SLPP bound to split over 21st Amendment

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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, from the day he assumed office, has been working overtime to find out ways to address the country’s economic crisis and the imminent food shortage. He has been communicating with the international community, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other monetary agencies, in this regard as well.  It was at this time that Wickremesinghe received a phone call from his British counterpart Boris Johnson. 

During the phone call, Johnson expressed his regret over the current plight of Sri Lanka and said, Britain was determined to provide assistance in any way possible and assured its fullest cooperation. The British PM had also stated that Wickremasinghe taking the challenge as PM to rid his country of its present ills was commendable.

When Johnson called Wickremasinghe the latter was at the President’s House in Fort for a discussion regarding the 21st Amendment to the Constitution with the ruling party MPs. At the meeting issues had been discussed at length with regard to the 21A and the post of Premiership.

The President at the end of the meeting urged the Parliamentary Group to submit their proposals and views in writing by Thursday (2).

After the Cabinet meeting on Monday
(30 May), the ruling party MPs also met the President and the PM and it was also attended by former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Last Sunday (29), the PM met the party leaders to brief them of the 21A. However, reps from the TNA and the JVP were not in attendance. After the meeting the PM met SLFP Ministers Mahinda Amaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva to discuss the matter further.

On Tuesday (31), the PM attended the Food Security Committee (FSC) meeting in order to mull the decisions to be taken promptly to avoid an impending famine in the country.

During this meeting the supply and distribution of fertiliser for the Yala season had been discussed at length. It was also discusses how best to avoid the imminent food crisis in the country.

Wickremesinghe instructed officials to focus more on crop cultivation projects in the Western Province and advised the Coordinator of the FSC Vajira Abeywardena to implement a programme.

Afterwards, Sagala Ratnayake and PM’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake informed Wickremesinghe that they will be visiting former MP Ranjan Ramanayake who is currently at the Welikada Prison.

Wickremesinghe advised them look into Ramanayake’s wellbeing and to work towards his release from prison. When Rathanayake and Ekanayake visted the prison, a Prison Guard informed them to wait for a moment till Ramanayake was summoned.

Ramanayake who was well dressed and sporting a shaven head came to meet Ratnayake and Ekanayake. Ratnayake then said, Ramanayake still had a look like a film star the actor turned politician had not aged much.

Ramanayake said, that he was provided with a laptop by the Prison Department as he is preparing for his bachelor’s degree.

“They took the laptop away, saying I use it for taking calls,” Ramanayake said. 

Following that the PM’s Secretary discussed the matter with the Prisons Department officers and instructed all the facilities for Ramanayake’s studies be provided. They told Ramanayake that possibility of granting Presidential Pardon to him is being discussed as well.

In the meantime, Sagala Ratnayake also experienced a mishap last week.

In the wake of the news that made the rounds stating that Ratnayake was slated to be appointed as the PMs new Chief of Staff, he was swamped with phone calls.

Ratnayake who responded every call said, what counts to him are not posts or perks, but to do his bit to rescue the country.

After assuming the Premiership, Wickremesinghe arrived at the Sirikotha for the first time on Tuesday (31 May).

Among those in attendance were UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena, General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara, and Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene along with party activists and supporters. Former UNP National Organiser Navin Dissanayake was also present.

Wickremesinghe instructed them to further streamline the party activities. He also advised Range Bandara to supervise the work from the Sirikotha and advised Ruwan Wijewardene to coordinate the activities.

PM on new system

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, in a special televised statement on Sunday (29 May) evening, said the President, the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Council (NC), the fifteen committees and oversight committees will be accountable to Parliament according to the new system that has been proposed.

He also said, there is a system in place to control the Government through the Cabinet, to examine the work of the President, to oversee the work of the political affairs through the National Council and to oversee the financial affairs and other matters of the other 15 committees.

“There are articles prepared for this. I appreciate that a number of other organisations have made similar proposals,” he added.

Wickremesinghe also said, the functioning of Parliament has been paralysed due to the weakening of the Parliamentary powers by the 20th Amendment.

The statement said, the Executive has been given more powers. The main allegation today is that Parliament has not acted to prevent the economic crisis. There is an allegation that even though the ruling party had a majority in Parliament they neglected the work of Parliament. Everything was systematically controlled by the Cabinet of Ministers.

“We do not always have to look at what happened in the past, but there are examples we can follow. Before the independence of Sri Lanka, there was a State Council from 1931 to 1947. That State Council functioned following the committee system. Each subject was divided into seven committees. The Chairmen of the Committees became Ministers. The seven Ministers had formed a Cabinet. In addition, there were three officials appointed by the Governor. In addition, there was an Accounts Committee to control public money. At that time we had the opportunity to carry out this methodology successfully,” he said.

Speaking further he said, now the need is to change the structure of Parliament and create a new system by combining the existing system of Parliament or the Westminster system and the system of State Councils. In those cases Parliament can participate in governing the country.

“First of all, the existing laws need to be strengthened in order to give those powers to Parliament in the exercise of monetary powers.

“Following the example of countries such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and India, we are proposing a stronger and more powerful law

“At present there are three Committees on Government Finance. The three Committees are the Public Finance Committee, the Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises. Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena has made several proposals to strengthen the powers of these three Committees.

“In addition, we are bringing forward recommendations.

“We are working to establish two new Committees on Monetary Affairs. We will appoint a Legal and Methodological Committee to look into the matter.

“Secondly, the main problem we face is the financial condition of the banks and financial institutions. There are a number of issues that have been weakened.

“Under our Standing Order 111 we can appoint oversight committees. No oversight committees have been appointed before. Therefore, we propose to appoint ten oversight committees. They also report to Parliament on policies. Parliament should act on that.

“It should also be noted that the Chairpersons of these five Finance Committees and the Ten Supervisory Committees are appointed by backbenchers. They are not appointed by Ministers.

“Therefore, we have the opportunity to work out a methodology that is independent of the Cabinet of Ministers and works with both the Minister and the Parliament.

“The youth are calling for a change in the existing system. They also want to know the current issues. Therefore, I propose to appoint four youth representatives to each of these 15 committees. One of them will be appointed by the Youth Parliament. The other three will be from the protesting groups and other activist groups. The methodology used to choose these individuals can be decided by the youth organisations themselves.

“In addition, we hope to involve people with expertise in specific fields in this work. Through this work, young people will be able to learn about problems and provide solutions to them on their own. They will be able to contest elections if they wish to do so.

“We also propose a National Council. A committee consisting of the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the major parties, is called the National Council.

“It should be said that the National Council is very important. The National Council can talk about the policies of the country. It can also talk about the decisions of the Cabinet. It can also talk about the reorganisation of the Parliament of this country. If so, it can be called a political body.

“The National Council has the right to summon the Cabinet of Ministers and the Chairmen of Committees.

“Today, the main issues in our country are not limited to the economic sphere. There are also two major issues in the political sphere. The re-introduction of the 19th Amendment is one of these issues. We, as Party leaders, are now preparing the 21st Amendment in this regard.

“The second issue is to work towards the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The timing and methodology must be decided by the Party Leaders.”

SLPP split over 21st A

Sources said that efforts have been made to create divisions among SLPP MPs with regard to the ratification of 21A. It is also no secret that the person who is spearheading this campaign to create divisions within the SLPP is none other than its creator Basil Rajapaksa.

The Government Parliamentary Group convened a meeting at the President’s House on 30 May evening to further deliberate on the pros and cons of the 21A. This particular meeting which was chaired by the President was also attended by the PM, former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Minister Harin Fernando and SLPP MP Basil Rajapaksa.

During the meeting the President, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, SLPP MP Dr. Charitha Herath, SLPP MP Sarath Weerasekera, MP Nimal Lanza, MPs Chinthaka Mayadunna, Jagath Kumara and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa had expressed views both in support and opposition to 21A. But, a feature during the meeting was that Basil Rajapaksa not venturing to air his views.

But, an informed source stated that though Basil Rajapaksa had not uttered a word during the meeting he had used a few SLPP MPs to air views vehemently in opposition to the ratification of certain clauses proposed in the 21A. During the meeting MP Weerasekera had sternly opposed the ratification of the 21A. He had maintained that he had opposed the ratification of 19A and that he will adopt the same stance towards 21A as well.

 The MP had opined that he cannot condone the transferring of the powers vested in the Executive Presidency to a PM who had entered Parliament via the National List. He had also insisted that it must not be overlooked that the current Executive President had been elected to office by the majority vote of the electorate.

MP Mayadunna had also spoken against the ratification of 21A and had emphasised that the need of the hour was to ease the economic burden heaped on the masses before mulling the introduction of constitutional reforms. He also warned against forcing the SLPP MPs to vote in favour of 21A and against their conscience.

 MP Dr. Herath then gave a detailed explanation with regard to the country’s economic and political upheaval. He said both crises were not separate from each other but intertwined.

He stated that in order to stabilise the country politically it was imperative that necessary constitutional reforms are introduced. He then mentioned that the Government should also strive to address the political downturn here to the best of its ability.

He, however, noted that he cannot subscribe to the notion that the formulation and ratification of vital constitutional reforms would lead to the abolishing of the Executive Presidency.

The criticism directed at PM Ranil Wickremesinghe by MP Weerasekera on being appointed to his post drew a sharp response from the PM.

The PM observed that he had not craved the portfolio and maintained that it was the President who had urged him to accept it. Wickremesinghe added that it is a post that cannot be taken over forcibly from anyone and remarked that after the President had implored him to take it had formulated a plan and had submitted to the President ahead of its acceptance.

 MP Dr. Godahewa stated that it would be imperative to maintain democracy whilst the Government strives to resolve the country’s myriad of problems. He also expressed his disappointment over the failure of the Cabinet to address the burning issues of the masses despite more than a month having lapsed since the new PM took office.

The MP also urged the Government to seriously address the events that transpired through the country on 9 May and to take concrete measures to prevent a recurrence of it in the future. Former SLPP, now independent MP Nimal Lanza also aired his views in favour of 21A.

He advised the SLPP not to be hoodwinked by the number of heads in the Parliament and think that they have the backing of the people. He said the 6.9 million who had voted for the SLPP at the previous Presidential Poll was now history and urged them to feel the pulse of the people on the streets and strive to alleviate their suffering.

MP Jagath Kumara too aired his views with regard to the recent spiking of prices of essentials and stated that the onus will be on the Government to address it forthwith. He however mentioned that though PM Wickremesinghe is not from the SLPP, they will try to unconditionally support his progressive measures for the country.

 At the end of the airing of views by the MPs, the President had stated that the 21A was being drafted with his blessings. He had noted that it was being formulated in consultation with PM Wickremesinghe and assured that he will not leave any room whatsoever for youth insurrections of the past to occur again here under his watch.

The President had further pointed out that if the masses are clamouring for constitutional reforms then the Government cannot act oblivious to it and should do its utmost for its introduction. During his explanation the President had also spoken on what prompted him to request the former PM to step down. He had asserted that it had been the most difficult decision he has had to take to date in his political career.       

SLFP says ‘Aye’

Chairman of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena wrote to Justice Minister Rajapakshe to express his and his party’s complete support for the proposed draft of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

He said in a letter to the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs, and Constitutional Reforms, that the SLFP agrees to all amendments in the draft proposed by Rajapakshe and also submits several other proposals for consideration.

Sirisena refers to the Justice Minister’s letter dated 24 May, in which he forwarded the Draft Bill for the 21st Amendment to the Constitution for his comments.

“I wish to place on record that my party and I fully support the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution,” he said.

Whilst agreeing to all of the amendments in the Justice Minister’s proposed Draft, Sirisena also proposes the following amendments for his consideration included in Part II of the Schedule to Article 41C in the proposed Draft: Include the Members of the Monetary Board and Secretaries of Ministries. 

He also proposed Article 41G (3) of the Constitution: make amendments to provide for the Rules of the Constitutional Council to be made within one month of the constitution of the council, similar time frames should be prescribed in respect of rules to be made by all Commissions established in terms of the Constitution established in terms of the Constitution and Article 44(2) of the Constitution: to be amended to provide for the President to only hold the portfolio of the Minster of Defence.

He also recommends that Article 47 of the Constitution be amended to provide for 30 Ministries on a pre-identified, rational basis, Article 43 of the Constitution to be amended to provide for the grant of Pardon to be carried out in terms of the recommendations by a body established by law, appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council and Article 91 of the Constitution to be amended to provide for a conviction under Section 9 of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. No 1 of 1975, as a disqualification for election as an MP.

The other proposals were, Article 92 of the Constitution to be amended to provide for a conviction under Section 9 of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. No 1 of 1975, as a disqualification for election to the office of President and inclusion of a provision for the appointment of Governors of the Provinces, Ambassadors and Heads of Missions to be done on the ‘advice’ of the Prime Minister in consultation with the Cabinet of Ministers and the final was the inclusion of a new provision to prohibit the appointment of persons as secretaries to ministries form outside of the Public Service.

SJB wants revisions

Meanwhile, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has urged incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to revise certain clauses, in the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution, to limit the powers of the Executive Presidency.

SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said, the SJB had already informed Wickremesinghe that the proposed constitutional amendment should be revised to prevent the President from holding any ministerial portfolios and to allow Parliament to elect a President.

He went on to say that the SJB has informed the Prime Minister that the 21st Amendment should be revised and approved by Parliament before a referendum is held at a suitable time.

“We have also proposed some clauses concerning parliamentarians who change sides. As a result, we have proposed an amendment that prohibits an MP who crosses over from accepting any portfolio or other reward for doing so,” he added.

He went on to say that they have proposed that only the Supreme Court can issue a Stay Order preventing disciplinary action by a political party if an MP switches sides.

However, many are of the view that SJB is proposing these impractical amendments in a bid to prevent 21st Amendment becoming a reality.