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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Sri Lanka: Gotabaya’s grand game-plan | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 8 July 2022, by Apratim Mukarji


Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fighting a united population, has now embarked upon a grand strategy to bring all politicians under his wing, irrespective of their party affiliations, so that the people in the country are fooled and deprived of their natural right to justice. It is a devilish plan to rob the Sri Lankans of their united fight against him, the last of the Rajapaksas, a clan that had grabbed all powers in the recent years in its hands and was ruling the country at will.

The plan has already made some headway though Gotabaya’s bluff mow stands exposed. The Gazetted draft of the 22nd. Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution (22A), swhich will be presented to Parliament in the coming week, is a clear compromise between the interests of President Rajapaksa and those of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. However, it is also designed to maintain the stability needed to tide over the current and prolonged economic crisis and avoid a referendum. In the latter case, the anger of the people at this subtle betrayal might upset all cold political calculations.

If passed by Parliament by the required two-thirds majority, draft 22A will enter the Constitution as the 21st. Amendment (21A). In a far-reaching change, draft 22A re-establishes the independent Constitutional Council (CC) to replace the Parliamentary Council of the 20th. Amendment (20A). The CC will, in turn, appoint the Chairmen and Members of the various Independent Commissions (ICs) which would make key appointments and oversee the work in the sectors assigned to each.

The Independent Commissioners are the Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission, Judicial Commission, Bribery and Corruption Commission, Delimitation Commission, Human Rights Commission, Audit Service Commission, and National Procurement Commission.

The CC comprises the Parliament Speaker (who will be its chairperson), the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, one Member of Parliament (MP) appointed by the President, five MPs comprising one ruling party MP, one MP from the party of the Leader of Opposition, three non-MPs appointed by the Speaker in consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and approved by a simple majority of MPs in Parliament, and one MP from a party other than the one represented by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Other recommendations are as following: All appointments should reflect the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society. Non-MPs should be persons of repute and integrity. CC members will serve for three years. Vacancies will have to be filed within 14 days. It is the President who makes the appointments to the CC. But the 22A enjoins the President to make the appointments within 14 days of receiving recommendations from the CC. If he fails to do that, the appointments will be deemed to have been made as recommended by the CC. The CC’s nominations are necessary for high offices such as the Attorney General, the Ombudsman and the Secretary-General of Parliament.

Through the 22A, the Prime Minister gains authority over the President but he will not be able to exercise the new provisions during the tenure of the current (and 9th. Parliament. The new provisions will come into force only from next of the 10th. Parliament. This is a major concession to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the votaries of a strong Executive Presidency, like the Sinhala nationalists including the present Justice Minister and the architect of the 22A Vijayadasa Rajapaksa, in “consultation” with the Prime Minister where he considers such consultations necessary”, as is the case now under the 20th. Amendment.

But there is a condition attached to this. The above-mentioned stipulation will not come into play during the life of the current Parliament. During the life of the current Parliament, the President may “consult” the Prime Minister only if, in his opinion, such a consultation necessary. This provision constitutes a major concession by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe to President Rajapaksa. The other concession made to the President is that he shall be entitled to hold the Defence portfolio. In the absence or exit of a minister, the President can take over that ministry, but only for 14 days.

The draft 22A says that the Prime Minister shall stay in office throughout the period the Cabinet is in office unless he resigns or ceases to be a Member of Parliament. However, from the time the 22A is enacted till the dissolution of the 9th. In Parliament, the President can remove the Prime Minister from his office if, in his opinion, the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the House.

The draft 22A has the support of those who favour the present order with Gotabaya Rajapaksa continuing as Executive President and Ranil Wickremasinghe continuing as Prime Minister. They feel that the existing system has to be upheld for the sake of stability considered necessary to get desperately needed humanitarian and financial aid from other countries. They feel that the Opposition divided on ideology and politically will not provide a stable government and successfully operate the government machinery without a strong Executive Presidency which is immune to the vagaries of party politics, characteristic of the Westminster system. They also feel that to solve the tremendous and unprecedented economic crisis, Sri Lanka needs the undivided attention of a strong centre represented by the Executive Presidency.

The critics however argue that the 22A is a “big” letdown in the context of the public demand for a democratic system to “end the system of government based on the concentration of power” in the hands of one person or one family and its cronies. Their expectation, now proved to be an illusion, was that the 22A would be a full resurrection of the 19A of 2015(brought about after a nation-wide referendum as conducted through the outcome of the general and presidential elections at that time). But the 22A has proved to be “a pale shadow of the 19A”, constitutional expert Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne said to P.K. Balachandran of the NewsIn.Asia news portal.

In a short note issued on 31 June, the Centre of Policy Alternatives, said, “The Gazetted 22A does not curtail the powers of the President nor introduce checks and balances in any meaningful manner, contrary to the demands of the people of Sri Lanka. In the absence of any genuine attempt to address the inherent problems of governance, this attempt at reform will only worsen the existing political and economic crisis and destroy whatever little faith citizens might have in constitutional governance.”

Dr. Wickremaratne regrets that the President will retain his powers for the duration of the present Parliament, though he is allowed to hold only the Defence portfolio under the 22A. Any other ministry could be held (by him) only for 14 days. He also regrets that there is no specific provision for the representation of the small parties in the CC and to ensure the pluralist nature of Sri Lankan society.

Meanwhile, how society is being sought to be fooled by the wily political class is reflected in a recent government decision to distribute petrol and petroleum products among Members of Parliament, chairmen of various government institutions, and other politically connected persons, continue to obtain unlimited petrol and diesel from the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) facility at Kolonnawa, a Colombo suburb.

Samagi Jana Belavegaya trade unionist Ananda Palitha declared at a recent media conference that the powers that be had hijacked the facility at Kolonnawa “into a special facility to cater to the needs of the political class.” Those who once touted the “One Country One Law” concept had created a special category and, as a result, almost the entire nation suffered due to the unprecedented disruption of fuel supplies, he said

Ananda Palitha further said that none of those who were receiving this facility belonged to any of the essential services. “Why should lawmakers, whatever status they have in society, be given access to the special facility “when they aren’t included among the essential services”.

It looks obvious that given this kind of continuing unfair distribution of petrol, diesel and kerosene, the people of Sri Lanka will continue to face and fight the extreme shortage of these fuels, and the government of President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickrematunge would not care a fig for them.

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