Politics seems to overshadow COVID-19 threat that had so far eclipsed everything in the country – political, social and economic issues as well as matters personal to individuals. One reason for this new turn of events is people being used to the daily reports on the number of COVID-19 patients which had on some days exceeded 60, besides the heightened interest of the masses on politics.
Almost all Opposition political parties are obsessed these days with their demand for the re-summoning of Parliament that was dissolved by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 2. They point out that the country was heading towards a Constitutional crisis as the new Parliament after the General election has to be summoned on June 2, according to the Constitution, but it wouldn’t be possible as the National Election Commission (NEC) has fixed June 20 for the general election.
They also argue that the President or the government is not authorised to withdraw funds from the Consolidated Fund after April 30 up to which the dissolved Parliament had passed a Vote on Account on October 23 last year. Their stance is that the country can avert the Constitutional crisis that is lurking ahead after June 2 by re-summoning the dissolved Parliament and then the government also can get the approval of the Parliament to withdraw funds from the Consolidated Fund to combat COVID-19.
However, the Government is doing everything possible to suppress the mounting pressure to reconvening the Parliament. In fact, this has been a prestige issue between the government and the Opposition political parties, rather than rationally acting. Earlier on April 24 President Rajapaksa summoned at the Presidential Secretariat a meeting of leading Buddhist monks who support his government where all voiced against the Opposition’s demand. This seemed to be an effort to garner support of the majority community for the government’s stance.
Earlier while all other Opposition leaders were making demands, the Tamil National Alliance’s Spokesman and the former MP M.A. Sumanthiran made a strong argument that the President’s gazette notification to dissolve the Parliament on March 2 had been null and void with the NEC announcing June 20 as the date for the general election, making the summoning of the new parliament before June 2 impossible.
Against this backdrop, several monks at the above meeting described the call for the re-summoning of the dissolved Parliament as a separatist strategy. And the President as well as some of the monks recalled that the President was elected mainly by the majority community at the November 16 Presidential election. Besides, these points perfectly suited the objective of the meeting.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had invited all members of the dissolved Parliament for a meeting on May 4 to discuss the current situation. Despite this being an apparent effort to circumvent the Opposition’s call to reconvene the Parliament, it in fact gave legitimacy to their demand, since it indicated that the government too felt the need to discuss the current issues with the members of the dissolved Parliament.
However, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by former Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa announced that they would boycott the meeting while the United National Party (UNP) agreed to participate on the grounds that it would be an opportunity for the party to air its views on the current situation. The TNA was initially non-committal.
"The Opposition and those concerned about Rule of Law who were earlier agitating to reconvene the Parliament, with mere statements, have now resorted to legal actions to achieve their objective"
Apparently sensing the ludicrousness of a meeting without a majority of the Opposition in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister later announced that apart from the members of the dissolved Parliament, those of the previous Parliament too would be invited to the meeting. The UNP which was by then feeling a sense of guilt among the people affiliated to the Opposition parties used this announcement as an escape route and announced that it too would boycott the meeting.
Interestingly the TNA while stressing that the meeting would anyway ‘not and cannot be a substitute for convening the Parliament’, agreed to participate on the grounds that they need to emphasise the need to resolve the issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Constitutional amendments on Executive Presidency, Electoral Reforms and the National Question (Tamil question).
It is ironic that they thought that a forum without a clear way forward and authority would serve their wide-ranging purposes. Nevertheless, they, by their participation exposed the hypocrisy of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna that attempted to tie up the call for the summoning of the dissolved Parliament and separatism, just because the TNA was involved.
In fact, the Opposition and those concerned about Rule of Law do not seem to gain anything by the reconvening of the Parliament, except for the satisfaction of defeating the government adamancy and the opportunity to claim the moral high ground saying that they protected the Rule of Law, respectively. On the other hand, averting the possible Constitutional crisis is mainly the responsibility of the government.
However, the government from the beginning was evasive. When the Chairman of the NEC Mahinda Deshapriya requested the President on March 31 and April 1 to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on holding of the General election as it seemed that the election could not be held before June 2, the last date for the summoning of the new Parliament, President’s Secretary P.B. Jayasundara on April 4 said in his reply “it is not possible at this point of time to state that the election cannot be held on or before 28.05.2020.” Yet, the commission, considering the spread of COVID-19 decided to hold the election on June 20, while claiming that election might be postponed even further.
When the NEC Chief sought the opinion of the Attorney General on May 3 on the validity of nominations that had been accepted on a holiday, the latter on May 4 said that “It is observed that nominations have been accepted by you in respect of the Parliamentary Election Act… Therefore, in the circumstances you are required to follow the procedure establish by law for the conduct of the Parliamentary Election.”
Against this backdrop the Opposition and those concerned about Rule of Law who were earlier agitating to reconvene the Parliament, with mere statements, have now resorted to legal actions to achieve their objective. First Attorney-at-Law Charitha Gunaratne, the son of former Central Province Governor Maithri Gunaratne filed a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition on May 2 and subsequently nine more FR petitions have been filed by those including senior journalist Victor Ivan and Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), against holding the Parliamentary election on June 20.
All petitions have cited the confusion that would arise if the election is held on a date after the date for the summoning of the new Parliament and the danger of holding an election amidst coronavirus threat. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.
When it comes to the disbursement of funds from the Consolidated Fund, it seems the Government and the Opposition are vying to use a phrase of an Article in the Constitution 150 (3), according to their political agendas. The Article says “Where the President dissolves Parliament before the Appropriation Bill for the financial year has passed into law, he may, unless Parliament shall have already made provision, authorise the issue from the Consolidated Fund and the expenditure of such sums as he may consider necessary for the public services until the expiry of a period of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet.”
The Government argues that the phrase ‘until the expiry of a period of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet’ means the period between the day when the necessity arises to withdraw monies from the Consolidated Fund and a date three months after the first meeting of the new Parliament. On the other hand, the Opposition’s contention is that it means the three months period after the first meeting of the new Parliament. Now what has to be sorted out is whether the drafters of the Constitution failed to consider the period between the day when the necessity arises and the first meeting of the new Parliament.