A major blow to the Government’s controversial anti-corruption drive came this week.A key mechanism of this drive, probes by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), has ground to a virtual halt. It can only record complaints. It cannot act on tip offs and catch a bribe taker in the act red-handed. [...]


President pledges dissolution if 20A not approved

Sirisena launches new campaign tomorrow to win grassroots SLFP support, while Rajapaksa group shows its strength - Main goal of tackling corruption and bribery crippled; CIABOC defunct, appointment of CC also in limbo - Former President's loyalists push ahead with no-faith vote against PM and Ravi

A major blow to the Government’s controversial anti-corruption drive came this week.A key mechanism of this drive, probes by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), has ground to a virtual halt. It can only record complaints. It cannot act on tip offs and catch a bribe taker in the act red-handed. It cannot also carry out raids or file action in courts on investigations concluded since the Commission is not fully constituted. A commissioner resigned last month creating a legal hiatus. It was to be overcome with the appointment of a new set of commissioners. Now, the nominees designated to the Constitutional Council (CC), one of the independent commissions restored through the 19th Amendment, cannot function. Thus, there is still no CC to name new members to the CIABOC which after 19A is empowered to even initiate probes on its own.

Another mechanism, the role of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) of the Police also remains in suspense. Some of those under investigation have petitioned the Supreme Court and those cases are now under way or pending. The main accusation of the opposition, particularly allies of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is that the Government is selective in asking the FCID to conduct probes. A political party leader who supported the Government’s initiative to conduct these probes via the FCID – a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers at a meeting chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena on February 11 — is Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Through a National Executive Council (NEC) where the troika running the country – President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga — participate, Dissanayake who also took part in meetings strongly supported measures being taken by different investigative arms, particularly the FCID. He had personally hand-picked some officials for the Anti-Corruption Secretariat located near Temple Trees. It is this Secretariat that is channelling public complaints to different state agencies to investigate.

Representatives of more than 49 parties and civic action groups which supported Presidenti Maithripala Sirisena in his election campaign held a vital meeting with him on Thursday to discuss issues such as the 20th Amendment, the Constitutional Council and the dissolution of Parliament. Among them was the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also attended. Pic courtesy president.gov.lk

However, at a public meeting in Tangalle on May 28, Dissanayake lashed out at both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe for being choosy about the cases being probed. He alleged that both parties were also “not assertive or firm enough” to ensure the law was applied equally. He was to forecast at this meeting that the former President’s wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, was to be questioned on June 3 but would not be called to the FCID office, like all others who were under probe. He claimed that he had reliable information. The JVP leader declared he would no longer attend meetings of the NEC. What he said turned out to be correct. She was in fact questioned by FCID detectives at the Speaker’ official residence located along the Parliament Road in Battaramulla. On hand at that time were her husband Rajapaksa, son Namal in lawyer’s attire of a black coat and tie and Lieutenant Yoshitha Rajapaksa in white Navy uniform. Deputy Inspector General Ravi Waidyalankara who heads the FCID told a meeting of his senior officers that the venue for the questioning had to be shifted in the wake of information that some groups might stage protests outside their office at Carlwill Place, Kollupitiya.

“The purpose of the ongoing investigations is to arrest and remand those who are close to former President Rajapaksa,” charged National Freedom Front (NFFP) leader and parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa. “They will go to polls with his (Rajapaksa’s) supporters in prison. We have information some lawyers and police officers are planning this,” he told the Sunday Times. On Thursday, Shashi Weerawansa, the NFF leader’s wife, was summoned to the FCID office to make a statement in an ongoing investigation against her.

UNP’s woes
Thus, President Sirisena’s presidential election campaign, which was built on the main theme of fighting bribery, corruption and malpractices of the Rajapaksa regime, faces a serious challenge. Leave alone obtaining convictions, even filing action in courts under these circumstances becomes an issue. Needless to say, these matters have already caused serious apprehensions in the public mind. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is the yawning gap between accusations made during the polls campaign and the probes now under way. The very people who made those charges now claim that the law has to take its course. Quite clearly, these issues can no longer be highlights of their campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections. To make matters worse, the UNP-dominated Government has also been somewhat tainted with allegations of bribery and corruption against some ministers and officials. This is at a time when there is some bad fallout on the economic front. The value of the rupee is fast depreciating in dollar terms. Prices of imported consumer goods are therefore increasing. Construction companies have laid off hundreds of workers after projects were stalled or were being re-negotiated. No substantial Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been recorded and the stock market remains sluggish.

Despite an unscheduled special session on Wednesday, Parliament failed to endorse the newly constituted CC. At issue is the composition of its members. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made a statement. He was to defend Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran whom the opposition said was not a Sri Lankan national. Wickremesinghe said former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when appointed was a citizen of the United States. So was then Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, who was an Australian national. After the statement, the House adjourned for a previously scheduled meeting of party leaders. They were to resume sessions thereafter to discuss the CC nominations. However, during a two-hour meeting chaired by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa many issues surfaced. When Parliament sittings resumed, the Speaker was compelled to adjourn the House till June 9. There was no discussion or an endorsement of the CC members.

At the forefront of those opposing the CC at the party leader’s meeting was Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena, a close ally of former President Rajapaksa. He charged that smaller political parties, including his own, were not consulted as required by 19A. He cited the provision that “the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition shall consult leaders of political parties and independent groups represented in Parliament so as to ensure the Constitutional Council reflects the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society, including professional and social diversity.” Another issue was the nomination of two ministers — Patali Champika Ranawaka by President Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe by Premier Wickremesinghe. It was argued that there was a conflict of interest where these two ministers were concerned. One of the tasks of the CC, it was pointed out, was to recommend to President five members to a National Procurement Council. This Commission is vested with the task of laying guidelines to procure goods and services for the state. They argued it was wrong in principle to appoint Ministers since they could influence CC members to name persons to the Procurement Council.

The Speaker, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition are ex officio members of the CC. President Sirisena named Minister Ranawaka as his nominee. Premier Wickremesinghe told the meeting that he had named Minister Rajapakshe. The other choice for him would have been Lakshman Kiriella who is the Leader of the House. There were no other parliamentarian with the required seniority to fill the position, he said. Leader of the Opposition Nimal Siripala de Silva had nominated Sarvodaya Movement leader A.T. Ariyaratne and Ratnapura District parliamentarian John Seneviratne. Minority parties are being represented by Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader. The Premier said the nomination of Radhika Coomaraswamy, an internationally renowned human rights activist, was suggested by Sumedha Jayasena while Minister Rauff Hakeem had recommended the name of former Supreme Court Judge A.W.A. Salam.

Opposition Leader de Silva, who struck a conciliatory note, said there may have been a ‘technical mistake’ both on the part of Premier Wickremesinghe and him when it came to informing smaller parties. It was unintentional. The political parties recognised in Parliament were the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). In the light of this, he said, those who took part in the party leaders meeting previously had been briefed. It was there that the issue was raised and a decision was taken to discuss the matter at last Wednesday’s meeting after adjourning sittings. De Silva said what was required was ‘wider consultations’ and that had now taken place. The Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera of the JHU declared that these issues would not have cropped up if the requirement to include MPs in the Constitutional Council was not provided for.

No-faith motions
Then came the bombshell. Dinesh Gunawardena, backed by other Rajapaksa allies, declared that a vote of no-confidence on Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake should be given precedence over the CC issue. He said it should be debated that Wednesday. He also said a vote of no-confidence on the Prime Minister was being handed over later. Opposing the move strongly was Premier Wickremesinghe. He said he would have to first consult the Cabinet of Ministers who are due to meet on June 10. In fact, this Wednesday’s ministerial meeting had been put off on account of the Parliament sessions that day. House Leader Kiriella was to add that June 25 could be set aside for the debate. The Ven. Rathana Thera said President Sirisena, too, had to be consulted on the matter and time was needed. Until now, the proponents of the no-confidence vote on the Finance Minister have obtained more than 100 signatures. On Friday, the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister was handed over to Parliament Secretary General Dhammika Dissanayake. “We collected 112 signatures,” UPFA parliamentarian Manusha Nanayakkara, a former UNPer, told a news conference.

Dinesh Gunawardena and a group of MPs who are supporting Rajapaksa had a meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday night. There were two main subjects of discussion. One was the electoral reforms which Sirisena wants to present in the form of 20A in Parliament. The other is the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Gunawardena said they were opposed to the 20A which sought to increase the number of MPs and declared it was a cover to delay the dissolution of Parliament. Asked by Sirisena about the vote of no-confidence, he replied that they wanted to go ahead with it. D.E.W. Gunasekera, leader of the Communist Party, noted that positions were changing from morning, noon to night. Sirisena responded by saying he would present the electoral reform proposals to the Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday. He said he would consider dissolving Parliament if it is not approved there.

Herein lies the dilemma for President Sirisena. At least a majority of the UPFA members, supportive of ex-President Rajapaksa, have begun to call the shots in Parliament now. They have been successful in stalling Government business. Ironic enough, the 19A was the result of a polls pledge in the 100 Day Programme of Work, to clip the powers of the presidency. Though it has been done in a limited way, Rajapaksa’s allies were preventing the provisions therein from becoming a reality. In the process, they have effectively stymied the work of a state agency probing bribery and corruption. Sirisena’s efforts to woo back members to his own fold are not drawing the desired results in full measure. These developments raise some very important questions. Will Sirisena be in a position to muster a two-thirds vote for the passage of 20th Amendment? This is particularly in the light of the inability to seek Parliament’s endorsement of the CC with a simple majority. Would he have to delay the deadlines he has set himself to dissolve Parliament? This is particularly in view of likelihood of most UPFA members seeking candidacy from Rajapaksa at the upcoming polls in the belief that they could then win? One of the biggest impediments both for the Government and the President appears to be their inability to communicate with the people on important issues. Official positions on any issue, including reasons for most of the high profile investigations, are not explained. This has led to public perceptions not complimentary to them.

The inability to reach general accord on the composition of the CC prompted Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to adjourn Parliament till June 9. The next day (June 10) Premier Wickremesinghe will brief President Sirisena and the ministers on the opposition demand. For the UNP, the issue is whether to agree to such a motion against the Finance Minister to be followed with one on the Prime Minister. When Parliament adjourned, the pro-Rajapaksa group held a news conference there. Excerpts from what a few MPs said:

Dinesh Gunawardena said: “The constitution has clearly laid down the procedure for appointing members to the Constitutional Council. The proper procedure has not been followed. Even the Prime Minister at the party leaders’ meeting held today (last Wednesday) admitted that. We feel that appointing ministers to the Constitutional Council is inappropriate. At this point, the Prime Minister said this Government does not have MPs. There should be a representative from the estate sector in the CC while there should also be more female representation.”

National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa: “We have not been consulted about the nominees to the CC so far. The powers to set up the CC should be given to the new Parliament. It is a waste of money to summon a special session without reaching a consensus on the nominees. The biggest joke is that the nominees from civil society themselves are unaware they have been named. We are being asked to approve their nominations when they have not been properly consulted. The Government promised a five-star democracy but is acting in an undemocratic manner. The Prime Minister says the 20th Amendment would be taken for debate only if the no-confidence motion against him is withdrawn. Is he is saying this in fear of the 20th Amendment or in fear of the CC or due to fear of both?”

Vasudeva Nanayakkara said: “It is wrong to appoint ministers to the CC. The Minister has executive power but the legislative power is with MPs. The Prime Minister says he has no MPs to appoint to the CC. If that is the case he must amalgamate two ministries and give one person so there will be fewer ministers. None of the smaller parties was consulted about the appointments. We want the CC appointed but the proper procedure must be followed.”

Dulles Alahapperuma: “The UNP has no interest in enacting the 20th Amendment. The President summoned all party leaders to discuss the passing of 20A. Today the UNP made a proposal to dissolve Parliament. We are for a change in the electoral system but a Government headed by the SLFP must be set up first. Why isn’t Opposition leader Nimal Siripala de Silva a suitable candidate for the post of PM. He is a seasoned politician and has served in Parliament for more than 30 years?”

The remarks by these MPs of the pro-Rajapaksa group make clear that they have reservations about the nominations made for the CC. Like discussions on electoral reforms being stalemated, accord on who will constitute the CC is also destined to be deadlocked. It has become purely a case of the majority opposition holding the minority Government supported by the President to ransom. No doubt the two of them have reservations on some issues. If that is to force Sirisena’s hand for a dissolution, the President finds himself in an unenviable situation. Part of the Rajapaksa group’s strategy is to isolate him and towards this end other matters have also been set in motion.

Oust Sirisena campaign
A group of former local council members gathered at the residence of Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga in Udugampola last Sunday. Prasanna is the brother of Arjuna Ranatunga, Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation. They adopted two resolutions — one calling for the removal of President Sirisena as the leader of the SLFP. The other was to call upon former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections from the Gampaha District.

The first resolution was proposed by Attanagalla Pradeshiya Sabha member Sisira Kumara Bulathsinhala, and was seconded by Minuwangoda Urban Councilor Athula Senanayake. Bulathsinhala proposed that Sirisena be removed from the post on the grounds that he has not contributed to increase the SLFP membership. The second resolution that Rajapaksa should contest from Gampaha was moved by Dompe PS member Piyasena Kariyapperuma. He said if Rajapaksa contested from Gampaha, he would surely get the highest percentage of preferential votes and therefore the party would be compelled to appoint him as the Prime Minister in the next parliament.

Prasanna Ranatunga, called upon the former local councillors to support the proposal and said he too was agreeable to such proposal. Members present at the meeting raised their hands saying they were supportive of the proposal. MPs Sarath Kumara Gunarathne and Sarana Gunawardana also participated in this meeting.

Not to be outdone by these developments, Sirisena loyalists are also continuing their campaign to woo MPs. On offer to them are different portfolios like deputy ministers and ministers of state. This is besides an assurance that they would be the UPFA’s official nominees to contest electorates they now represent. These immediate issues raise the all-important question on what benefits would accrue to President Sirisena and his immediate circle by an early dissolution. On the other hand, would he not need time to bring MPs now not under his fold into his orbit. Such a time frame has once again emerged as he tries to win consensus on 20A.

On Thursday night, Sirisena met representatives of movements that supported him at the presidential election to discuss matters relating to 20A. Premier Wickremesinghe was in attendance. Also taking part was the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who is the convenor of the National Movement for a Just Society. The subject of discussion was a letter signed by some groups and circulated by Provincial Councillor Shiral Laktilleke on electoral reforms. Some were insisting that the 20A should be passed, but there was no need for elections now. They said that the current Parliament could remain in office till April next year. In the course of discussion, President Sirisena asked Premier Wickremesinghe to explain matters. He noted that though there was a proposal to increase the number of seats in Parliament to 255, most parties were of the view that it should not exceed 230. This was with the exception of Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

A heated exchange of words ensued when Bandula Sanderatne, described as a representative of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), interrupted Wickremesinghe with some personal remarks. The Premier hit back demanding that he withdraw the remarks made. Pointing out that it was parties like the UNP together with other parties that spearheaded the campaign for the election of Sirisena, the Premier said though the 100-Day Programme of Work promised electoral reforms nowhere did it say they would increase the number of seats in Parliament. He said he was only reporting to those gathered at the event the outcome of a decision by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Cabinet had entrusted both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena to discuss with smaller political parties the outlines for electoral reforms. It is they who had expressed the view that the number should not exceed 230. The Premier is to present these views at the ministerial meeting on Wednesday.

The Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera told the Sunday Times, “I told the meeting that 100 days were not enough to fulfil the pledges made to the people. I said they should take even six months or more and fulfil them.” He added, “Representatives of 49 organisations that were involved in the campaign to curtail powers of the executive presidential system met President Sirisena on Thursday. The objective of this meeting was to discuss the future political steps to be taken. We pointed out that we have observed that there are difficulties in getting the electoral reforms (20A) approved in Parliament. Some of them are trying to sabotage this effort and go for elections. At the last elections, we promised the people that a new electoral system wuold be introduced. Therefore, we pointed out that whether the electoral reforms are defeated or not, they should be presented to Parliament.”

The Ven. Sobitha said, “We said we would take steps to muster public opinion in favour of the 20th Amendment and the necessary support in Parliament. We also urged that the appointment of independent commissions, the Right to Information Bill and the National Audit Commission Bill should not be delayed. These are important to the people. We questioned the reasons for the delays. We said there should be no ‘chess-games’ based on political agendas as the promises given to the people need to be kept. We pointed out that, without keeping these promises the politicians cannot face the people. The President told us that Parliament would not be dissolved without fulfilling the pledges given to the people.”

It was near 10 p.m. when President Sirisena chose to wind up the meeting. The closing remarks he made underscored a reality. He said he would go ahead with the formulation of the 20A after reaching accord with political parties supporting him. Thereafter, he said, he would ensure it was presented to Parliament. “If the House does not approve it,” Sirisena said, “I will dissolve Parliament.” Once more Sirisena has made a pledge though he has taken up contradictory positions. However, as the Ven. Sobitha Thera urged, even if it takes six months or more, electoral reforms have now become a sine qua non for an influential group that backed Sirisena.

Sirisena will embark on a campaign beginning tomorrow to win the support of SLFP grassroots level representatives in his moves to introduce 20A. He will address the first meeting at the Vihara Maha Devi Stadium tomorrow.

The question is whether he could still present these reforms and make sure at the same time that another promise he made, ensconce a new Government in September, would be possible. Whichever way it goes, both for the President and the UNP-dominated Government, the mire in which they are getting bogged down is not salutary to Sri Lanka’s stability. That does not seem to be a priority for either side.

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