By Harsha Gunasena –
There was a debate on who was the author of the 20th Amendment to the constitution. It is not a complicated document to be authored as such. The legal draftsman was instructed to undo the changes of 19A except for the limitation of the terms of the president, duration of such terms and replacing the Constitutional Council with the Parliamentary Council with limited powers. The President himself could do it.
If the President wants to continue his down to earth, good, executive work of directing, guiding, and motivating the public staff, which is his own variety of President Premadasa’s mobile Ministries and Minister Athulathmudali’s Exporters Forum, he can do it with the current powers. There is no necessity of additional powers for that.
The fundamental issue here is that as pointed out by many the shift towards a despotic rule once again. An absolute majority of the parliament leads to a despotic rule. All the regimes with 2/3rd majority in Sri Lanka did not last too long as expected. Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Mrs.B) in 1970 lasted only to the end of its extended term. It had to face a rebellion during its term. The UNP government which was initially headed by President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) lasted only three terms with all the constitutional juggleries. It had to face two rebellions one of which has taken the lives of the lieutenants of JRJ in front of his own eyes and the other lasted for 30 years and again has taken the lives of the possible successors of the leadership of the UNP. The rule of the President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 also lasted only one term. Therefore, the expected result is that rulers with absolute power would not last to suit their expectations.
The country has faced three rebellions after the independence. This was a result of unequal treatment to various segments of the society by the state. It can be rural poor, lower strata of the society or ethnic minorities. Therefore, moving towards more democratic rule is needed to counter the social unrest. That was the opinion of G.L. Peiris when he headed the Commission appointed by President Premadasa to find out the reasons for JVP second insurrection. G.L. Peiris has forgotten all these since he has metamorphosized to a political animal. That was the sentiments expressed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission headed by C.R. De Silva as well.
Mrs. B and JRJ have done a lot of good things as well as bad things to the country. The autocratic way of their governing style which was powered by the majority in the parliament they enjoyed was disagreed by many. However even in that style there were positives. The way Mrs.B handled the insurrection was one example. The 13A to the constitution which came with the Indian influence and with the sole decision of JRJ was the only legislative provision from independence for decentralization of power.
It was said that 20A is an interim amendment and a new constitution is on the way. Rulers with 2/3rd majority cannot and will not make a constitution acceptable to all. Mrs. B could not do it and her constitution marked the origin of Tamil rebellion. JRJ could not do it either. As he has pointed out in retirement his constitution would be defended by those in power and opposed by those who are not in power. In addition to the power the present ruling party has, with the strong bias of the President towards the ideology of Sinhala Buddhism it is extremely unlikely that they can produce a constitution acceptable to all which is a must of a constitution of a country.
Both the 17A and 19A to the constitution which curtailed the despotic powers of the President were passed by minority governments with the support of the oppositions. The Constitution making process initiated by the previous government was supported by the opposition as well, although there were differences of opinion of the basic issues. The process failed since the leaders of that government did not take the leadership of the process.
There were comments whether the Prime Minister would approve curtailing of his power. The fact would be that the family has decided sometime back the extent of authority the ruler should have and the succession plan. Things are happening based on that blueprint. Therefore, there is no question of a power struggle between the President and the PM.
If the President decides that 20A should be passed in the Parliament as it is it will be passed irrespective to the opposition to it within the ruling party. The MPs we have are not strong enough. In the Parliamentary history there were only few exceptions such as opposition to JRJ’s one man show of Gamani Jayasuriya and M.D.H. Jayawardena. As a result, they had to leave politics.
It is generally commented that people have given the ruling party a 2/3rd majority and now people have to face the consequences. It is not correct to say that the people have given them the 2/3rd majority.
JRJ came into power in 1977 with 5/6th majority of the parliament as a result of the despotic rule of Mrs. B. It was a vote against the then government rather than a vote for JRJ. Similarly, if the previous government played its role well the present government would have not come to power. However, the 2/3rd majority was given to them on a platter by the UNP leadership. Sajith Premadasa (SP) was polled 5.5mn votes in the Presidential election. If it is assumed that the people who voted for SP in the presidential election have voted for the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Tamil National Alliance, Tamil National People’s Front headed by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, United National Party, Muslim National Alliance, Tamil Peoples National Alliance headed by C.V. Wigneswaran, All Ceylon Makkal Congress headed by Rishad Bathiudeen and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the general election, total number of votes for all of them were 3.6 mn. Therefore, there was a shortage of 1.9mn votes. At the general election although there was 0.27 mn increase of the total voters compared to the general election there was an overall reduction of 1mn of total polled. Out of the polled the increase of rejected votes compared to the presidential election was 0.6 mn. Total of the voters who did not turnup to vote and those who casted rejected votes was 1.6mn. There is a difference of 0.3mn between this figure and the reduction of votes to SP in the general election which was 1.9mn.
At the presidential election there were 0.3mn voters who cased their vote to other candidates other than the main two. Sri Lanka Peoples Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) together with its supportive parties, Eelam Peoples Democratic Party,Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal headed by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, Sri Lanka Freedom Party, National Congress headed by A.L.M. Atavulla and Our Power of Peoples Party obtained 7.1mn votes which is an increase of 0.2mn votes obtained by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential election. This explains the shortage of 0.3mn votes of SP to a certain extent.
If SJB together with the parties who voted SP in the presidential election managed to get the same amount of votes, there will not be a 2/3rd majority to the ruling party now. The difference was made by the voters who voted for SP in the presidential election and either did not vote or casted a rejected vote.
This happened since neither SJB nor UNP was able to get the voters to vote for them. The main reason for this was the division of the party at that crucial hour. The party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should take the sole responsibility for this. Therefore, it is not appropriate to say that the people have given the ruling party 2/3rd majority. People who voted them did not give that majority and that majority was given by the peoples who did not vote for them. That was the irony of that. So if you have voted for SP at the presidential election and refrained for voting at general election or if you have intentionally made your vote rejected at the general election you are responsible for the plight of the country today.
The issue is that the country is going back and forth in respect of the basic document of the country which is the constitution. From the independence we have gone back and forth in respect of economic policy. We have gone to the two extremes, to the closed economy and then to the open economy. We have moved to nationalization of private assets and then to privatization of the same. The job of the governments in power was to undo the work of the previous government. In the economic front the differences between the two sides was narrowed very much compared to the situation in 1950s to 1980s. Now we have started to play with the constitution. Which is a more basic point than the economic policy. We may continue to go back and forth in these basics while the other countries are moving fast bypassing us.
The checks and balances created by the 19A to counter the absolute power of the President will be taken away by the 20A. Those checks and balances were aimed to counter social unrest which created three armed rebellions in the country. Therefore, there can be new set of checks and balances outside of the constitution as we experienced earlier. It may include armed struggle, political defiance (this is non-violent struggle applied defiantly and actively for political purposes as defined by Gene Sharp in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy which was translated to Sinhala by the writer), international pressure, pressure within the party and pressure from the family. The wish of all of us is to avoid any armed struggle. Finally, everything should be borne by the people.
The end of powerful leaders is marked in the very incidence of acquisition of such power.