It was an epochal weekly meeting of ministers last Wednesday. There was table thumping and clapping amidst a heap of praise for President Maithripala Sirisena. It was deservedly for ensuring the passage of the 19th Amendment in Parliament last Tuesday night. Most eloquent were Ministers Rauff Hakeem and Rajitha Senaratna. “All praise to Your Excellency,” [...]


President’s diplomacy brings about win-win solution to 19A

Inside story of the high drama and tense moments in Parliament when Sirisena negotiated with rival parties to work out consensus - Premier Wickremesinghe compromises on key clauses; major changes after new Parliament is elected - Attention now on 20A for electoral reforms; President presents draft, but small and minority parties want major changes

It was an epochal weekly meeting of ministers last Wednesday. There was table thumping and clapping amidst a heap of praise for President Maithripala Sirisena. It was deservedly for ensuring the passage of the 19th Amendment in Parliament last Tuesday night. Most eloquent were Ministers Rauff Hakeem and Rajitha Senaratna. “All praise to Your Excellency,” Hakeem said, adding jokingly that “even our Prime Minister, who also deserves credit, was losing his cool.” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, not to be outdone, retorted, “I was trying to expose several fellows. They are the cat’s paw of Mahinda Rajapaksa and are trying to be paragons of virtue.”

Even if the provisions in the 19A were not all what was originally conceived, yet it did prune down the powers of the Executive Presidency. The concentration of all power in one person had led to gross abuse spawning cronyism, nepotism, bribery, corruption and misrule would surely be halted in great measure. The President has been made answerable to Parliament. The period of office of the incumbent has been restricted to two terms. The President is debarred from dissolving Parliament until it has completed four and half years. Independent Commissions have been restored, to a point. The Right to Information has been made a constitutional right of the citizen.

Unquestionably the man who deserves credit for all this is President Sirisena. Not many are aware that even at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, an hour ahead of the vote on the second reading was to be taken; the 19A faced defeat. Patient, behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by him led to a breakthrough. That it came when he reached compromise with his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) whose MPs were set to oppose the Bill, was significant in many ways. As SLFP leader, he had unified the party whilst winning their support. That such unity was strengthened further emerged at Friday’s May Day rally of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, still reeling from the humiliating defeat by his former Health Minister, was not yet ready to be on the platform. But he sent a message. That was as patron of the SLFP. It was read out by Susil Premajayantha, the UPFA General Secretary. Thus, far from holding his own rally, Rajapaksa in doing so was becoming conciliatory towards the party though somewhat cautiously. He is also set to have a meeting with Sirisena anytime now.

Rajapaksa said in his message: “I hope the people will recall their plight during the past…. . The May Day was held in the main cities under heavy security threat. In 2009 the 30-year-old separatist war was ended and the rights, not only of the working class, but the rights of people in the whole country were restored……. We were able to end the sale of public enterprises to the private sector….. We stopped the habit of foreign powers deciding on Sri Lanka’s affairs….. For this reason alone, local and foreign corrupt forces have defeated the victory we achieved for the public. A large number of persons have lost employment from the projects and institutions that we protected. As a result the entire working class has been affected. The UNP can be defeated only by the progressive forces getting together, as the SLFP did in 1951. I too join these forces to protect the working class.”

As President Maithripala Sirisena addressed the Hyde Park May Day rally of the SLFP, a giant portrait of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa forms the backdrop with indications that it was a sign of a possible patch-up within the divided party. Pic by Indika Handuwela

Yet, Rajapaksa’s staunch supporters including National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna leader Dinesh Gunawardena, Democratic Left Front leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Lanka Sama Samaja Party leaderTissa Vitharana and Pivituru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila went ahead with their own May Day rally at Kirulapone. Though differently worded, Rajapaksa sent a message to be read out at this event too. The organisers said the purpose of their rally was to “Janathawadi rajayak bihi karanna” or to establish a people’s Government. The move seemed to indicate that Rajapaksa was still retaining his options by encouraging another political front, a means of keeping his options still open evidently unsure of how events will unfold. This is notwithstanding President Sirisena’s assertions that Rajapaksa could contest from anywhere he wished though he (Sirisena) would not endorse his candidature for the Prime Ministerial position.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also played a laudable role in the passage of 19A. Though he leads a minority Government, he was bold enough to declare during his speech at the second reading that the provisions of the amendment were not all what had been envisaged. However, instead of opposing the 19A in that form, his party wanted to support it. Achieving it was better than not achieving anything, he noted. He had also been speaking individually to MPs in other political parties to seek their support. Whilst the 19A was being debated on Monday, President Sirisena summoned a meeting of party leaders in a Committee Room in the Parliament complex to break the deadlock over support from SLFP parliamentarians. That was to see a heated exchange of words between Wickremesinghe and G.L. Peiris, the former External Affairs Minister. The Prime Minister, with his voice raised, accused Peiris of making promises during discussions and later reneging on them. Peiris, however, contended somewhat sheepishly that the accusation was wrong. That put paid to the meeting chaired by Sirisena and the MPs walked out.

The days before Parliament approved 19A had highlighted a bitter reality – the sharp and growing differences between MPs in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). This is notwithstanding the fact that they are partners in a ‘National Government’. Some SLFP parliamentarians claim that the UNP Government is ‘behaving like an elected ruling party’ and treating the SLFPers as bitter opponents. Though most of the apprehensions are due to the lack of trust and dialogue, some grounds do exist for their concern. These surfaced during the consultations initiated by President Sirisena to narrow down differences over 19A.

Two teams were tasked to talk things over. The Government trio comprised Uban Development Minister Rauff Hakeem, Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran. Those representing the SLFP were General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Faizer Musthapa with Liberal Party’s Rajiva Wijesinha. The two teams were locked in heated debates over how two different key elements in the 19A should be formulated. At the outset, it was Mustapha who pressed for the deletion of a provision that had been introduced to jail newspaper publishers if they violated Election laws during an election. He was able to convince Sirisena that this was not in the interest of the government that was saying it defended media freedom.

One issue over 19A issue related to a draft provision which says “The President may, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint from among Members of Parliament, Ministers” as well as those “who shall not be members of the Cabinet of Ministers.” The SLFP team sought a change in this provision. They contended that it should be replaced to say that “the President may, in consultation with the Prime Minister where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the assignment of subjects and functions to, and the Ministries, if any, which are to be in charge of, such Ministers.” They also sought to include a provision that “the President may at any time change any assignment made…..” In effect, that took away the prerogative of the Prime Minister to advise the President on who should be his Ministers and what their subjects are or change them. The President could only, if he wished, consult the PM. The SLFP MPs had their way.

Sirisena, Rajapaksa and CBK must come together: Yapa

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

The biggest shock for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ahead of nominations for the presidential election last year, came when he learnt of his rival candidate. It was his Health Minister and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena.
Thereafter, Rajapaksa named his confidant and former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa as the General Secretary.
Here are edited excerpts from an interview Yapa gave the Sunday Times after the SLFP insisted on amendments and extended support for the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament last Tuesday.

PASSAGE OF THE 19A: In the 100Day Programme of work parties supporting Maithripala Sirisena for presidency said they would not touch constitutional provisions which required a referendum. Yet, they (the UNP led Government) wanted to strengthen the office of the Prime Minister by using the 19A as a ploy. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that out.

This is the first time in my political career, I found that MPs from different sides showing keen interest to understand the constitutional changes. There were two important issues. One related to the President requiring advice of the Prime Minister to appoint ministers and assign subjects. Other is the composition of the Constitutional Council (CC).

We wanted changes on both. We took up the position that the President would require the advice of the Prime Minister to name a cabinet of ministers and assign them subjects only if the two were from different political parties. Otherwise, we felt it should be the prerogative of the President.

The provision for a Constitutional Council existed in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. There were only three MPs who were members. Seven others were from civil society. We were of the view that these seven persons were not answerable to anyone. That is why we sought a change. The 17A failed because of that. The Government was adamant and did not agree to our position. We spoke to the President and other SLFP members. We sat for hours. There were many proposals. Five MPs and five outsiders was one. Those who formed a Government through the backdoor were trying to foist their will and run down our MPs who are elected by the voters. Our positions were not respected but suspected. On Tuesday we met President Sirisena and the compromise formula of seven MPs and three civil society members in the Constitutional Council was agreed upon. He was humble enough to hear our case and appreciate our position. There is no absolute power in one person now. There are checks and balances. The kudos for this should go to President Sirisena.

ON PRESIDENT SIRISENA: He is very sincere. We need leaders like him. He listened carefully to our representations and resolved issues. We have the fullest confidence in him. ON ELECTORAL REFORMS: We have supported 19A to become law. As already made clear, 20A will have to be introduced in Parliament. It will definitely take two to three months. We will have to wait until President Sirisena finalises this in much the same way he did with 19A.

ON THE ROLE OF FORMER PRESIDENT RAJAPAKSA: He is a patron of our party. We invited him for our May Day rally. I carried the party invitation to him. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is also a patron. Rajapaksa has served the nation as President for nine years whilst Kumaratunga had done so for eleven years. If the two of them and President Sirisena are together, it would strengthen our party. They will have to do so for the greater good of the party. All the people have placed their weight behind them.
ON POLICE INVESTIGATIONS: We have absolutely no issue with probes being conducted into cases where persons have benefited through unlawful enrichment. This should not happen. However, what we see now is a selective witch-hunt directed by the Prime Minister’s office.
They are guiding the Police on who should be targeted. This is by no means yahapalanaya or good governance. Of course, the UNP is becoming more unpopular because of what it is doing. Its selective vengeance will only boomerang on it.

It seemed a paradox. Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that “permitting the Prime Minister to exercise Executive power in relation” to a number of provisions in the draft 19A “had to be struck down as being in excess of authority and violation of Article 3 of the Constitution.” This article says that “in the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty includes the power of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” Among those provisions that were thus dropped included one making the Prime Minister the head of the Cabinet of Ministers, that he shall determine the number of ministers, assignment of subjects and have the power to change them. He was also to have the power to appoint non-MPs as ministers. With those out of the 19A after the Supreme Court ruling, now the SLFP parliamentarians wanted the right of the Prime Minister to recommend those to the Cabinet of Ministers denied. They said such a provision could be brought in only in circumstances where the President is from one political party and the Prime Minister was from another. This was later carried.

The irony here is the seeming assumption funnily enough that Ranil Wickremesinghe would continue as Prime Minister forever. He holds such office only until the next parliamentary election. Thereafter, his party has to win with a majority for him to become Prime Minister. Otherwise, it would be another person. It was almost as if the SLFP was conceding the fact that Wickremesinghe will be the next Prime Minister as well. Moreover, the 19A was expressly aimed at pruning the powers of the Executive Presidency. Here is an instance where SLFP parliamentarians had their way though they veered away from the original objectives of Sirisena and his sponsors. Even if it was not consciously, Premier Wickremesinghe has also contributed to some lapses and misconceptions in the minds of SLFP parliamentarians. Firstly, though the Prime Minister of a “National Government,” he did not maintain a regular, cordial dialogue with the SLFPers. Nor did he or his ministers seek any of their nominees to chair or be on the board of directors of state institutions including corporations, boards, banks and other statutory bodies. Accusations gained currency when the SLFP MPs charged that most of the appointees were from Wickremesinghe’s alma mater or his friends. In some areas, SLFP trade unionists and supporters alleged that they had been moved out or penalised.

“There is selective targeting of our members, including even those serving in the Cabinet. The UNP Ministers are publicly critical of them. This is a total witch-hunt,” complained SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa in an interview with the Sunday Times. See box story on this page. He charged that the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) of the Police was being directed by the Prime Minister’s Office. “They decide whom to target. We have already raised this issue with President Sirisena,” he added. Part of the blame for this situation lies in the Government as repeatedly pointed out in these columns. It has failed to educate the public (including those in the SLFP) on why different personalities of the former Government were being summoned to the Kollupitiya office of the FCID. Startling revelations have surfaced there. Some challenged the legality of the FCID but it had been established with the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers at a meeting chaired by President Sirisena. They decided on February 11 on “the Establishment of a Secretariat for Anti Corruption Committee…” It was based on a memorandum dated February 6 presented by Premier Wickremesinghe. A senior Gazetted officer at Police Headquarters said, “like the CID, the FCID is also a legitimate arm of the Police. It is bound by all procedures and is very well within the law.” He spoke on grounds of anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media. S. Abeysinghe, Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers, on February 12 informed both the Public Order Ministry and the Secretary to the President that the ministers had decided to set up the FCID “under the direct supervision of the Inspector General of Police.”

The FCID investigations had become a bone of contention during negotiations between the two Committees. Sirisena was this week going into the workings of the FCID which came under an anti-corruption sub-committee headed by Premier Wickremesinghe. This sub-committee monitored complaints received by an Anti Corruption Secretariat located near Temple Trees. The Secretariat which received these complaints directed them to the respective investigative agencies like the FCID, the Commission Investigating Allegations of Bribery or Corruption or the Inspector General of Police. A Presidential Secretariat source said Sirisena had directed that the FCID should also receive public complaints directly, process them and investigate where there was a potential case. In other words, it need not pass scrutiny of the Premier’s anti-corruption sub-committee. For this purpose, a public announcement is to be made by the FCID. He is also examining important cases where investigations have been concluded but no action has been taken so far though prima facie cases have been established.

The second issue which the two three-member Committees debated was the composition of the proposed Constitutional Council. Like in the first instance, there was hard bargaining. At one point, Minister Hakeem reported to President Sirisena that the SLFP was insisting that all members of the proposed Constitutional Council should be MPs. He also reported that when his Committee met its counterparts, they had declared that their position on the issue had been “conveyed to the higher ups.” He noted that spearheading such opposition was Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Dinesh Gunawardena. Sirisena said he would telephone Nanayakkara and seek his support. He did telephone him and make an appeal. The Committee also briefed Premier Wickremesinghe who called a meeting of party leaders. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thera of the Movement for Justice and Equality also took part. They decided that they cannot agree to the proposal to have only MPs in the Constitutional Council. Hakeem charged that under the “guise of sovereignty” the Council will be packed with political nominees. He argued that this defeated the purpose of the CC. Dissanayake said this was not what backers of Sirisena at the presidential election had thought of. Wickremesinghe concurred.

It was Tuesday evening. Time was ticking by. Around 6 p.m. the Hakeem Committee met President Sirisena. The discussion was about postponing a vote on the 19A. The two sides, they said, were unable to reach accord. Even an offer to have a membership of 50 per cent MPs and 50 per cent prominent members of civil society in the Constitutional Council had been turned down. With only an hour to go for voting on the second reading, there were more consultations between the two sides. Sirisena was overseeing the move with telephone calls to a number of persons. The compromise was reached by Sirisena after the SLFP Committee members were invited for a meeting with him. They agreed to his formula of seven MPs and three civil society members. The nomination of such prominent civil society members would have to be still approved by Parliament. That was how the Parliament went into Committee stage later, sat through till 11 p.m. on Tuesday and adopted the 19A. There was also talk among some sections of the SLFP that MPs supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa faced a difficulty. “They realised they could not muster 75 parliamentarians to defeat 19A. So they compromised as a face saving measure,” said one of them. However, this could not be confirmed.

With matters relating to 19A over, at Wednesday’s ministerial meeting, Sirisena said he was tabling a Cabinet Memorandum titled “Proposed Constitutional Amendment for Electoral Reforms through the introduction of a mixed Electoral system consisting of first past-the-post system and the proportional representation system.” He told his ministers that it was only a basis for discussion and was in no way a final document. Minister Rajitha Senaratna said that someone should be asked to make a visual presentation of the suggestions contained in Sirisena’s memorandum. Here is the full text of Sirisena’s Cabinet Memorandum dated April 29:

“It has been decided to present a draft amendment to the Constitution for electoral reforms having obtained the views of all the parties in respect of the Cabinet Memorandum No: 15/044/601/008 submitted by me on 22.04.2015 on the above subject.
“In this regard, a number of meetings had been held to obtain the consensus of many political parties in order to formulate a draft expanding the proposals made by the political parties represented in Parliament including the two main political parties and by the Dinesh Gunawardena Committee appointed by Parliament earlier. The main features of the draft formulated accordingly are summarised below:

“1. To assign legal authority for the establishment of a Delimitation Commission.

“2. To increase the number of Members of Parliament to 255 in order to broaden the representation.

“3. To divide the Electoral Districts in the island to a figure around 20-25 by the Delimitation Commission and to divide such Electoral Districs into Polling Divisions, ensuring each is divided into not less than three and not more than sixteen polling divisions.

“4. In demarcating polling divisions the criterion adopted will be geographical and physical features, ethnic composition, development levels, cultural ties and the number of registered voters.

“5. Multimember constituencies will be established in addition to single-member constituencies. 165 Members of Parliament will be elected from the multi-member and single member constituencies.

“6. The current number of 196 district Members of Parliament will be divided among all the polling divisions under the proportional representation system. The above mentioned 165 members will necessarily be elected to Parliament.

“7. When submitting nomination papers number of candidates equal to a number obtained by adding 3 to the maximum number of candidates who can be elected under proportional representation system, should be nominated for electoral districts and the candidates contesting for polling divisions should be specified.

“8. Number of members entitled for each electoral district including bonus seats should be apportioned among political parties/independent groups which polled more than 5 % of votes.

“9. The candidates who successfully contested polling divisions (in the case of multi-member constituencies, 2 or 3 members) should be elected to represent the relevant polling divisions.

“10. When a political party/independent group has successfully contested a number of seats less than the number of seats entitled under proportional representation the candidates who unsuccessfully contested should be elected beginning from the highest number of votes they polled to the lowest for such polling divisions.

“11. When the number of members elected from polling divisions is more than the number of members entitled under the proportional representation for any political party/independent group, the surplus number of members can be apportioned from the number of members entitled to each political party/independent group from the national list of members which is 59 members which is obtained by subtracting 196 from 255 (subject to obtaining a minimum of 1 % of votes). Therefore, if it is necessary 59 candidates can be nominated for national list.

“12. When a vacancy occurs in a polling division represented by a member a by election should be held.
“Note 1 – There should be an amendment to the Parliamentary Elections Act to the effect that a vacancy of a member elected under proportional representation or national list should be filled from among candidates who unsuccessfully contested for polling divisions or from the candidates whose names appeared in district nomination papers or from the national list.

“Note 2 – When electing members for proportional representation under paragraph 10 above, the following proposal should be considered: In case of any party/group winning seats less than the amount due on the proportional representation system the selection of 50% of that number of seats will be made on the successive percentages polled by the members not selected. The remaining 50% will be named by the Party Secretary out of the residual candidates from the same district.

“I seek the approval for the presentation to Parliament of the draft containing the above basic facts.”
The electoral reforms, to be introduced in Parliament as 20A, have now become the focal point of attention. Smaller political parties are seeking further discussion on changes in proposals contained in Sirisena’s April 22 Cabinet Memorandum. Responding to his earlier proposal (of April 22), three ministers representing ‘small and minority’ parties have expressed dissenting views. They have also forwarded a draft 20th Amendment and asked President Sirisena to seek the observations of the Legal Draftsman. The three are Rauff Hakeem, Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage, Rishard Bathiuddin, Minister of Industry and Commerce and Palani Digambaram, Minister of Plantation Infrastructure Development (non cabinet rank). Their response came after a meeting where the trio together with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, took part.

The ‘small and minority parties’ are urging, among other matters, that:

50% of the MPs be elected under the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system and the balance under the Proportional Representation (PR) system.
That a minimum of 75 per cent of the PR members be on Electoral District basis and the balance on National level (National List).
The system of electing MPs – Each voter is entitled to two separate votes that can be cast independently of each other. The first vote, is for one of the candidates in his/her polling division (electorate), and the second vote, for one of the party of his/her choice. It is possible to vote for different parties.
Each party has to give a list of candidates for each electoral district to be elected on the PR system. The sequence of the candidates on the lists is to be fixed by the parties themselves beforehand. Out of the first vote, the candidate who polls most votes in a polling division will be the winner.
National list MPs will be apportioned on the basis of the strength of the second votes each party receives at the national level. The parties that fail to get the minimum of 5% of the second votes at National level will be disqualified.

The process to reach accord among political parties on electoral reforms that will form the 20A will be protracted. In the light of this, parties like the SLMC and the JVP say they would prefer elections being held under the existing system for the last time. Thereafter, they say, it would enable a new Government to be elected at the impending parliamentary elections to finalise the reforms. The setting up of a Delimitation Commission, as Sirisena has recommended, would take considerable time not to mention the fact that it will need further time to complete the task. Yet, Sirisena has assured the SLFP parliamentary group and the Central Committee that he would not dissolve Parliament until 20A is approved. To say the least, the process is going to be time consuming.

That raises the question of the UNP dominated Government. The party’s Working Committee had decided earlier to call for the dissolution of Parliament on April 23. Later, party leaders agreed they would wait for a few more weeks to accomplish the urgent tasks before them. Their position was underscored by Premier Wickremesinghe when he told the Sunday Times, “The coalition that brought Maithripala Sirisena to power should not crack up. We cannot travel on different paths.” That makes clear the UNP would go along until such time the electoral reforms are concluded.

For the moment, Maithripala Sirisena’s unassuming political diplomacy has brought him victory in 19A. Whether it is good enough is debatable but the SLFP has also won to the point that it has had its way on two key provisions in the 19A — those which were not pledged in the 100 Programme of Work. The minority UNP Government too is a victor to the extent that it wisely chose to go along with the majority view instead of backing out. Hence all are victors in their own way as the 19A forms a chapter in the Constitution. The challenge for all of them now is 20A.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.