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SJB manifesto sidesteps constitutional reform

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by C.A. Chandraprema

The chapter on constitutional reform in Sajith Premadasa’s presidential election manifesto should have got even more attention than it did, but at the time it was released about two weeks before the presidential poll, rival candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship issue and Ven. Ududumbara Kashyapa Thera’s fast unto death over the MCC affair had pushed everything else into the background and it was unlikely that an esoteric subject like constitutional reform would come to the people’s attention in a major way. This time, Sajith’s parliamentary election manifesto has ducked the issue of constitutional reform altogether. That denotes a certain kind of politics.

Constitutional reform is one of the main platforms on which this election is being fought because the SLPP has been openly asking for a two thirds majority in order to effect constitutional reform. Sajith Premadasa’s presidential election manifesto was a complete and total capitulation to the TNA constitutional agenda. The absence of any constitutional proposals in the parliamentary election manifesto is obviously because the TNA is contesting separately and the SJB will not get any TNA votes at the parliamentary election. It’s frightening to see a main political party or at least the main faction of a mainline political party having a constitutional reform agenda predicated on winning votes. When votes are on offer, constitutional reform appears. When no votes are on offer constitutional reform disappears from the agenda.

Bartering constitutional  reform for votes

President R.Premadasa made the same mistake of bartering constitutional reform for votes when he reduced the district cut off point in the proportional representation system from 12.5% to five percent in order to obtain the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress at the presidential election of 1988. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was signed into law just 48 hours before the Presidential poll on 19 December 1988. The damage this has done to the UNP itself and the country is incalculable. This made narrow minded ethnic politics possible in this country and has eroded the UNP’s minority vote base. Today the SJB is making the same mistake once again and this time, the repercussions will be even more serious because what is being bartered for votes is the very structure of the Sri Lankan state.

The need for constitutional reform is not an academic exercise. It’s a necessity. No political party other than the SLPP will be able to rule this country effectively without constitutional reform. The 19th Amendment has created a permanent state of war between the President and the Prime Minister. Today, things seem quite normal because the President is the brother of the Prime Minister in an extraordinarily close knit family which also has well established working arrangements among family members in politics. If Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been defeated at the presidential election and Sajith Premadasa had won, Sajith would by now be at war with Ranil Wickremesinghe.

After the 19th Amendment, the president cannot hold any ministry. Yet under Article 30(1) the president is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government, and under Article 42(3) he is also the Head of the Cabinet. Though he is the head of the Cabinet, he cannot hold any portfolio. The Constitution after the 19th Amendment does not expressly say that the President cannot hold any portfolio. What happened is that the 19th Amendment repealed the old Article 44(2) which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. Under the 19th Amendment, the President and PM have to share authority over the appointment of the cabinet.

According to Article 43(1) the President can in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the number of Ministers in the Cabinet and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers. But when appointing MPs as Ministers, Article 43(2) requires the President to act only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 43(3) states that the President may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers. However due to Article 43(2), even when acting under Article 43(3), it appears that the President has to seek the PM’s views if he is going to change the assignment of subjects to any individual Minister. The 19th Amendment created a situation where the President, Prime Minister and even the Speaker of Parliament were left holding parts of executive power. The Speaker presides over the Constitutional Council which has a role to play in making appointments to important state positions.

The 19th Amendment has also given the Prime Minister a kind of security of tenure. Under article 42(4) the President appoints as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament who is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament. Once appointed, the President according to the provisions of article 46(2) cannot remove the Prime Minister from office. The only way in which the PM can be removed is if he resigns or ceases to be a Member of Parliament. Because things look normal now, most people would be lulled into underestimating the disruptive effect of such provisions. What has saved the day are the working arrangements that has always existed within the Rajapaksa family. That will not be easily replicated anywhere else and constitutional reform should be a priority for all political parties not just the SLPP. In fact it could be argued that in an immediate sense, the SLPP is the political party that needs constitutional reform least.

The single most dangerous provision in the 19th Amendment is the complete prohibition on dissolving Parliament before the lapse of four and a half years unless a resolution is passed by parliament with a two thirds majority calling for an early dissolution. Now the President cannot dissolve Parliament at his own discretion until the lapse of four and a half years, and neither can parliament be dissolved in the event of repeated defeats of the budget, repeated defeats of the statement of government policy or the repeated passage of no confidence motions against the government. This in a situation where the system of elections more often than not produces a winner without a clear majority in parliament. Except on two occasions in the past three decades, governments have had to be cobbled together after a parliamentary election.

In 2001, when the parliamentary government cobbled together in that fashion by President Chandrika Kumaratunga began to fall apart, the President dissolved parliament and after the ensuring election, the UNP obtained the most number of seats and cobbled together a new government. This process ensured that the country did not descend into anarchy as the parliamentary government lost the ability to govern. Today that safety mechanism has been removed. If at some point into a government, its parliamentary majority falls apart, the President is required to somehow cobble together a majority and continue till the completion of four and a half years – an impossible task.

Housekeeping issues

There are many housekeeping issues in the 19th Amendment that need to be sorted out as well. If anyone asks a member of the Elections Commission whether they are responsible to Parliament in the discharge of their duties, they wouldn’t know. Article 41B(6) states that the Election Commission is not responsible and answerable to Parliament while Article 104B(3) says it is responsible and answerable to Parliament. If this goes before the Supreme Court, the only way that the SC will be able to decide between Article 41B(6) and Article 104B(3) is perhaps by tossing a coin! Everyone has heard of the situation where the membership of the Elections Commission is three and the quorum is also three but if the Chairman is absent, the remaining members can elect a Chairman and hold a meeting.

There are means of removing members of the independent commissions in the event of misconduct. Even in the case of the members of the Judicial Services Commission, which is made up of the Chief Justice and the two most senior Judges of the Supreme Court, Article 111E(6) states that the President may, with the approval of the Constitutional Council, and for cause assigned, remove from office any member of the Commission. A similar provision exists for the removal of the members of the Police Commission. The way that members of the Elections Commission can be removed is through an order of the President made after an address of Parliament supported by a majority of the total number of Members of Parliament including those not present.



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Politics

PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

In one dimension, Sri Lankan politics is a tale of cross-party political collaboration that should have taken place but didn’t, and those that shouldn’t have taken place but did.The two varying yet intermittently intertwining story-lines have widely discrepant endings, though. Collaborations that should have taken place but didn’t are stories of what might have been and wasn’t. What might have been is often better than what actually was.By contrast, stories of collaboration that should not have taken place but did, are stories of disasters that were avoidable but weren’t.

Sometimes the collaborations that should have been preceded those that should not have been but were acted upon. These are particularly poignant because an alliance or political equation that had the potential of leading to something positive, was immediately substituted by an equation which culminated in catastrophe.

There is another, inner connection. It is the causal link between the alliances that should have been made and weren’t, that led to lost potential, which was then sought to be offset by alliances that should not have been entered into but were, with worse consequences than the stagnation sought to be avoided or offset by entering into them.

The Left was never as strong as it was after the General Election of 1947. If the discussion at H. Sri Nissanka’s residence ‘Yamuna’ succeed and a bloc had formed of the three left parties—the LSSP, CP and the BLP—and the independent progressives, Ceylon would have had a left oriented Government which would have taken the country on a Nehruvian or ‘left-Nehruvian’ path.

Having rejected that option, the same leftist parties were later reviled, and correctly so, for having clung to “Sirima’s sari pota” and electorally decimated where they remain to this very day. Just recently, and incredibly, their residues voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Emergency under which the Aragalaya activists are being arrested.

After the magnificent Hartal of August 1953, the political parties that participated and supported it failed to unite in a single bloc. The result was that SWRD’s SLFP fell prey to the temptation of Sinhala Only, lobbied for by a civil society caucus led by Prof GP Malalasekara and the All- Ceylon Buddhist Congress he chaired, riding the surf of the Buddha Jayanthi and the ACBC report.

When SWRD tried to compensate by course-correction through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the Left didn’t come forward to enter a bloc with him in support. Ironically the same left entered a united front with his far less progressive widow and enthroned Sinhala only in the 1972 Constitution.

The Left finally entered a United Front in 1963, accompanied by the unification of the left-led trade union movement. The united left won the Borella by-election that year. In 1964 the LSSP broke the left front and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet. In 1968, in place of a reunified Left, the CPSL joined the LSSP in a coalition with the SLFP, holding a joint rally in Bogambara.The resultant vacuum on the left permitted the birth and rapid growth of the JVP.

Fifteen years after the LSSP’s co-optation and nine years after the CPSL’s, the entire old left had been electorally wiped out, with Philip Gunawardena who had joined a UNP cabinet, having been electorally eliminated earlier in 1970.I could go on. The moral of the story is simple. Left unity is a good thing and left disunity is not. Left and the unity with progressive independents is a good thing and its absence is not. The Left uniting with a center party under left dominance is bad but doing so on an equal footing, isn’t.The Left uniting with a dominant center party, i.e., with the SLFP in 1964 and 1970-1975/’77, is a terrible thing.

A center-left or center party uniting with a rightwing or center-right party is a bad thing. President Sirisena and the SLFP learned that lesson the hard way and the current trend of the SLPP opting for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Dullas Alahapperuma, the SLFP and the 10-parties being drawn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s orbit, having voted for his draconian Emergency (the SLFP was absent), will prove electorally fatal.

TAMIL PARTIES

The Tamil parties have a sad history of supporting the rightwing UNP which inevitably winds up unpopular and the target of a huge backlash. The presence of the Tamil parties in a bloc with the UNP, unfortunately facilitates an utterly reprehensible entry of Sinhala chauvinism into the anti-government backlash.

It is utterly counterproductive for the Tamil parties to be in an elitist UNP bloc. It was the presence of those parties in the UNP-led seven-party national Government of 1965-1970 that facilitated the opportunistic or semi-spontaneous injection of Sinhala ethno-populism into the Opposition campaign of the second half of the 1960s, which even more horridly, culminated in the official Sinhala racism after it assumed office, e.g., media-wise and district-wise Standardization of university entrance, the hegemonistic status of Sinhala and Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution.

The Tamil parties should think twice before being enticed into an alliance, de jure or de facto, with the unelected, illegitimate president Ranil Wickremesinghe who will cause a further spike in unprecedentedly high social disaffection by his economic “shock therapy”. It could cause a toxic cocktail as Sir John’s Delft speech did.

TODAY’S OPPOSITION

What would have happened to any Opposition political party that joined, propped up or let itself be drawn into the orbit of the hawkish UNP administration of Sir John Kotelawala after the Hartal of August 1953?

What if SWRD Bandaranaike, having left the UNP in 1951, helped it in 1953, after chairing the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green, though the SLFP didn’t participate in the Hartal?

The answers of these counterfactual history questions are obvious. Any such party which became a de jure or de facto prop (“mukkuwa”) of the Hartal-hit Establishment which had a harder-line post-Hartal leader, would have been committing political suicide.Had SWRD Bandaranaike done so, he would not have been the beneficiary of the anti-Establishment tectonic shift caused or denoted by the Hartal and swept into office through the Silent Revolution of 1956.

Why then are the Opposition parties of today doing or contemplating something even more colossally stupid, of joining, supporting or collaborating with the UNP leader of the Aragalaya-hit Establishment? It is suicidal for two reasons:

Firstly, the leader in question is utterly unelected, totally devoid of a popular mandate, and is therefore a completely illegitimate (though not illegal) ruler.Secondly, he will drive through a controversial and polarizing economic program, which will sink any party associated with it.Meanwhile, the failure of the pro-Aragalaya parties, the JVP, FSP, SJB and TNA, to unite is a repetition of the failure of the pro-Hartal parties to do so in 1953-1956.

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Politics

THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS

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by Prof.Tissa Vitarana

The massive crisis that has affected the lives of nearly all classes in our society, specially the poor and middle, in Sri Lanka is not new to us or to most other countries. It is an inherent cyclical feature, occurring at about seven year intervals, due to ‘boom and bust’ nature of the global market driven capitalist economic system brought on by over production. Periodically it may get out of control, like the Asian crisis of 1997 when a whole region was badly affected.

The affected countries that overcame the crisis by their own effort have learned to tide over these crises with minimal disruption. At an international conference in Cairo I had the good fortune to have a lengthy chat with Dr.Mahathir Mohamed (facilitated by us both being doctors turned politicians). He advised against succumbing to IMF pressure at any cost. This was because it is committed to the Prof. Friedman neo-liberal doctrine which facilitates the exploitation of our countries through an import dependent open economy that USA-led Imperialism controls.

The loans given lead to a debt trap which is the root cause of our situation. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has reached US$ 52 billion and debt servicing last year was six billion dollars and this year seven billion. Hence the shortage of dollars and of essential imports like fuel, gas, chemical fertilizer, medicines and food items. To ensure that at least six months of these imports are obtained the Foreign Exchange Reserve (FOREX) has been maintained at US$ seven to eight billion. Now it is down to zero, and thus causing this severe crisis.

The answer is the development of a national economy with maximum self-sufficiency which is Government regulated in the real interest of all the people, not a few super rich. This was done by Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance in the 1970/75 SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government. Since the neo-liberal UNP Government led by J.R.Jayewardene took power in 1977 the country has gone into a situation of economic crisis. While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer.

Now it is estimated by nutritionists that about 70% of all families are living below the poverty line and have inadequate food and other essentials. The level of malnutrition has gone up above 20%. It is with great difficulty that the adults of many of these families survive on one meal a day, and provide two meals for their children. Many go to bed at night hungry. The productivity of the economy has gone down and, due to the economic crisis the closure of factories and other work places, has led to massive pay cuts and job losses.

The farmers harvest outputs have dropped due to the shortage and high cost of fertilizer and other inputs. Due to the fall in the import of fuel the shortage and high price has disrupted the transport system, the operation of factories, and the use of machinery in agriculture and in the fishing industry. The economy is on the verge of total collapse.

In the midst of such crisis where the system itself is collapsing, clearly the country and the world requires a system change. Unfortunately those in power are content to tinker with the existing system and make both minor and some major changes, but the outcome has not been adequate. It is my opinion that there needs to be total change of the system that benefits the whole of society and not the few who can manage with the limited but expensive tinkering process.

Society itself needs to be driven not by the profit motive which largely benefits the rich but also by being re-organized to provide the needs of everybody. That is a society based on socialist principles. For instance the high cost of food (due to the massive food inflation) is an outcome of the profit motivated production, distribution and marketing system that exists today. Further, in Sri Lanka for instance due to the high cost of inputs the farmer has to take large loans to cover his cost. He gets into debt and at the time of harvest he has to pay the capital cost along with the interest.

The farmer generally takes big loans from the trader or from institutions (like banks) that provide credit. Many poor farmers in this country find it easier to obtain credit from the traders thereby avoiding the red tape they have to face when they go to institutions that provide credit. But this leads to further problems as the trader often demands that the produce is sold only to him at an amount below the prevailing market price. At times this does not even cover the actual cost of production. And the farmer gets caught up in a cycle of debt from which he has no escape. A majority of the farmers in this country are deeply in debt. They are trapped in a situation of perpetual poverty.

The same problem is faced by small and medium scale entrepreneurs. As a result value added industries too do not develop in the rural sector. There must be a new system which gives the farmers and the entrepreneurs the necessary credit, if possible at no or very low interest at the time that he needs it. This will have to be done by the Government which should ensure that bureaucratic pressures such as the taking of bribes is firmly eliminated.

The LSSP favours a truly cooperative system. There should be producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives, and they should directly deal with each other without any intermediaries. In the prevailing private enterprise system the producer is exploited by a series of middlemen who jack up the price, so that the consumer has to pay a far higher amount than what the producer gets. This middleman system must be eliminated and the transaction should be directly between the producer cooperatives and the consumer cooperatives.

Thus the consumer will only have to pay the cost incurred in taking the produce between the two without any profit. Such a cooperative system is not a dream but it works in many countries abroad, specially those in Scandinavia. But this has already worked in Sri Lanka too, during the time that Dr.N.M.Perera was Finance Minister in the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Unfortunately the cooperatives that are still functioning in this country are cooperatives only in name operated by mudalalis. All the members of the producer and consumer cooperatives must meet and elect reliable office bearers who will function properly at all times. This system change is vital to bring down the cost of living and end hunger and poverty.

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Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not

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By Uditha Devapriya

Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they accuse him of trying to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of July 22.

Internationally, these allegations have found a ready audience. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judicial methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.

There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the army has been deployed against protesters, a significant proportion of the latter criticise the army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as vassals of the State. The “People vs Army” line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.

As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands included widening access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.

There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared a liberal progressive stance on certain themes and issues. Probably the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing president formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you’d count on as supporters of liberal causes.

I realised this myself when I paid a visit on July 12, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like “butterfly” on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you’d expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposed to be aligned with civil society visions of progressive dissent.

In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (“Sri Lanka’s Next Test”, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises an important question: was, and is, the aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Mr Rajapaksa and his party, essentially “endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics.” It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, who have been traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?

In depicting the aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do: portray the protests as a monolith movement, which it is not. The simple truth is that the aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because the aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime: in its simplest sense, a popular uprising.

The same goes for the July 22 raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from several standpoints, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear, it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree, as I do, with his use of force, and validly concur that it tilted mass opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But then government supporters can claim, as critics like me do not, that in no country has peaceful protests entailed the occupation of public property. This is a deeply divisive debate, one that is yet to be taken forward and concluded.

Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the aragalaya should certainly be lauded for its unyielding stand against the Rajapaksa. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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