‘Aragalaya’ by independent MPs formed current Govt – Justice Minister

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Despite severe accusations that Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is ‘not focusing’ on the important topic of removing the powers of the executive presidency, he has taken firm focus on introducing the 21th Amendment to the Constitution and extracting good clauses from 19A and 20A. However, the seasoned lawyer argues that it is impossible to revoke the powers of the President since the Constitution is built on the Executive Presidency and the President can only be ousted by referendum and that there are a number problems in Parliament. Apart from that, he added that the President should resign of his own free will.

Sri Lankans have distanced themselves from their elected representatives when the country fell into deep economic crisis, what’s the remedy you see as a politician?

People have been disappointed and distanced themselves because they consider the service that should be supplied by politicians and told to be rendered by Parliament, has not been rendered. There are reasons behind this. In some ways, democracy in our country is still in its primary stage. When a political party is elected by the public, they do not follow the manifestos they gave to the people and members elected by their political parties do not have the freedom to express their opinions openly.

More than party and policies, the entire thing derives from the policies of the person in charge, such as the President or Prime Minister. When the powers are added to the Presidency, then the Cabinet’s responsibilities are diluted.  The members representing their electorate also become like traffic signals. There is no collective responsibly but one or two persons or officials to make decisions and finally Parliamentarians are blamed.

Was this always the trend in Sri Lankan politics?

This is a continuation and really commenced after the 1978 Constitution and it has degenerated and deteriorated further.

Which side are you now on? Are you with the President, the Prime Minister, or the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa?

I never had a side. In Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government I had no side. I challenged him and opposed him on the COPE report. In the Wickremesinghe government too I had no sides. When I took the post of Justice Minister I was seated in the Opposition as an independent MP.

Is this, however, the best way to rule the country? Those who were with the ruling party and held power, as well as those who were in the Cabinet, suddenly became ‘independent’. What happens to the obligation they undertook?  Suddenly one doesn’t represent anyone and become ‘side less’ and then want to govern the country. Is this what the people want?

If there are allegations against both the Government and the Opposition (When the opposition was in power they also had the similar allegations) between this, I have acted and opposed both political parties and fought against them by retaining my independent stance. I always took the side of the people all the time. When I was sacked from the Ministerial post, I did not want to change by stance. I was and still is against the privatisation of the Hambantota Port.

What really made you accept this cabinet portfolio besides the common stance to stabilise a government that is falling apart?

During the last four to five months, I was persuaded by the President and several party leaders and party supporters and my view was that I will not join the Government especially under the existing system and family rule.

So what now?

Now we see the people’s struggle; we as 41 members of the independent group, we made several request to the President just like the people out there in the ‘aragalaya’.  Whether it is our request or by the aragalaya’s influence, the President heeded that. The President removed the Cabinet and Prime Minister and also his family members in the cabinet. Also he did not take in seniors with corruption charges. He wanted to form a new government and a new Prime Minister.  There were so many suggestions and finally he offered the Premiership to Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was because people requested me to take responsibility as the country was going into a worst crisis situation. 

Are you popular among the politicians?

That I don’t know. I don’t want to test that.

But how do they react regarding your political practices?

My understanding is that I am held in high regard by members of every political party in the country, as well as members of every socialist strata, starting with the lowest strata to the highest which is satisfactory to me. I have faith in them, as they do in me.

What is your aim now after accepting responsibly?

My duty as an independent politician is to restore the law and order and ensure the rule of law and that’s what I’ll do. Earlier too I did that and there were allegation that I did not interfere in judiciary matters. I, as an independent person, it was a ‘disqualification’ to hold a ministerial portfolio.

Did the President abuse his power?

The people’s worries are not about the President abusing the powers vested in him, but he is accused of not putting entire activities on track. He appointed the Cabinet with so many family members and persons who have lost the public’s respect and he appointed people like former CBSL governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal. Basically he did not take proper decisions in appointing the correct people. The President cannot do all that work but he appointed without identifying the correct people. He failed in that aspect. 

So he did not abuse power?

I cannot say that but he failed to appoint the right people.

On you mission to introduce 21A, is it the extent of 19A or 19A minus?

Those who cannot understand constitutional norms say minus and plus. This is not the real issue. Even there are positive points in the 20A and 19A we are retaining in the 21A.

Can you elaborate what are the good in the 19A and 20A that is brought to 21A?

In 20A, the clause says on increasing judges in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court (SC) which I have retained. Also the power of the SC to entertain application against the decision of the President has been retained. All the good ones I have retained. I have improved 19A and under that the Governor of the Central Bank appointment is subject to the approval of the Constitutional Council. One can say it is Plus and minus to the amendments.

But tell us how did the idea of introducing 21A come to be? Isn’t it about removing the executive president’s power?

That is because 20A changed the entire governance system creating the drastic results that jeopardised the economy. Economic stability is key but the cause for it was the political governance system.

But you are not in favour of abolishing the executive power of the President or revert to the 19A (In a manner introducing the 21A) clauses where the power was vested in the Prime Minister? Is it not in the 21A?

One has to decide whether to keep the Executive Presidency or go for the Westminster System. While maintaining the Constitution which is based on the Executive Presidency any person saying “abolish the Executive Presidency” is wrong. That means no one understands the Constitution. One cannot abolish while being under this existing constitution.  That is why in 2015 we said we will go for amendments which do not require a referendum. If you want it we need to go for a referendum. We can go for it provided the country’s situation is good and people are demanding it.  But people are not demanding a referendum. We were trying to abolish the Executive Presidency and appointed a Constitutional Assembly. We are working on it but it was halted due to the tussle between former President Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.

What is stopping now?  Are there alternatives?

There is nothing to stop. I have proposed that after the 21A is passed we will appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee and not outsiders just to formulate the policies towards drafting the new constitution.

Isn’t it true that you came up with the idea for the 21A draft without engaging other political parties and civil society organisations?

I cannot do that at this moment but I have proposed it. When the proposal is approved then the civil societies and political parties will express their views at that point and we will discuss it. I have only proposed and once 21A is passed we will consider a new constitution and to initiate that the Parliament must appoint a select committee. The select committee would have all the representatives.   

The overall assumption is that you accepted the cabinet post from the President so you are not willing to work on adding the clause of removing the powers of the President in 21A. What is your reaction?

The argument is sound if there is provision for me to accept it from the people at Galle Face. It is only the President who can appoint cabinet ministers under Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Even the Prime Minister is appointed by the President. Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minister with the mutual understanding of the President. They should do it like in the UK Parliament with the consensus basis. The politicians must be matured enough to work cordially.

Going by the current political turmoil where Cabinet stepped down, former Prime Minister resigned and many decided to sit as independent parliamentarians, isn’t this all due to a President who the people want to step down? 

We are trying to introduce 21A and it is for that.

But you said there will be anarchy if the President steps down?

I did not talk about him or her stepping down.  I am talking about the system. If you want to abolish the Executive Presidency we must go for a new constitution and if we do it by keeping the current constitution and putting plasters on patches, there will be anarchy in this country is what I said. This Constitution is based on the Executive Presidency.

So do you want the President to be there until his elected term is over as he also told foreign media?

That should be answered by the President. He has been given the right to decide whether he wants to resign or not.

In your opinion, should he step down?

There is no point in my input on that. My opinion is that the people at Galle Face have the right to ask the President to go home. As a member of the legislature we have provided with the system and within that framework we can only bring an impeachment.  We cannot bring an impeachment because we know we cannot succeed because we don’t have the numbers in Parliament and we also don’t know what the SC decision would be. It is left to the President whether he should resign or stay until the last day.

Don’t you think addressing issues of food and livelihood and constitutionally bringing back 19A based democratic reforms, the Tamils, Muslim and the people of Up Country and their aspirations are also equally important?

That is why I have not touched the provisions introduced by the 13A and I have received the consent from all those communities. I am not only studying but also deliberating discussions of all political parties and those including those don’t represent in Parliament.

Opposition Leader Premadasa was demanding a time frame for the President’s exit. Now tentatively Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has relied that he will not seek another term and remain until the end of his period. Will this message convince Premadasa?

If the people in the aragalaya demand Premadasa to step down from the position of opposition leader in two months, will he do that?

That’s a hypothetical question isn’t it?

My proposal is also hypothetical.

Basil Rajapaksa giving up his national list MP, what does it  say?

I think it was the result even before we passed the 21A where dual citizenship will be removed.

Why are you so keen about dual citizenship removed for Parliamentarians?

It has harmed the country, not only Basil, but also bringing in persons like Arjuna Mahendran to CBSL and people are of the opinion that it should be abolished. 

Is there a proper way to find out if any of the parliamentarians have duel citizenships? Can they double check with the Immigration Department one by one? How does it work practically when 21A is enacted?

Green Card persons are not affected by this amendment. I heard there are few more and I don’t know the numbers. It is a policy based decision and not aimed at A, B and C.

The PM is looking for a new alliance. Is it going to be a UNP alliance?

So far he has not indicated any such idea.

MP Patali Champika Ranawaka with this 43rd brigade concept is now seated as an independent parliamentarian deceiving the SJB. PM Wickremesinghe is notably a minority friendly person and Ranawaka is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Do you think it a strength both joining in to form a government? 

Ranawaka did not say he is joining Wickremesinghe

Subsequently he may, like you who is an independent MP, and then take up a portfolio?

I don’t know whether he will. That’s a hypothetical question. If he joins we can analyse it.

Those who are guilty, convicts and suspects before the law have been part of the country’s legislators and it has been a mockery. Shouldn’t that be also done away with and you are a lawyer and the Justice Minister. Did you give this a thought?

I have to work within the four corners of the Constitution.  Anyone with the disqualification we can take steps but if it’s not recognised by the Constitution what can the Minister of Justice do?

Shouldn’t this be addressed and put into a system because globally they are identified like never before?

If you take any parliament in the world they go on the presumption of innocence shall prevail until the court decides. In the case of MP Prasanna Ranatunga who was found guilty by the court but so long there is an appeal by him, that judgment is not the final judgment passed on him.

But an ordinary persons seeking a public or private job needs to furnish a police report and if he has any bad record he does not get a job. Shouldn’t this apply to lawmakers?

It’s the people who send such persons to Parliament. If Parliament wants to pass a law, then I can do it.

Any concerns of removing the Prevention of terrorism Act? The Government keep saying they will and all envoys in the country were repeatedly told it would be done. Is there an update on that?

There is a committee appointed that is going through it. I have to be there and I came just two weeks ago. I had no time to look into it so far.

Any updates on the Easter Sunday bombings, the culprits and the court hearing that you know of?

The matter is before the courts. My job is to pave way for the AG Department to act independently. Cases are being filed against those who were involved in the attacks, according to the investigations.  There are also some cases at the Supreme Court.  

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan