A confluence of views on 21A | Daily News

A confluence of views on 21A

The past few months have been a turbulent time in Sri Lanka, characterised by political uncertainty and unprecedented economic challenges but the government appears to be gradually addressing these issues and arriving at reasonable compromises aimed at resolving these crisis situations.

It is no secret that the current situation has arisen because of economic difficulties that led to a shortage of foreign reserves. This in turn resulted in a scarcity of essential items such as gas, fuel, medicines and frequent interruptions to power supply which continue to be ongoing.

This is what led to the protests at Galle Face. In a short period of time, these protests resulted in the resignation of the then Cabinet and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. After some uncertainty, United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister.

Restoring a functional Cabinet also took some time. That task has now been achieved. Contributing to the Cabinet now are those from the Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) as well as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well the group led by Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila.

The other major political party in the country, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has consistently been opposed to having a dialogue with the government unless the Executive Presidency is abolished forthwith. Thus, they have not been involved whatsoever in the formation of the new Cabinet.

It is noteworthy that neither the SJB nor the SLFP have approved of their Ministers, Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara of the SJB and Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera of the SLFP. However, these ministers have decided to go against party dictates and function as ministers.


Greater stability

This may not be the ideal multi-party interim government that was being demanded by some of those who are engaged in the ongoing protests. Nevertheless, it provides a framework in which the government can operate and thereby initiate and enact measures to attain greater stability.

The government hopes to achieve this partly through enacting a 21st Amendment to the Constitution. This will aim at reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency to some extent, allowing greater scrutiny by Parliament, similar to what was accomplished by the now repealed 19th Amendment.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while extending his support for the proposed legislative reforms, has also expressed his own personal views in this regard. He has noted that the current mix of the Presidential system of government with a Parliamentary system has not proved successful.

“You can’t have a mixed system,” President Rajapaksa is quoted as saying in an interview with an overseas agency, his first since the current crisis began to unfold in March this year. “I experienced this and now know. People may blame me when I tell this but that’s the truth,” the President has said.

“What is this Executive Power of the President?” President Rajapaksa queried. “My personal opinion is that if you have a Presidency, it must have full powers. Otherwise abolish the Executive Presidency and opt for a full Westminster-style Parliament,” the President has said, providing his own view.

The task of formulating the draft 21st Amendment has meanwhile been entrusted to Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. Minister Rajapakshe is actively having a dialogue with political parties both in the Government and in the Opposition ascertaining their views on the proposed 21st amendment.


Opposition parties

Following these discussions, some consensus has been arrived at with regard to a few contentious areas, Minister Rajapakshe has said. With talks still ongoing, the government is optimistic that compromises can be made to the point where the 21st Amendment can be approved by Parliament.

One issue where a compromise has reportedly been reached is on the issue of whether the President can hold ministerial portfolios. Opposition parties are against this. Minister Rajapakshe however notes that, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the President should be Minister of Defence.

In what appears to be a compromise acceptable to all parties, it has been decided that the proposed amendment would include provisions for the President to hold the Ministry of Defence but no other ministries. This would appease opposition parties and at the same time be within the Constitution.

Another issue that provoked widespread discussion is whether the President should retain the power to dismiss the Prime Minister. Opposition parties want this power rescinded. They are requesting that the power of dismissing a Prime Minister be retained by Parliament, through a vote of no-confidence.

However, it has been suggested that, as an interim measure for the current Parliament, the power of the President to dismiss the Prime Minister be retained, as this was the provision that existed when this Parliament was elected. There is potential for this to be changed for future Parliaments.

The provision that allows dual citizens to hold elected office has also come under some scrutiny. Minister Rajapakshe has said that the amendment he has proposed envisages changes that will prevent dual citizens from holding such office. Opposition parties all agreed on this provision, he said.

This provision attracted attention because the mastermind behind the formation of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the party’s chief political strategist, Basil Rajapaksa remains a dual citizen. As such, it remains to be seen whether all MPs in the SLPP will support this change.

At the time of writing, Minister Rajapakshe as well as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are continuing their dialogue with all stakeholders in politics. Their objective is to formulate a 21st Amendment that would appease the concerns of both the general public as well as the major political parties.

Former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was also in the news recently for a different reason. That is after he and businessman Thiru Nadesan were acquitted of charges filed by the Attorney General for alleged misappropriation of State funds to purchase land and build a luxury house in Malwana.

The order was issued by the Gampaha High Court Judge Nimal Ranaweera. Justice Ranaweera stated that the case could not proceed because the plaintiff had failed to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt. Asked about the proposed 21st Amendment at the courthouse, Rajapaksa was non-committal.


Interactions with judicial system

Several other Parliamentarians were also in the news following interactions with the judicial system. Among them was Minister of Urban Development and Housing Prasanna Ranatunga who was sentenced to two-year imprisonment suspended for five years by Colombo High Court on Monday.

Minister Ranatunga was convicted by High Court Judge Manjula Tillekaratne on an indictment filed for threatening a businessman over the phone and demanding Rs.64 million in 2015 when he was Chief Minister of the Western Province. His wife Maureen, also an accused in the case, was acquitted.

The Court further ordered the Minister to pay a fine of Rs.25 million. In the event of defaulting the fine, the Minister was ordered to serve nine months imprisonment. The Minister was further ordered to pay a compensation of one million rupees to the virtual complaint of the case.

Minister Ranatunga could avail himself of the opportunity to appeal this decision. As the sentence is suspended, he could also continue to attend Parliament. However, whether he will continue to retain his portfolio as well as his role as Chief Government Whip was being debated following the verdict.

Also this week, SJB Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake was again sentenced to a second charge of Contempt of the Supreme Court with two years of rigorous imprisonment, suspended for five years. Since January 2021, Ramanayake has been serving a four-year sentence for a similar offence.

Ramanayake was charged with insulting the Supreme Court during a television programme when referring to a five-judge panel appointed to hear fundamental rights petitions seeking the annulment of the gazette notification issued by then President Maithripala Sirisena dissolving Parliament in 2018.

Ramanayake had pleaded guilty to the charge and expressed his regret for the offence. The impact of this verdict would be in relation to the appeals made to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pardon Ramanayake. A further conviction would negate the case for a Presidential Pardon for Ramanayake.

Meanwhile another Presidential Pardon was also in the news this week. This was when the pardon issued to former Parliamentarian Duminda Silva was suspended by the Supreme Court. Silva had been convicted for the murder of SLFP activist Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra in 2011.

The order was made by Supreme Court Justices Preethi Padman Surasena, Yasantha Kodagoda, and Achala Wengappulli who allowed the examination of fundamental rights petitions filed by Hirunika Premachandra, Sumana Premachandra and former Human Rights Commissioner Ghazali Hussain.

The Supreme Court also ordered that Duminda Silva be taken back into prison custody. The Court ordered the Criminal Investigations Department to take necessary action to enforce this order. Silva was thereafter arrested while receiving treatment at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital in Kotte.

As the above events suggest, political events continue to emerge at a hectic pace in the country. That is a reflection of the state of flux the country finds itself in. The shape and form of the proposed 21st Amendment and its ultimate fate will serve as an indicator as to which direction the nation will take.


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