The offer opposition parliamentarians called a “historic pledge” to support the Government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic if Parliament was reconvened has been viciously spurned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who called the joint opposition letter last week a “petty attempt to gain political mileage” setting the stage for a major showdown between the Executive and the Legislature in the next few weeks.
Some parliamentarians claim that the June 20th election date invalidates the Presidential Proclamation dissolving Parliament, since the president’s power to dissolve parliament is strictly constitutionally contingent on the new Parliament meeting within three months of dissolution. This deadline expires on June 2nd.
The President’s vehement rejection of the opposition offer could result in the matter being settled in the courts, sources told Colombo Telegraph. In anticipation of defiance from legislators, President Rajapaksa on April 23rd moved the military into the Parliamentary premises for “extra security”.
In a reply to the historic offer of assistance to the Government signed by all parties and formations in the Opposition which is currently the House Majority, the President made it clear he was doubling down on his decision not to “reconvene the old Parliament” and could set the stage for a major showdown between the two branches of Government.
In a particularly high-handed move the letter was signed by President’s Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and not the president himself. The reply was addressed to Sajith Premadasa, the former Leader of the Opposition.
“The President wishes me to inform you that what is to be observed from this letter is that the parties signing this letter do not believe the election is necessary, are seeking petty political mileage at a time when the whole state machinery is geared towards fighting COVID and shows no gratitude for the government service, tri forces and police who are trying to curb the spread of the virus,” Jayasundera’s reply on behalf of President Rajapaksa noted.
As if to precipitate a legal showdown, the letter from the President’s secretary adds:
It has been confirmed that the Proclamation dissolving Parliament is valid from the fact that all the signatories to the letter have accepted that parliament is currently dissolved”.
In his reply the President said “no situation had arisen that necessitates reconvening Parliament under Article 70 (7) of the Constitution”, the emergency provision the framers included to ensure Parliament could be recalled to enact laws or pass emergency funding in the event of a major crisis in the country.
Separately, the President’s Secretary also replied a letter to President Rajapaksa from former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera who warned earlier this week that it was imperative to have essential Government expenditure including the payment of public servant salaries legally approved after April 30, 2020 legally and constitutionally.
Secretary Jayasundera replying the letter from Samaraweera said that Article 150 (3) of the constitution allows the President to withdraw monies from the Treasury up to three months after the new Parliament is set to meet if no budget has been passed for the year. The president blamed Samaraweera for rejecting Government attempts to get further appropriations passed and expressed his disappointment that “a neo liberal” senior politician like Samaraweera was not taking the lead to make sure elections are held and the people’s right of franchise is not exercised.
Samaraweera slammed the reply on Twitter saying the letter was “koheda yanne malle pol”. “Again, I say article 150(3) does not give a blank cheque to the President. He can only allocate money for 3 months from the “date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet.”What is the date for the new Parliament to be summoned?” the former Finance Minister tweeted.
But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s response to Samaraweera indicates that his Government is going to utilize public funds illegally no matter how long it takes for a new Parliament to meet in light of the corona virus situation. The Government is also entering into foreign loan contracts, ignoring specific provisioins of the constitution that stipulates that any foreign borrowings must be sanctioned by Parliament within one month of the loan agreement being signed. Since elections will not even be held a month from now, and possibly delayed further given spiralling infection numbers, the Government has already violated this constitutional condition for foreign borrowings.
The Vote on Account passed before the November 2019 presidential election runs out on April 30. The Government cannot legally withdraw funds from the Treasury without having the appropriations legally passed by Parliament which has full control over public finance according to the Constitution. In his letter Samaraweera warned that anyone violating the constitution was liable to have his civic rights revoked for up to seven years and forfeit of personal property.
By 29 April according to Central Bank data the Treasury had borrowed 821.35 billion rupees through via primary auctions and a loan from the China Development Bank. This amounts to more than 100 million rupees more than the borrowing limit set by Parliament in 2019, which was Rs 721 billion. Economists told Colombo Telegraph that this is the first time in Sri Lankan history that the country’s borrowing limit set by Parliament has been breached.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a desperate attempt to have this borrowing limit increased before he dissolved Parliament in March, but the opposition refused to support the move unless certain conditions were met about how the monies were to be utilized.
His Government has also begun talks with the IMF to obtain rapid financing, another loan that will require Parliamentary sanction. The IMF says it has already begun to review the request. It is unclear if the foreign lender will agree to dole out the financing without the necessary parliamentary approvals. (By Chinthika de Silva)