The United National Party (UNP) has informed Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of the party’s intention to move a resolution on forming a ‘National Government’. The UNP has in doing so identified a UNP-Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) coalition as satisfying constitutional conditions for such an eventuality. The SLMC has just one member in Parliament, Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana, the others having contested under elephant symbol at the 2015 general elections.
Two words. Hilarious and preposterous. Oh! There are another couple of words: expected and scandalous.
Let’s walk through the process. When the 19th Amendment was tabled in Parliament, the authors (who did a lot of hanky-panky after the Supreme Court determined that sections were unconstitutional) they ensured (yes, it was deliberate) that ‘national government’ would be ill-defined.
On April 28, 2015, MP Chandrasiri Gajadheera demanded a definition, the then Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe responded thus: A national government is formed when a recognised political party or an independent group obtaining the highest number of seats in Parliament and the recognised political party or the independent group obtaining the second highest number of seats in Parliament agree to form a Government.”
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe affirmed this position when others raised the question.
Indeed, this is how the text of the draft reads (with respect to the size of the Cabinet): Article 46 (3) a ‘National Government’ as: “If at the conclusion of the General Election held immediately after the coming into force of this Article, the recognised political party or the independent group obtaining the highest number of seats and the recognised political party or the independent group obtaining the second highest number of seats in Parliament agree to form a government of national unity, then, notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1), the number of ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers and the number of Ministers outside of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Deputy Ministers, may be increased up to 45 and 55, respectively.
However, late that night, when the Bill was passed (while most the MPs were probably half-asleep), the constitutional ‘experts’ involved, Jayampathy Wickramaratne certainly and possibly M.A. Sumanthiran of the TNA, the wording had been amended in favour of vagueness and making for multiple interpretations. The ‘second highest number of seats’ section had been replaced by ‘other parties or independent groups represented in Parliament.’
The subterfuge even escaped Asanga Welikala of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) who edited a collection of essays on the 19th Amendment. Well, we are being generous here, for Welikala has scholarly credentials and one assumes that when compiling such a text basic homework would be done!
So we have the four words; hilarious, preposterous, expected and scandalous. Hilarious because there’s nothing ‘national’ about the UNP and because the UNP plus a single SLMC MP is an insult to the word ‘national’ when there are the SLFP, the SLPP, JVP and TNA making up more than 50% of the parliament. Preposterous because it goes against the grain of all sentiments associated with ‘good governance’ and is antithetical to pre-election rhetoric of the UNP regarding cabinet size, doing things differently, being decent etc. Expected because the UNP has a long history of letting political expediency wreck national interest in such matters, dating back to J.R. Jayewardene’s constitutional tinkering starting with the 1978 constitution, through all amendments until the 17th including the unconstitutional and treacherous 13th. Scandalous because the Speaker hasn’t as of now thrown the motion out.
The subterfuge even escaped Asanga Welikala of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) who edited a collection of essays on the 19th Amendment
The Speaker. Karu Jayasuriya. He didn’t cover himself in glory during the recent ‘constitutional crisis’ except of course in the eyes of the UNP and it’s support cast of funded-voices, candlelight-ladies and born-again democrats. A simple comparison on the motions against Ranil Wickremesinghe (April 2018) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (October-November 2018) in terms of adherence to procedural norms, time frame and of course how the vote was counted would put all doubts to rest.
Now Karu Jayasuriya, ‘the democrat,’ has a decent enough history, especially compared to the vast majority of parliamentarians past and present. And yet, apart from the ungainly and partisan conduct mentioned above, he was also complicit in another piece of constitutional skullduggery engineered by the UNP, that which related to the Provincial Councils. The UNP, was loud about legislation to ensure better female representation but quietly slipped in a bunch of procedural obstructions to make it hard to hold provincial council elections. Karu Jayasuriya chose to ignore objections raised at the time.
The non-holding of long overdue PC elections is another matter about which the ‘democracy-loving’ self-appointed civil society watchdogs are quiet about. Indeed, even the devolution-mad ‘democrats’ including that arch word-twister M.A. Sumanthiran don’t seem upset that these bodies are non-functional. In effect they’ve cast a damning vote against constitutional amendments that seek to wreck the unitary nature of the state.
That’s an aside, by the way. What we have is, let us reiterate, a hilarious, preposterous, scandalous and nevertheless expected attempt at constitutional tinkering on the part of the UNP. What it does to ‘the spirit of democracy’ is something that should upset the more democratic elements in the UNP, for example, Eran Wickramaratne and, well, that’s about the only name that comes up!
Karu can do a ‘Recent Karu’ and let Kiriella’s motion hold. He could do an ‘Old Karu’ and ensure that the flicker of that thing called the spirit of democracy prevail. If he does the former, there’s bound to be objection from within parliament and it would be interesting to see how the TNA and JVP respond. There would be litigation and we can have a new season of courtroom teledrama.
The Speaker is a seasoned politician. A year ago I would have been convinced that he would not allow this kind of nonsense. Now I am not sure. Who knows, though, maybe he will surprise one and all once again!