Evolving Disaster: Agreeing to call for election might be the best
Posted on November 4th, 2018

By Laksiri Fernando Courtesy The Island


The ‘dismissal debate’ has now turned into a ‘prorogation debate.’ The latest statement by liberal/left academics and professionals demands the revocation of the prorogation and urges the Speaker to reconvene Parliament forthwith. The controversy over the appointment of a new PM has become quite stale perhaps though some ‘experts’ still bat on.

The Speaker agreed to allocate the Prime Minister’s seat to Mahinda Rajapaksa when he met the President on 31 October. This is a ‘de facto’ admission of the constitutional position that the dismissal of Ranil Wickremesighe and the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa are legally valid or ‘recte valet.’

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The dispute over the PM’s chair is probably one reason why the Parliament was prorogued until 16 November, but obviously not the most important reason. The others reasons could be: (1) To buy time for the necessary crossovers. (2) To appoint a new Cabinet. (3) To announce and implement popular concessions to the people. (4) To formulate a new Budget or a Vote on Account. (5) To exhaust and drain the opposition with their arguments, protest and emotional anger.

Musical Chairs

In the Sri Lankan culture, one’s status or power is determined by the Chair one occupies! It is not easy to give this important seat in Parliament to two persons like what was done to the Kalawana seat under J. R. Jayewardene’s hegemony in 1981, course, unless the Constitution is amended!

When the Speaker met the President, the latter agreed to consider reconvening Parliament before 16 November though no firm promise was given.

It is possible that the Speaker also conveyed to the President that the whole international community wanted Parliament reconvened as soon as possible. That is a valid concern on the part of Western countries although they themselves prorogue Parliaments under similar circumstances. They have not clearly objected to the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe or the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister; they have not yet greeted the new PM. The circumstances are understandable.

Fake News?

There are a lot of fake news, miss communication or blatant ‘dead ropes’ given to the opponents. When the new PM was meeting with NUTA (not FUTA), there was a telephone call apparently from the Presidential Secretariat and when the PM came back to the meeting he commented that the Parliament may be convened on 5 November. However, this was not even technically possible as there needs to be three working days between the necessary gazette notification and the commencement day.

He probably was giving ‘fake hopes,’ not to that audience, but to the media. Because those university teachers were not at all interested in convening the Parliament.

Then again when a group of MPs met the Speaker, it was announced that the President had agreed to convene the Parliament on 7 November. But that claim was denied by the SLFP sources with the President keeping mum. It has become extremely difficult to know who is telling the truth. Counting numbers also has become extremely difficult for the politicians. Apart from counting the required number in Parliament, counting the people who go for a meeting or endorsing a resolution also has become difficult (118 or 109).

Mahinda Rajapaksa is famous for sarcastic or misleading comments. On the day the Prime Minister was changed, he asked former Minister Harsha de Silva at lunch time in Parliament whether he would join him, saying that he was going to form a new government. Harsha thought it was a joke. Harsha’s father probably knows better of MR, as they were working in the same building, Sri Sumangala, upstairs and downstairs, at Vidyodaya in late 1960s. Former at Archives and the latter at the university library.

Understandable Anger

Some people were disturbed and angered when I said last Monday, “Ranil Wickremesinghe holding on to power is unconstitutional and undemocratic.” I even received threatening and insulting emails. One sender was David, pretending to disbelieve I was the author.

When Reeza Hameed wrote “President is powerless to remove Prime Minister” on 13 April 2018, I argued to the contrary. My main points were the following.

[1] Interpretation of the constitution based on the ‘objectives’ of the drafters is subjective. [2] Whatever the ‘objectives,’ those cannot contradict the main thrust of the 1978 constitution i.e. the Presidential system without a referendum.

I also asked the following questions: If the absence of ‘removal clause’ in 42 (4) is deliberate, why it is present in Articles 47 (2), 47 (3) and 48 (1)? Do you think that the constitutional drafters must have thought the absence or not inclusion of ‘removal clause’ in 42 (4) is sufficient, whatever present in other articles? Do you admit that 19A is a messy and a bad piece of constitutional amendment?

Of course Hameed gave some answers. On his part, he has been fairly consistent. My point here is not about I was correct or he was wrong, but I have maintained this position at least since April, well before the present crisis that the President can remove the PM under certain circumstances.

Not the First Time

Since January 2015, the President of Sri Lanka has used his powers three times in appointing the Prime Minister, one may say when it was required under the constitution, based on Article 42 (4). In all these instances, it was not clear whether the appointed PM would hold a majority in Parliament at the outset. The last two instances were after the 19th Amendment and therefore it is difficult to argue that amendment made much difference in President’s powers in this respect.

However, there were political differences between these three instances. The first was after a presidential election without any change to the political composition of Parliament, nevertheless given the dramatic change of the election, there was no much political controversy. The second one was after a parliamentary election and the appointed PM was the same as before and again, there was no much political controversy.

However, this time it has not been after any popular election, presidential or parliamentary, and therefore there is much confusion as well as controversy though it followed the collapse of the National Government. This is something not very familiar to the country though it is defined in the constitution after the 19th Amendment. When a National Government collapses, the Cabinet becomes dissolved, including the PM and the President is empowered to appoint a new PM and a new Cabinet.

An Example from Australia

The controversy is because of the unexpected and the dramatic nature that it had happened apart from its secretive or ‘conspiratorial’ nature. Such dramatic changes have not been uncommon in Westminster model democracies as well. Among many examples, the dismissal of the sitting Prime Minister, with even a majority in Parliament, was enacted in 1975 in Australia. For easy reference I am quoting from Wikipedia. However, there are many books written on the subject.

“On 11 November 1975, [Prime Minister Gough] Whitlam intended to call a half-Senate election in an attempt to break the deadlock. When he went to seek [Governor-General Sir John] Kerr’s approval of the election, Kerr instead dismissed him as Prime Minister and shortly thereafter installed [Malcolm] Fraser in his place.”

That was also called a constitutional crisis. Jenny Hocking (‘The Dismissal Dossier,’ 2015) in her award winning biography of Gough Whitlam, reveals the astonishing secret story of the planning, the people and the collusion behind the removal of the sitting Prime Minister, Whitlam.

However, Whitlam did not resist, did not claim he was the Prime Minister or did not refuse to leave the official residence. Within a month, the election was held and Fraser returned with a massive majority. The Parliament was not prorogued but dissolved! Now our constitutional pundits claim that the President even cannot dissolve Parliament and it requires a two-thirds majority. People may have to very carefully look at this anarchist 19th Amendment and look for alternatives.

Story of Ranil

Although I supported the January 2015 change with much hope, I did not support the UNFGG at the August 2015 parliamentary elections, because of the bond scam in between. After the first bond scam, I was extremely critical of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Those were expressed in my articles though I am not usually a person to refer to my past articles or claim I said so. Therefore, no one needs to get upset about my last article about Ranil and his adamance in holding on to power which can create much harm to the country.

In August last year (2017) I wrote “Remove Ravi and Investigate Ranil” after the Bond Commission Report. In November I wrote “It’s Time to Go, Ranil.” These are clear enough reasons for my positions on the evolving scenario. I have always expressed my opinions as an independent person without aligning with any group or clique, let alone a political party.

Once Asanga Welikala (CPA) invited me to be part of an email network of left minded people to see how the Left Movement could be rejuvenated! I declined the invitation.

I still strongly maintain that Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP are planning a major disaster. According to the ‘Economy Next’ website (3 November), he has said “We will be calling on our people not to resort to violence. But you don’t know what arises in a situation like this…”

I leave the readers to figure out what he was saying. He was referring to his own people.

Call for General Election

Yes, there is a risk of violence, a major disaster and clashes. The best measure to avoid such a situation is for the five main political leaders, Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, R. Sampanthan and Anura Kumara Dissanayake to come to the table and, in my view, to agree for a general election to be held as soon as possible, probably early December.

The Parliament could be convened to approve a Vote on Account before 16 November, but then dissolved. Ranil Wickremesinghe can reside at Temple Trees!

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