It was one of the longest days but also one of the finest hours in Sri Lanka’s history. President Maithripala Sirisena, displaying exemplary leadership qualities seldom or never seen since the enforcement of the executive presidential system in 1978, facilitated a consensus in Parliament to obtain a thumping 215 votes for the crucial 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
The people believe that this much-awaited amendment will pave the way for the consolidation of democracy and good governance, social justice, accountability and transparency in Sri Lanka and change the course of the country’s history.
The 19th Amendment to abolish the executive presidential system or significantly devolve powers from it was the main promise made by the New Democratic Front (NDF) comprising about 50 political parties and civic action movements. Maithripala Sirisena who was the common candidate of the NDF won a hard-fought victory in the January 8 presidential election where there was a silent rainbow revolution by the people.
The new government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe set a 100-day deadline to implement its main promises. Yet when the draft 19th Amendment was taken up for debate in Parliament on April 9 there were conflicts and confusion over the Supreme Court ruling and the clauses that needed to be amended. The draft 19A was again brought up for debate on April 20 but this time it was derailed when some MPs held a sit-in protest in Parliament demanding the suspension of the summons issued on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC).
It was at this stage that President Sirisena decided to assert his authority. The President has repeatedly stressed after his election that he is not and does not want to be a king but considers himself as the chief servant leader of the people. He insisted that 19A was a vital step for the country and urged all members of the party to support it. When 19A came up for debate in Parliament again on Monday, President Sirisena himself opened the debate and said he hoped the amendment would get unanimous approval of Parliament.
Many observers were sceptical but the President took control of the situation, remained in the backrooms of Parliament on Monday and Tuesday for talks with party leaders to arrive at a consensus and a win-win solution. He succeeded and when the second reading of 19A came up for a voice vote at 7.30 pm on Tuesday it was a chorus of ‘Paksai’ or ‘Om’ with the only negative vote coming from the UPFA Ampara District MP Sarath Weerasekara, a former Rear Admiral of the Navy. There was one abstention while seven MPs including Basil Rajapaksa were not present. Among those saying ‘Paksai’ to 19A were the former President’s son Namal Rajapaksa, MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena, LSSP leader Tissa Vitharana, DLF Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara and NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa who had strongly opposed certain clauses of the bill on the basis that the UNP was trying to transfer executive powers from the President to the Prime Minister. However, most of the amendments the SLFP proposed were accepted by the government and incorporated during the committee stage of the debate.
Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe also acted in a spirit of magnanimity to bring about a consensus for this historic achievement. Making the final speech in the debate on the second reading, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the UNP did not agree with certain amendments proposed by the SLFP but agreed to disagree so that 19A could be approved for the common good of the country and all its people. Mr. Wickremesinghe said in a TV interview last week that during the New Year holidays he had watched the famous film titled, “The longest day” -- the epic story of the landing of the Allied forces in Normandy in a decisive move which lead to the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Indeed, last Tuesday was something like the longest day for the Prime Minister and others. Mr. Wickremesinghe profusely thanked President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva for reaching a consensus on the middle path whereby all MPs in a rare show of unity rose beyond personal or party interests and put the country first.