The air was somewhat cleared about doubts regarding the postponement of the Provincial Council and local authorities’ elections when President Maithripala Sirisena indicated to the Chief Ministers and Provincial Ministers representing his party that the polls would be conducted.
The President called for a meeting with them on Monday evening. It was timed with political unrest brewing within the unity government and speculation rife about plans for delaying elections.
Out of the nine provincial councils, seven are governed by the Chief Ministers representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Sirisena. Along with the Chef Ministers, the provincial ministers representing the party were also invited to the meeting that lasted for more than two hours.
The SLFP is afflicted with infighting at the moment with a chunk of it siding with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In such a context, the President rebuked the Chief Ministers.
“I know there are some Chief Ministers loyal to me. There are a few who are not. There is a third category who are not with anyone. They have a wavering policy. I am not going into details on the crisis of our party. I ask all of you to unite for the sake of the party,” he said.
He said the terms of the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Councils would end in September this year, and as such the elections had to be conducted in terms of the Provincial Council Elections Act. He also opined that the local authorities’ election should be conducted without further delay.
All the Chief Ministers were present at the meeting. The pending Provincial Council and local government elections are bound to assume national significance this time, unlike in the past when they were seen as an easy to handle for the government in power. First, if the elections are conducted, it will be the first opportunity afforded to voters to give a verdict on the performance of the national unity government during its nearly two-year period. In terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, there is no possibility to conduct snap national elections at least four years from the formation the new Parliament. The government is going through a difficult time due to the sluggishness of economy and mounting public protest against it. The elections, if conducted, will give a platform to people to discuss and decide on all these matters related to governmental affairs. The elections, pending at the moment, are important for the governing side as their outcome is bound to have an effect on the future national elections scheduled for 2020.
The elections will be crucial to the Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa group. They are pressing for the elections and have affirmed their position that they will not team up with the section led by President Sirisena to contest the polls next time, given their bitter experience at the last parliamentary elections.
“We will not be duped for the second time,” the leaders always assert. The Joint Opposition, despite its constant agitation for elections, has to stand up to some challenges on its way to the election. It has to decide on a new symbol to participate in the election with a new political outlook. It entails certain challenges, undoubtedly. The outcome of the election will be decisive for the government as well as the Joint Opposition in shaping its political future in this trying time.
Presidential Elections not far away
For the next Presidential Election, there is not much time remaining. It is only two and half years away from now as per the provisions of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, incorporated during the 100 day government formed after the 2015 Presidential Election.
The 19th Amendment as interpreted by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, cuts down the period of executive President from six to five years.
Quoting the relevant provision, he said “Persons holding office respectively as the President and Prime Minister on the date preceding April 22, 2015 shall continue to hold such office after such date, subject to the provisions of the Constitution as amended by this Act.”
Prof. Peiris said the President could hold office only for five years.
“By January 2020, there should be a new President in the country. Then, the provisions of the Presidential elections Act will kick in. It stipulates the time frame for receiving nominations. That process has to be in operatation from October or November 2019. Thus, only two and a half years remain of the presidential term,” he said.
President’s hands clipped by 19A in Cabinet reshuffle
The 19th Amendment, introduced upon the election of the President to office in keeping with his election pledges, restricts the presidential powers to a considerable extent. The President had discretionary power in terms of the original Constitution in the appointment of the Cabinet. However, with the incorporation of the 19th Amendment, it is mandatory for the President to consult the Prime Minister in the task.
President Sirisena is eager to have a reshuffle of the Cabinet today. However, the Prime Minister is reportedly resisting the idea. According to sources, the President and SLFP want the replacement of Ravi Karunanayake as Finance Minister. However, the UNP is averse to the idea as it believes the current economic crisis is not a phenomenon created by the Finance Minister.
However, minor changes will occur in the Cabinet of Ministers after the Sinhala New Year. Currently, the two parties- SLFP and UNP- share portfolios. In the reshuffle, the government will not deviate from the initial agreement worked out for sharing Cabinet posts. In case the Finance Minister is stripped of his post, it will be given to someone from his own party, not to anyone from the SLFP.
The President is unable to do all that he wants to because of constitutional barriers in this regard.
China assertive on peace in Asia Pacific region
The recent visit of Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is interpreted in different forms by the western and Indian media. One rumour highlighted over and over again was that China sent the Minister after being concerned about Sri Lanka’s lurch towards the United States and India. Scope is also left for such interpretation because of the US Naval ships having constant port calls in Sri Lanka. China has also invested a lot in Sri Lanka, and as such it has a binding interest in safeguarding them.
However, the Chinese side said it was a routine visit by Gen. Chang on the invitation by the Ministry of Defence of Sri Lanka. Defence is a subject under the President’s responsibility. Therefore, it could be well construed as an invitation by President Sirisena.
During the meeting, the need for expansion of military cooperation coupled with regular exchange programmes were discussed. China provides the highest number of training opportunities to the Sri Lanka military. Recently, China released its white paper on security cooperation with the Asia pacific region which contributes to 60 percent of the world economy. Going by it, China looks keen on the expansion of its external trade and investment component with the rest of the world. It wants peaceful order in the Asia Pacific region. Sources close to the Chinese side said there was no specific mention about any country during discussions with the Sri Lankan authorities by Gen. Chang.
President buoyed by Putin’s recognition
Fresh after a state visit to Russia, President Sirisena sounded buoyed. He briefed the Chief Ministers at Monday’s meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with him for one hour. One and a half hours were assigned for talks with his delegation next.
“It shows the kind of significance President Putin attaches to relations with Sri Lanka. The last time a Sri Lankan Head of State visited Russia was on a state visit in 1974. At that time, it was late Prime Minister Sirimawo Bandaranaike. On both these occasions, it was a Chairman of the SLFP. Russia has special regards for the SLFP,” he reportedly told the meeting.
Hambantota Port runs into murky waters
The Cabinet of Ministers took up the Hambantota Port project once again for discussion on Tuesday. Though it was initially decided on to give the go ahead for it, the government encountered further legal hurdles in signing the agreement with the Chinese company. It is learned that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act needs to be amended for enabling the signing of the agreement.
The Cabinet committee, appointed to look into the execution of this project, was assigned to look into legal implications involved and to find means to address them. So, the signing of the agreement is likely to be delayed.