And so, the Government passed sweeping albeit controversial Constitutional amendments at the speed of greased lightning this week.
The Supreme Court in a determination to the Speaker said the amendments did not require a referendum of the people, and that all that was needed was two-thirds of the votes in the 225-member Parliament. While the ultimate findings may not have differed, one might have wished that a fuller bench of the country's apex court went into the matter. When, for example, the 13th Amendment was mooted to introduce the Provincial Council system in the country, a Full Bench (all the sitting judges) of the Supreme Court met and gave what was a split vote in favour of the then Government. While there was no requirement to do so even then, it was certainly the more correct thing to have done.
On the Government's part, it rushed through the amendments as an Urgent Bill giving both the Court and those wishing to object to the new amendments little time to go into the legal and constitutional complexities involved.
Now that the Court said it was not constitutionally required to go before the people, was there anything to prevent the Government itself volunteering to go before the people? The Constitution permits this exercise. The section under the heading 'The Referendum' gives the President the discretion to put a Bill of national importance to the People (and in the case of a Constitutional amendment, after it has been passed by a two-thirds majority) to the people. Why did not the Government want to do that if it felt so confident the people backed the move?
However, the Government's position was that the people knew what was coming because the twin provisions that came by way of these thunderous amendments, i.e. to lift the lid on the number of times an Executive President can contest for the job; and the subjugation of the entire Public Service, and the emasculation of its independence by this Executive President, was already mentioned in his election manifesto when he went for a fresh mandate in January this year.
It's an open secret that hardly anybody goes by what is stated in election manifestos. After all, didn't the ruling party pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency in the 1994 manifesto and even give the date as July 15, 1995? Yet, the election manifesto is considered the candidate's promise to the people; his pledge in return for their votes. It's a recorded document and his pledges are often thrown back at him if he wins.
So what did the President's manifesto say in 2005? "I expect to present a Constitution that will propose the abolition of the Executive Presidency and to provide solutions to other issues facing the country" (Page 93).
"The new Constitution that would be so drafted would be submitted to the People at a referendum" (Page 35).
Then, in 2010 the manifesto stated; 'An open discussion on the Executive Presidency will be held with all parties. The Executive Presidency will be transferred into a Trusteeship…" (Page 56). The Government takes up the position that it "never" gave any pledge to the people in 2010 that it would abolish the Executive Presidency; that was in 2005. The promise to put these matters before the people at a referendum was also dropped in 2010. All that is passé now, according to the government.
The same is the case with the complete submerging of the Public Service to the whims and pleasures of the Executive President. "I will restore the dignity and independence of the Public Service" (Page11) in 2005. A Government MP said that this President achieved two things people thought could never happen: Defeat the LTTE and get a 2/3rds majority under the PR system. Considering the 17th Amendment was passed by a 3/3rds majority, wouldn't it have been better to get the consensus of the entire House -- than do it this way?
This week, there was an outpouring of sentiment on the streets, both for the amendments and against. The JVP was instrumental in organising the opposition rally, while the Government ministers and deputies competed to transport the party faithful in state buses in support. The 'silent majority', however, stayed put while the theatrics took place on the streets.
Unfortunately for the country, the main opposition UNP could not put up a fight, only a whimper in protest. In sixes and sevens due to bitter in-fighting, the party has been neutered into such a docile state that it couldn't even organise a rally or challenge the matter before court. All it could do was dress in black and walk out of Parliament in protest; even so, at least one of those who did so voted with the Government.
For some who broke ranks and voted with the Government, the need to oust the party leader was their main concern - to hell with the 18th Amendment and all that. The occasion was used to further weaken the party leadership, which reminds us of a famous political joke in the 'cold war' years that we have quoted before.
When a visiting group of US Congressmen was taken on a city tour by the official guide of the crumbling Soviet Empire to show off the magnificence of Moscow's underground train stations with marble statues and chandeliers etc., one of the Congressmen asked; "but where are the trains?" The guide responded angrily; "but how to do you treat blacks in America?" This was the kind of similar 'koheda yanne malle salli' argument trotted by those who voted for the 18A because they were disgruntled with their party leader or the excuse trotted out by the Left parties that opposed the Executive Presidency all along.
The President has now got what he wanted; he can contest till kingdom comes. When he met the editors and publishers this week he asked where is the "aseemitha balaya" (unlimited powers) of the Executive President that were being talked of. He argued that Parliament still retained the powers to pass laws and vote money. Without these, the Executive President will have to "uda balaagena innaweiy" (look up and wait) with his unlimited powers, he said.
But if this is the trend we see -- the Government reneging on what was promised to the people not so long ago; then arguing that it never said that it would abolish the Executive Presidency this time round; that it promised to reform the Public Service and saying this is exactly what it has done now etc., etc., then it is not beyond the realm of expectation, of a frightening proportion, of what the possibilities of a 19A or the 19th Amendment could well be, i.e to turn Parliament into a mere rubber-stamp of Presidential decrees.
We are not a dictatorship yet. However, all dictators, past or present, did wrest complete state power under their control "for the benefit of the people" and with “good intentions” . We are quickly heading towards one-party (coalition) rule. Is absolute rule, however benevolent, only negotiating the bend.