Con­sti­tu­tional turmoil: Moves and coun­ter­moves

Se­cret events that led to Sirisena’s de­ci­sion to dis­solve Par­lia­ment; the num­bers were there and not there Sev­eral Mus­lim MPs were about to join the Ra­japaksa group, but changed their minds and were sternly re­buked by their lead­ers

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Our Po­lit­i­cal Edi­tor

Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena dis­solved Par­lia­ment at mid­night on Fri­day and de­clared that par­lia­men­tary elec­tions would be held on Jan­uary 5 next year. This is the sec­ond Fri­day night shocker in a fort­night for Sri Lankans and came just 24 hours af­ter the Govern­ment of­fi­cially de­clared through the Govern­ment In­for­ma­tion Depart­ment there would be no dis­so­lu­tion. In pol­i­tics, which makes strange bed­fel­lows, what is said yes­ter­day is not what is done the next day. Not by any­one who has solemnly sworn to ad­here to good gov­er­nance, now a very cheap brand name.

Nom­i­na­tions will be held from November 19 till noon on November 26 in 22 elec­toral districts, a procla­ma­tion said, adding that a new Par­lia­ment would meet on Jan­uary 17 next year. Pres­i­dent Sirisena is pre­par­ing to ad­dress the na­tion to give rea­sons why he took this course of ac­tion.

Amid views that ex­ist­ing con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions de­bar the Pres­i­dent from dis­solv­ing Par­lia­ment, the procla­ma­tion cited that it was be­ing car­ried out with pow­ers vested in the Pres­i­dent by “para­graph (5) of Ar­ti­cle 70” of the Con­sti­tu­tion to be read with para­graph (2) ( c ) of Ar­ti­cle 33 and para­graph (2) of Ar­ti­cle 62 and “in pur­suance of the pro­vi­sions of Sec­tion 10 of the Par­lia­men­tary Elec­tions Act No 1 of 1981.

The dis­so­lu­tion is the direct re­sult of two rea­sons: The first is Par­lia­ment Speaker Karu Jaya­suriya’s in­sis­tence that he would list a “floor test” (a test of num­bers) in Par­lia­ment on November 14. This is the date when the House, which was set to re­sume af­ter pro­ro­ga­tion, would have seen a pol­icy state­ment of the govern­ment by Pres­i­dent Sirisena. Though there are no prece­dents, the Speaker de­clared to the Sun­day Times, “I will act ac­cord­ing to my con­science. I have to pro­tect the rights and priv­i­leges of the ma­jor­ity MPs.”

How­ever, Prime Min­is­ter Mahinda Ra­japaksa coun­tered this po­si­tion. He told the Sun­day Times,

“There is no pro­vi­sion in the Stand­ing Or­ders for such a course of ac­tion. He (the Speaker) could only act on a sub­stan­tive mo­tion and a de­bate on such a mat­ter could only take place af­ter con­sult­ing party lead­ers. This is ar­bi­trary and he has not acted in­de­pen­dently.” On Fri­day night, Pres­i­dent Sirisena brought un­der the Min­istry of De­fence the Depart­ment of Govern­ment Print­ing. Army and Po­lice Spe­cial Task Force per­son­nel were de­ployed to guard the in­sti­tu­tion. This was af­ter re­ports that Speaker Jaya­suriya had asked the print­ing of an Or­der Pa­per with the “floor test” be­ing listed to be taken up on November 14. The new govern­ment lead­ers feared it would lead to an open con­fronta­tion be­tween two sides in the House. They also feared this would lead to Pres­i­dent Sirisena be­ing hu­mil­i­ated and in­sulted.

The sec­ond is the num­bers game. As de­tails re­vealed in th­ese col­umns to­day will con­firm, the new govern­ment had a try­ing time rais­ing 113 MPs to sup­port it in a 225-mem­ber Par­lia­ment. At one point it was on hand and the next mo­ment there were wor­ries some MPs may slip away. Pres­i­dent Sirisena com­plained that huge amounts of money were be­ing of­fered, not sur­pris­ingly, for this has be­come a cul­ture for all par­ties.

The United Na­tional Party (UNP), the ousted part­ner in Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s coali­tion, was fu­ri­ous over the dis­so­lu­tion. There were in­di­ca­tions yes­ter­day the UNP would chal­lenge the move in the Supreme Court. Its lead­ers were busy con­sult­ing le­gal opin­ion yes­ter­day. UNP Chair­man Kabir Hashim told the Sun­day Times,

“Our party has never been fright­ened or wor­ried over elec­tions. We were threat­ened and state ter­ror­ism has been used against us. The govern­ment is used to abus­ing state ma­chin­ery. In fact, dur­ing our rule some faced charges be­fore courts. Now they may go scot free. The dis­so­lu­tion is il­le­gal, un­demo­cratic and un­par­lia­men­tar­ily. We will study the le­gal side. Other­wise, we will take part in demo­cratic ac­tiv­ity against any­thing that is forced on the peo­ple il­le­gally.”

Ahead of the dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment, Pres­i­dent Sirisena chaired a string of top level meet­ings on Fri­day at the Pres­i­den­tial Sec­re­tariat. At one meet­ing, Di­lan Per­era raised the is­sue of pow­ers of the Speaker of Par­lia­ment. The Pres­i­dent said such ex­ec­u­tive or­ders were is­sued by the Pres­i­dent. He said it was by gazette that Par­lia­ment was pro­rogued. A new con­ven­ing date was an­nounced. He as­serted that “there is no way the Speaker of the pro­rogued House could con­vene Par­lia­ment at his will, just as you are not sup­posed to hear your own case.” Premier Ra­japaksa was also at the meet­ing. It is here that they de­cided on a dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment. Both held the view that it was dif­fi­cult to move for­ward in the light of the Speaker’s stance, said a source close to the Pres­i­dent. Both lead­ers were con­scious of the fact that the term of a new Par­lia­ment would run when a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is held.

UNPers ar­gued that con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions de­barred the Pres­i­dent from dis­solv­ing Par­lia­ment un­til it had com­pleted four and half years. This is what Ar­ti­cle 70 of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which fa­cil­i­tated the pro­ro­ga­tion, through a procla­ma­tion is­sued by Pres­i­dent, (in terms of the 19th Amend­ment) states: “(1) The Pres­i­dent may by Procla­ma­tion, summon, pro­rogue and dis­solve Par­lia­ment. “Pro­vided that the Pres­i­dent shall not dis­solve

Par­lia­ment un­til the ex­pi­ra­tion of a pe­riod of not less than four years and six months from the date ap­pointed for its meet­ing, un­less Par­lia­ment re­quests the Pres­i­dent to do so by a res­o­lu­tion passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole num­ber of Mem­bers (in­clud­ing those not present), vot­ing in its favour.”

How­ever, Sirisena has been told by his le­gal ad­vi­sors that this pro­vi­sion has been in­tro­duced only at the Com­mit­tee Stage when Par­lia­ment was taking up the 19th Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion. They have opined that it was not in the orig­i­nal draft 19th Amend­ment that went be­fore the Supreme Court to de­ter­mine its con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity. Since there was no pro­vi­sion in Sri Lanka for a post-ju­di­cial re­view of mat­ters that went through Par­lia­ment, le­gal ad­vis­ers claimed “the pro­vi­sion had been smug­gled.” Hence, they have ar­gued that the pro­vi­sion that em­pow­ers the Pres­i­dent to dis­solve Par­lia­ment still re­mains. It has been pointed out to Sirisena that two “con­sti­tu­tional ex­perts,” one back­ing the UNP and an­other from a north­ern po­lit­i­cal party, were re­spon­si­ble for this sit­u­a­tion and had acted at the be­hest of a politi­cian. They had al­legedly left many a loop­hole, Sirisena had been told.

An­other ar­gu­ment cited by Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s le­gal ad­vi­sors is a ref­er­ence to a Supreme Court de­ter­mi­na­tion on the Pres­i­dent’s pow­ers sought by then Pres­i­dent Chan­drika Ban­daranaike Ku­maratunga. In terms of this rul­ing, it was pointed out to him that the SC had ruled that the pow­ers of the Pres­i­dent could not be re­moved un­less with­out a two thirds ma­jor­ity in the House and a ref­er­en­dum there­after. This opin­ion was to fur­ther strengthen the arguments of the le­gal ad­vi­sors.

UNP lawyers pointed out that the Pres­i­dent had abided by all that is re­quired in dis­solv­ing Par­lia­ment through Ar­ti­cle 70, i.e. is­su­ing a procla­ma­tion, gazette etc., ex­cept abid­ing by the pro­viso that for­bids him from do­ing so for four and half years. “Why did he fol­low those pro­ce­dures ex­cept the pro­viso”, asked a mem­ber of the UNP le­gal team that was hav­ing dis­cus­sions with the Tamil Na­tional Al­liance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimuk­thi Per­a­muna (JVP) yes­ter­day on go­ing to­gether be­fore the Supreme Court, which sits as the Con­sti­tu­tional Court.

Ad­vi­sors of both Pres­i­dent Sirisena, Premier Ra­japaksa to­gether with the two lead­ers as well as their se­niors also dis­cussed the up­com­ing cam­paign for the polls on Fri­day. This is where they reached broad agree­ment on an al­liance of their re­spec­tive part­ner par­ties.

There are still dif­fer­ences of opin­ion. Basil Ra­japaksa is in favour of field­ing can­di­dates un­der the Po­hot­tuwa sym­bol. How­ever, there are those in the Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP) who in­sist their iden­tity should be pre­served and their sym­bol should be re­tained.

Pres­i­dent Sirisena was in Kandy yes­ter­day. The mat­ter is to be dis­cussed by the two sides when he re­turns to­day.

At one of the dis­cus­sions, it was pointed out that some for­eign coun­tries were send­ing out tele­vi­sion crews to cover Par­lia­ment pro­ceed­ings to project what was called a “chaotic sit­u­a­tion.”

Even if the claim is true, it is only be­cause de­vel­op­ments in Sri Lanka have gen­er­ated so much in­ter­est. Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s own ap­pointees at diplo­matic mis­sions, at the For­eign Min­istry and at me­dia in­sti­tu­tions have failed mis­er­ably to cope with an ex­ac­er­bat­ing cam­paign against him and Premier Ra­japaksa. In the case of Ra­japaksa, the stains of killings and forced ab­duc­tions, di­rected at the then Min­istry of De­fence, ap­peared very much alive. The re­sult – the coun­try’s econ­omy, in­clud­ing the tourism in­dus­try, has been made very vul­ner­a­ble. Con­sid­er­able dam­age has al­ready been caused. Con­trary to con­fi­dent as­ser­tions, first to the

Sun­day Times last week and later at a rally on Mon­day, where tens of thou­sands gath­ered near the Par­lia­ment com­plex in Kotte, Pres­i­dent Sirisena was un­able to muster 113 MPs. It was so close at one time and be­came yet so far as events con­tin­ued to un­fold this week. Thus, far from re­ced­ing, the po­lit­i­cal turmoil por­tended to es­ca­late to newer lev­els as a re­lent­less hunt for crossovers turned fu­tile.

In be­hind-the-scenes ne­go­ti­a­tions, the ma­jor­ity of 113 was al­most on hand as Sirisena ne­go­ti­ated with both the Sri Lanka Mus­lim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Ha­keem and the All Cey­lon Makkal (Peo­ple’s) Congress led by Rishad Bathi­ud­din. The two, who style them­selves as po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity, also met to­gether for a one-on-one at a Colombo apart­ment ho­tel to dis­cuss what an­other cru­cial is­sue seemed for them – whether one should join with­out the other. They were agreed it would be both or none. The SLMC has seven MPs and the ACMC five.

The Sun­day Times learnt that Ha­keem’s talks with Pres­i­dent Sirisena cen­tred on his party sign­ing a Me­moran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing (MoU) with the govern­ment. Those re­lated to ad­dress­ing “the needs” of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity. For Sirisena and his back­ers, there was at least good news from three SLMC par­lia­men­tar­i­ans who were in favour of join­ing. They were Syed Ali Zahir Mowlana, (the only elected MP from the SLMC ticket whilst oth­ers were from UNP), H.M.M. Ha­rees and an­other. Two oth­ers, from the ACMC were Ab­dul­lah Mahroof and S.M. Mo­hamed Is­mail, were also lined up to join.

The Sri Lanka Po­du­jana (Peo­ple’s) Per­a­muna ide­o­logue and strate­gist, Basil Ra­japaksa, was of the view that lead­ers of the two par­ties should also be roped in. Un­til then, he opined, those want­ing to come over should not be sworn in with port­fo­lios. In fact, Dr S.M. Mo­hamed Is­mail, an ACMC Na­tional List MP, was to be sworn in as Deputy Min­is­ter of Health. He holds a UNP slot given to the ACMC and was ear­lier at the South Eastern Univer­sity where he had been charge sheeted for de­mand­ing sex­ual favours. A last minute in­ter­ven­tion by Basil Ra­japaksa halted the move and Is­mail met Bathi­ud­din. The move was to ap­pease the ACMC leader who was in­fu­ri­ated that one of his MPs was to be pinched with­out his con­sent. He even re­fused to talk to the new govern­ment emis­saries but later cooled down.

Two Mus­lim party lead­ers thought the best way to avoid all pressure was to leave Sri Lanka. They have not, it ap­pears, con­clu­sively de­cided on whose side they will throw their weight. The new govern­ment lead­ers learnt that their de­ci­sion would be made known to them when the group of twelve re­turn on November 12, two days be­fore the re­con­ven­ing of Par­lia­ment. On the other hand, the UNP lead­er­ship had learnt from the two party lead­ers that their sup­port to them had not ceased. What­ever the out­come would be, a frac­ture in the two par­ties was to be­come in­evitable if Ha­keem and Bathi­ud­din chose to back the UNP. Govern­ment lead­ers felt the sit­u­a­tion was mer­cu­rial and could not be fully re­lied upon.

On Thurs­day af­ter­noon, all 12 MPs of the two par­ties flew to Mecca for Um­rah – an Islamic pil­grim­age which can be per­formed in the Holy City of Mecca (Saudi Ara­bia) at any time of the year. This is in marked con­trast to the Haj for which a pil­grim­age is un­der­taken once a year.

It ap­peared that both party lead­ers were fol­low­ing the found­ing leader of the Mus­lim Congress,the late M.H.M. Ashroff. Dur­ing the Oc­to­ber 2000 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, Ashroff fell foul with his then cabi­net col­league A.H.M. Fowzie over some re­marks that the lat­ter made. When the then Pres­i­dent Chan­drika Ban­daranaike Ku­maratunga, tried to reach him, he wrote a lengthy let­ter to her and went on Um­rah pil­grim­age. In that let­ter, he said, he would sup­port a new govern­ment but would not ac­cept any port­fo­lio. No sooner he re­turned, emis­saries lined up a late night meet­ing. Ashroff de­scended on her with a par­cel of dates and zam zam wa­ter from the well in Mecca con­sid­ered sa­cred to Mus­lims. Dif­fer­ences were re­solved there­after.

The Sun­day Times learnt that the govern­ment num­bers in Par­lia­ment now stood at 107 MPs as against 108 ear­lier. One par­lia­men­tar­ian, Manusha Nanayakkara who crossed over from the UNP to the SLFP in 2010, has gone back to his pre­vi­ous party. He and his fam­ily are now in Sin­ga­pore. The

pro­jected five from the two Mus­lim par­ties would have brought the to­tal to 112, one short of the re­quired ma­jor­ity. Yet the sit­u­a­tion was frag­ile. There were still fears that one or two within the govern­ment’s own ranks could desert. Also in Sin­ga­pore now is P. Har­ri­son, a for­mer UNP Cabi­net Min­is­ter who was ear­lier wooed by the par­ties in the new govern­ment.

Com­pound­ing the un­cer­tainty this week is a turn of un­ex­pected events sur­round­ing Speaker Karu Jaya­suriya. That was to be­come the num­ber one rea­son for the dis­so­lu­tion. It came af­ter the ouster of Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe. The ap­point­ment of Mahinda Ra­japaksa was gazetted on Oc­to­ber 26. A sec­ond Gazette, is­sued on Oc­to­ber 27 pro­rogued Par­lia­ment from noon that day till 10 a.m. on November 16. It was later ad­vanced to November 14.

On the ouster of Ranil Wick­remesinghe, a de­bate on whether it is con­sti­tu­tional or other­wise, con­tin­ues. This nat­u­rally has fo­cused the spot­light on Par­lia­ment and a clam­our for its early re­con­ven­ing. The UNP (al­beit the United Na­tional Front) has thrown its full force be­hind the move in the strong be­lief that it could demon­strate that it com­mands a ma­jor­ity in the House. Thus, the UNP be­lieves, it would be able to prove Ranil Wick­remesinghe com­mands ma­jor­ity sup­port to be Prime Min­is­ter and his po­si­tion should be restored. Even if UNP lead­ers de­clared his ouster as a con­sti­tu­tional

coup d’état and threat­ened to im­peach Sirisena, Wick­remesinghe told the Chennai based The Hindu news­pa­per’s Sri Lanka Cor­re­spon­dent Meera Srini­vasan in an in­ter­view that he was will­ing to once again work with Sirisena. Whether this was a mea

culpa (through my fault), pos­tur­ing or fore­bod­ings of a pos­si­ble dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment is not clear.

Herein lay a se­ri­ous dilemma that had led to the dis­so­lu­tion move. Speaker Karu Jaya­suriya was caught be­tween a moral and a le­gal dynamic or be­tween two dif­fer­ent worlds. A closer study of his re­sponses af­ter the pro­ro­ga­tion un­der­scores this re­al­ity. Firstly, though clouded in claims that it is “un­demo­cratic,” the pro­ro­ga­tion it­self has not been a sub­ject of ac­cu­sa­tions ei­ther over any con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity or il­le­gal­ity, un­like the sack­ing of Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe. True, in keeping with hal­lowed con­ven­tions, the Speaker had not been con­sulted on the pro­ro­ga­tion. At most, that meant, a con­ven­tion had been breached.

The day af­ter the pro­ro­ga­tion, on Oc­to­ber 28, Speaker Jaya­suriya wrote to Pres­i­dent Sirisena in­form­ing him that pro­ro­ga­tion un­til November 16 “will have se­ri­ous and un­de­sir­able con­se­quences” and urged him to re­con­sider. He also drew his at­ten­tion “to the con­ven­tion that a pro­ro­ga­tion should be done in con­sul­ta­tion with the Speaker.” The let­ter was prompted by what he called “the se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal – con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis which has arisen” and a re­quest to him to “pro­tect the rights and priv­i­leges of Ranil Wick­remesinghe un­til any other per­son emerges from within Par­lia­ment” se­cur­ing its con­fi­dence to be Prime Min­is­ter. His let­ter, nev­er­the­less, did not con­test the pro­ro­ga­tion which was duly car­ried out but the ap­peal to have it re­con­vened ear­lier un­der­lined its ac­cep­tance.

How­ever, a state­ment is­sued by him last Mon­day (November 5) re­flected a marked shift in po­si­tion. As­sert­ing that it was his “para­mount duty” to act in ac­cor­dance with his con­science, he said, that a re­quest sent to him by the UNP, the TNA, the JVP and the Mus­lim Congress said that the “de­ci­sion made by Pres­i­dent Sirisena was un­con­sti­tu­tional and un­demo­cratic.” As they are not in agree­ment with the Pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion, he de­clared, “the Par­lia­ment should be sum­moned forth­with” to seek ap­proval on their claims that is “extremely rea­son­able.”

Speaker Jaya­suriya pointed out, “At a time it has been brought to my at­ten­tion by the ma­jor­ity that the law­ful sum­mon­ing of Par­lia­ment has been pre­vented and the rights of the mem­bers of Par­lia­ment have been usurped, in the name of jus­tice and fair play. I have to make my stance known to the world. As the ma­jor­ity is of the opin­ion that all changes made in Par­lia­ment are un­demo­cratic and in­con­sis­tent with tra­di­tions of Par­lia­ment, and as the ma­jor­ity of Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans have re­quested that the sta­tus that ex­isted be­fore th­ese changes were made shall be ac­cepted. I wish to em­pha­sise that I am com­pelled to ac­cept the sta­tus that ex­isted pre­vi­ously un­til such time that they and the new po­lit­i­cal al­liance prove their ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment.”

There is no ques­tion that Speaker Jaya­suriya’s stated po­si­tion had sound moral rea­son­ing. Yet, there were ques­tions over whether he had crossed the le­gal thresh­old as Speaker and has him­self vi­o­lated a con­ven­tion. More sur­faced when he

sum­moned an in­for­mal meet­ing of party rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Par­lia­ment last Thurs­day. The idea was to ex­am­ine how to move for­ward with the signed re­quest from 118 MPs for a test of strength on which side had the ma­jor­ity sup­port. There were heated ex­changes be­tween the UNP side and those who rep­re­sented the Govern­ment. The Speaker wanted a floor vote or a count of which side each MP sup­ported be­fore the de­liv­ery of the pol­icy state­ment by Pres­i­dent Sirisena.

Di­nesh Gu­nawar­dena, who was ap­pointed Leader of the House, Mahinda Sa­ma­ras­inghe, Faiszer Musthapha, Thi­langa Su­math­ipala, Chandima Weer­akkody and Udaya Gam­man­pila, who rep­re­sented the Govern­ment side ar­gued that there should be a sub­stan­tive mo­tion seek­ing a floor vote. They ar­gued that it would have to be placed in the Or­der Book for five days be­fore it ap­pears in the Or­der Pa­per. They claimed that the Speaker had no right to seek a floor vote. The Speaker did not heed a call by the govern­ment side to show the let­ter signed by 118 MPs but in­sisted “I have to go by my con­science.” He de­clared “I am putting it to a floor vote.”

Coun­ter­ing the arguments were UNP’s Lak­sh­man Kiriella, Ajith Per­era, JVP’s Anura Ku­mara Dis­sanayake, Ra­jitha Se­naratne, Ravi Karunanayake and Patali Champika Ranawaka, the Jathika Hela Uru­maya (JHU) leader. They said as the cus­to­dian of the House, it was the Speaker’s pre­rog­a­tive to heed the re­quest of the ma­jor­ity MPs. There were an­gry ver­bal ex­changes be­tween the two sides. Di­nesh Gu­nawar­dena said the meet­ing ended in­con­clu­sively. Patali Champika Ranawaka, who rep­re­sented the UNF, ar­gued that a de­ci­sion was in fact made to have a floor vote. “Mang hithuwey nehe Jaya­suriya echcharatama naraka mini­hek kiyala” or I did not think Jaya­suriya was such a bad per­son, de­clared an an­gry Pres­i­dent Sirisena when he heard of the in­for­mal party rep­re­sen­ta­tives meet­ing with Speaker Jaya­suriya. He was at a meet­ing with his close sup­port­ers. “Eya janadi­pathi varayage balathala danne

nethuwa kathaa karan­ney” or he is talk­ing with­out know­ing the pow­ers of the Pres­i­dent (in the Con­sti­tu­tion).

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, when Par­lia­ment re­con­venes af­ter pro­ro­ga­tion, the Pres­i­dent, if he so de­cides, makes a state­ment of pol­icy of his govern­ment. This re­placed the tra­di­tional throne speech which flowed from the Bri­tish colo­nial era. On oc­ca­sions when the pol­icy state­ment is de­liv­ered by the Pres­i­dent, it is he who takes the chair with the Pres­i­dent’s em­blem (in place of the Speaker’s em­blem) and con­ducts busi­ness of the House in­clud­ing an an­nounce­ment on the date and time to re­sume sit­tings af­ter ad­journ­ment. The Speaker sits one step be­low, be­tween the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral and the Deputy Sec­re­tary Gen­eral on such oc­ca­sions.

Speaker Jaya­suriya told the Sun­day

Times be­fore dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment, “If nec­es­sary, I will dis­cuss with the party lead­ers the agenda for November 14. A floor test will have to be taken. Once it is done, things in the coun­try will re­turn to nor­mal.” He strongly de­fended his ac­tion in meet­ing heads of diplo­matic mis­sions in Colombo. “I ini­ti­ated par­lia­men­tary diplo­macy for the sake of the coun­try. There are con­tacts be­tween heads of state and for­eign min­is­ters. What is wrong if I launch an ini­tia­tive to meet diplo­mats of for­eign coun­tries to en­sure more good­will and un­der­stand­ing?” He said seat­ing for the new Prime Min­is­ter as well as Min­is­ters had been as­signed in the front row. Sim­i­larly, front row Op­po­si­tion benches had been as­signed whilst for the rest, it would be free seat­ing.

SLFP Deputy Leader Ni­mal Siri­pala de Silva, how­ever, was crit­i­cal of Speaker Jaya­suriya. He told a news Con­fer­ence on Fri­day that “At our first in­for­mal meet­ing, the Speaker rec­og­nized the gazette. The Prime Min­is­ter (Mahinda Ra­japaksa) could go to his of­fice in Par­lia­ment. He ac­cepted Di­nesh Gu­nawar­dena’s ap­point­ment as Leader of the House. He then is­sues press re­leases to the con­trary. We be­lieve that the Speaker has been pres­sured by some­one.”

How­ever, UNP Chair­man Kabir Hashim de­fended the Speaker. “The Speaker has re­mained above pol­i­tics. There is no doubt about that. He has to up­hold the supremacy of Par­lia­ment. He has to safe­guard the rights of the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. The peo­ple look to him to do that with­out fear or favour,” he said.

A head on con­fronta­tion be­tween those in the United Na­tional Front (UNF), al­beit the UNP and govern­ment lead­ers would have be­come in­evitable if there was a floor count of MPs ei­ther be­fore or af­ter Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s pol­icy state­ment. In the cur­rent ac­ri­mo­nious sit­u­a­tion, a dis­rup­tion when Sirisena makes his speech was also feared. “Heck­ling and hurl­ing in­sults to the Pres­i­dent, if it were to hap­pen, would have been hu­mil­i­at­ing. He was con­scious of this,” said a source close to Pres­i­dent Sirisena.

Pres­i­dent Sirisena as­serted at his party’s All Is­land Cen­tral Com­mit­tee meet­ing at Apey Gama in Bar­rara­mulla on Thurs­day night that he was pre­pared for any even­tu­al­ity. He said he had the an­swers if any­one were to cre­ate is­sues. It in­di­cated that a dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment was also on his mind. Ear­lier, he had also con­sid­ered a ref­er­en­dum to seek a vote from the peo­ple whether they wanted early elec­tions. How­ever, the move was dropped af­ter it was pointed out that MPs on both sides of the di­vide would not favour the move for they would lose their right to pen­sions. An MP would have to serve a term of five years. How­ever, the pro­posed dis­so­lu­tion has put paid to the move. MPs have been in­for­mally told that the mat­ter would be rec­ti­fied later.

The All Is­land Cen­tral Com­mit­tee meet­ing also adopted amend­ments to the SLFP Con­sti­tu­tion. A high­light is the set­ting up of a 15-mem­ber Polit­buro which will func­tion at the top of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee. One of its main tasks is to evolve mea­sures for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the SLFP and those in the for­mer “Joint Op­po­si­tion.” Af­ter this was adopted, Pres­i­dent Sirisena asked par­tic­i­pants, “How many of you who have en­dorsed this amend­ment know what this is all about?” There was pin drop si­lence. “This en­dorse­ment is the ac­knowl­edge­ment of the trust you have placed in me,” he said. Amend­ments also con­fer ad­di­tional pow­ers to the Chair­man of the party and has stream­lined pro­ce­dures for dis­ci­plinary in­quiries.

A sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture at the meet­ing was the re­tain­ing of mo­bile tele­phones of Min­is­ters and MPs by the Pres­i­den­tial Se­cu­rity. No one was al­lowed to carry them to the meet­ing for fear of record­ing or let­ting those out­side to hear what went on. In what now ap­pears to be the rea­son­ing for the dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment, Pres­i­dent Sirisena also told the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee that bags of money were be­ing of­fered to his group of MPs to cross over. He urged mem­bers to make this pub­lic at their own meet­ings. It is not un­usual for money bags to change hands to win sup­port of those on ei­ther side. How­ever, the stakes have been much higher this time. Money chang­ers, a busi­ness source said, had con­verted Rs 250 mil­lion from US$ 100 bun­dles of notes.

Pres­i­dent Sirisena also de­clared at the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee meet­ing “do not worry about the out­come on November 14 in Par­lia­ment. We have the ma­jor­ity. In any case, I have more trump cards (Magey langa

thava thu­rumpu thiyanawa). Though with­out mak­ing direct ref­er­ence, he was al­lud­ing to the dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment. At one of the dis­cus­sions, even Basil Ra­japaksa, who was not sure of a Par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity, favoured the idea.

Prime Min­is­ter Mahinda Ra­japaksa, not­with­stand­ing the dis­so­lu­tion move, finds him­self in a win-win sit­u­a­tion. “I am not in­ter­ested in num­bers. It was not my task to find peo­ple,” he told the Sun­day Times. In fact, Ra­japaksa did not hide his feel­ings when he ad­mon­ished his new Min­is­ter S.B. Dis­sanayake who had made him be­lieve the num­bers were on hand. In­stead of cam­paign­ing at the up­com­ing elec­tions from the Op­po­si­tion side, he and his Min­is­ters will now do so with official po­si­tions, no doubt an ad­van­tage that ear­lier re­mained with the UNP.

As re­vealed ex­clu­sively in the Sun­day

Times (Po­lit­i­cal Com­men­tary) the pre­cur­sor to the new govern­ment was a meet­ing by Sirisena with both Mahinda and Basil Ra­japaksa at S.B. Dis­sanayake’s Bat­tara­mulla residence. De­spite Dis­sanayake’s de­nials, it is now clear he not only hosted but also promised num­bers. He could not, how­ever, de­liver. Even late last week he was go­ing on show­ing a brave face on tv about hav­ing the num­bers and that it was they who sent the Mus­lim MPs to Mecca to keep away till November 14. It is also known that though he promised, he failed to de­liver num­bers for the No-Con­fi­dence Mo­tion against ousted Premier Ranil Wick­remesinghe in April this year.

Ra­japaksa said even in Op­po­si­tion, he had clam­oured for elec­tions as soon as pos­si­ble. He said the pre­sen­ta­tion of an On Ac­count Vote in Par­lia­ment was not nec­es­sary. “We can go on for three months,” he said and added, that “a vast loan re­pay­ment is due from Sri Lanka on November 19.” He, how­ever, de­clined to elab­o­rate.

The dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment also turns the spot­light on the UNP. The de­bate on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of oust­ing Wick­remesinghe from the post of Premier apart, the party has been caught flat footed on the re­cent events. One was the ab­sence of any strat­egy on its part when it learnt that Pres­i­dent Sirisena was locked in a di­a­logue with his one-time arch ri­val and pre­de­ces­sor Mahinda Ra­japaksa. In fact, Wick­remesinghe was abroad. When he was ousted, Wick­remesinghe was in Galle and had to rush back to Colombo. Re­ac­tions be­came ad hoc with for­mer min­is­ters and deputies speak­ing in dif­fer­ent voices. One joke was when the state run Daily News ran a news story with a pho­to­graph of Gayan­tha Karunatilleke, one of three official spokesper­sons of the then coali­tion. The story, just a day be­fore Wick­remesinghe was ousted, de­clared there were no dif­fer­ences at all be­tween Pres­i­dent Sirisena and Premier Wick­remesinghe.

For the UNP, there is a great deal of re-think­ing to do now. The party needs a new pos­i­tive im­age that it is now in the hands of those who are ca­pa­ble and not a hand­ful co­terie. There are smaller sec­tions who have launched a cam­paign that the UNP should boy­cott the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions on the ba­sis they are “il­le­gal” and “un­demo­cratic.” Would that not give a walkover or a very large ma­jor­ity to govern­ment par­ties? Would that not fa­cil­i­tate a new Con­sti­tu­tion? On the other hand, they feel the Pres­i­dent’s ac­tions have gar­nered sup­port for it from pro-democ­racy forces as was seen in the protest ral­lies fol­low­ing the pro­ro­ga­tion. Af­ter the 2015 elec­tions, the UNP banked on western na­tions for aid for Sri Lanka to usher in eco­nomic pros­per­ity. It never came and the party com­plained pub­licly about it.

It is time they break from the sole de­pen­dence on them or their heart thump­ing, tear jerk­ing pleas to save democ­racy and in­stead con­cen­trate more on win­ning the hearts and minds of the Sri Lankan peo­ple. It is no clas­si­fied se­cret that the UNP re­mains partly or largely iso­lated from the peo­ple. The rea­sons are many. None of those coun­tries ut­tered a word when Pro­vin­cial Coun­cils elec­tions, a part of the demo­cratic process, were not held. It is no se­cret that their own geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests are what mat­ters most to them and they will not drop boots on the ground to save democ­racy. Not even when some have wel­comed them with open arms.

The new Sirisena-Ra­japaksa al­liance will have to be taken se­ri­ously. And for this, the UNP needs to have a cred­i­ble, pos­i­tive cam­paign at the polls. For that, it needs to have a cred­i­ble, ca­pa­ble party and shed the bad im­age it has earned. It has a lot of lessons to be learnt and plenty of cor­rec­tions to be made. Though dis­taste­ful, the party in more than one way un­wit­tingly fa­cil­i­tated the al­liance be­tween Sirisena and Ra­japaksa through its day-to-day gov­er­nance. The re­sult is a chal­lenge for the UNP now. It now has to fight a one­time friend and now a foe to­gether with a long-time se­cret friend who is now an arch en­emy.

At a Busi­ness Class Lounge at the Ban­daranaike In­ter­na­tional Air­port be­fore they left for Um­rah pil­grim­age in Mecca, Sadui Ara­bia. Rishad Ba­di­ud­din, the ACMC is fourth from left. They are to­gether with an air­line em­ployee dressed in Ehram – the white non-stitch pil­grim at­tire made of white cloth.

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