President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared to be setting the stage for prolonged executive rule in a pre-recorded interview aired on Monday night, when he claimed that under no circumstances will he reconvene the old Parliament, irrespective of when the Parliamentary election is held.
“In my proclamation I set a date for Parliament to convene. If there is no Parliament to convene by June 2 I cannot convene it,” he said in an interview with former Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge.
The claim raises questions about whether the President hopes to run the country without a parliament indefinitely, especially if the election is delayed further as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The presidential assertion comes as opposition parties slammed the Elections Commission for making an unilateral decision on the election date of June 20 without consulting political parties who would have to make serious decisions about how to campaign for the poll.
Sri Lanka has seen a serious spike in corona virus cases in the past 48 hours which has prompted the Government to extend the curfew imposed on high risk districts for a further week. Medical experts warn that the country must complete at least four or five incubation cycles before normal life resumes in order ensuring early easing of restrictions does not create a new wave of infections. So far Sri Lanka has completed only two cycles since the curfew was imposed.
Reacting to the President’s remarks Lawyer Gehan Gunethilake tweeted that the June 2 deadline was “non-negotiable”.
“If Parliament is dissolved, you cannot have an election after June 2. Article 70 is pretty clear. If Parliament does not stand dissolved, you can have an election on 20th June or another date. You can’t eat the cake and have it,” Gunetillake remarked.
Constitutional lawyer Dr Asanga Welikala also reacted to the President’s interview.
“Simply put: “The President’s wishes trump the Constitution’s stipulations.” That’s the new Sri Lankan constitutionalism in one sentence of seven words,” Dr Welikala said.
Other Sri Lankans on Twitter were also critical of the remarks:
“So Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Government wants us to believe that an unnecessary election is in fact necessary; intends to use a misconstrued notion of ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ to breach clear constitutional provisions to hold such an unnecessary election, risking a major covid19 outbreak,” one user tweeted.
Most lawyers are urging President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to exercise his powers under Article 70 (7) of the Constitution.
According to Article 70 (7) of the Constitution:
“If at any time after the dissolution of Parliament, the President is satisfied that an emergency has arisen of such a nature that an earlier meeting of Parliament is necessary, he may by Proclamation summon the Parliament which has been dissolved to meet on a date not less than three days from the date of such Proclamation and such Parliament shall stand dissolved upon the termination of the emergency or the conclusion of the General Election, whichever is earlier.”
The lawyers argue that 70 (7) makes full provision for a pandemic situation such as the country is facing, because it allows Parliament to function as long as the Emergency is in place meaning that even if elections cannot be held by September because of the crisis, the country will still have a functioning legislature.
Senior lawyers are also arguing that since the Constitution is insistent on a new Parliament meeting within three months of dissolution, the Presidential Proclamation dissolving Parliament is rendered null and void. The strict condition under which the President is given power to dissolve parliament before it completes its term is that a new House must meet within three months – a deadline that expires on June 2, according to President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran.
Interestingly, June 20 happens to be President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s birthday. When the Elections Commission met on Monday April 20 Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya pushed hard for the 23 May election and disagreed with other officials that the election should be pushed back to July. According to Deshapriya the only other favourable date for an election was 20 June.
However President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was categorical that he would under no circumstances reconvene the old Parliament and would wait it out until a new set of parliamentarians were elected by the people – implying that it mattered little to him if that was delayed longer than the three month constitutional mandate.
During his interview with Weeratunge who nodded gratuitously as the President made the statement, Rajapaksa chuckled that the “Law does not expect to the do the impossible” without clarifying what he meant.
Weeratunge is a convicted criminal, after he was found guilty of misappropriating Rs. 600 million in state funds to distribute sil-redhi to supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Full transcript of President’s comments on delayed elections below:
Constitutionally, three months after Parliament is dissolved, the new Parliament must convene. Accordingly the final date for Parliament to meet is June 2. The responsibility for setting an election date is the responsibility of the Independent Elections Commission which changed the original date in my proclamation. Under the prevailing conditions, the Commission has the opportunity to determine a suitable manner in which the election can be held. If they need to they can hold the election on several dates. I am not ready to influence the independent Elections Commission to hold the election or delay it. So far, I have done everything constitutionally. I have notified the date on which the new Parliament should meet. If for some reason an election is not held and no Parliament has been elected to convene by June 2, I cannot convene Parliament. Then I will have to convene parliament at a later date. Law does not expect to do the impossible. But under no circumstances am I ready to reconvene the old Parliament. So I can only convene a new Parliament if an election is held and new MPs are chosen. (by Chamika Madiwake)