By N Sathiya Moorthy
For a second time in as many months, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has upheld his decision to name former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in Parliament. In doing so, he may have side-stepped TNA Leader R Sampanthan’s claims to continuing in the post, that the Speaker’s current decision was ‘untenable’.
Sampanthan based his arguments on the premise that President Maithripala Sirisena being the Head of State, Head of Cabinet, et al, Rajapaksa, elected on the same party ticket as the other, cannot be LoP. Rather, Sirisena-led SLFP cannot have the cake and eat it too. Or, Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hare.
The argument reads logical, prima facie. Equally logical, or even more so is Speaker Jayasuriya’s justification that Sampanthan cannot continue to be LoP after his TNA’s backing became the life-line for the Government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, post ‘twin crises’.
If Sampanthan was made LoP at the commencement of the Parliament after the August 2015 polls, it was because the SLFP had party MPs as Ministers. The situation changed after they withdrew support to the Wickremesinghe Government as a group on the ‘Fateful Friday’, 26 October 2018.
In turn, it can be argued that Sampanthan now wants to have the cake and eat it too! The argument that the TNA had not accepted ministerial positions under the post-crises Government of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would not wash. By extension, Sirisena is Head of the Cabinet by a constitutional mandate, not by his choice. Samapanthan and TNA supporting the Government without accepting ministerial berths is of their own volition.
Precedents or what
In upholding Rajapaksa’s claims to becoming LoP, post-crises, Speaker Jayasuriya has cited precedents in the matter. As media reports cited his ruling in the matter, “Late Gamini Dissanayake and the then member of Parliament Ranil Wickremesinghe being UNPers held the post of Opposition Leader when the leader of that party D.B. Wijetunga was the President. Mr. Rajapaksa held the Opposition Leader’s post when (party bosss) Chandrika Kumaratunga was the President.”
In doing so, the Speaker reportedly held that one could not compare the Sri Lankan Parliament with the British Parliament. The latter functions under the Westminster system while Sri Lanka’s system of governance is based on an executive presidency elected by the people, the Speaker pointed out further.
Well said, yes, but can precedents, just because they were not really contested at the time, could alone justify the Speaker’s decision at such a complex and complicated parliamentary situation as the present one? An interesting court battle on the issue, if joined, could confuse the nation’s higher Judiciary even more. This is because the ‘Founding Fathers’ (?) of the Second Republican Constitution of 1978 as much forethought about future possibility as they applied their minds to visualising them.
The ‘Founding Fathers’ did not foresee constitutional cohabitation involving leaders of two opposing parties in the posts of President and Prime Minister at any given time. To them, JRJ as President was all-encompassing as he had swept the parliamentary polls and also the presidential polls. The rest of them all had to either eat out of his hands – or, perish.
Truth to be acknowledged, this one is for the Constitutional Assembly (CA), and none else. Because there is already one existing and is supposed to come up with solutions to the existing constitutional issues that the nation had encountered over the past four decades, the CA should be asked to address the question more directly and effectively.
If done, this would take the nation and the CA back to the question of the structure of the Executive Presidency as it stands now, to a new scheme, even if it voted to continue with the 19-A model, or return to the original 1978 scheme. The latter has become unviable and unimaginable as originally thought of, especially after the twin crisis standing in the name of incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena.
The twin crises does not portend one worse than both. It was the culmination of many more that the nation was subjected too, under the twin leaderships of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Other than winning and keeping their respective jobs, the two were opposed to each other on everything administrative and/or decision-making. Some, they did it in the open, the rest they did so within closed walls of the Cabinet Chamber. Some, they fought out, possibly without exchanging even a word, spoken or written.
The more recent one, this one post-crises involves the Singapore FTA. Sirisena was present when Sri Lanka and Singapore signed an FTA. But in Singapore recently for an international event, the President told host Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong how the FTA was faulty and how they needed to amend portions that hurt Sri Lankan’s interests. Whether true or not, Sirisena’s new-found reservations are a reflection on his post-crises relations with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
The twin crises have proved to be the height of ‘political co-existence’ and ‘constitutional cohabitation’. It has failed. A right path should now be arrived at. The ball actually lies in the CA’s court but no one is talking about it. That’s because it involves the fate and future of the Executive Presidency – and, the Executive Presidency has been at the centre of it all, almost since the day the current Constitution got enacted.
The fact is that the CA process is becoming increasingly farcical each passing day than even on the previous day. Given the composition of the post-poll Parliament, which converted into the CA, the time for a new Constitution passed by the day President Sirisena contested his own commitment to the UNGA on the UNHRC process the minute his flight back home touched down at Colombo.
Neither the UNP partner, nor the TNA supporter in the Government seemed perturbed at the time, in late 2015. Nor did the TNA especially was concerned about the wisdom of an all-encompassing UNP approach to the ethnic issue through a CA when the Ranil UNP’s reaction to the CBK Package was all well known. Decades later, both Ranil and the UNP had become wiser – not to stick to politico-electoral commitments but to couch their intentions in sugary covers of the CA type that the bug would not bother them after a time.
Today, when everyone is clear and sure that this CA cannot pass a new Constitution, they are talking about the Steering Committee Report and the like. By toeing the western line, the TNA and their inspiring Diaspora brethren, coldly dropped the 13-A, waiting for the promised manna. This suited the Sinhala polity, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. With that the TNA’s political negotiations with the incumbent Rajapaksa Government, too.
Even today, it may not be too late for the Tamils and the TNA to revisit their own post-war past, and ask the Wickremesinghe Government to implement 13-A parts as implementable without much brain-storming, and take forward further amendments through negotiations, where the TNA should take the lead to bring around divergent Sinhala political opinions – and keeping controversies of the Executive Presidency and unitary State away.
The TNA is unlikely to do it too soon, they having lost full four years by now, with only a year more to go for the presidential elections. Why, they do not even seem to have acknowledged – and possibly gone through a set of suggestions put up by another group of Tamil leaders a few months ago. That’s because it was not the TNA’s baby and also because the TNA should be seen as the ‘sole representatives’ of the Tamils as the LTTE before it.
(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)