Ven. Sobitha Thera’s goals undermined by Constitutional crisis
On Friday, midnight, President Maithripala Sirisena (MS) issued a gazette notification purporting to dissolve Parliament and calling for general elections. This notification follows one week after he purported to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) from the office of Prime Minister, replacing him with Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Both actions of the President are clearly in contravention of the letter and spirit of the Constitution and, more particularly, the 19th Amendment. The President spent the whole day in Parliament, when the 19th Amendment was discussed and used his persuasive powers to ensure that 224 MPs voted for its passage.
Clearly, therefore, the President knew the intention with which the 19th Amendment was moved, even if he may be excused for not knowing its legal provisions. By his active participation in the legislative process that led to the adoption of the 19th Amendment, he was morally committed to implementing it, both in letter and spirit.
His act of purporting to remove Wickremesinghe on October 26 and his subsequent actions, as well his pronouncements have plunged the country into uncertainty, and impacted negatively on the struggling economy. If we pause to take note, we observe that:
He sought to replace Wickremesinghe and the UNP with Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters against whom he had made a host of serious allegations during and after his Presidential campaign. He had purported to remove Wickremesinghe without informing him and while the latter was away from Colombo, in Galle.
He had prorogued Parliament and used the delay to entice parliamentarians with the offer of ministerial portfolios, to cross over. It is significant that the few who did cross over, all accepted ministerial positions, thus proving they did so only with this objective and not based on any principles.
Despite repeated and confident predictions that he had the numbers to support him in Parliament, it was clear by his dissolution of Parliament on November 9 that he did not have the majority in Parliament to support his actions.
The President has sought to ‘do the dirty’ on Wickremesinghe by offering the Premiership at different times to Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa and Ranjith Madduma Bandara, but found that these three individuals were made of sterner stuff and would not be enticed by the lure of office, at the expense of their party leader.
According to SLFP General Secretary Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, at the SLFP Central Committee (CC) meeting held a day before the purported dissolution of Parliament, the President had givenan assurance that he would not dissolve Parliament before the end of its five-year tenure. This assurance became all the more significant in the light of Rajapaksa staying away from the SLFP CC meeting, despite receiving an invitation to attend in his capacity as a patron of the SLFP. It is also clear that the SLFP section of President Sirisena’s supporters do not want an immediate dissolution and a general election, while the Pohottuwa party members have been pushing for early general elections and finally, it is their point of view that has prevailed. The President, who has been complaining that he is unable to rein in Wickremesinghe and his supporters in Cabinet, may soon have to sing a similar song vis-avis Rajapaksa and his supporters, if current indications are anything to go by. Last week, in a newspaper advertisement, the Ministry of Finance described the reduction of prices announced by the Government as a revival of the 'Mahinda Chinthanaya'. No mention is made of the manifesto of the President called the 'Maithri Palanaya'.
It is unfortunate that the President had embarked on a course of action that has created uncertainty in the country, without exploring other options that do not adversely impact the country. The main thrust of his grievance is that he could not work with Wickremesinghe, which could have been addressed within the framework of the Constitution, without causing instability in the country.
What needs to be realised is that the mandate given to President Sirisena on January 8, 2015, is not an individual one, but a mandate given to him and Wickremesinghe to jointly implement an agreed programme of work. If President Sirisena found that he could not work with Wickremesinghe, it was incumbent on him to go back to the people to obtain a fresh mandate, without changing partners midstream and striking an alliance with those who disagreed with the January 8, 2015, mandate of the people.
There is clear Constitutional provision for the President to call for Presidential elections after completing four years of his term of office and ask for a fresh mandate in alliance with Rajapaksa, if he so wished. All he had to do was to be patient and wait for two more months, that is until January 8, 2019, and then call for a Presidential Election. This would have saved the country unnecessary turbulence and, would have been consistent with Sri Lanka’s international image as a robust democracy.
Thereby, he could have formally detached himself from the umbilical cord that tied him to the vision of the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, whose ground- breaking campaign for democracy and social justice propelled him to the highest office in the land.
Last Thursday evening, the National Movement for Social Justice and the Ven. Sobitha Foundation commemorated the death anniversary of the Ven. Thera. Sadly, the commemoration ceremony had to take place at a time when the efforts of this great son of Sri Lanka are being undermined.
The true meaning of the late Ven. Sobitha’s struggles can only be understood when viewed in the context of the times he launched his National Movement for Social Justice (MNSJ). Realising that the country was drifting towards authoritarianism, he gathered together like-minded civil society activists to launch a countrywide campaign to put the country back on track.
He believed that, only systemic change could ensure good governance, rather than placing ones trust in individuals, and advocated the abolishing of the Executive Presidency and the flawed electoral systems, which he identified as being at the root of the country’s ills. It was the groundwork done by him that helped propel Sirisena, who was deprived of the PM’s post under the previous government, to become the executive president, while solemnly promising to abolish the executive presidency and bring about reforms in the electoral laws.
That President Sirisena has gone back on his pledge to abolish the executive presidency is evident from his loud silence with regard to the issue, and his lukewarm atti- tude towards the Constitutional reform process. With regard to electoral reforms, he has taken no steps to take the process forward, not only in contravention of his pledge to the people, but to his own party.
When he worked hard to ensure the passage of the 19th Amendment, by enlisting the support of the SLFP parliamentarians, he promised them he would follow it up with the 20th Amendment, which would incorporate the necessary electoral reforms. Yet the President has now chosen to call for parliamentary elections, which will have to be held under the prevailing Proportionate Representation system of elections.
The late Ven. Sobitha’s mission remains unrealised today. At the commemoration ceremony held on Thursday, the NMSJ Convenor, Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, revealed that, although President Sirisena had been invited, he chose not to attend the commemoration ceremony. This was in contrast to the birth anniversary commemoration of the late Ven. Sobitha Thera, which the President attended, although, according to him, he had not received an invitation.
President Sirisena’s decision not to attend last week’s commemoration ceremony may well be symbolic of his distancing himself from the goals that the Ven. Sobitha Thera strived to achieve, but for the country it may be time to rededicate itself to work towards abolishing the executive presidency and bringing about the necessary electoral reforms.