It is anybody’s guess why the UNP, breakaway SJB, the JVP and the SLMC, among others, decided to boycott what could be termed the all-party meeting to discuss issues facing the nation in the face of covid pandemic. If they were serious about it all, and serious about ruling the nation, unlike how they did the last time round, they should have participated in the meeting and also shared their views, complaints and even corruption charges of whatever kind, if at all they had any. Boycotting the meeting was not an option in the current situation, yet they took the route.
The Monday morning meeting called by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was unique in its own way. It was an all-party meeting, yes, but was not confined to leaders of select political parties. Instead, it was a broad-spectrum political party meeting, where erstwhile parliamentarians were called in to share their views.
As grassroots-level players, they would have had a regional, why even village-level inputs to provide the government, and in the presence of the Prime Minister and senior officials, including the tri-Services chiefs, whose men are in charge of the nation’s war on covid. It would have been easier for them individually to follow up with other officials down the line once they had brought in their grievances to the notice of the higher-ups, that too in the presence of the Prime Minister.
Political issue and worse
Clearly, the Opposition leaders were seeking to make a political point, rather than a national cause. If there is a ‘national problem’ post-war, it is this. The covid crisis is worse than what Sri Lankans have known as the ‘national problem’, until now. It was the LTTE and the ethnic war, by whatever name you dub it. If that designation has not been conferred on the covid crisis as yet, it owes to the bigger fact that it is more than a ‘national problem’. The pandemic problem is also a ‘global problem’ first, nations and ‘national problems’ have to wait.
There is no denying the possibility of a constitutional crisis evolving around the postponed parliamentary polls. If the Opposition is so convinced that reconvening the dissolved Parliament was the only way out, they could have moved the Supreme Court. According to media reports, only the JVP has done so. Others are dodging the course.
The problem is obvious. Until the Elections Commission (EC) declares that it could not conduct the postponed polls on 20 June, or could not provide the mandated five-week time-period for political parties and candidates to campaign, there is now no case as yet to demand the reconvening of the dissolved Parliament. The time thus for moving the courts will arise only after the lapse of the 18-19 weeks of the 24-week, or six-month deadline set by the Constitution for the first meeting of the new Parliament after the dissolution of the previous one.
Speaking for the government parties, and for the Rajapaksas’ ruling SLPP and their allies, party chairman G L Peiris has claimed that there was no provision in the Constitution for President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to reconvene Parliament. As an acknowledged constitutional expert, his views are on record – and yet, they are contestable, especially in a court of law. The latter, and not the former’s views should and would prevail. Yet, the mainline Opposition party/parties are shy of moving the court.
Where TNA scored
It is here that the otherwise erratic TNA has scored, and well. They attended the PM’s meeting. Some of their supporters and sympathisers had expected and wanted the party to follow in the footsteps of the UNP backer at the national-level. Instead, the party attended the meeting and TNA leader R Sampanthan even handed over a set of proposals to PM Mahinda R at the meeting venue.
If there was/is any party that had no love lost for the Rajapaksas, despite their holding post-war talks with the then Rajapaksa Government, it is the TNA. Party leaders have never lost an opportunity to target the Rajapaksas, in every which way and on every occasion. Their criticisms have centred on later-day international community’s allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and also their perceptions of the Rajapaksas’ disinclination to find a political solution to the decades-old ethnic issue.
Nobody expected the TNA to take up the ethnic issue or a political solution at Monday’s meeting. But by attending the meeting, participating in the discussions and even presenting a written set of proposals to PM Mahinda at the venue, they have proved that the Tamils are as much a part of the Sri Lankan national scheme. They have also shown that they respect the high office that the nation’s voters have elected President Gota R – and by extension, the PM and the Cabinet of Ministers that the former had appointed under his seal – rather, the seal of the Sri Lankan State.
Putting polls on the line
By boycotting the PM’s meeting, the parties that did have put the polls that they (do not) want on the line. In doing so, they have also told the nation that to them, politics came first, and politics came last. Nothing in between. One can even imagine if they wanted earlier polls. Here, they wanted the polls delayed (almost indefinitely) until they hoped to win (at least a respectable number of seats).
In the process, they have discovered and devised the re-convening of the dissolved Parliament as the only way out of what they say is an impending constitutional crisis. It takes the argument back to the courts, where alone a decision can lie. The JVP among them having taken the issue to the courts already, there was no reason why the rest should have boycotted the Monday meeting in the first place.
For the SJB, it needed to show that it was as tough as toughness came viz the Rajapaksas, the party having split from the latter’s traditional UNP rivals only now. The UNP, in its wisdom, announced it was attending. Obviously owing to pressures from within that they needed to be tougher than the SJB in public and cadre perception, they ended up boycotting. The JVP, as the tradition goes, has always boycotted whatever initiative a government in office takes at any point in time, on any issue.
Obviously, the non-JVP boycotters did not want to be seen as conferring ‘political legitimacy’ on the PM’s meeting as it involved ex-MPs but beyond their own expectation of wanting to seemingly convert the meeting into an informal meeting of the dissolved Parliament. Possibly, that was also one of the reasons that the Government may have decided to expand the list of invitees, to include
Former MPs from previous Parliaments, too.
They forgot that the legitimacy of this administration – or, any other in power – flows from the will of the people and the mandate that they give a particular political party and leader. It does not belong to the whims and fancies of the party in the Opposition.
There are constitutional powers that could still interfere with the process. One is Parliament. The other is even more powerful, namely, the higher Judiciary. That way, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, elected to the dissolved Parliament on the Opposition UNP ticket, added credit and credibility by clarifying that his support for the demand for the President to re-convene the old House, if only to avoid a constitutional dead-lock, amounted to only that much. He did, and at the right time, also declared that he would not be the one to ‘reconvene’ the dissolved Parliament, implying that he did not have the constitutional mandate for doing so.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)