Next week will see the birth of a ‘National Government’ with at least nine ministerial portfolios going to those in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). President Maithripala Sirisena, authoritative sources said yesterday, would thus effect a re-shuffle of existing portfolios to accommodate the newcomers. The move will ensure that both the United National Party [...]


New National Government soon, 9 portfolios likely for SLFP

Disputes over draft 19th Amendment but consensus likely to be reached - - TNA, SLMC and other parties object to new electoral reforms, seek better deal for minorities -- Troika of Maithri, Ranil, CBK running the country
By Our Political Editor

Next week will see the birth of a ‘National Government’ with at least nine ministerial portfolios going to those in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
President Maithripala Sirisena, authoritative sources said yesterday, would thus effect a re-shuffle of existing portfolios to accommodate the newcomers. The move will ensure that both the United National Party (UNP) as well as those in the UPFA will vote jointly in Parliament for the constitutional changes and electoral reforms thus ensuring a two-thirds majority. In terms of arrangements now being worked out, parliamentary elections are still being planned for June.


President Maithripala Sirisena addressing SLFP party organisers on Tuesday.

Today at 2 p.m., President Sirisena is expected to brief his party MPs about the UNP-SLFP ‘National Government’ and its objectives. They have been summoned for an emergency meeting. The SLFP Central Committee had earlier given Sirisena a mandate allowing him to form such a ‘National Government’ whenever deemed necessary. Thus, both the SLFP and the UNP will go for parliamentary elections, now expected in June, whilst serving in a caretaker Government.


One of the immediate outcomes of this latest move by Sirisena is the fast tracking of investigations into cases of corruption, bribery and other malpractices. The new portfolios to be announced are expected to reflect President’s Sirisena’s determination to bring to book the wrong doers. It is likely to take effect tomorrow.
Ahead of the proposed ‘National Government’ being set up, the Cabinet of Ministers will meet at a special session tomorrow to put into final shape the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the subject of intense discussion among partners of the rainbow coalition.


It was only last Sunday that the draft presented by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was subjected to drastic changes. That was first during a meeting of party leaders and thereafter at a special session of ministers. Called upon on both occasions to explain the provisions was constitutional lawyer Jayampathy Wickremeratne. He was largely helpful to the Prime Minister in formulating his draft.
What emerged as a revised draft after the two different discussions was Gazetted on March 13 as the new 19th Amendment to the Constitution. As expected, there were a few areas of discrepancy and other issues, to which the ministers will address their minds tomorrow. Thus, a final draft that emerges will be presented in Parliament for approval next month.


Dropped from Premier Wickremesinghe’s draft, after party leaders raised objections, was the setting up of a Council of State, a second chamber of sorts. Most vociferous among those who raised objections was the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Such a 36 member Council to be jointly appointed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was to be vested with a primary function – “implementation of matters contained in the Statement of Government Policy, the adherence to the principles of good governance by all organs of the Government.” Chief Ministers, those from recognised political parties and independent groups represented in Parliament were to be members. A provision to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister has been scrapped.


Also dropped was a provision which required the President “to always act on the advice of the Prime Minister.” Instead, the draft approved by ministers last Monday and Gazetted thereafter says; “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his or her powers, duties and functions under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security.”


One salient feature in Premier Wickremesinghe’s draft retained in the one Gazetted thereafter relates to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. It empowers the Commission to “direct the holding of a preliminary inquiry or the making of an investigation into an allegation of bribery or corruption whether of its own motion or on a complaint made to it, and the power to institute prosecutions for offences under the law in force relating to bribery or corruption.” At present the Commission only acts on complaints made to it and has no power to initiate inquiries on its own. Another important feature is disqualifying any person “who is a citizen of Sri Lanka who is also a citizen of any other country” from being elected as a Member of Parliament. The Cabinet will be restricted to thirty. Deputy Ministers and Ministers of State in the aggregate will not exceed 40.



The Gazetted draft 19th Amendment, significant enough, recognises a citizen’s right to information. A proposed Article 14A (1) says: “Every citizen shall have the right of access to any information held by: (a) the State, a Ministry or any Government Department or any statutory body established or created by or under any law; (b) any Ministry of a Province or any Department or statutory body established or created by a statute of a Provincial Council; (c) any local authority; and (d) any other person, being information that is required for the exercise or protection of the citizen’s rights.” This provision specifies that “No restrictions shall be placed on the right declared and recognised by this Article, other than such restrictions prescribed by laws as are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals and of the reputation or the rights of others, privacy, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. (3) In this Article, “citizen” includes a body whether incorporated, if not less than three-fourths of the members of such body are citizens.”


Yet, some of the provisions like “for the protection of health or morals” require clarification. What “morals” does this provision in the draft 19th Amendment seek to protect? It has neither been defined nor explained, nor has the vague interpretation of the “reputation” of others.


However, the latest draft says (Article 30 (1) ) that “There shall be a President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, who is Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.” Yet, this provision is contradicted in a Chapter VIII which deals with “the Executive – the Cabinet of Ministers” – (Article 42 (3) says that the “Prime Minister shall be the head of the Cabinet of Ministers”. In other words, the 19th Amendment has a Head of Government who will be the President and a head of the Cabinet who will be the Prime Minister.


Quite clearly, this is an area which will require study by the ministers at their special meeting tomorrow. Another provision prohibits the President from dissolving Parliament. It says that the President “shall not dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present), voting in favour.” In the event the Prime Minister is made Head of the Cabinet (or Executive) whilst retaining some elements of the presidential system, an anomalous situation would arise. For example, the President who is the Commander in Chief (or say, Minister in charge of the Mahaweli) and in charge of the defence portfolio, would have to sit at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers chaired by the Prime Minister.


A provision contained previously in Premier Wickremesinghe’s draft and retained in the Gazetted text is the appointment of a Competent Authority by the Commissioner of Elections. This is to monitor state or private media which do not comply with instructions issued by him. The only exception was media that declare their support to a particular candidate or party at an election or an issue over which a referendum would be held. When President Sirisena met publishers and representatives of state and private media institutions on Wednesday, the issue was raised by Victor Ivan, now Consultant Editor of the Ravaya. He voiced concerns over constitutional provisions being made over this matter. Sirisena wrote down notes on the issues raised by Ivan and declared that further discussion on the subject with the media including electronic outlets was necessary. The provision has also triggered a debate in media circles with questions being raised over fears of the provision being misused particularly when non-proficient persons are appointed. Such a constitutional provision, they say, is a double-edged weapon that could also impinge on media freedom.


As the 19th Amendment takes shape, the controversy over the future of the Executive Presidency continues. This is notwithstanding draft amendments making provision to retain some elements of the executive presidency. At a National Executive Council meeting chaired by President Sirisena this week, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake made a strong plea for the complete abolition of the Executive Presidency. He was critical of the stance of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that some provisions relating to the executive presidency be retained.


“We are of the view that the Executive Presidency should be abolished entirely. If the incumbent President wants to retain some powers whilst he holds office, we have no objection to some transitionary provisions being made,” Dissanayake told the Sunday Times. He said those in the SLFP who were seeking the retention of the presidential system were those who had opposed Sirisena when he contested the January 8 election. He asked why Sirisena should give in to pressures from them.


Another forum where the subject figured was during talks on Thursday by the troika that virtually runs the country — President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. There were occasions when UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema also joined in. Particularly in the wake of Sirisena’s announcement at the meeting of representatives of media institutions. He had declared that dissolution of Parliament would follow after the electoral reforms were presented in Parliament. The UNP’s main policymaking body, the Working Committee, has decided that the party should press for the dissolution of Parliament on April 23. Sirisena’s remarks at the media event have made clear there would be no such dissolution. This has set a serious poser for the UNP. More so with uncertainties over the shape and content of the electoral reforms envisaged.


Such uncertainties, no doubt, would exacerbate with the meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group scheduled for Tuesday. A number of important issues are due for discussion. Main among them is moves to form a ‘National Government’ next week. Other subjects for Tuesday’s discussion are constitutional changes and electoral reforms. That would include the party’s own proposals. The SLFP parliamentary group meeting comes at a critical moment.


Last Tuesday, Sirisena who is now the leader of the SLFP (as well as the UPFA) addressed electoral organisers of the party. He took great pains to assert that the former leader of the party, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had asked him to take over the SLFP leadership. So have a number of other seniors though there were still a few who entertained reservations over him. Now that he was the party leader, Sirisena emphasised, he should be allowed to carry out his responsibilities. Striking emotional notes and repeatedly touching the two microphone stands, he said it was his aim to bring the party to victory. If there was an element of nervousness, it was understandable. There were SLFP sections which held the view that former President Rajapaksa had embarked on a campaign to make a political comeback. In the process, they held the view that Rajapaksa was attempting to break the party in the middle.


Though they refrained from public remarks, a few seemed to back the move. This is largely out of a perception that Sirisena was leaning too heavily on the UNP Government and was not assertive enough to correct wrong doings. Added to that were media reports of surging crowds at meetings Rajapaksa attended and the welcome receptions he was receiving. The reportage did not please those at the presidential secretariat. The third public rally to urge the SLFP hierarchy to make Rajapaksa the Prime Ministerial candidate is to be held on Thursday (March 26) in Ratnapura. Whether some of the leaders of the UPFA partners, who unanimously endorsed Sirisena’s leadership of the alliance, only last week, would attend the Ratnapura rally remains to be seen. The only exception would be Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF) as his party is not a UPFA coalition partner. Sirisena also hinted of some coming events to the electoral organisers.


One of the significant comments Sirisena made during his address to the SLFPers was that former President Kumaratunga and now head of policy planning, had shown an interest to get more involved in party activity. He said that she asked if she could get back into active party politics and he had said; “why not – anybody can do party politics”. Sources close to Ms Kumaratunga do not rule out the possibility of her entering Parliament on the National List and wanting to become a key minister. She has already been named the head of the Presidential Task Force on reconciliation. Sirisena’s other main assertion was the need for national unity. He took credit for the successful postponement of a UN Human Rights Council discussion of the report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka last month. During the visit to Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron had received him on the road outside No 10 Downing Street and led him inside. Queen Elizabeth granted him and his wife an audience “where she shook hands without the customary hand gloves”. Though he did not say it, talks with Cameron focused on some key issues like the alleged violation of human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009. The need for a ‘credible’ investigation by the new Government has been emphasised both by the United States and Britain.


The Government has been making a confidential study of the domestic inquiry mechanism it wants to put in place to probe alleged war crimes. With this in mind, it is likely that new laws will be passed in Parliament to confer wider powers on such a domestic inquiry. Though there have been suggestions of a panel of Commonwealth judges, Government circles are more in favour of eminent local judges being named. The probe is to be governed by a time frame.


Last Wednesday, just a day after Sirisena addressed electoral organisers of his party, an SLFP delegation visited former President Rajapaksa at a Mirihana residence where he is staying. The group included National Organiser Susil Premajayantha, General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Janaka Bandara Tennekoon, Mahinda Amaraweera, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena.


The group had an hour-long discussion with Rajapaksa. The focus was the future of the party and an appeal by the group to the former President not to damage its interests. A relaxed Rajapaksa was to complain that he and his family members were being harassed. He said he would not do anything that would damage the interests of the party. However, one of the participants said “he was diplomatic enough not to get involved in a discussion about his moves to make a comeback. We had to leave it at that since none of us broached the subject deeply.” Sirisena was to later learn the outcome of the meeting.

An earlier move to implement the recommendations of the Dinesh Gunawardena Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms has raised problems. This is in the light of dissenting comments in the same report by Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Their dissent is recorded in an annexure to the report and raises a number of issues. Among them:

“The ratio of seats elected on the PR (proportional representation) system and on the FPP (First Past the Post) system should be arrived at upon consensus of all political parties.


“The present system of elections i.e. a directly elected President and Parliament elected on Proportional Representation system was introduced in 1978 – the chief aim of which was to ensure stable Governments in view of the PR system which was introduced for Parliamentary Elections. 


 ”If however we are to revert to the FPP system for Parliamentary Elections – the question of stability will cease to be the guiding principle – and it will therefore be necessary to examine whether we need to continue with the Executive Presidency and the method of electing the President will also need review.


“This issue will also involve the question whether Executive power should be transferred from the President to Parliament as existed prior to the 1978 constitution. In any event, more time will be needed to discuss these matters and it will be ill-advised to rush through these reforms.”

Both Hakeem and Muthu Sivalingam MP of the Ceylon Workers Congress also signed what they called “a joint response to the draft interim report of the Select Committee on Electoral Reforms – May 2007.” They argued that the proposed new system would not ensure adequate representation to minorities and small parties. They have defended the proportional representation mechanism as “the most democratic feature of the current system because it allows a voter to choose not only a party but also a candidate, instead of the party imposing a candidate on the voters.” They have said that “it is necessary to reform the politicians who fight over preference votes and not the system.”


Strong opposition to the Parliamentary Select Committee recommendations being accepted emerged at a meeting held at the Kollupitiya residence of SLMC leader Hakeem. Taking part was Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), Douglas Devananda (Eelam People’s Democratic Party), Mano Ganeshan (Democratic People’s Front). It was pointed out that in view of dissenting positions taken up by some members of PSC; the Elections Commissioner was reluctant to accept those recommendations since the recommendations in the interim report were not unanimous.


The Commissioner has also cautioned the National Executive Council on the implications it would lead to. Hence, he had asked the Government to spell out the parameters of the electoral reforms it wished to introduce.  Based on that, he had said, he would be in a position to give a time frame for the formulation of reforms. At a party leaders meeting on Thursday, a number of models were discussed but a final decision was not taken. “There should be greater clarity. The existing system cannot be tinkered with,” SLMC leader Hakeem told the Sunday Times. He said the best way smaller parties could make their position “clearly understood” was by meeting the troika – President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunga. “We will seek an appointment with them so we could talk on the issues involved,” Hakeem added. Government sources did not rule out the possibility of a new set of electoral reforms based on consensus reached among party leaders being introduced.


Uncertainty over unanimity on electoral reforms has prompted some members of the NEC to say that the next parliamentary elections should be held under the existing PR system. They have said that such a move would give time for a newly elected Government to make a comprehensive study and decide on the reforms required.


The SLFP is insistent that the constitutional amendments and electoral reforms should be introduced in Parliament together. “If this is not done, the SLFP will not vote for them,” Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of Opposition told the Sunday Times on Friday. His remarks came before a meeting with President Sirisena later that day. That was ahead of leaving for Badulla. He said the electoral reforms were “under discussion” and there has been “no finality so far.”


A ‘National Government’ will be in place when Sirisena leaves on Thursday on an official visit to China. Among the ministers who will accompany him are Mangala Samaraweera, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rajitha Senaratne, Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim and Rosie Senanayake. Sirisena has had strategy sessions with some of the ministers to take up issues that would come up for discussion. That included the Colombo Port City Project which the Government has put on hold. There is increasing pressure from China to resume the project. Sirisena has cancelled a planned visit to Pakistan after the completion of the Chinese visit. Now, both Colombo and Islamabad have agreed that the two day visit should take place from April 7 ahead of plans to visit Indonesia later next month.


There is little doubt there would be friction between the UNP and the SLFP as they move towards a ‘National Government.’ It will thus become the task of the troika – President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunga to do the trouble shooting. Thus, until the next elections, the priority of a new ‘National Government’ would still remain the implementation of the 100-Day Programme of Work. It will also see the passage of new legislation in different fields. The subject of continuing such a ‘National Government’ after the parliamentary elections planned for June is very much on the drawing boards.

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