Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • October 2020
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The Opposition SJB Strives Hard to Counter 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on October 8, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 07th October 2020)

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.

The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community

The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment

The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.

The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.

The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.

The SJB needs to broaden its outreach

The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.

The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.

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