Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is being put to the test, probably in a way none of his predecessors have been. He has to decide if he is going to allow two Opposition groups to co-exist in the same Parliament. A decision he has put off for nearly six months, but came to the fore in a [...]


Co-existence of two opposition groups within a patched up House has Karu J. groping


Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is being put to the test, probably in a way none of his predecessors have been. He has to decide if he is going to allow two Opposition groups to co-exist in the same Parliament. A decision he has put off for nearly six months, but came to the fore in a forceful manner in Parliament this week, with members of the “Joint Opposition Group” (JOG) staging loud protests in the House to draw attention to their demand they be recognised in Parliament as a separate group.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is being put to the test:To allow two Opposition groups to co-exist or not. Pix by Amila Gamage

The Group headed by former Chief Government Whip UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardena has been agitating to be recognised as a separate group in the new Parliament elected last August. This week Mr Gunawardena made it clear that the Group does not want the post of Leader of the Opposition, now held by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader R. Sampanthan, but is seeking acceptance as a separate group, with more time allocated to its members, as well as representation at Party Leaders meetings held regularly to decide on Parliamentary business.

“We have repeatedly requested you (the Speaker) to tell us if you have decided to recognise us as an independent group in Parliament or not. We should be allowed to work according to our conscience. We have waited for six months, held 13 rounds of talks with you, but still there is no decision,” Mr Gunawardena said Wednesday.

The Group comprising 51 MPs, majority of them from the SLFP and others from the UPFA’s constituent parties, have signed a letter and handed it over to the Speaker asking that they be given due recognition,” he said.

Several other members of the JOG also spoke in support of the demand, including MP Bandula Gunawardena who said President Maithripala Sirisena as leader of the SLFP, has told its Parliamentarians they can take decisions in Parliament according to their conscience. “Before the Budget vote, the President met us and said, “It is good if you can support the Budget,” but a group of us said we cannot do that and hence, we were allowed to vote against it. No disciplinary action was taken against any of us by the Party, which means the SLFP leaderships accepts the fact that we can remain in it and still act independently in Parliament,” Mr. Gunawardena said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said there was no room for two Opposition groups to operate within the same Parliament, but agreed that those in the JOG need more time to speak in the House. “We can discuss and solve this. I will talk to the President about this,” he assured.

The problem of who constitutes the “untamed” Opposition has been a matter of debate ever since the UNP and the SLFP decided to cohabit in Government, in keeping with a pre-election pact endorsed eagerly by the SLFP leadership, but reluctantly by the majority of its party members.

TNA Leader MP Sampanthan, whose party won 16 seats at the August election, was appointed as the Leader of the Opposition in the new Parliament, while the JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, whose party won six seats, was appointed Chief Opposition Whip.

This arrangement has left the 51 MPs who contested on the UPFA tickets and do not want to be a part of the Government, somewhat in the lurch. They are being denied adequate time to speak during debates, as well as the opportunity to raise questions relating to matters of public importance under section 23 (2) of Standing Orders of Parliament. Such questions can only be raised by the Leader of the Opposition or a leader of a recognized political parity.

Speaker Jayasuirya explained that there are only six recognised political parties in Parliament – United National Party (UNP), United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi ITAK/TNA), People’s Liberation Front (JVP), Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). While these parties consist of 13 constituent parties, it is only the six party leaders who are allowed to raise questions and attend party leaders meetings in keeping with Standing Orders.

The Speaker quoted from Parliamentary conventions both in the Sri Lanka legislature and the UK’s House of Commons, instances where political parties have broken up and MPs elected from the same party have decided to sit as separate groups in the House, but said there were no conventions that allowed two Opposition groups to sit in the same Parliament. Moreover, the Speaker said he did not want to “shoulder the sin of splitting the UPFA-SLFP”, hinting that, recognising them as a separate group in Parliament could lead to the break up of the Alliance, as well as a split in its main constituent party the SLFP.

The constitution of the present Parliament and its unique character means the Speaker may have to look beyond conventions to ensure that JOG is given the right to participate in Parliamentary business without any discrimination. And it is in his authority to give a ruling, taking the character of the new Parliament into consideration.

This Parliament has to continue for at least the next four years and however uncomfortable a workable arrangement may be, the Speaker will have to ensure that Parliamentary business is conducted smoothly, with the full participation of the House. Otherwise, what the country will see is more of the unruly scenes in the House that took place this week when a Bill was passed into law while more than half the members occupied the Well of the House, and the speakers’ voices were barely audible amidst the din created by the protesting MPs of JOG.

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