By N Sathiya Moorthy
Now that President Maithripala Sirisena has called a session of Parliament that he had prorogued, the question arises if the House would debate and vote on the ‘no-trust vote’ moved by the United National Party (UNP) during the interregnum. Or, is there a provision for the Government of ‘Prime Minister’ Mahinda Rajapaksa to move a ‘trust-vote’ in its favour before hand – or, would it present a ‘Vote-on-Account’ in the place of the annual Budge that was to have been presented on Monday, 5 November, by the ‘non-existent’ administration of ‘sacked’ Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe?
By themselves, these questions read complex and complicated. Reading in the context of Sirisena’s ‘sacking’ of the Wickremesinghe team and replacing it with one led by Rajapaksa, which is adding on new ministers, at times by the day, the constitutional consternation has gone beyond the confusion and crisis that his initiative move entailed.
One thing, however, is becoming increasingly clear, in the meantime. Unwilling to move the Supreme Court for a verdict on the President’s powers to sack an elected Government in the post-19-A scenario, the UNP seems to be losing the constitutional and procedural ground, retaining, if at all, the moral high ground that it had taken – but from where it may be slipping, if only by degrees – slowly but surely.
The international community (read: West), which had backed Wickremesinghe wholesale initially has been maintaining stoic silence after Sirisena briefed them the other day. According to media reports, even while taking pot-shots at Wickremesinghe’s ‘elitist background’, Sirisena reportedly told the envoys, who however came from across nations and ideologies, that the latter had not bothered to have the Sinhala translation of 19-A properly rendered and had relied on the English version.
Whoever cares to recall would also remember that after the 19-A had become law, media analyses had mentioned this discrepancy, and also highlighted how the ‘Sinhala version’ is deemed correct under specific provisions of the Constitution. If Team Wickremesinghe has no argument to counter Sirisena’s version (aired outside by his camp, otherwise), then the case rests there – and in the latter’s favour.
Uniquely Sri Lankan
At a news conference, Rajapaksa’s SLPP chair, G L Peiris, has since claimed that under 19-A, the incumbent government goes if the coalition broke. Media reports have not cited the specific provision / clause under 19-A that he might have quoted in this regard. But the fact remains, in a uniquely Sri Lankan way, 19-A did provide for a new concept called ‘coalition government’, or ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), with the specific purpose of accommodating ministerial aspirations of as many of the Government MPs as possible.
Again, analysts had pointed out to the mockery of the constitutional process that the GNU entailed. Even non-politicos who wanted only Rajapaksa out in Elections-2015 would not care about the constitutional improprieties that their chosen one(s) were committing with gay abandon. Today, when those very chickens have come home to roost, they too are screaming ‘foul, foul’. They refuse to acknowledge that the ‘foul game’ has been facilitated and supported – and thus in a way, mandated – in the Constitution that they want Sirisena alone to swear by.
Leave aside the UNP worthies, even the intellectuals that had backed them in 2015 and in the previous decades since Independence, too, have been suffering from the kind of ‘intellectual arrogance’, which has no parallel in contemporary Sri Lankan history, nor does it have a place in the nation’s democratic scheme. Hands, not heads, count in the context, and the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo have proved their worth by the street-smartness for which both are famous for.
If anything, it is Sirisena’s street-smartness that made him President in the first place and almost from his first move. If someone thought that their own intelligence and their intellect that had made him President, Sirisena is now teaching them a few lessons.
Despite greater urbanisation, facilitated also by Rajapaksa presidency’s developmental schemes for the Sinhala-dominated rural South, the nation still lives mostly in villages. Elections-2015 did show that urbanisation was no more confined to Colombo and Galle, Kandy and Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Trincomallee. Yet, urbanisation also showed up for what it was worth when the social media ran down the Wickremesinghe leadership the same way it had riled the Rajapaksa presidency earlier. You can’t complain if the seeds that the ‘urban elite’ sowed in the rural backyard hit back the way they were not expected to be – and point fingers elsewhere!
The relative peace of the past week and more has shown that the man on the street is not impressed by what he is witness to. The common man is unconcerned about the constitutional improprieties that have been heaped on him, by all sides. But he is as much displeased with the UNP’s way of managing the nation, the economy and the prices, et al, as they were with the Rajapaksas for mismanaging everything else, governance.
The voter has his priorities, and looks for whatever is in short-supply, and fixes the failed ones on the next elections. Whichever party or leader that misreads the voter’s mind and wants to see only the buttered side of the piece is sure to taste the bitter, other side before long. That is what seems to be happening just now – but this may change, and a comprehensive verdict may be made available in the next presidential/parliamentary polls, whenever held.
Heads, I win….
Mahinda R has since reiterated that they wanted only early parliamentary polls, for which there are one two ways out. One is for Parliament to pass a two-thirds majority motion and the other is the House to defeat the Budget during its twin-readings. Offering to present a Vote-on-Account in the place of a full-fledged Budget just now, he has openly called upon the UNP to (help) defeat his own Vote-on-Account, when presented, so that they could go back to the people, here and now.
In a way, it is a ‘Heads I win, tails, you lose’ kind of situation for Rajapaksa – or, so it seems. If he won the trust vote, or the UNP lost the no-trust vote, whichever is taken up then, Team Rajapaksa would stay. They cannot have fresh elections, however. If Rajapaksa loses and the UNP wins, again, there can be fresh election – which is what Mahinda R says, they want. It is even more so in the case of a Vote-on-Account.
There is no mandatory provision for the President to invite another person whom he thinks might command the majority of the House, and swear him as Prime Minister, should Rajapaksa fail to prove his majority. It could become a greater mockery than already, but then, there are reports that the UNP may elect another leader in Wickremesinghe’s place and approach Sirisena.
The Second Republican Constitution of 1978 having conferred constitutional respectability to wholesale and individual defections through the PR scheme, Sri Lanka has seldom faced the kind of possibilities at ministry-making which neighbouring India, the world’s largest democracy, for instance, has done since Independence in 1947 and becoming a Republic three years later. This is because the Proportional Representation (PR) scheme, in the normal course, ensured that a post-poll coalition was stitched into the scheme, if a single party was unable to get the numbers by itself.
For starters, when the House reconvenes on 14 November, the procedural decisions of the party leaders’ meeting might be binding on Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Then, Karu J having originally conceded the primacy of the President’s Gazette notifications, especially on the appointment of a new Prime Minister, with indications that Rajapaksa would be occupying the official eat in Parliament, any vote would have been for-or-against the latter, and not for-or-against Wickremesinghe, which could have had advantages for the UNP.
However, the Speaker has since reportedly changed his decision, on the request of many MPs. He has since declared status quo or status quo ante inside Parliament, which means Wickremesinghe could be occupying the Prime Minister’s seat. If President Sirisena had created a constitutional coup of sorts, at least in the eyes of his present-day detractors, Karu J might have created a piquant situation for and inside Parliament.
The Speaker’s current decision means that he goes against the ‘constitutional monarch’ that the President in a way is, and also against his own better judgment from the past – or, concedes that his was not. That may only be in half-jest, but the real issue could be something different and very consequential.
First and foremost, the House, when it meets, will have two ‘prime ministers’ – one, sworn in by the President of the Republic, and another, recognised (only) by the Speaker, but for Parliament, which at times could be considered more supreme than even the President. Secondly and more importantly, if Rajapaksa is not the Prime Minister for and inside the House, how can the Speaker order a no-trust debate, as moved by the UNP now, and vote on something that the Speaker has not recognised for the House?
One implication is that the Speaker can straightaway hold as such, and declare that Rajapaksa was not recognised as Prime Minister by the House, hence no vote was possible. In the reverse, it could mean that Wickremesinghe could well continue as a ‘parallel’ Prime Minister, creating a constitutional crisis, worse than already.
Whatever be the outcome of such a dead-lock, if any, there can be an immediate fall-out from the Speaker’s new decision. If they really ‘manage’ the numbers, the Rajapaksa camp can then move a no-confidence motion against the Speaker. Going by established traditions in such matters, Karu J would then have to step aside, leaving it to Deputy Speaker J M Anada Kumarasiri, fellow-UNP member, to take decisions and preside over the House.
Would it then mean that the Rajapaksa group could move a no-trust motion against both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker at the same time? If so, what do parliamentary procedures and best practices dictate? Whatever that be, now you know why the uncanny Wickremesinghe thought it fit to violate the UNP-SLFP pact and have his party man as Deputy Speaker when SLFP-UPFA’s Thilanga Sumathipala quit the Government group, along with 15 other UPFA members in May this year.
The question however would arise if the no-trust motion against the Rajapaksa team, or one against the Speaker and possibly the Deputy Speaker should take precedence in the House? Or, once again, should a Vote-on-Account have a decisive say in the order of priority of business for the House, if Mahinda R as ‘Finance Minister’ of the Sirisena-recognised Government, decided to move one, on day one of the re-convened session?
If it had worked in the past, everyone believed that ‘Executive Presidency’ was central to the Constitution, and that 19-A was dis-empowering the President, wholesale. It is thus an irony of the Sri Lankan scheme, from the days of the Second Republican Constitution, and not necessarily of 19-A, that the Cabinet, when it is functional is chaired by the President, and is the President’s Cabinet in a way, but when it is defeated in Parliament, then it becomes the responsibility of the Prime Minister.
Under such circumstances, the Prime Minister goes, but the President stays. This implied that for a Prime Minister to stay on in office, he should have the trust of the President, and not the other way round. Going by the reality of Elections-2015, where the UNP votes and those of the UNP-sympathetic minorities parties in particular, Sirisena became President, Team UNP stopped thinking over the possibilities, then and since. They are now paying the price for their unthinking approach, possibly fashioned in the cooler climes of the West than nearer home, in the tropical climes of Sri Lanka!
Yet, all may not be lost for the UNP and Wickremesinghe, at least until it actually became the case. For one, Sirisena has ‘vowed’ (?) not to say on as President should Wickremesinghe return as Prime Minister.
Considering the possibility at least in theoretical terms, the Constitution provides for the Prime Minister to become President, with parliamentary approval. He then nominates another Prime Minister, following the same procedure as prescribed for his own selection earlier. Wickremesinghe could thus become President without having to face the voter, and another of the UNP aspirants of the past decade(s), waiting precisely for the very same vacancy, may get enthroned.
Of course, in his new job, which would only be an interim arrangement, Wickremesinghe has to lead the nation to an early presidential poll, which he of course can contest for the UNP. His choice for the Prime Minister can continue until the parliamentary polls became due in August 2020 – but that also implies that his parliamentary majority, if any now, Wickremesinghe could pass on to a Prime Minister of his choice, for the interregnum.
More importantly, Wickremesinghe would have to win a simple majority in Parliament, to stay on as President, if and only if Sirisena were to quit office, as he has vowed or threatened now. But then, it would be a dual chance for the UNP, as Wickremesinghe or anyone else of the UNP’s choice could face the presidential polls while the party is in office at both levels, and so could it do in parliamentary polls, provided their man wins the presidency and also there is no floor-crossing between then and the parliamentary polls!
Any less complicated and less confusing than already?
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:firstname.lastname@example.org)