Saturday 5th September, 2020
The 20th Amendment (20A) bill is now in the public domain. The Attorney General is of the view that it requires only a two-thirds majority in Parliament for enactment. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and the passage of 20A is only a matter of time. Reflected in this constitutional amendment is the strategic thinking of the present dispensation.
It was thought, before last month’s general election, that 20A would be a slightly amended version of 19A as there was a need to help the President wriggle out of the constitutional straitjacket he found himself in. But 19A has been eviscerated. Only the five-year presidential term and the two-term limit seem to have been retained.
The general consensus is that 19A contains some salutary features, which must be retained although it was intended to keep the Rajapaksa family at bay, strip President Maithripala Sirisena of some executive powers and vest them in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The number of terms a President could serve was limited to two to prevent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting a presidential election again. Dual citizens were banned from entering Parliament or running for President because the yahapalana leaders wanted to prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa from seeking political office. Namal Rajapaksa was their obvious target when the minimum age limit for contesting a presidential election was raised to 35.
Wickremesinghe and Sirisena did everything in their power to ruin the political future of the Rajapaksas, but their plan went pear-shaped, and the boot is now on the other foot. Wickremesinghe is in the political wilderness; Sirisena, who left the SLFP as a powerful minister of the Rajapaksa government to contest the presidential election successfully, in 2015, having failed to realise his prime ministerial dream, is now playing second fiddle to the Rajapaksas, as an ordinary MP.
Dual citizens will be able to contest elections, and the minimum age for presidential candidates will be 30 if 20A is enacted. The path has been cleared for the Rajapaksa family.
The Constitutional Council (CC) is to be replaced with a Parliamentary Council (PC) under 20A. True, the CC functioned as a rubber stamp for the yahapalana government and was responsible for some controversial appointments which should not have been made. But the incumbent government could have changed the CC to make it more effective. What 20A proposes to set up is another rubber stamp council; the President will have the power to make all key appointments to the Election Commission, the judiciary, etc. Fear is being expressed in some quarters that the Auditor General’s Department will end up being an appendage of the government.
The government will be able to appoint any number of ministers if 20A is enacted, and this will help lure Opposition MPs into joining its ranks. A jumbo Cabinet will serve the purpose of only self-seeking politicians craving power and positions. Ideally, the Cabinet should not have more than 15 members. The number of ministers must not exceed 30 under any circumstances.
Worryingly, legal experts have pointed out that there is no provision in 20A for fundamental rights (FR) cases to be filed against the omissions and commissions on the part of the President. At present, FR cases can be filed against the Attorney General over presidential actions, but if 20A becomes law in its present form, people who feel that their fundamental rights have been violated by the President will not be able to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Instead, they will have to settle for going to the Appeal Court. The constitutional provision for FR cases anent presidential actions should be retained.
Overall, President Rajapaksa has done well despite 19A, which is annoyingly restrictive in some respects, and earned praise even from his critics. He certainly needs some more constitutional leeway to be able to live up to the expectations of the people who elected him and deserves the Defence portfolio among other things, as we have argued in previous comments. But 20A seeks to vest in the presidency excessive powers, and it in its present form is likely to cast him in an unfavourable light.
Framing a Constitution or amending it is a solemn task which requires sincerity and foresight, which the drafters of 19A sadly lacked; they played politics with it at the behest of their political masters. The architects of 20A have failed to be different. The yahapalana government went to one extreme, and the SLPP administration is set to go to the other. We are afraid that 20A will have a corrosive effect on the brake system of the SLPP juggernaut, causing it to go careening down the hill.
One can only hope that the government will heed concerns being expressed about 20A and consider watering it down instead of seeking a reversion to the status quo ante.
All bark and no bite
Wednesday 6th July, 2022
Parliament was thrown into turmoil once again yesterday, when a group of Opposition MPs staged a boisterous protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presence in the House. They shouted themselves hoarse, asking the President to step down. The whole country has been asking the President to go home, but he carries on regardless. Politicians who savour power never give it up of their own volition; they are like limpets. So, no amount of shouting will help the SJB, the other Opposition parties in Parliament, and the public see the back of the President, as it stands. It looks as if the Opposition had to change its strategy.
The government still has a working majority in Parliament; it therefore has the edge in shouting matches in the House and can secure the passage of bad laws. Yesterday, there were dozens of government MPs shouting in support of the President. The Opposition has its work cut out as regards its plan to topple the government by mustering enough numbers in Parliament, and this may be the reason why it has taken its battle to the streets. A similar situation arose towards the latter stages of the yahapalana government. The UNP-led UNF retained an absolute majority in the House with the help of the JVP and the TNA although it was losing popular support rapidly. The SLPP intensified its campaign outside Parliament and turned the tables on the yahapalana regime; it won the presidential and parliamentary polls with huge majorities. But this time around, there is neither an election in sight nor a guarantee that the next government to be elected would be a stable one, and the present crisis would go away even if Parliament resolved to dissolve itself and a snap general election was held anytime soon. There’s the rub. The SJB, other anti-government forces, and the country will stand to gain only if all parties get together to break the back of the crisis before the next general election.
It has been reported that the Opposition is planning to launch a continuous protest soon to pressure the President to resign. The President is not likely to step down due to protests, but if he happens to find himself in a situation where he is left with no alternative but to sacrifice Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government with someone else as the PM, to save his skin, he will not scruple to do so. After all, he had his own brother, Mahinda, step down as the PM, didn’t he? In fact, he offered the premiership to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before appointing Wickremesinghe PM. Anything is possible in politics.
The Opposition may have thought yesterday’s protest against the President would go down well with the irate public, languishing in queues and skipping meals, but such gimmicks will not help solve their problems. People are so indignant that they may love to see the President and other government grandees being ridiculed, but that does not serve their purpose. The interests of the public will be served only if all political parties, which are responsible for the mess the country has got into over the years, albeit to varying degrees, speak with one voice and act unitedly to resolve the crisis.
President Rajapaksa may have sought to prove MP Wimal Weerawansa wrong by attending Parliament yesterday. The latter said on Monday that the President was nowhere to be seen, the implication being that he was in hiding. But the President’s presence only led to a serious disruption to parliamentary proceedings in a time when the national legislature should remain maniacally focused on how to contain the crisis. The IMF and foreign governments have told Sri Lanka with one voice that it has to get its act together to qualify for financial assistance, but its political leaders are jousting for supremacy instead of sinking their differences and working out a common agenda to save the economy.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe threw down a challenge to JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who claims to be able to revive the economy in six months. He said he would resign, allowing Dissanayake to take over as the PM if the latter could present to Parliament a workable plan to resolve the crisis so fast. Will Dissanayake take up the challenge or continue to protest? The SJB also can reveal to the House how it intends to sort out the economy, and thereafter ask for the reins of government to implement its economic recovery programme. Such a course of action will be much more effective, and beneficial to the country than shouting.
A dangerous trend
Tuesday 5th July, 2022
Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.
In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.
The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.
What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.
The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.
Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.
The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.
Lessons from Libya
Angry protesters have set the Libyan Parliament building on fire. They have been calling for elections. Continuing power cuts, soaring prices, months of political deadlock, etc., have driven the Libyans to extreme action although their demands have been endorsed by the interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has also agreed in principle to the need to overhaul all state institutions. Libya is in chaos today with rival parties vying for power and killing one another because of the western-backed regime change in 2011.
Muammar Gaddafi was an eccentric dictator, who had to be made to uphold democracy, but the West had other plans and destabilised Libya by supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces that included Jihadist fighters. Until the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya had boasted not only political stability but also excellent living standards, which were the highest in Africa and easily compared with those in the developed countries; it had one of the best social welfare schemes in the world. The Arab Spring has turned out to be a winter of despair for Libyans.
Prevailing economic, social and political conditions in Sri Lanka are similar to those in Libya at present in some respects, and have the potential to plunge the country into lawlessness just like the north African nation in depths of anarchy. This is something both the government and the Opposition should take cognisance of.
The government is groping in the dark. The Opposition parties are pulling in different directions, demanding that they be allowed to govern the country. They have said they will join forces to hold a continuous protest in Colombo, seeking the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The removal of the President may be the most effective way of extricating the country from the tentacles of the Rajapaksa family, which is aggravating the crisis by leveraging Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dependence on Basil Rajapaksa’s SLPP. Now, some Basil loyalists such as SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, are crawling out of the woodwork. But the ground reality is that President Rajapaksa cannot be ousted so easily. Unless he resigns, he has to be impeached. The process of impeaching the President is a tedious one, and the Opposition is without sufficient numbers in Parliament for that purpose. A sustained protest campaign backed by a general strike may be considered an option, but such a course of action will be tantamount to collective suicide in that political upheavals will destroy the economy and deprive the country of the much-needed foreign assistance. The way out, in our book, is to crank up pressure on President Rajapaksa to appoint a truly national government so that all political parties will have to stop protesting and make a contribution towards crisis management.
Sri Lankans are a credulous lot. They swallowed Dhammika peniya (syrup), which was touted as a cure for Covid-19. Gotabaya offered a political peniya, (read the Vistas of Prosperity) claiming that it was the cure for all ills of Sri Lanka, and the people fell hook, line, and sinker for it only to be disappointed. Now, they are being offered the Sajith peniya and the Anura Kumara peniya. The SJB consists of a bunch of politicians who were in the yahapalana government, which failed. The country is paying the price for having elected, as its President, a person without any experience in statecraft. The JVP, which could not run even a local government institution properly, is now demanding the reins of government. Its ideology is an anachronism in the modern world, and its utopian dream may be marketable but is not attainable.
The Opposition parties must be prevented from using the present crisis to hoodwink the public, capture power, and thereafter go on asking for time to find a solution while blaming their predecessors. No single party is equal to the task of helping straighten up the economy under its own steam, and there will have to be a concerted effort. That is why all political parties must be made to form a unity government and carry out their promises collectively pending a general election. They have to make necessary laws and policies to enable the technocrats of the Finance Ministry, the Central Bank, etc., to resuscitate the economy. Nobody will be safe if the country slides into anarchy with the irate public marching on Parliament.
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