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The Opposition SJB strives hard to counter 20th Amendment

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by Harim Peiris

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.

The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community.

The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment

The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.

The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.

The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.

 

The SJB needs to broaden

its outreach

The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.

The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.



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Opinion

Save us from our govt.!

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When watching daily news bulletins, on several local TV channels, one could observe two significant matters.

One is how Gotabaya Rajapaksa shamelessly meets foreign diplomats and officers of international organizations, who are well aware of the grave situation of the country, and also the prime reason for it.

Remember, as kids, how we hide from our parents, or teachers, when some small mistake happens – that is because we were ashamed, and afraid of punishment. And ther, too, it would have been only our own mistake, not by the whole family of ours!

Next is how the Police and armed forces are let loose on the men, women and children who have been waiting in queues for hours or days. The authorities are not finding ways to stop queuing or at least maintain some order at those places, but chastise the people, for electing as Basil Rajapaksa had said, a stupid, clueless president and an incompetent government.

The greatest disasters we have faced since Independence are the JVP insurrection, the LTTE war and the tsunami in 2004, and during those times the people were protected by then governments; now Sri Lankans have to struggle against the government, which is steadily throttling them to death.

BUDDHI PERERA

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Opinion

Challenges, and need for an all-party govt.

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Whoever wants to take charge, must first disclose how they are going to set about it. making statements that ‘WE WILL PUT IT INTO ORDER’ is not acceptable. Even SJB, the main Opposition party, hasn’t put forward at least an outline plan as to how they will set about it.

What did the current President promise? What did the current PM promise.? What are their results? Can the country afford more of such vague promises? Three months have gone and still there is no plan from any Party in Parliament. How can any country or institution assist one who has no plan?

Challenges are many and very unpopular decisions have to be made. Resistance from entrenched interests, such as trade Unions, including the GMOA, some corrupt business interests, political interests, mafias, monopolies, etc., has to be countered. Are they prepared to overcome them?

Why go far? Are they prepared to reduce the Parliamentary allocation substantially, and even reduce the number of MPS from 225 to about 150 – on par with countries of similar size, population, GDP, etc.

Parties trying to form a Govt. must first agree amongst them on their Plan, at least on the following:

(i) on their strategy to get Foreign Exchange to purchase limited quantities of fuel for essential services, food, medicines. and fertiliser for the next 6-9 months. Their strategy to increase exports, foreign employment and foreign investment so as to increase Foreign Exchange in the short and medium term. With current conditions it is futile to expect tourists to come to Sri Lanka.

(2) as to how to balance the budget. Are they unitedly prepared to close down or privatize CEB, CPC, AirLanka and Water Board, etc.? Budgetary Allocation for Defence is another, which has to be drastically reduced, the developed countries spend only 2 to 3 % of their GDP on Defence. What does SL do? Out of the Defence allocation, Navy must have the major component for they have to patrol the sea area, which is many times larger than SL land area. SL sea resources are at risk from illegal fishing, human smuggling and illegal dumping, etc.

 (3) Are they prepared to close down unnecessary Ministries, Corporations, and Departments, most of which were created for the benefit of politicians, especially for Ministerial Positions.

(4) Staff levels in Ministries, Departments. Corporations that are to function, have to be drastically reduced, so that they could function efficiently and cost effectively. Reducing staff will also reduce the need for large office spaces, electricity, telephone cost etc.

(5) What are their plans to support and or rehabilitate the staff so retrenched.?

(6) Their plan for distribution of essentials? Rationing?

(9) Can they agree on a small, efficient and capable cabinet? Let not the country have too many Ministers and or Officials telling the country different versions, confusing the people as to which is correct, and that too hoping that at least one will be correct.

(10) How will they source the revenue? Are they prepared to increase the direct tax component to 60% or even 75 % for the present? The majority of the population have been badly affected due to the current crises. Their only crime being they misused their votes. They should not be burdened further with indirect taxes. To reduce their burden indirect taxes have to be the lesser component of the revenue, at least for the present.

(11) Can they do away with duty free cars, and all other special privileges given to some sections of the society. All Laws must be equally applicable to all. Other than the First citizen of the country, all others (be it state employees or Parliamentarians) must be taxed on the same basis as others.

All Parties joining must undertake that they will no longer do politics with these issues, nor will they withdraw from the interim govt when it undertakes unpopular decisions on above issues. They must all commit to swim or sink together.

None of those who served as Ministers in failed Governments, or who were Ministers in MR’s Govts which decided on vanity projects, should not be given Ministerial positions. Same should apply to those Parliamentarians who voted for the 17 ,18,19 and 20th amendments should be excluded, as it shows they neither have principles, nor care for the country. Corrupt and convicts too should be kept out. KNOWLEDGE AND CAPABILITY should be the criteria in the selection of the Ministers. Those who are unable to deliver within 3 months must be made to stand down.

To the party leaders who want to form the government, may I say, first divulge your plan to the country.

Please, do not tell the country that you have a better plan. You can afford to fail but not the country or its people at large!

A. K.RATNARAJAH

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Opinion

Fuel tokens, a big farce

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A file photo of fuel tokens being issued

The Minister of Power and Energy who covers a very responsible Ministry, was selected by the President probably due to his membership of the ‘Viyath Maga’, has undoubtedly proved to be a very inefficient Power and Energy Minister, and a complete failure without any doubt.

He is very capable of giving false hopes always of fuel and gas laden ships arriving on Sri Lanka shores, which have proved to be absolutely wrong. One wonders whether it is a gimmick to keep the fuel and gas starved motorists happy, and avoid the unending queues at fuel stations. This has proved to be a wrong system.

In order to control the daily queues, and knowing there will be no fuel ships for some time, he introduced the fuel token system out of the blues, and with no proper organizational effort. The policy announced regarding the token system, was to enable vehicle drivers to enter the fuel stations on a pre-selected day of the week, allocated to him/her, and dependent on the last digit of the vehicle number plate. This was again to avoid the long queues, according to the Power and Energy Minister.

With the latest innovative fuel token system announced, I visited the petrol station, in close proximity to my home on Monday 27th June, with much hope, and was among the first hundred with the details of my address, profession, NIC Number and contact mobile number. The relevant officer, who recorded the details, informed me that this was a pilot project, from Ratmalana to Moratuwa, and that when the fuel arrives at the petrol station, I will receive an SMS requesting me to report at the petrol station, at the allocated time, once again to avoid queues. But I did not receive the fuel token as it was not available. I was told that there was no necessity to have the token, as I will receive the SMS on my mobile phone.

The following day I received news that the fuel tokens are being issued. When I visited the fuel station, to obtain the token, there were four different long queues, along the road registering three-wheelers, motorcycles, vehicles needing diesel, and cars needing petrol. I met the S LAF officer, registering the cars queued up on the Galle Road, and told him that I am already registered in the book he was entering details and requested the token, which was denied to me. As the queues were there during the next two days, I visited the fuel shed on day four (30th June) when the officer was registering a few people. When my turn came, I showed the serial number and my name registered therein. I was told to wait until the SMS was received. He said that my registration will be cancelled if the token was given at a later date! Then I met the SL Air Force official and explained my position. He then approved the issue of the token. The delay in obtaining the token was nearly 15 minutes. By this incident it was evident that the advice given to Air Force officers to register and issue tokens was not properly given.

I was surprised to receive the token which was a slip of paper, with dimensions only 10cm x 6 cm. Inside it there were printed, Name of the Fuel Station, Type of fuel, Contact Number, Name, NIC Number, Vehicle No, , Date , Time, Signature of authorized Officer and Signature of vehicle Owner. With a microscopic piece of paper, it was with great difficulty that the necessary details were entered.

However, congratulations to the Minister of Power and Energy for drying up all the CEYPETCO FUEL STATIONS in The Island, without fuel for another three weeks or more, without queues, due to lack of fuel. Also causing unending long queues by supporting the LANKA IOC Fuel Stations, to issue your Fuel without Tokens at a higher price.

I politely ask you, Minister Kanchana, is not this another gimmick of yours to handover the CEYPETCO fuel stations to LANKA I O C?

So, we now know the reason for the latest gimmick of the Minister of Power and Energy to issue fuel tokens.

Do you now realise in your conscience, the problems created by you, especially to three-wheeler drivers, who are dependent on a daily living for their families by earning from hires, and now completely out of any earnings to feed their children, to give even a single meal?

Without creating further problems please resign from your post as the Minister of Power and Energy.

Eng. B.R.O FERNANDO

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