Battle of political wits

The country’s constitutional issues continue to dominate headlines while the stand-off between the Executive and Legislature evolves, with the battleground now shifting from Parliament to formal judicial processes.

The current state of play is one of claims and counter claims, with the opposition claiming that it has passed three votes of no confidence on the government and the government rejecting them on the basis that they were procedurally flawed and not in keeping with parliamentary traditions.

In this battle of political wits, the government arguably now holds the upper hand, because it is in effective control of the state machinery, with Mahinda Rajapaksa functioning as Prime Minister for all intents and purposes and Cabinet ministers going about the business of governance.

This week’s contentious events began last Friday, when Parliament met. The main business at hand was the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to conduct business in the House. Prior to the sessions, the government had publicly stated that it hoped to have a majority in this committee by virtue of the fact that it was in government, as had been the practice previously.

Select committees

A party leaders’ meeting prior to the sessions ended inconclusively, with both the government and the opposition requesting a majority in the committee, which is important in determining how other select committees are constituted in Parliament and also in determining how sessions are conducted in the House.

With there being no agreement, the decision was left to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. He determined that the committee would comprise of five MPs each from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Front (UNF) and a member each from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), effectively handing a majority to the collective opposition.

In response, all government MPs walked out of Parliament Chamber, in protest against the Speaker’s decision. Parliament however continued its sessions, with the composition of the committee being approved by 121 MPs.

Reaction in Parliament to Speaker Jayasuriya’s decision was swift. Leader of the House Dinesh Gunewardena condemned the decision and stated the government would consider boycotting Parliament “until the Speaker acted according to Parliamentary traditions”. Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa went a step further and stated that they did not recognise Jayasuriya as the Speaker.

Two other significant events occurred on Friday. UPFA stalwart and former parliamentarian Sarath Weerasekera filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the continuation of sessions in Parliament. He filed the petition seeking a declaration from the Court that the decision taken by the Parliament Secretary General to re-convene Parliament was unconstitutional.

Weerasekera contends that the Supreme Court has already issued an Interim Order staying the operation of a gazette proclamation issued by the President dissolving Parliament and that it could only be determined at the conclusion of that issue.

As such the petitioners in the applications are not entitled to claim the result of the final order from an Interim Order, he has argued in his petition.

The petition, in which the Speaker and the Secretary General of Parliament have been cited as respondents, has been fixed for support regarding granting leave to proceed on December 4 by Chief Justice Nalin Perera and Supreme Court Justice Lalith Dehideniya.

Meanwhile, in the opposition camp, 122 parliamentarians representing the UNF, TNA and the JVP filed a Writ of Quo Warranto in the Court of Appeal challenging the government’s continuation in office. This application is based on the premise that the government had lost several no-confidence motions in Parliament since the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Premiership.

The application has cited 49 respondents, including Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the entire Cabinet of ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers. In their application, the petitioners state that Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against the government, with all petitioners voting in favour. Hansard copies have been annexed as proof of this claim, along with 122 individually signed affidavits submitted to court. This application too is likely to be taken up for hearing shortly.

Financial allocations

In addition to these legal moves, the opposition is also pursuing another strategy in Parliament in an attempt to stop financial allocations to the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers. Parliament is due to take up a vote today (Thursday) to curtail expenditure for the Office of Prime Minister. Another motion is due to be moved tomorrow seeking to stop financial allocations to the new Cabinet.

Against this backdrop, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Rajapaksa and his predecessor Ranil Wickremesinghe have voiced their sentiments regarding the current impasse. Addressing foreign correspondents in Colombo, the President maintained that he would never appoint Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister again. “Not in my lifetime”, he said.

Wickremesinghe’s economic policies are not beneficial for local industries and he has pursued an extremely liberal form of government that is not compatible with Sri Lankan culture, the President said. “If the United National Party shows a majority, I believe Mahinda (Rajapaksa) will do the right thing (and stand down),” President Sirisena said, although he reiterated that he would still not reappoint Wickremesinghe. He insisted that it was not a personality clash but a disagreement over policy.

Meanwhile, issuing a statement, Prime Minister Rajapaksa has stated that there was no need for a presidential election as suggested by some and noted that the problem lies in the current composition of Parliament.

“Some people ask me why I accepted office when there was less than 18 months for the next elections. I have heard members of the UNP saying that if I had been patient for another 18 months, I could have won the ensuing election with a two thirds majority. We did not form a government to continuously administer the country but to hold a general election”, Rajapaksa said.

Next general election

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has declared that a meeting of all parties was required to decide on the next general election. “Political parties can discuss and decide on having an election, but it is essential that the constitution is followed when doing so,” Wickremesinghe said, while attending a ‘satyagraha’ protest launched by the opposition and like-minded groups against the dismissal of the previous government.

The legal processes meanwhile, are progressing. On Monday, Chief Justice Nalin Perera appointed a seven-member judge Bench headed by him to hear the fundamental rights petitions filed against the dissolution of Parliament. The Interim Order was handed down by a bench comprising of three judges.

The new Bench will comprise of Chief Justice Perera, Buwaneka Aluvihare, Sisira de Abrew, Priyantha Jayawardena, Prasanna Jayawardena, Vijitha Malalgoda and Murdu Fernando. Five persons who filed intervenient petitions against the thirteen fundamental rights petitions challenging the dissolution of Parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena on November 9 had requested the Supreme Court through a motion to appoint a full bench to hear those petitions.

The scene of arguably Sri Lanka’s most complicated constitutional dispute will therefore shift to the courtrooms of Hulftsdorp next week. While the nation awaits the outcome of the deliberations in the highest court in the land, it is of some consolation that whatever the disagreements and differences of opinion, the issues are now being dealt with in a decent and democratic manner without having recourse to violence, be it either on the streets or in the August Chambers of Parliament.


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