By Rajiva Wijesinha -
In the whole sorry impeachment saga, the UNP seems to have done the impossible and managed to keep everyone happy. Though some other opposition parties are making valiant attempts to criticize them, since the criticisms are not based on clear arguments, similar generalities on the part of UNP officials will allow them to emerge unscathed.
This is a pity, because proper analysis of their role will also suggest what they might do to make things better in the future. Firstly, they should acknowledge the absurdity of the Standing Order that they put in place hurriedly in 1984, mainly it seems to keep Neville Samarakoon quiet. While they have granted that this is hopelessly inadequate and requires further elaboration, the efforts of some to condemn the Standing Order were stymied, on the grounds that that would amount to criticism of their sacred cow, namely J R Jayewardene’s Constitution and its appendages.
Since the UNP leader affirmed this principle, and also refrained from speaking on the Impeachment Resolution, he continues to convince decision makers in government that he is the best possible Opposition Leader for the Government. This is myopic, because they think only in terms of popularity within Sri Lanka. Whilst certainly Ranil Wickremesinghe would fare disastrously in any electoral competition with the President, the same applies with regard to any other possible leader of the Opposition.
The UNP strategy rather is based on influencing the international community, and in this regard Wickremesinghe is streets ahead of anyone else in the field. And whether we like it or not, in this globalized world, the international community can affect opinion in this country and elsewhere even without resorting to the underhand measures the former American Political Affairs Officer engaged in.
At the very least, we need investment, and the not very subtle comments of the Americans following the impeachment suggest areas in which pressures might be applied. We should not then forget history when a UNP leader, whom everyone had thought for years could never be elected, swept the polls largely because of the economic deprivation the country was facing in 1977.
It was that which allowed him to introduce the 1978 Constitution. Characteristically, the current UNP refusal to admit how awful that Constitution is goes hand in hand with a determination to limit now the powers of the Presidency which they allowed Jayewardene to exercise without restraints. This anomaly with regard to the 17th Amendment they now see as sacrosanct has never been pinpointed.
One argument used by critics of the government who resent the continued support given to the government by those within it who opposed the impeachment is that their vote in favour of the 18th amendment shows they are not really interested in democratic principles or practice. This is absurd because, as I have pointed out for many years, the 17th amendment was an ad hoc measure which confused two Constitutional dispensations.
In both there are mechanisms to reduce the absolute power of the Head of Government to appoint whom they want to positions of importance, but they are very different, given the differing status of such Heads of Government. Where the Head of Government is not the Head of State, as is the case under the Westminster system, the Prime Minister forwards a recommendation to the President or Monarch, who duly appoints. In practice the Head of State will not turn down any recommendation, but the very fact that someone else is responsible for the final appointment means that the Prime Minister will exercise care in making recommendations.
Where the Head of Government is also the Head of State, the situation is very different, because the ultimate responsibility is his. That is why checks are exercised through an advise and / or consent mechanism. I will flesh out this idea further in a later article, but for the moment it should be noted that, under the 1978 Constitution, for over 20 years, there was no such check on the absolute power of the President to appoint – and no one in politics now complained about that, except I think the Liberal Party.