By Vikum Ruwan –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the course of his Independence Day speech made on 04 February stated: “I am committed to working towards fulfilling the needs of the people of this country. That is my responsibility and my duty. I do not envisage public officials, lawmakers or the judiciary to impede my implementing this commitment. I not only respect your freedom, but I will work towards improving it and guarantee the political and economic freedom in a truly democratic country.”
What he said was not surprising at all. What is surprising is the strange silence of the Opposition, not only of the UNP but also of the TNA and JVP. Mangala Samaraweera called it “an outstanding speech”. “It is a tongue-in-the-cheek comment”, one of Mangala’s admirers told me. Pardon me, I cannot see either the tongue or the cheek in the message.
Gota’s message to Parliament, the judiciary and the public service is loud and clear: “I will do it my way. Don’t try to interfere. You have no right to interfere”. But is that correct? Can the directly elected President do it his way? Have all powers of government been vested in the President? Gota certainly seems to think so. Have the People (yes, in the Constitution, it is spelt with a capital ‘P’ and this is no accident or a draftsman’s mistake) reposed their sovereignty in the President for five years?
The UNP, JVP, TNA and civil society are silent. But, “No” says the Constitution. The President is not the sole exerciser of the powers of government. Article 3 of the Constitution tells us that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise. Article 4 elaborates to say that powers of government are three-fold: legislative power is exercised by Parliament (and the People at a referendum), executive power is exercised by the President and judicial power is exercised by the courts. But there are two attributes of sovereignty that are not given away to any of the three organs of government- fundamental rights and franchise.
Sovereignty is inalienable. So, powers of government too are not given away. Countless times has our Supreme Court, while reminding the powers-that-be those powers are held in trust, reminded us the People with a capital P also that those powers really belong to us and are held by Parliament, President and the judiciary in trust. But we seem to forget; to forget that we are the Sovereign, that sovereignty in Sri Lanka is not with a King, Queen, God or some individual but with us, the People, yes, with a capital P.
To come back to Gota, what is he telling Parliament? He is telling that Parliament must do as he says; that Parliament must exercise its legislative power as he says. He is telling Parliament that, notwithstanding Article 148 (“Parliament shall have full control over public finance”), it must provide funds so as he could spend it his way. Why? Because, as he said on 04 February, fulfilling the needs of the people of this country is his responsibility and his duty. Because, he thinks that the Parliament that we the People with a capital P elect from time to time is subservient to the President. No wonder Gota is for the abolishing the 19th Amendment and bringing back the 18th.
What is Gota telling the Supreme Court and the judiciary? He is telling them that he must not be impeded by judicial orders. He is saying that the judiciary is not exercising the judicial power of the People but that the judicial power is with him. “It may not have been the case with other Presidents but with me it is so”, he tells the Supreme Court.
With the passing of the 19th Amendment, now the People can assail any act of the President if it violates their fundamental rights. In the case on the dissolution of Parliament by President Sirisena (Oh! How we tend to forget him, bless his soul if he has one) we saw the Supreme Court telling the country that any act of the President can be challenged. Now, Gota is telling the judiciary “May be with Sira but not with me.”
Gota is giving a similar message to the public service. “Don’t mind the law, just do what I say”. How many senior public officers will have the guts to say “No, I act according to the law and the Constitution”, we will soon see.
But, for Parliament, the judiciary and the public service to say “No, we will act according to the law and the Constitution” without fear, there must be public opinion built up. These institutions do not operate in a vacuum.
But where is the Opposition? Where is the UNP, TNA and JVP? Where is civil society? They are silent when Gota threatens Parliament, courts and the public service. Let us, the People with a capital P, wake them from their slumber.