Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for September, 2020

Judges, Civil Society & Opposition Push Back Against 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on September 28, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 21st September 2020)

The Rajapakse Administration, by Government gazette, published its proposed 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution and subsequently the Secretary General of Parliament announced that it would be taken up for its first reading in Parliament on September 22, opening up the narrow window of time for the widely anticipated legal challenges to the amendment in the Supreme Court.

The 20th Amendment in a nutshell

The 20th Amendment essentially seeks to establish an elected absolute ruler who can theoretically do no wrong and is therefore not to be held accountable for his or her governance or adequately and independently guided in his or her actions. The executive presidency so created will not only wield powers arrogated to itself prior to the 17th and 19th Amendments, but it will also make that office even less accountable, removing for instance independent auditing of the President’s Office and the advisory role of the Constitutional Council.

For the past 25 years or more, the general consensus in political and civil society has been that the 1978 Constitution had centralized power too much and created an executive presidency that over shadowed all other organs of the State and that this must be reformed. Every government elected since the Kumaratunga Administration in 1994 has pledged to reform and reduce the powers of the executive and make it more accountable – the 17th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution doing just that.

It is precisely because a consensus existed among political elites, and consequently the general public, that the powers of the executive presidency should be pruned and Sri Lanka’s executive arm of government should increase its accountability to both the judiciary and the legislature, that the 19th Amendment, introduced in early 2015 by a minority government that had only 43 seats in the 125 member House, was passed with near consensus with only a single vote against. Contrast that with the present situation where a government, which has a two-thirds majority in the House, is already running into internal dissent on its signature 20th Amendment. Interestingly there are over 25 members of the present parliament, as opposition members in 2015, who voted for the 19th Amendment, now having to be hurrah boys for its demise.

Internal SLPP opposition to the Amendment

The SLPP Administration has at least two very clear strands within it (factions would be too strong a word). The first strand is the old guard politicians, allied parties and traditional political operators, generally all managed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and party chief Basil Rajapaksa. The other, and currently dominant, strand of the Administration is the professional and retired military personnel around the president, organized through their various groups. The 20th Amendment is very much a creation of President Rajapaksa’s inner circle of professionals, strong on personal loyalty and weak on political sense. The 20th Amendment is classic over reach by the politically naïve professionals. The result has been significant disquiet and push back from various forces within the government itself.

The ultra-Sinhala nationalist wing of the ruling Alliance has a serious problem with enabling dual citizens to be parliamentarians or Cabinet Ministers since it potentially opens the door for various diaspora activists to engage in electoral politics. They also want the Sri Lankan State, which is seen as synonymous with the majority community they represent, to be more not less accountable. Accordingly, the elimination of both the independent Audit Commission and the Independent Procurement Commission has been met with stiff resistance. It has been a reflection of that resistance that led the Prime Minister to appoint a ruling alliance advisory committee to study the proposed amendment and report back. But as media reports over the weekend indicate, their recommendations for changes would not be incorporated into the proposal. Changes, if any, are to be moved during the committee stage debate in Parliament.

External opposition by judicial, administrative, civil and political forces

Besides the internal government concerns and the disquiet over the proposed 20th Amendment, the totally non-partisan Retired Judges Association (RJA) stated that they were “gravely perturbed” by the potential impact of the 20th Amendment on the constitutional separation of powers and particularly with regard to the selection and appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Justice Minister, the RJA states that an accountable and publicly transparent process of appointment of judges is integral to upholding the Rule of Law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice. They claim, with considerable merit, that they “are concerned by the amendment of Article 41A of the Constitution, to replace the Constitutional Council having the power of issuing recommendations by a Parliamentary Council which can only make observations in regard to pending judicial appointments”. They further note that the Parliamentary Council lacks the important element of non-political membership and is seriously compromised by the President’s ability to remove nominees of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

Similarly, government auditors also express their serious concerns over the removal of the Independent Audit Commission and the weakening of the powers and the removal of the autonomous nature of the office of Auditor General.

For Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and the more than 50 parliamentarians who make up the SJB parliamentary group and their political allies, the immediate introduction of the 20th Amendment creates both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that it does not have the luxury of settling down before having to take on a strong government, which nonetheless has shown some cracks due to over reach. The opportunity is that the 20th Amendment and the opposition to it from various quarters, including from sections of the Sinhala nationalist political forces, presents a real opportunity to create a diverse though united force, based on established high political principles, against the 20th Amendment and its proponent Administration.

The Rajapaksa Administration, feeling vindicated at the Parliamentary elections and emboldened by its two-thirds majority in Parliament will not back down or compromise on the 20th Amendment. It will push through the 20th Amendment without compromise or consensus and will in all likelihood see a 20th Amendment in place. But in winning this battle, it may lose its ultimate war for a new constitution. The 20th Amendment will certainly not be the beginning of the end for the SLPP Administration but it may well be the end of the honeymoon period for it. Sri Lankans are happy to place blind faith in their leaders but it begins to come a little unstuck when the leaders try and take more than what is on offer.

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Ruwan Wijewardena UNP Leader – in – waiting

Posted by harimpeiris on September 17, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 17th September 2020)

Former MP and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardena, was recently elected UNP Deputy Leader and consequently the leader-in-waiting, by that besieged party’s working committee. For a party, which has only a single National List seat in parliament, on which it cannot agree who should be nominated and which received less than half the votes, the fourth placed JVP did, the rather long drawn out process of finally replacing its leader, has begun. That this leadership transition only formally began once the party had been all but wiped off the electoral map, is a testament to the anachronistic nature of the UNP’s internal decision-making processes. The UNP’s only contribution to current politics was to weaken the opposition and enable the SLPP to secure a two-third majority in parliament.

Wijewardenas Replace Senanayakes as UNP’s First Family

The electoral defeat of the UNP, in the 1970 general election, witnessed the end of the domination of that party’s leadership by the Senanayake family and saw a transition to the Wijewardena family, the maternal wing of both JR Jayawardena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a brief interlude for the leaderships of Ranasinghe Premadasa and DB Wijetunga.

A similar situation was also witnessed in the UNP’s arch rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was dominated, since inception, by that party’s founding family, the Bandaranaikes’, which domination ran its natural course for over half a century, since 1951, and witnessed a more natural and dignified transition to a fellow founding member’s clan, the Rajapakse family, in 2005.

The Wijewardena clan can also celebrate a half century, since 1970, of dominating the United National Party (UNP) leadership, even at the expense of finally running the party to the ground. The clan’s control and near dominance of the party leadership has certainly not run its course. Accordingly, it was no surprise, at least to this analyst, that from a crowded field of pretenders to the UNP throne, ranging from Karu Jayasuriya to Naveen Dissanayake and including such colourful figures as Ravi Karunanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga, that the soft spoken and relative new comer to politics, Ruwan Wijewardena, would receive the nod from his near kinsman and by extension the rest of the handpicked working committee, to take over the now nearly defunct party.

The SJB Option or Perish

Ruwan Wijewardena, the UNP leader-in-waiting, whom media reports state has to wait, yet still more, till next year, to take over the party, has only one realistic course of action open to him. It is the only viable option for a party with a grand history but no future. That option is for the UNP to become a constituent party of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), rather like the JHU and the other regional parties. However, for this option to take place, Mr. Wijewardena must be prepared to accept, or enforce, the easing upstairs or retirement from politics of some of those, whom the SJB correctly believes to be liabilities rather than assets in its attempts to be a credible check and balance and eventually a viable alternative to the Rajapaksa led SLPP government. The UNP’s only hope for survival, even as a shadow of its former self, is in the shade and as a part of the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). This option is similar from the other side of the aisle, most obviously to the course taken by the SLFP under former President Maithripala Sirisena or even the Dinesh Gunawardena-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) – both parties with proud histories, but with no future on its own.

However, the odd thing with the UNP leadership contest is that despite having no real option than join the SJB, the UNP leader-in-waiting has to parrot the mantra, that he will be rebuilding the party to its grand old days. There were breakaway parties that believed that having the party nameboard, the head office premises, and the symbol, was what popular or public support was all about and were rudely surprised to realize that this is in fact not so. In the Tamil polity, the best example would be the TULF, still around under veteran leader V. Anandasangari, but despite fielding candidates, under its well-known rising sun symbol, which was in 1977, the second largest party in parliament, is now existent, only in name.

A Second Decimation in the PC Polls

There is a significant preference, within the SLPP, to have the provincial council polls. This preference comes mainly from the compelling internal need to provide secondary positions to party loyalists and activists who were unable to enter parliament. Doing so sooner rather than later, will help keep the opposition off balance. Having the PC polls, will also remove a potential irritant in the relationship with India. However, for the UNP, a pending PC polls, sans a tie up with the SJB, spells near doom. Superficial analysis which assumes that the UNP will retain the 2% of the national vote, or 250,000 votes country wide, which it garnered in the August parliamentary elections, is naïve. The UNP, if it contests alone, will be again wiped out, but worse. At the general election, there was some doubt, however small, about whether it would be the SJB or the UNP which would emerge on top, in the battle to be number two. Now that doubt not only no longer exists, but the UNP has such weak public appeal, that it polled less than half the JVP vote and failed to secure a single district seat in parliament. UNP support or the famed party machinery, has conclusively and permanently moved lock, stock and barrel to the SJB. Should young Mr. Ruwan Wijewardena seek to roll back the clock and have a rematch on the fight with the SJB, he would fare far worse than his cousin Ranil Wickremesinghe did. If on the contrary he accepts the political leadership of Sajith Premadasa and crafts a course for the UNP, which challenges the SLPP Government and is steadfastly a part of the opposition, he will generate for the UNP, a new lease of life and a new path, not as a leading party, whose heyday is over, but as an appendage to the SJB, in much the same way as the SLFP and the MEP are within the SLPP.

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