Mister President Don’t Betray SL

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has with the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister of what is to be the all-party interim Government successfully brought the country round a full circle back to the Yahapalana era. As if to complete the picture, the President has also pledged to re-enact the 19th Amendment (19A). He will also explore the possibility of abolishing the executive presidency once the country stabilises.

19A’s precarious facts

This is the exact setup that existed during the Yahapalana era. The 19A, which was to be a prelude to abolishing the executive presidency, was brought in the guise of empowering Parliament. In reality, the 19A was drafted with two main objectives in mind.

One was to eliminate the Rajapaksa family from the political arena. They were then the Yahapalana Government’s main political opponent. As such, through the Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa was eliminated by stipulating that one who had served in the capacity of Executive President for two terms loses the eligibility to sit for a third term. Namal Rajapaksa’s political journey was stumped somewhat through the condition that a Presidential candidate may not be younger than 35 years of age to be eligible. Any political ambition of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa was challenged by eliminating dual citizens the opportunity to hold top Government positions.

The other objective sought from the 19A was for Wickremesinghe to enjoy executive powers of President whilst holding the position of PM. As always the PM and never the President, Wickremesinghe’s hope to enjoy executive powers was tied in the 19A. Through this Amendment Wickremesinghe tried to take some of President’s executive powers for himself in the guise of empowering the Parliament.

The Supreme Court however disagreed and insisted on a referendum for that to happen. Wickremesinghe lost interest in the Amendment thereafter and we ended up with a half baked Amendment. This made the country ungovernable. It created such confusion that vital decisions could not be implemented.

19A main reason for Easter attack

Though forgotten now, one of the main reasons authorities failed to prevent the Easter Attack was the 19A. The chain of command was blurred as it was not clear to whom officers should report to – the President or Prime Minister. When President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe fell apart this confusion simply got amplified. 

Childishly Sirisena did not want Wickremesinghe or any of his MPs invited to the Security Council meetings. Accordingly, neither Wickremesinghe as PM nor State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene were included or briefed of these warnings. Though it was Wickremesinghe who disallowed authorities from cracking down the rising Islamic extremism, the Catholic Church does not hold him but Sirisena responsible for the carnage.

By trying to dilute the President’s executive powers, especially in filling high-ranking positions, the drafters overlooked the procedure to follow if a high-ranking officer had to be removed from the position. Thus, we had a humourless comical situation where the IGP was detained in remand prison for months on end for his failure to prevent the attack. IGP Pujith Jayasundara insisting that he was not culpable but pressurised to take the blame for Sirisena refused to resign and the 19A prevented the President from terminating him from position.

19A made the country ungovernable

These occurrences were just the tip of the iceberg. The 19A was designed specifically to empower Wickremesinghe and TNA leader R Sampanthan with executive powers. As such, Sampanthan was made the Opposition Leader though his alliance only had 16 seats from two provinces. The Joint Opposition (JO) conversely had nearly 60 seats and represented eight out of the nine provinces. The Yahapalana Government happily ignored the JO to allow the 19A.

These perversions and manipulations through the 19A made the country ungovernable and the Yahapalana Government unpopular. One of the first actions by President Gotabaya was to bring in the 20th Amendment (20A) nullifying the 19A.

20A made the President autocratic

Through the 20A President Gotabaya reversed much of the 19A. Among the changes the restrictions over dual citizenship too were reversed. This paved the path for Basil Rajapaksa to enter Parliament through the National List. The 20A was one of the starting points that fractured the trust between President and his key supporters. Widely seen as a move towards autocracy this was bitterly opposed by the nationalists.

The President might have never expected such an opposition for he was brought to power on the platform to be a tough disciplinarian. In fact, months before the Presidential Elections, at a private religious function in his residence one of the prelates caused quite a stir by advising the Presidential candidate to be a Hitler if that is what he needs to be to discipline the country. The very ones who defended this advice disagreed with the 20A.

Finally, President Gotabaya got their support after promising to reverse the clauses found contentious through a new constitution within a year. However, though more than two years have passed since then, neither the offending clauses were reversed nor a new constitution was presented.

Absurd blaming dual citizenship 

The point however is the 20A did not make the country ungovernable. Of course, it allowed Basil Rajapaksa into the Parliament and then to the Cabinet. However, to blame it on the dual citizenship clause is absurd.

We need to get out of this unhealthy habit of introducing, supporting or opposing constitutional amendments with people in mind. The 19A was designed to penalise the Rajapaksa family and empower Wickremesinghe and Sampanthan. Empowering the parliament was just the marketing tag. The 20A was opposed as it allowed Basil Rajapaksa into Parliament. The opposition to the dual citizenship was just an attempt to be polite.

As a country hemorrhaging brain drain, whether we can afford to shut out dual citizens is debatable. When it comes to treachery and corruption citizenship is hardly a factor. Overwhelmed courts, weak laws, lack of professionalism, technology and scientific approach in investigations are the key reasons that allow culprits to get away with most crimes. More than allegiance to the country of citizenship, it is bribery that acts as the main influencer.

The 20A may not be great but certainly not the worst piece of legislation. Conversely, the 19A gave the country a lot of grief. Therefore, there really is no justification to return to the 19A.

19A spells disaster

Abolishing the Executive Presidency is catastrophic. The pledge to return to the 19A along with the possibility of abolishing the Executive Presidency is a chilling message. The 19A was to be the preliminary step to abolishing the Presidency. The constitutional amendment was brought on the pretext of stripping the arbitrary powers of the Executive President and empowering Parliament.

Abolishing the Presidency can hold very serious consequences to the country. Such a move can result in altering the country’s entire administration structure. The Executive Presidency is the only glue that keeps the Provincial Councils with the Central Government.  Hence, abolishing the Presidency would effectively turn provinces into autonomous Governments. The provinces designed along ethnic lines can turn into hotbeds of extremism and terrorism.

Though the provincial councils have fallen defunct after the Yahapalana Government’s disastrous meddling with delimitation the threat it poses cannot be overlooked. India is very keen that Sri Lanka implements the 13th Amendment in full. With this Government’s unhealthy tilt to India whilst snubbing all-weather friends as China, Pakistan and Russia, this threat is further accentuated.

Protesters are Not the Voice of the Nation

President’s excuse for these two decisions along with leaning on Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign from the PM post is the ongoing protests at Galle Face Greens. This reasoning is very weak as those protestors are only a segment of the society and not the voice of the nation. None of those protestors represent the vote base that brought either Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the incumbent Government into power.

To dissolve a Cabinet, dismiss a PM, change a Government, tinker with the constitution or abolish presidency to satisfy rowdy protestors or appease politicized trade unions is both foolish and dangerous. If the existing systems are flawed, the need would be to rectify it.

Above all, President Gotabaya must honor the mandate entrusted on him. The challenges before him are tough and even unprecedented. That however does not give him the right to betray or ignore his voters.

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe