24 June, 2021

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Setting A Perilous Political Precedent 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

In a constitutional democracy, the constitution is the supreme law and governance cannot be on the basis of personal prejudices or the whims and fancies of individuals. The purpose of the constitution is to take political decision making out of that personal realm to give stability and predictability to government. It is now a month since the Black Friday of October 26 when the Sri Lankan polity was plunged into a constitutional and political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena when he decided he had no option but to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, and just as arbitrarily to replace him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from the ranks of the opposition.

Most recently President Sirisena has reaffirmed to the international and local media that under no circumstances would he reappoint Mr Wickremesinghe as prime minister. He has also now added Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka to this list of non-options. The president’s understanding of his role as mandated by the constitution is an extremely personal one. It is almost as if he considers his position as president as conferring personal rights in a constitutional setting in which his personal prejudices can take first place. The president has since that fateful October 26 offered a litany of reasons for sacking the prime minister including corruption, not paying attention to an alleged assassination attempt and not sharing information with him.

When the president spoke those words highlighting his personal frustrations and his motivations I was in Anuradhapura, next to the home district of the president, talking to the staff of a hotel who were unaware of the constitutional issues underlying the president’s controversial utterances. They were despondent for a different reason. They had just been informed that yet another tour group, this time consisting of 40 foreign tourists had cancelled. Even though the embattled political leaders may not be realizing it, the staff could see their hope of a year’s end bonus to treat their families recede.

The manager of the hotel was more prepared than his staff to express his opinion on the political crisis that had jeopardized all their incomes. He opined that the politicians in parliament were no better than a pack of wolves. But having said that he made it clear that he preferred some wolves over others. When I asked him what did the people think about the current situation and the political crisis he said that the people were happy that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had been shown the door and they were also happy that former president Rajapaksa had been appointed in his place.

Abysmal Literary 

The staff and manager of that hotel in Anuradhapura were not aware of the legal and constitutional issues involved in the sacking of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his replacement by former President Rajapaksa. They saw the political crisis in terms of a fight for power between two political formations and in particular between the two leaders of those formations. The previous day a religious leader had asked me why Mr Wickremesinghe thought he should be reinstated when he had only 45 parliamentarians backing him. This is an indication of the abysmal state of political literacy in the country.

It is in this context that former president Rajapaksa has started seeking public support to have general elections as soon as possible. This campaign has a pragmatic basis and is a recognition that his government today has faced defeat in parliament on every occasion on which there has been a vote. The former president and his allies have been unable to get a majority of parliamentarians to support them despite offering them huge inducements in the form of money and position. The deadlock in government stems from this reason.

The former president’s direct appeal to the electorate is an indication that he currently has no intention of relinquishing the position of prime minister that has been given to him by President Sirisena. He was given this position arbitrarily and against the democratic norm that the prime minister’s position should either be given to the person who is most likely to command the confidence of parliament or to the leader of the largest single party. At the time of the dissolution of the government coalition, the UNF headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe was the largest single party.

So far President Sirisena has shown no intention of following the norms of parliamentary democracy and appointing the person most likely to command the confidence of the majority of parliamentarians as the prime minister. In the ongoing crisis he has shown himself to be impervious to political appeals in this regard. He has ignored two votes of no-confidence in the prime minister he arbitrarily appointed. He has not heeded the public demonstrations by tens of thousands of political and civic activists and members of the general public or the pressure of the international community.

Judicial Salvation 

On the other hand, the only institution that President Sirisena appears to be willing to defer to is the judiciary. When he wished to extend his term by a further year, he sought an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court. He did not complain or oppose or seek to sack the judges who said that his term was five years and not six years in terms of the 19th Amendment. When he decided to sack parliament after having sacked the prime minister, he did not publicly complain or oppose the judicial stay order. The willingness of the president to respect the judiciary, which has emerged as the arbiter between the executive and legislature in their clash needs to be appreciated.

Ironically, it was President Sirisena himself who gave leadership to the passage of the 19th Amendment at the time it was being framed, and took considerable pride in its reining in of the powers of the presidency. This supreme law was passed in 2015 by a nearly unanimous vote in parliament with only one MP opposing it. But now it appears that the president, the polity and the general public need to be educated about the meaning of the 19th Amendment. The 19th Amendment reduced the president’s powers and made this branch of government to be co-equal with the legislative and judicial branches.

This message of the 19th Amendment was understood by the university students from Rajarata University where I took part in the discussion. The staff of the hotel and their manager might have understood it too if they had joined our discussion. The president may wish to have his preferences met informally. But he cannot insist on having his prejudices accepted formally. It cannot be that the country’s future should be determined by the president’s personal likes and dislikes and that the determination of prime minister, government, cabinet of ministers and the state of the economy should be the subject of his personal discretion.

The path that is collectively decided now in this crisis will determine what is done in the future. The space given to presidential arbitrariness in the present will be the space provided for arbitrariness in the future by miscellaneous individuals who will preside on the political stage for a brief while but will take decisions that have lasting consequences. The decisions made today will determine how the country will be governed in the future. President Sirisena should not be encouraged to set a precedent so that the personal likes and dislikes of a future president will determine who the future prime minister, cabinet of ministers and state of the economy will be.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    2

    Dr. JP: The 19th amendment should have first banned MPs crossing the floor and Party Hopping. The 19th has turned the Parliament into a Cesspit of Corruption with Bondscam Ranil’s leadership and is the cause of the current Constitutional gridlock.
    The Constitution of Sri Lanka is part of the Problem and NOT the solution to the political economic crisis and the Culture of impunity and immunity for politicians who commit Financial Crimes and Hate Crimes against the people of Lanka, and loot the country.
    The 19th Amendment was to protect Bondscam Ranil, and ensure that he would asset strip and sell Lanka’s strategic assets (lands, transport and energy infrastructure), to his Trumpland backers who have put Lanka into a debt trap with their international sovereign bond scams to loot vulnerable countries like Greece, Argentina, Lanka etc. for the Global 1 percent. Wake up, Jehan Perera!

  • 3
    1

    Of the 3 branches of a democratic government – Executive, Judiciary and legislature, it is the latter – the Parliament of legislators that is most corrupt and in need of reforms.

    Civil society and JVP should therefore press for reform and banning of MPs crossing the floor of Parliament for the highest bidder. and MP who jumps parties should lose his seat, instead of trying to abolish the Presidency which now has reduced power after 19th Amendment and should also press for participation of younger generation and ban those over 67 contesting elections.

  • 0
    0

    Who is gauging all parties grade UNP SLFP JVP have done damages which party has done greater damages only people votes is conclusion When a single person does you do not you judge others, or you do not Describe them, you define yourself, there no shared or cooperative decision.

  • 3
    2

    Flouting of the 19th amendment is not the first time a Sri Lankan constitution has been violated.

    From the first constitution of Ceylon constitutions have been violated by the governing Sinhalese leaders from time to time. I am not going list them here but a serious student of politics will find them.

    It appears that writers, and people in general have selective amnesia of the past violations of the constitution.

    Sri Lanka is not known for their love of the rule of law for 70 years now. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

  • 1
    0

    The country is suffering day by day by economic downfall and it is said now each day billions are lost due to instability of politics in Sri Lanka ..
    Now it looks M&S suffers from some inferiority or superiority complex.
    Otherwise ..
    No leader would behave like this.

  • 2
    1

    “When I asked him what did the people think about the current situation and the political crisis he said that the people were happy that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had been shown the door and they were also happy that former president Rajapaksa had been appointed in his place.”
    Hurrah!
    UNP donkeys on CT should realise that changing pillow for the headache won’t help either.

    Soma

    • 1
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      Soma,
      Well said!

  • 0
    1

    As punishment for Sirisena’s unlawful and unconstitutional actions, he must be forced to spend the rest of his presidential term with an extremely painful thorn in his side that will cause a festering wound. Life must be made miserable for him so that he can no longer enjoy his time in office as the President of Sri Lanka. Ranil is the bitter medicine he must be forced to swallow every day. That is the best way to get even with him for what he has done to the country and its people. That is even better than impeachment!

  • 1
    1

    President Sirisena still do not understand the damage he has done to this country. He was given a mandate to investigate all the corruptions under Mahinda regime and all the murders and murder attempts including his by Mahinda regime between 2005 and 2015. He failed in his duty and he needs to get a renewed mandate from the people whether he is fit to be the president of this country. So, if he doesn’t like this government he should get the mandate now to continue as a President with your new partnership with your old partners you accused of. It is not about you trust your old partner, it is the people who should trust you and your old partner. Why you are afraid to face the people?

  • 1
    0

    Sirisena is not in the least bit concerned about all the murders, abductions and assaults on journalists and others made during the 2005-2015 period. He is only concerned and outraged about the alleged conspiracy to assassinate him!

  • 0
    0

    Experience teaches us that perilous paths lead to perils.
    The ever hopeful and indefatigable Jehan Perera has reminded us this again and again.
    .
    Recent ‘happenings’ show that MS is “Setting A Perilous Political Precedent “.
    The silver lining is more and more Lankans are realising this by the hour.

  • 0
    0

    What happened to Jehan PhD’s OMP and Reparation commission?

    Why his boss New King did suddenly announced that Tamils cannot have Federal Status or merging North East? Why Jehan PhD did went to Geneva in March 2017 and said his boss is resolving everything, so the resolution 30/1 was not needed? Is he going there again to save his boss?

    The world knows they all, including Jehan PhD, is doing this drama only to save New and Old Kings’ in Geneva March 2018. There was never any honest in Jehan PhD’s writing. Always double meaning; if not, he turns out to be like New King i.e writing one thing and supporting opposite side. Now only many people coming to know that New King was eating his Aappa second time in the election promises.

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