Can a ‘20-A’ muster the numbers?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Whoever still remember Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa walking out of the swearing-in of the new Ministry at Kandy only a week back, need to count the number of ‘dissatisfied’ MPs in the ruling SLPP combine before they could be sure that the Government will have the required two-thirds majority to get the promised 19-A repeal/changes through Parliament, whenever it came to that. The list of about a dozen ‘dissatisfied’ elements, as different from ‘dissidents’ may start with former President Maithripala Sirisen but does not end there. As an electoral entity, the eternal Left, LSSP, the nation’s oldest party (founded in 1935) too is unhappy, according to media reports and does not exclude Muslim National Congress leader A L M Athauallah. It is not that they are going to rebel as and when a 20-A, to replace the existing 19-A, comes up before Parliament, but their continued loyalty has come under strain, though not suspicion.

Maybe, there are problems of protocol in the case of Sirisena as there is no precedence on how Parliament could treat a former President as one of the so many Cabinet rank Ministers. Like Sirisena now, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was an ordinary MP, both inside and outside, during the life of the previous Parliament – or, for most parts thereof. He became Prime Minister, who under 19-A Is a kind of the numero uno member and minister in Parliament. No such facility could be extended to Sirisena, as there can be no two Prime Ministers.

Yes, the post of Parliament Speaker is there, which may even be one rung higher than that of the Prime Minister, inside the House. But given the history of back-stabbing when he walked out of the Rajapaksas camp, contested against incumbent Mahinda and won the presidency in 2015, the SLPP will find it difficult to trust him with the Speaker’s job. The ‘twin democratic crises’ of December 2018 showed how critical the Speaker’s job became for the political leadership of the Government, even if on rare occasions.

Leave aside the likes of Athaullah and LSSP’s Tissa Vitharana, most of the others who have been left in the cold in ministry-making are also those that had targeted the Rajapaskas, personally and vigorously so when they were in the Opposition. Consider if the Rajapaksas would want to accommodate Sarath Fonseka or Rajitha Senaratne in this ministry, then the picture will become clearer. It is possible that from clearly defined positions, they may have no problem working with either Ranil Wickremesinghe, the discredited leader of the defeated UNP parent, or Sajith Premadasa, the up but yet-to-be-coming leader of the breakaway SJB, now the official Leader of the Opposition, in the new Parliament.

Yet, thee is no denying the fact that the dissatisfied lot were not taken into confidence about the fact that they were being left out, if so why. Nothing explains it better than the way Wijeyadasa walked out of the oath-taking ceremony the other day. He left when his name was called out, to be sworn in as a State Minister, when he did not expect to be called – but called only when the list of Cabinet rank Ministers was unveiled, later on.

As a Cabinet Minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa was not seen as a team player by his then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeisnghe, and was unceremoniously dropped mid-way through the crisis-ridden tenure of the previous Government. Long before that, as far back as 2005, he simply quit the first Rajapaksa Government, and joined the opposition UNP of the day, before long.

Yet, it is not unlikely that the leadership has other specific assignments for the likes of Tissa Vitharana and Athaullah, but obviously they too have not been taken into confidence, if there are any such plans. As for as the lone SLFP parliamentarian, Angajan Ramanathan, the leadership clearly has limitations in granting two Cabinet ranks, or even two ministerial positions to two of the three pro-Government MPs from the North. The North did not vote incumbent Gotabaya in the presidential polls of November last. It has not given as many seats and votes in proportion to the ruling combine compared to some of the other (southern) districts, ethnicity or not.

Is it 20-A or 21-A?

A section of the media has said that the 19-A repeal / changes amendment provisions to the Constitution are likely to be taken up by Parliament as early as September – that is next month. Ruling SLPP Chairman and constitutional expert, Prof G L Peiris, now Education Minister, too, has indicated that they would study issues before coming up with an alternative.

They may not have spelt it out, but the Government leaders have had view on the 19-A provisions that they want repealed or replaced. For instance, President Gotabaya has said that though 19-A cut down the presidency’s term they wo from six years to five years, they would not alter the clause. Likewise, they would have discussed various other 19-A provisions threadbare, both while in the Opposition and more so while now in the Government for nine months since Gota R assumed the presidency. And no one in this Government is talking any more about a new Constitution as they used say even a few months back.

The media reports that talk about a 19-A change in September have new constitutional amendment as the 20th. The question is this: Is it the 20th Amendment that we are talking about? Or, should it be numbered the 21st? The constitutional crises of end-2018, the Easter Sunday blasts, two national elections and the Covid pandemic may all have blunted the nation’s memory in between, but there was before the twin constitutional crises a 20-A tabled by JVP’s Vijitha Herath in Parliament.

The then 20-A was gazetted, and the JVP even began campaigning with all political parties, to have their draft discussed in Parliament, and voted upon. They were also not unwilling to take a relook at some of the provisions. The question is if a constitutional amendment that was not voted upon by Parliament, be retained as one and continued to be numbered as it is?

Before the 20th Amendment, there is a 12th Amendment. Everyone knows and recalls ad infinitum, the succeeding 13-A, on power-devolution between the Centre and the Provinces, enacted in 1987., No one remembers what the preceding 11th Amendment too was. The 12th Amendment was never passed, but because it was gazetted and tabled in Parliament, the numbering remains. So, the new amendment Bill to modify 19-A in whatever form will have to be 21-A, and not 20-A, possibly.

Who were they?

The irony of the present Parliament is that there are more ‘invalid’ votes from across the country, at around 750,000, much more than what the third vote-getter in the JVP-NPP has managed. Clearly, they were not illiterates or unexposed, as even when the complicated PR system of dual-voting scheme was introduced, the numbers were no this high.

Clearly, there is a section of voters are unhappy with the existing scheme or system or all. Maybe, a majority of them were disillusioned UNP traditionalists who could not stomach the party split and worse that has since happened to the nation’s GoP. Whether they are UNP voters or not, there is a clear message for the nation’s polity, represented this time by the Government leadership more than any time in the past.

The fact that thee voters did not consider the JVP as an alternative could mean that they are searching for a new change and a newer alternative than the JVP from the past. That is a message for them all, starting with the new Parliament, when it commences its maiden session this week.

(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: