Will the President be more flexible and relent or remain rigidly intransigent?
‘Responsible Cooperation’ pledge was to ensure the governance of the country properly
Sri Lanka would be without a legislature for more than three months at a stretch
The Elections Commission has scheduled June 20 as the new date for the postponed election of April 25. Eight Fundamental Rights petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court regarding the holding of elections on June 20.
Three separate benches comprising three judges each are expected to begin hearing them next week from May 11th onwards. However, there is every chance that after preliminary hearings, the Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya may list most of these FR petitions together to be heard at a later date.
The Chief Justice may even appoint a full bench of five or seven Judges to hear and rule on the crucially important case or cases.
Ground realities, however, indicate that the situation is not yet conducive for conducting elections in a free and fair manner on June 20.
Most senior staff in the Elections Department as well as from the District Secretariats opine that it would be logistically impossible to hold successful elections on that date.
Meanwhile, the number of Coronavirus affected cases in Sri Lanka has rapidly escalated to 824 (At the time of writing this). Matters are further complicated due to the spread of the virus in large numbers within the Sri Lankan Navy.
When the Elections Commission comprising Mahinda Deshapriya, Nalin Abeyesekera and Ratnajeevan Hoole fixed the new election date for June 20, there was some expectation that lockdown conditions would be gradually relaxed to provide at least five weeks of unfettered campaigning by political parties. This does not seem possible now.
The Chairman of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has scheduled a conference with all political parties on May 12.
The surmise is that the Elections Commission after discussing the issue in detail with political parties would announce a fresh date for conducting elections. The new date could be in July, August or September. The possibility of staggered elections in different districts at different times is also not ruled out.
What all this means is that Sri Lanka would be without a legislature for more than three months at a stretch.
This would amount to a Constitutional violation. The multi-crore rupee question that arises in this context is how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would react to this changed date.
The president so far has been firm in resisting the demand to rescind his Gazette proclamation of March 2 dissolving the previous Parliament. He has also refused to reconvene the dissolved Parliament in an emergency situation under Article 70(7) of the Constitution. Will the President be more flexible and relent or remain rigidly intransigent?
Informed sources close to Presidential circles say that the President would not re-convene the ‘old’ Parliament under Article 70.
He is adamant on that. However, President Rajapaksa may likely fix a fresh date for the convening of the newly elected Parliament to meet, if a new date for elections is announced by the Elections Commission.
The President fixing through Gazette proclamation a new date for the new Parliament to meet would be predicated solely based on the Elections Commission (EC) scheduling a new date for elections.
It may be recalled that President Rajapaksa did not fix a new date for a newly elected Parliament to meet when the EC announced elections earlier for June 20.
This is attributed to the fact that the President had felt the June 20 date was not a feasible one. In this instance, however, the President may set a date for the ‘new’ Parliament to meet if the new election date is realistic.
Moreover, the President is also mindful of the legal challenges being mounted. It is very probable that the President may have received legal advice that a new Gazette proclamation announcing a specific date for the newly elected Parliament would negate the need for courts to take up the FR cases at this juncture.
Thus he may be able to avert the chances of being compelled to re-convene the ‘old’ Parliament.
All this, however, is conjecture and what course of action would be adopted by the Judiciary on these issues remains to be seen.
Responsible Cooperation Offer By Opposition Parties
Earlier in another related yet remarkable development, several of Sri Lanka’s opposition parties came together for a common purpose in the national interest.
Seven political parties, namely, the United National Party (UNP), Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) issued a ten-point joint statement on April 27 pledging ‘Responsible cooperation’ to the President and Government if Parliament is restored in the best interests of the country and all her people.
The Opposition party offer entailed an assurance of support to the Government of President Rajapaksa would rescind the Gazette proclamation of 2 March or revive the old Parliament until its term concludes by the end of August
The Opposition political parties utilized the public joint statement to put forward an offer of ‘Responsible Cooperation’ to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Opposition party offer entailed an assurance of support to the Government of President Rajapaksa would rescind the Gazette proclamation of 2 March or revive the old Parliament until its term concludes by the end of August.
The Opposition parties would in turn pledge not to defeat the Government in a vote or block any legitimate action of the Government.
This ‘Responsible Cooperation’ offer or pledge was to ensure the governance of the country properly and lawfully in compliance with the Constitution.
The seven-party statement and proposal were e-mailed and faxed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa’s office. It was also delivered in-person to Presidential Adviser Lalith Weeratunga.
Some Opposition party politicians were optimistic that the President would respond favourably but others expressed doubts. The pessimists opined that the President was determined not to rescind the gazette proclamation or re-convene Parliament.
A recurring phenomenon of Sri Lankan politics is that of the pessimists being proven right on most issues. This is what happened to the “Responsible Cooperation” offer too. Instead of reciprocating with a “responsive cooperation” approach, President Rajapaksa dismissed opposition overtures firmly.
According to media reports Secretary to the President Dr P.B. Jayasundara, in a letter addressed to former Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said that he had been instructed to inform Premadasa that the President would not reconvene Parliament, and rejected the open letter sent by the Opposition parties.
The letter also said Parliament had been dissolved under the constitutional powers given to the President, and the statement from the Opposition political parties calling for the reconvening of Parliament acknowledged this right.
“Therefore, the dissolved Parliament cannot be reconvened. I have been instructed to inform you that the Elections Commission had initially scheduled the Parliamentary Election for 25 April, and it was subsequently decided the election will be held on 20 June,” wrote Dr Jayasundera.
It was obvious that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had rudely shut the door on the face of the Opposition party offer of “Responsible Cooperation.”
However, a tiny window of opportunity opened up through a fresh initiative by former president and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This columnist writing the “Political Pulse” article in our sister paper “Daily Financial Times” of April 29 wrote as follows – “The Opposition offer seems to have struck a responsive chord in the minds of the people. There is a groundswell of opinion that the Government should accept the opposition offer favourably. It is said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who has a reputation of gauging the pulse of the people is aware of this. There is even speculation that the Premier may conduct a conference of political parties represented in the “old” Parliament and discuss the ‘Responsible Cooperation’ offer further. It remains to be seen whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would encourage such a move.”Premier Mahinda
Rajapaksa’s “Temple Trees” Conference
Speculation about Premier Rajapaksa convening a conference ended when the Prime Minister invited all former MPs of the 2015 -2020 Parliament for a conference on May 4 at Temple Trees.
The Premier’s conference initiative had a surprising effect on the opposition parties. They were confused about Mahinda’s motives in convening such a conference after his brother Gotabaya had “callously dismissed” their offer of responsible cooperation.
The Opposition parties seem to have erred in thinking that President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa were acting in tandem. It was not so.
The seven opposition parties that came together and made the responsible cooperation offer to President Rajapaksa have also commenced video conference discussions on the current political situation. Among the ex-MP’s participating in these discussions are Sajith Premadasa, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Malik Samarawickrama, Mangala Samaraweera, Eran Wickramaratne, Rajitha Senaratne, Rauff Hakeem, Rishad Bathiudeen, Mano Ganesan, M.A. Sumanthiran, Velusamy Radhakrishnan, Pazhani Digambaram, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Kumara Welgama.
Initially, all parties concerned including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) represented by Sumanthiran resolved that the Opposition parties would jointly boycott Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conference. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was duly informed and he too said the JVP-led National Peoples Power (NPP) would also reject the PM’s invitation.
Subsequently, the TNA, which is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces was compelled to deviate from this common stance and
pursue an independent course of action due to a very interesting reason. What had happened was that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa convening a conference of all ex-MPs of the dissolved Parliament had struck a responsive chord in most TNA ex-parliamentarians of the N-E.
In an environment where there was no Parliament and the President refusing to re-convene it, the ex-MPs felt Premier Mahinda’s conference would provide a forum to ventilate their grievances about the prevailing situation in the North and East due to the Covid-19 spread. Many influential supporters in their respective constituencies also encouraged the TNA politicians in this.
When the ex-MP’s informed TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan that they wanted to participate in Mahinda’s meeting, the veteran politician from Trincomalee realised that the party had to attend the Prime Minister’s conference despite the Opposition party boycott decision.
This U-Turn by the TNA was explained to the other Opposition parties by party spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran.
Several Opposition parties were unhappy over the TNA attending the PM’s conference but respected and accepted the party decision.
In a separate development, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe had also decided earlier to attend Mahinda’s meeting. This decision was criticized by some SJB members who insinuated that the UNP had entered into a secret agreement with the Govt. This, in turn, made several pro-Ranil UNP ex-MP’s jittery. They prevailed upon Ranil to revoke the earlier decision. The UNP leader too realised that he may be overruled in the working committee meeting by others.
Ranil seized upon an opportunity provided by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself as an escape route.
When it became known that the Opposition parties were going to boycott the conference, Mahinda had enlarged its potential attendance by extending his invitation to the pre- 2015 -2020 Parliament ex-MPs also. Now the UNP used that as an excuse not to attend and decided that effect unanimously in the WC.
When it became known that the UNP was keeping away, Somasundaram Maavai Senathirajah the leader of the TNA’s chief constituent the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) got worried and expressed his concerns to TNA leader Sampanthan.
The lanky Ex-Jaffna district Parliamentarian wondered whether the TNA too should pull out like the UNP. Sampanthan, however, convinced Senathirajah that the TNA should attend the conference. Sampanthan gave three reasons.
Firstly the conference provided a forum to highlight the northeastern people’s grievances.
Secondly, it would help to establish better relations with the Govt.
Thirdly it would help dispel the notion that the TNA was a UNP appendage.
TNA Issues Statement Giving Reasons For Participation
TNA leader Sampanthan informed Mahinda Rajapaksa that the party would attend the conference. Mahinda was delighted. The TNA stated on the eve of the Prime Minister’s conference explaining the party stance. The statement particularly emphasized that the conference was not a substitute for the re-convening of Parliament. The TNA statement addressed to the Prime Minister was as follows –
STATEMENT – TAMIL NATIONAL ALLIANCE
1. An appeal was made by the Tamil National Alliance and other political parties to His Excellency the President for the dissolved Parliament to be reconvened. The response to this request thus far has been negative.
2. In this background the Hon. Prime Minister has invited all Members of the dissolved Parliament to a meeting at Temple Trees on Monday the 4th.
3. The country and the people are in a situation of grave crisis due to the following factors.
a. The Pandemic – the Corona Virus – has been gradually escalating – much more needs to be done to eradicate it completely from our Country, there is a legitimate fear amongst the people that it could further escalate with grave consequences, the Country’s united efforts are needed in this regard.
b. At all National Elections over the past twenty-five (25) years since 1994, over Five terms of both Parliament and Presidency, the people have in the exercise of their sovereignty – their franchise, rejected the 1978 constitution, and given a MANDATE for the enactment of a new constitution, encompassing all three components of their Sovereignty – Powers of Governance – including Legislative Executive and Judicial Power – FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS and their FRANCHISE. This Mandate of the People in the exercise of their Sovereignty has not been fulfilled and the country continues to be governed under a constitution rejected by the People for over twenty-five years.
c. The Parliament elected in 2015 unanimously resolved to convert itself into a Committee of the whole Parliament – termed a Constitutional Assembly with a Steering Committee and sub-committees in charge of different Subjects and an Experts Committee to formulate a new Constitution dealing primarily with three issues.
i. The Executive Presidency
ii. Electoral Reforms to Parliament.
iii. The National Question the Tamil Question Sharing of Powers of Governance.
All political parties were represented in the several committees established, there was substantial consensus, Reports of the committees were filed in the Constitutional Assembly, the process reached its final stages when it stalled until the dissolution of Parliament.
The National Question, the sharing of the Powers of Governance, has since the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, been addressed by all political parties and political Leaders and successive Governments since 1991 – and much progress has been made – Public commitments have been made to the Country and the International community – in regard to how this issue would be addressed and concluded in an acceptable way.
Most senior staff in the Elections Department as well as from the District Secretariats opine that it would be logistically impossible to hold successful elections on that date
The support of the International Community was obtained based on such commitments. These commitments have to be kept in the interests of national peace, regional peace and world peace. It would otherwise appear that the International Community was also deceived to betray the Tamil people who were the victims.
d. The worsening economic crisis the country is facing.
We have decided that we need to attend the meeting with the Hon. Prime Minister, because all these issues outlined above need to be addressed and to clearly indicate that we are prepared to extend our co-operation to the resolution of these issues reasonably and acceptably in the interests of the Country and all its People.
However, we wish to emphasize that the meeting summoned by you is not and cannot be a substitute for convening the Parliament. We are of the firm view that the Parliament must be convened as stated in our joint statement to deal with several constitutional and legal issues that have arisen, which Parliament alone can deal with.
Mr R Sampanthan – Leader, Tamil National Alliance (TNA)
Mr Mavai Senathirajah- Leader, Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)
Mr Selvam Adaikkalanathan – Leader Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO)
Mr Dharmalingham Siddathan – Leader, People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE]
Special Thanks to TNA From Prime Minister Rajapaksa
Twelve Ex-MP’s of the TNA participated in the Conference convened by Prime Minister Rajapaksa at Temple Trees. Party leader Sampanthan and Spokesperson Sumanthiran refrained from speaking at the conference and let the other TNA representatives articulate the particular problems faced by the Tamil people of the North and East.
Vanni district ex-MP’s Charles Nimalanathan and Dr C. Sivamohan made very important and impressive contributions. After the conference, Prime Minister Rajapaksa thanked the TNA ‘specially’ for having attended the meeting to express its views on the difficulties faced by the Tamil people and for making a meaningful contribution to the discussion on the anti-COVID-19 campaign.
The TNA also sought and obtained a separate meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the problems and grievances of the Tamil people in the present context.
Eleven ex-MP’s of the TNA met the PM at his Wijerama Road residence on May 4 evening from 5. 30 p.m. to 6.20 p/m.
Prof GL Peiris and Basil Rajapaksa were also present.
Several matters were discussed and potential solutions to some issues were identified. The Prime minister made no definite promises but assured the TNA that he would discuss the issues further with President Gotabaya and resolve matters satisfactorily in due course.
Against the backdrop of the past history - where promises made were never honoured – the TNA has no illusions, but the meetings with Mahinda has instilled confidence into the party that some positive forward movement was possible on at least two of the issues discussed.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org