police issuing a warning that processions were banned under Section 45 of the Referendum Act.

But others say the government thought that it might go out of hand, if the protesters were allowed inside the city, since Colombo Central and other areas were strongholds of the UNP.

Many observers believe the police used excessive power that did not spare even school children.

In Nugegoda they fired gas canisters indiscriminately, causing schoolchildren as young as six to suffer.

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