Most politicians love to leave behind something that they will be remembered by after their departure. That explains why they set up foundations with their name, have buildings and roads named after them and sometimes even fight with their local rivals to claim the right to open a facility (euphemistically called vesting it with the [...]


Can Maithripala be a party to destroying his own legacy?


Most politicians love to leave behind something that they will be remembered by after their departure. That explains why they set up foundations with their name, have buildings and roads named after them and sometimes even fight with their local rivals to claim the right to open a facility (euphemistically called vesting it with the people) where their name will be mentioned on the plaque.

National level politicians will probably like to be remembered by what they achieve for the country at a macro level. What they will be remembered for is often described as their legacy. Dismantling the Apartheid regime in South Africa and granting coloured people their dignity, could be described as Nelson Mandela’s legacy.

In the context of the debate revolving around the move to repeal the 19th Amendment it is opportune to examine whose legacy the 19th Amendment is. Undoubtedly the legacy must necessarily be attributed to the then Head of State and Head of Government Maithripala Sirisena. It would not be wrong to say that it is also a shared legacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe too, as the 19th Amendment flowed from the joint mandate given to both of them at the Presidential election of January 15, 2015.

Despite the poor performance in the area of governance, the democratic reforms and the process of institutional strengthening set in motion by the Yahapalana Government through the 19th Amendment remains the invaluable legacy of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

After the 19th Amendment the democratic space opened up to such an extent that the two leaders were the subject of the most scathing criticism for their acts of omission and commission from all sections of society. None of these criticisms resulted in these critics suffering any repercussions. Thus a culture of democracy and freedom of expression was set in motion.

In fact one of the repeated boasts of President Maithripala Sirisena was that not one bullet had been fired against protestors or dissidents during his period as President.

In such a context it is difficult to comprehend why President Maithripala Sirisena is becoming a party to the destruction of his own legacy by supporting the 20th Amendment. During the early days of the Yahapalana Government before the cracks set into the administration, Sirisena himself advocated the reduction of the presidential term to four years from six years but was persuaded by Ranil Wickremesinghe to make the term five years.

When the 19th Amendment was being debated in the legislature, in the absence of a majority in Parliament, Sirisena himself spent two full days in Parliament to persuade individual members of the then Joint Opposition to support the 19th Amendment. As a further step to win over the Joint Opposition, the Yahapalana Government went to the extent of watering down some of the provisions of the original bill containing the 19th Amendment.

As a result the 19th Amendment was finally passed in Parliament with near unanimity with only one member voting against.

The main argument put forward in support of replacing the 19th Amendment with the 20th Amendment is that it has created two centres of power which has made governance difficult. In support of this argument the proponents of the 20th Amendment cite the latter period of the Yahapalana Government when President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could not see eye-to-eye on many matters resulting in a degree of paralysis in Government.

A closer examination of this argument will reveal that the rift in the relationship between the two had nothing to do with the 19th Amendment but rather due to the differences of opinion between the two leaders and their supporters. Unfortunately the two leaders were not able to arrive at a workable relationship that would enable them to manage their different points of view.

That situation does not exist now with the President and Prime Minister drawn from the same political camp and seeing eye to eye on most matters. Besides the Government asked and received a two thirds majority at the parliamentary election to strengthen the hands of the President. In effect, the two centres of power created by the 19th Amendment have, for all purposes, now been transformed into one centre of power by the two thirds majority received by the Government.

An examination of the recent political history of the country, shows that even when leaders with differing political views occupied the position of President and Prime Minister it was possible to ensure a smooth functioning of Government. Under President D. B. Wijetunge (UNP), Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge (SLFP) was elected Prime Minster and the two leaders governed for a period of time without any conflict despite Wijetunge’s position as Head of State and Head of Government. In 2001 Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) became Prime Minister under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge’s (SLFP) Presidency where she functioned as Head of State and Head of Government. and carried on the Government without any major mishaps. Despite the fact that the two leaders were holding differing views with regard to the Ceasefire Agreement entered into with the LTTE by Ranil Wickremesinghe, they were able to evolve a working arrangement which enabled them to continue in Government together until parliamentary elections were called in 2004.

The present Government is not faced with any of the above two scenarios. Under the present dispensation President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in terms of the 19th Amendment is both the Head of State and Head of Government and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has a two thirds majority in Parliament. Both leaders are from the SLPP and there is no likelihood of any conflict between the two that can prevent effective governance in the country.

Writing in support of the 20th Amendment, Neville Laduwahetty one of the more erudite commentators who adopts a reasoned style of argument sans political rhetoric in his writings, in an article in the Island of 19/9/2020 sets out the two major tasks facing the Government as follows:

“The two most formidable issues that should engage the full attention of the Government and the nation are:

(1) The need to continue with the very effective measures adopted to contain COVID-19 to prevent the possibility of a resurgance.

(2) The absolute urgency to revive the seriously depressed economy, brought about nationally and globally by the pandemic.”

He goes on to laud the Government for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as follows:

“As far as the first issue is concerned, the Government has demonstrated very effectively that it has the capabilities and organising abilities to implement procedures and practices to maintain the health of the nation to such a degree that the President and the Sri Lankan nation have received international acclaim. An equally encouraging aspect is the support extended by the public to the call of the Government to practice the health safeguards recommended by the Government. What the Government and the nation have collectively achieved is a shining example to the world for which we as a nation could be proud of.”

Laduwahetty’s above comments clearly prove that the 19th Amendment did not prevent the Government from achieving its objectives with regard to containing the COVID-19 pandemic. It clearly demonstrates that the argument that the 19th Amendment impedes the smooth functioning of Government is without basis because it was under the 19th Amendment that the Government was able to act effectively in managing the COVID-19 Pandmeic.

With regard to the second task faced by the Government, Laduwahetty goes on to state
as follows:

“The elephant in the room is how to revive the depressed economy. While the measures that need to be adopted are bound to test the skills and ingenuities of the entire nation, an equally important factor that would have a direct bearing is the freedom for the Government, in particular the President and the executive branch, to act without being constrained by the fetters introduced by 19A.”

Laduwahetty does not however elaborate or identify what the fetters that the 19th Amendment has introduced, that prevent the President from embarking on a reform program that will revive an ailing economy. As stated earlier with the President and Prime Minister empowered with a two third majority acting in unison there is nothing in the 19th Amendment that can prevent the taking of the necessary steps to address the economic challenges facing the country.

In fact, in contrast, the 20th Amendment may be an inhibiting fact with regard to both national and international investors contributing to the growth of the Sri Lankan economy. The provisions contained in the 20th Amendment that provide immunity from audits to the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s office, the removal of the Audit Commission and the National Procurement Commission and over 120 State owned businesses not being subject to audits, apart from breeding corruption, could also be a dampner to would be investors.

Strangely no Government spokesperson has come forward to defend and justify such provisions.



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