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Editorial

A new Constitution?

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Friday 16th October, 2020

Some religious dignitaries have called upon the government to abandon its 20th Amendment (20A) project and introduce a new Constitution, instead. The present Constitution is seriously flawed; the 20A has stirred a controversy, and in its present form contains some questionable provisions. (We refrain from commenting on the observations and remedies prescribed in the Supreme Court determination, which has been leaked to the media, and wait until it is officially presented to Parliament to make known our views thereon.) The concerns of the prelates should be appreciated, but the promulgation of a new Constitution is beyond the realms of possibility, and the 19th Amendment (19A) has to be straightened up urgently.

The President must be able to hold the defence portfolio. The Constitution says, “The President shall be a member of the Cabinet of Ministers and shall be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers”, but prevents him/her from being a minister! This contradiction has resulted from the emasculation of the executive presidency, under the yahapalana government to strengthen the position of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds himself in a constitutional straitjacket. The main plank of his presidential election campaign was national security, which is also his long suit. He should be able to hold the defence portfolio, and 19A has to be amended for this purpose.

There are other flaws in 19A and the yahapalana leaders’ conduct aggravated and magnified them. The Constitutional Council (CC) was reduced to a mere appendage of the UNP-led government. When Pujith Jayasundera was appointed the IGP, we questioned the CC’s wisdom, arguing that SDIG S. M. Wickramasinghe was better suited for the job. Jayasundera has recently admitted before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday blasts that he was at his official residence, of all places, on the day of terrorist bombings although he had received intelligence about the impending attacks! The police under him did precious little to neutralise Zahran’s NTJ even after finding the main training facility of the terrorist outfit, in Puttalam. The independence of some civil society members in the CC was also in question; one of them has been receiving funds from some western powers including the US known for meddling with the internal affairs of this country. As for the vital appointments in the state sector, the government did as the CC said and the CC did as PM Wickremesinghe said. Wickremesinghe was the puppeteer, and the CC the puppet. But the proposed Parliamentary Council with the incumbent PM as the puppeteer is certainly not the answer.

The proponents of 20A argue that the people rejected 19A by defeating those who introduced it, at the last three elections. This argument is tenable. It can also be argued that people rejected the 18th Amendment (18A) by defeating those who had brought it in, at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015. Therefore, how can the incorporation into 20A provisions akin to those in 18A be justified?

The promulgation of a new Constitution is a will-o’-the-wisp. All attempts to repeal the 1978 Constitution have gone pear-shaped all these years mainly due to the issue of devolution of power. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s draft Constitution fell through, in 2000, because she failed to secure the support of her rivals as well as some of her allies for what came to be dubbed the devolution package, which envisaged Regional Councils with more powers than the Provincial Councils (PCs). The yahapalana government also baulked at the question of devolution of power. Mountains, which had been in labour for about four years, finally delivered a stillborn mouse. The present dispensation consists of two schools of thought as regards devolution—one for the 13 Amendment, and the other against any form of devolution. The TNA and its foreign allies are demanding that more powers be devolved to the provinces; if their demand is granted there will be federalism in all but name.

The UNP, the SLFP/UPFA, the JVP and the TNA got together and postponed the PC polls indefinitely by enacting the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act of 2017 in the most deplorable manner and have thereby proved that the PCs are useless, albeit unwittingly. So, the incumbent government does not want to address the issue of devolution lest it should open up a Pandora’s Box of in the process although it pretends to be keen to write a new Constitution.

What the new government should have done was to rid the 19A of its flaws to give the President some constitutional leeway among other things. If it had taken that route, it may have been able to secure the passage of its constitutional amendment unanimously in Parliament, and concentrate on the economic front without shielding destroyers of forests, supporters of terror and other such political dregs in return for their votes in Parliament to maintain its two-thirds majority.



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Editorial

Machiavellian duplicity

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Thursday 13th June, 2024

It appears that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP/NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake are taking part in a promise-making competition, as it were, in the North and the East in a desperate bid to secure the support of the TNA and other Tamil political parties for their presidential election campaigns. They have been stumping those parts of the country aggressively during the past few weeks.

Besides offering to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution fully and enhance devolution, Wickremesinghe and Premadasa are providing material assistance to the public in the North and the East obviously with an eye to the upcoming presidential election. The President has been allocating public funds with a generous hand for developing the North and the East as if he were spending his own money for that purpose. Dissanayake has sought to trump his opponents’ bid to woo the TNA and others; in what could be considered a major about-turn on the part of the JVP, he has reportedly offered to go beyond the 13th Amendment in resolving ethnic issues in case of his victory in the upcoming presidential race. He has provided grist to his political opponents’ mill.

The TNA has been wise enough to urge the ‘promising’ presidential candidates from the South to sound the majority community out on their pledges. It has adopted a pragmatic approach; devolution is a contentious issue, and political solutions based thereon require the backing of the majority community to reach fruition. Southern politicians have earned notoriety for reneging on their election promises to all Sri Lankans, and it is only natural that nobody takes them seriously.

There has been a mixed reaction to Dissanayake’s U-turn on devolution. The JVP plunged the country into a protracted bloodbath in a bid to scuttle the Indo-Lanka Accord, the 13th Amendment, and the establishment of the Provincial Councils (PCs) in the late 1980s. It brutally gunned down those who tirelessly campaigned for evolving a political solution to the ethnic problem through devolution. They included Vijaya Kumaratunga and many other leftists. The sea change in the JVP’s policy has been welcomed by the proponents of devolution, as a positive change, but the JVP/NPP will have its work cut out to convince the public that it is not driven by Machiavellian duplicity.

Interestingly, in 2000, the UNP and the JVP jointly torpedoed President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s constitutional reforms Bill aimed at establishing regional councils besides restoring the parliamentary system of government. Kumaratunga said the UNP had pledged its support for the Bill. The Opposition MPs literally set the Bill on fire in the House, claiming that Kumaratunga had inserted some transitional provisions without their consent. If she had done so, they could have sorted out that issue through talks without burning the Bill. It was clear that they shot down her constitutional reform package for political expediency. Now, they are offering to devolve more powers!

It is a supreme irony that President Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake have, at discussions with the TNA, undertaken to hold the much-delayed PC polls. All of them were instrumental in postponing the PC elections in 2017. The UNP with Premadasa as its Deputy Leader at the time, the JVP and the TNA together passed an amendment to the PC Elections Act to put off the PC polls indefinitely. The PCs have been functioning without elected representatives for the last seven years or so. They are currently under Provincial Governors appointed by the President, who also controls the dissolved local government institutions through the Governors. Thus, he has all three tiers of government—Parliament, the PC and the local government authorities under him. He is running a one-man show. Shouldn’t the UNP, its offshoot, the SJB, the JVP and the TNA apologise to the people for what they have done to the PCs?

The JVP finds itself in a contradiction, a huge one at that. Having played a pivotal role in mobilising the masses to oust popularly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over his economic crimes, which sent the country reeling, the JVP, which has committed far worse crimes, such as countless murders and destruction of public assets worth billions of rupees, in the name of an ill-conceived mission to defeat Indian expansionism, abort the 13th Amendment and sabotage the PC system, is now asking the public to buy into its untested claims and elect its leader as the President! This, it is doing without ever so much as tendering an apology for its criminal past!

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Editorial

Playing ball, the govt’s way

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Wednesday 12th June, 2024

Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy is not solely economic or financial; it is multisectoral as evident from the steep decline in standards, inefficiency, corruption and even dysfunctionality affecting other spheres. It has not even spared men’s cricket, which is fast losing its status as the de facto national sport owing to the players’ consistently poor performance and public resentment towards the cricket administration, which has become a metaphor for corruption.

Unfortunately, the only thing dazzling about Sri Lankan cricketers these days is the on-field display of their elegant gold jewellery. Former World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who has famously said the rot in Sri Lanka’s cricket set in, the day cricketers started playing for money, stands vindicated.

Sports Minister Harin Fernando is drawing heavy flak for having issued a controversial gazette, seeking to enable the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) President and Secretary to remain in their positions for eight years and thereafter serve as Executive Committee members. The SLPP-UNP government is currently in the extension mode, as it were. It has reportedly granted service extensions to some defence bigwigs and is all out to extend the term of the incumbent Attorney General. The UNP has not given up its efforts to extend President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s term by postponing the upcoming presidential election.

The SLC is running a parallel government to all intents and purposes. It has emerged so powerful that it can have any Sports Minister who refuses to toe its line sacked at will and a person of its choice appointed to that post. Fernando, who is known for his willingness to play ball with cricket panjandrums, got the Sports portfolio following the expulsion of Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe from the Cabinet for taking on corrupt cricket administrators, who have proved that they are above the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

The SLC is no respecter of anyone or any institution here; it is capable of having ICC bans slapped in retaliation when action is taken to rid it of corruption so that the President of Sri Lanka has to tug his forelock before the self-important ICC Chief in India and tender an apology.

Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella has said the Sports Minister Fernando’s gazette has violated a resolution Parliament passed unanimously in Nov., 2023, calling for the sacking of the incumbent office-bearers of Sri Lanka Cricket, but in vain. He has stressed the obvious. Now that Minister Fernando has flown in the face of that parliamentary resolution and thereby caused an affront to the national legislature, what action will Parliament take against him?

Will the Opposition move a no-faith motion against Minister Fernando? Such a move however could prove counterproductive in that the government has enough numbers in the House to scuttle it, and its defeat can be construed as parliamentary approval for Fernando’s gazette. But a no-confidence motion will help expose the MPs who connive with Minister Fernando and his SLC chums to undermine Parliament. An opportunity has presented itself for the government and Opposition MPs to shore up the image of Parliament as well as theirs by joining forces to foil Minister Fernando’s attempt to perpetuate the current cricket administrators’ grip on the SLC.

Kiriella has alleged that the gazette at issue will help the government secure funds for its election campaigns from those who benefit from corrupt cricket deals. That is the name of the game in
Sri Lankan politics. There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch. There are no ‘free’ gazettes either.

One wonders whether some Opposition members are among those who have benefited from the largesse of cricket bigwigs, for those otherwise cantankerous characters have chosen to remain silent on the controversial gazette.

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Editorial

Of that sinister plan

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Tuesday 11th June, 2024

Nothing is more disconcerting to an unpopular regime than the prospect of losing power. Hence the SLPP-UNP government’s desperate efforts to cling on to power by fair means or foul. The Opposition has let out howls of protests against a government move to extend the term of Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam, who is reaching the mandatory retirement age soon. No AG has ever been granted a service extension since Independence, we are told. It is only natural that all Opposition parties have torn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe, demanding that his plan to extend the AG’s term be abandoned forthwith. Their call has resonated with the public and must be heeded.

The unprecedented and unacceptable course of action President Wickremesinghe has resorted to is bound to be counterproductive in that it has come to be widely considered a foretaste of what is to come in case his efforts to win the next presidential election reach fruition.

The government stands accused of trying to subvert democracy to retain its hold on power. Is the service extension for the AG on the cards a part of its strategy to advance a hidden agenda?

It was with the connivance of the AG’s Department that the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council (PC) elections indefinitely in 2017 by amending the PC Elections Act in the most despicable manner; it incorporated a slew of new sections into the amendment Bill at the committee stage, claiming that they had passed muster with the AG. We pointed out editorially that the AG was not infallible and nothing must be added to the Bill, solely on the basis of his advice, making it vastly different from the original version thereof, which had been gazetted and subjected to judicial review. Worryingly, that bad Bill was passed with the support of more than two-thirds of the members of Parliament representing all political parties. Old habits are said to die hard. UNP General Secretary Range Bandara has reiterated his call for a poll postponement purportedly on account of the ongoing economic recovery efforts.

The AG is vested with power to file nolle prosequis, stating his intent not to proceed with cases, as former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris has pointed out. Not that all AGs in Sri Lanka have been impartial and independent. Their subservience as well as partiality to the political authority has been public knowledge. But a service extension given to an AG at the behest of the President will lead to a far worse situation where the state prosecutor will be under obligation to the Head of State as never before, and it will be inimical to the integrity of not only the AG’s Department but also the legal process.

The reasons given by the government for the proposed service extension to AG Rajaratnam are ludicrous, to say the least. In fact, it amounts to an affront to the intelligence of the public for the government to claim that the term of the incumbent AG has to be extended in view of the ongoing probe into the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the X-Press Pearl issue and the IMF programme. This is an indictment of the AG’s Department personnel, particularly, the official who is eligible to succeed Rajaratnam. Is the government of the opinion that the AG’s Department is without any other official capable of handing the aforesaid matters?

The Opposition has claimed President Wickremesinghe is trying to have the AG’s term extended by the Constitutional Council (CC). Prof. Peiris has rightly pointed out that the CC’s mandate is limited to appointments to high posts, and the CC is not constitutionally empowered to handle service extensions. This argument is tenable, and it behoves the government to refrain from causing a further erosion of public faith in the CC, which has already been reduced to an appendage of the SLPP-UNP combine, as was seen in the despicable manner in which the appointment of the incumbent IGP was made. The government had better abandon its sinister plan.

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