Is the UNP SLFP Cohabitation Destined to end

The initiative for constitution making did not take passage through Parliament last Tuesday because the debate was adjourned till January 26.  The Government, comprising the United National Party (UNP) and a segment of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), intended to adopt it  on January 9 at a special parliamentary session to initiate the process of evolving a new Constitution to coincide with the first anniversary of   President Maitripala Sirisena in office. 

It did not come to pass as originally planned because political parties and groups including the SLFP section in alliance with the government had strong reservations about the content of the resolution.  The Joint Opposition sought a radical departure from the original resolution and insisted on strict adherence to the procedure laid down in the present Constitution and the parliamentary standing orders.  Alongside the SLFP faction in government also wanted to propose certain changes to the resolutions.

Subsequently, it was found that the two sets of amendments had a partial overlap. The SLFP ministers agreed to incorporate the Joint Opposition amendments in theirs. The debate got underway in the House on Tuesday, but the resolution was not put to a vote at the end of the day.   
In principle, the Joint Opposition, acting under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa   objected to the creation of a body called the ‘Constitutional Assembly’ as proposed in the resolution.  

It also asserted that the present Constitution had no provision for it. In proposing a Constitutional Assembly,   reference was made to political circles in the ‘Constituntional Assembly’   appointed by the government of Ex-Prime Minister the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 1970s, as a precedent. Yet, critics of the present resolution took the view that Mrs. Bandaranaike’s move was distinguishable from the body proposed today.   At that time, the Joint Opposition said she had asked for a mandate in her manifesto to appoint a Constitutional Assembly to evolve a constitution.

 Her political front secured a two-thirds majority at the election as a singly entity. Likewise, according to the Joint Opposition, there was clear rationale behind the move by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government   at that time as explained by then Minister Colvin R. de Silva that it was just a constitutional exercise to sever the country’s link with the British Crown and transferring the sovereignty of the country to the people.  That effort took the form of a constitutional revolution at that time.
However, the Joint Opposition has seen the present situation in a different light.  In its amendments to the resolution at hand, it has stressed that the process of evolving a new Constitution should be done within the framework of the present Constitution and parliamentary standing orders.   
 The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) , a political party  with six parliamentary seats, also wanted changes in the 
original resolution.

The government initially thought that it would be smooth sailing to initiate the constitution-making process concurrently with the first anniversary of   President 
Sirisena in office.  

Ahead of the January 9th session, a series of meetings were conducted by government leaders with other parties seeking consensus on the content of the resolution. First, it was a meeting with Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe that was followed by meetings with President Sirisena and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya . The meeting with the Prime Minister took place at 6.30 pm on that day when the parties expressed reservations about the resolution and revealed the amendments they intended to suggest  

Later the Joint Opposition met with the President at 8.00 pm on the same day.   Communist Party leader D.E. W. Gunasekara while presenting his views strongly asked, “Why does the government deviate from the procedure laid down in the Constitution?” He charged that the government was leading the whole process into a muddle from the very beginning.

Kandy District MP Keheliya Rambukwella also speaking on behalf of the Joint Opposition said it [Opposition] was not opposed to the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the enactment of electoral reforms, but that all should be done in a lawful manner. He asked the government not to get tied up in procedural tangles unnecessarily. Joint Opposition Leader Dinesh Gunawardane said the resolution contravened standing orders. 
It was also found then that the amendments, proposed by the Opposition and SLFP ministers in the government had a partial overlap. But, the Joint Opposition viewed that the SLFP amendments   did not 
go deep enough.

At 11.00 pm on the same day, the Speaker called for the meeting of party leaders. There,   the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R. Sampanthan spoke in support of the original resolution.  The party insisted that the original one should not be altered or changed.  At this point the discussion heated up particularly after the Prime Minister, accompanied by Minister Malik Samarawickrama, arrived.  

The Prime Minister took on the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who criticised the resolution in principle. The PM said,  “You are trying to hold a gun to my head. You all are the ones who wanted it. I am the only person here who voted for the 1978 Constitution of then President J.R. Jayewardene.”
The JVP leader did not agree and that led to a heated exchange of words. Finally, no consensus was reached on the matter at hand.  After that, 31 MPs of the Joint Opposition met at the residence of former Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris   the following day. They decided to insist that their amendments are incorporated in the resolution. [ It is learnt that these amendments were drafted by Prof. Peiris on behalf of the Joint Opposition.]   They acted accordingly during the 
session on Tuesday. After Tuesday’s parliamentary session, the opposition group met at the same place. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had also attended it and reportedly had hailed the role played by the party’s parliamentary group.  He said that a group of local authority members that met him recently asked for support to prevail upon the government to conduct the local government elections as early as possible.
It transpired that this group was planning to conduct a protest rally soon.   

The New Left Front Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara presented a concept paper highlighting the need to transform the Joint Opposition into a political movement with an identity and a set of policies distinguishable from others. Rather than forming a new party, he said it would be a better option to retake control of the SLFP and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). However, the proposal met with little support.  

In the meantime, the UNP, in an obvious reference to the move made by the Joint Opposition, said it was nothing but political hypocrisy to criticise the proposed Constitution even before its provisions were worked out. Highways and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella said though these elements talked about attempts to compromise the sovereignty of the country and the recognition of Buddhism as the foremost religion, no such provision 
had been made.

“During the previous rule, the 18th Amendment was passed. It was done surreptitiously. Nobody spoke a word against it. When the provincial council system was introduced, it was criticised as a move for the partition of the country. But, nothing has happened. Critics even enjoy power at the provincial councils today,” he said. He added that it was a good opportunity to work out a solution to the national question that plagued the country for over 50 years.

New party to be formed soon

Some recent political developments point towards efforts underway to form a new political party ahead of the local authority elections.  Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa once made a remark of that intention publicly, and his brother former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the emergence of a new political party   would be inevitable unless the SLFP followed the present leadership. However, it still remains uncertain who will lead this front.

What is clear is that it will enjoy the blessings of the former president. Also, recent remarks made by Minister S.B. Dissanayake that the SLFP and UNP cannot be parties in the same government for long had created feelings that  the present cohabitation between these two main parties may end soon.
“The UNP and SLFP are two parties with differring policies. They cannot stick to each other for long politically,” he had said at a press conference. 

These remarks have given rise to speculation that a chasm is developing between the two parties in the government and that they may part ways.   However, such a parting cannot be anticipated soon. Probably, policy differences between them might surface over the new 
constitutional exercise.   

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