Workers worldwide will celebrate May Day today. For many of us the relevance of the massacre of workers at Haymarket in Chicago giving birth to May Day or Workers Day remains remote. Like everything else, May Day has also evolved. May Day is not just a workers day, where the factory workers demand their rights from their employers. It now embodies a wider spectrum of ideas including political freedom, social justice, accountability, rule of law and good governance and rising up against oppression, the usurpation of power and inequality.
The May Day that Sri Lanka is celebrating today, in this sense, is extremely important. The country created history by amending a Constitution that, according to its architect, had the power to change whatever the country’s leader desired except the power to change a person’s gender. The concentration of powers in the executive presidency since 1978 had negated the powers of the other two branches of Government -- the legislature and the judiciary. This had allowed the usurpation of power by the executive presidents elected since 1978. The 19th Amendment that was passed in parliament a few days ago significantly prunes the arbitrary powers of the executive president and is comprised of progressive provisions to depoliticise public institutions and the police.
Another reason to celebrate this May Day with something extra is the ascendancy of the people’s representatives in parliament to proper law makers from the earlier mere ‘yes’ men and women. During the previous regime of President Rajapaksa, the parliament was reduced to a showpiece of democracy. Whatever the executive brought in was approved diligently.
The lawmakers were just puppets with the president pulling all the strings. This was clearly demonstrated in the manner in which the 18th Amendment was passed and how the former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached.
In the process of passing the 19th Amendment, the lawmakers found their voice. They debated and rebutted certain provisions but finally after all the pushing and pulling the parliamentarians reached consensus. The government, being a minority , had to give in on certain provisions, but the final draft that was approved appears to adequately serve the purpose. They say it’s difficult to let go of power after gaining it. It seems that President Maithripala Sirisena has mastered the art of letting go. The unwavering determination he showed getting the 19th Amendment passed in parliament to dilute or prune the absolute powers vested in him were not traits seen in most politicians but that of a true statesman. And his steadfast commitment to fulfil his election promises will pave the way for a new political culture in Sri Lanka.
The magnanimity shown by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in this whole exercise is also laudable. He didn’t lose heart and showed immense flexibility in getting the amendment passed despite opposition parliamentarians doing enough and more to provoke him to storm out of the House.
The passing of the 19th Amendment in parliament allows the country to celebrate this year’s May Day with more passion, vigour and most important to celebrate it meaningfully. Probably, this must be of the main reasons for having 25 May Day rallies countrywide.
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