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Lots of sound, little substance in a farce of a debate

By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

As one government member put it in Parliament last Wednesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has achieved two things that for years people were made to believe were unachievable. First he gave leadership to the military defeat of the LTTE. Second he managed to muster a two thirds majority in Parliament under the Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections, to get the necessary numbers to make constitutional changes.

While both these achievements are remarkable, the actions of the government in the aftermath of the war vis-a -vis the witch-hunt against former Army Commander DNA MP Sarath Fonseka and the manner in which it set about getting a two thirds majority in Parliament has left a bitter taste in the mouth.

A sense of triumphalsim prevailed among government members on the day the debate on the 18th Amendment took place in Parliament. Government member- after-member called it a “historic day” during the nearly nine hour debate. What made it “historic” for them was the fact that the Government had managed a two thirds majority which even the architect of the 1978 Constitution former President Junius Richard Jayewardene had said could never be achieved.

Ironically, the very same parliamentarians who were about to say ‘aye’ to further consolidate the one-man showmanship facet of the ‘78 Constitution, directed their ire at late President Jayewardene for introducing the presidential system to fulfil his “own needs and not the needs of the people.” It was Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne who began the posthumous incrimination against the late President saying the reason he put the two term limit on the executive was because he was in his seventies when he ascended the high office and knew he would be too old to run for a third term.

“When members of Parliament and Provincial Councils as well as local government bodies can run for unlimited terms in elected office, why cannot the same right be enjoyed by the President?” Mr. Jayaratne asked.

Several other members expressed similar sentiments asking why a two term limit introduced by a ageing politician should prevent younger men from holding office for several terms if the people so willed.
The government side had a field day in the House with little opposition after the United National Party (UNP) decided to boycott the debate. The decision served the ruling side well, with both UNP members who decided to cross over as well as government members getting extra time to participate in the debate.

A one time staunch critic of the executive presidency, Minister Wimal Weerawansa now saw the need for the continuation of the system to ensure political stability in the country. “It is the very forces that tried to prevent the military defeat of the LTTE that are now trying to stop the country from becoming politically stable,” he alleged. “These changes are like planetary changes and they impact people differently. They will adversely affect some,” he added.

But it was the remnants of the old left parties namely Ministers Tissa Vitharana and D.E.W. Gunasekera and MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara who, not very surprisingly, made a lame effort to justify their reasons for supporting the 18th Amendment which would help the incumbent to further consolidate the executive presidency which they once saw as the root cause of all that is wrong with the country.

Upeksha Swarnamali, Manusha Nanayakkara and Nimal Wijeysinghe: Three of the UNP crossovers in conversation in the corridors of Parliament. Pic by J. Weerasekera

While the three tried to find a way that may perhaps make historians of the executive presidency judge them less harshly when the role played by the Left comes under focus, their roars of the past had all but become a whimper. But turning roars to whimpers has become the handiwork of those in the present administration who, rightly or wrongly, have managed to neutralize most of those who dared to make too much of a noise.There were some like Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran who tried to talk some sense in a House where triumphalsim seemed to be ruling the roost with some Government members not giving ear to a single dissenting word. At one point all one could hear were shouts of “kotiya, kotiya” as Mr.Sumanthiram tried to make himself heard. “Sound is no substitute for substance,” he said, but no one in the government seemed to be listening.

Like the members of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), the TNA Legislator too called the 18th Amendment the last nail in the coffin of democracy in the country. More importantly he lamented the lack of public discussion on the amendments prior to approval by Parliament.

DNA MP Anura Dissanayaka carried much of the burden of airing an opposing view given the fact that the DNA and TNA combined were down to 17 members as opposed to 161 supporting the Bill. He saw the lifting of the presidential term limit as a way of denyig any chance for even another member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) from becoming President other than those of the Rajapaksa family. “Today democracy is being buried in the family burial grounds of the Rajapaksa’s,” he charged.

Minister Basil Rajapaksa gave a lengthy explanation on how the Parliamentary Council would work and said the deadlock in setting up the Constitutional Council had led to the creation of the Parliamentary Council to replace it.

There was plenty of drama too with six members of the UNP walking across the Well of the House to join Government ranks led by Kandy disrtct MP Abdul Cader. Badulla district MP Lakshman Seneviratne who also crossed over said that the UNP was indirectly supporting the Government by being absent from the House while he was doing it directly by being present.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem hailed President Rajapaksa as a man who understood the problems of the minorities and hence would support the amendment.

The most ludicrous reason given by one of the UNP members who supported the amendment was by Nuwara Eliya district MP Sri Ranga who claimed he had been urged to do so by his electors in his district as well as the Wanni area which he had been visiting recently. But expecting anyone to believe that the people of these areas are aware of or are even bothered about the intricate details of a constitutional amendment when the majority of them are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, makes it a laughable explanation on why he decided to switch loyalties less than six months after being elected from another party.

Meanwhile, the UNP has only itself to blame for its MPs abandoning the party. More importantly in this instance, the party by its decision to boycott the debate lost out on the opportunity to tell the voters why exactly they call the amendment “shameful and fraudulent.” While they engaged in half hearted public protests on the streets which drew little attention, the Government side sailed smoothly through with the constitutional amendments.

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