It is interesting and sometimes amusing to note some politicians and legal luminaries theorizing anything to suit their political agendas or personal grudges against others. This was once again evident in some of the interpretations of the recent change of provincial Governors by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva is reported to have stated that the President does not have the authority to remove Governors and that if he does, a resolution passed by two-thirds of the relevant Provincial Council is required.
On the other hand, some of the supporters of the President’s party, the United National Party (UNP) had justified the President’s action by claiming that it had been a tradition for every President to reshuffle the Provincial Governors, at the beginning of his tenure.
Both are unfounded given the provisions of the Constitution and the relatively short history of Provincial Councils.
Mr Silva sometimes presents very tough arguments that might flummox anybody. He once argued that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not permitted by law to contest the Presidential Election for a third time in 2015, as the Constitutional provisions that were in force when he contested for the second time had already taken that right away from him.
However, Silva’s argument this time seems to be so weak since the Constitutional Provision in respect of the removal of Governors is categorical.
Article 154B (2) says “The Governor shall be appointed by the President by warrant under his hand and shall hold office, in accordance with Article 4(b), during the pleasure of the President.”
Yes, it is so clear, “shall hold office… during the pleasure of the President.”
That means he can be removed if the President is not pleased with him. So, he removed three Governors, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda (Northwestern Province), Anuradha Yahampath (Eastern Province) and Jeevan Thiagarajah (Northern Province) on Monday.
The usual practice is that those who hold high offices are not sacked, but are asked to resign. Here, in this case, also, the three Governors are said to have been asked to tender their resignations, but they had not obliged, which ultimately resulted in their expulsion by the President.
On Wednesday, the President appointed former Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena in place of Karannagoda, Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) Chairman Senthil Thondaman to replace Ms Yahampath and Senior Administrative official PSM Charles to the post vacated by Thiagarajah.
Charles had held the same post between December 30, 2019, and October 11, 2021.
The justification of the President’s action citing traditions is also baseless. No President in the past, except for Maithripala Sirisena replaced all sitting Provincial Governors with another set of individuals just after he assumed office.
President Sirisena who took over the reins on January 9, 2015, appointed new Governors to all nine Provinces in the same month. Besides, President Wickremesinghe who took ten months to make changes only in three Provinces and there is no indication of the removal of other Governors, except for the Governor of Sabaragamuwa.
Under the concept of devolution applied in Sri Lanka, the Governor is the coordinating officer between the Central Executive and the Provincial Council, the peripheral unit of devolution.
He is also the representative of the President at the Provincial level. Therefore one cannot deny the right of the Executive to have the representatives of his choice.
Nevertheless, the latest change in the Provincial level seems to have been executed not based on administrative requirements, but on the political agenda of the UNP.
Navin Dissanayake, the former Minister who still remains in the UNP despite his brother Mayantha having defected to the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) told the Daily Mirror recently that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, subsequent to the humiliating defeat of his party at the 2020 Parliamentary Election, had proposed to wind up the party.
However, following the assumption of power, first as the Prime Minister in May and then as the President in July last year, fresh hopes seem to have blossomed in Wickremesinghe and his party.
And also various reports indicate that the UNP is targeting the next Presidential Election, for a firm comeback.
It is in this hope that the UNP vehemently opposes the holding of Local Government Elections which might catapult the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into a major political force, sometimes as the ruling party in many Local Councils, which might then become a trend at the national level elections as well.
Hence, the UNP leadership seems to be planning to go directly for Presidential Election, when there wouldn’t sometimes be any opponent to it with an equal political calibre.
President Wickremesinghe also has by now grabbed the credit of the current respite in the economic crisis, a situation that was resulted in by the Government’s programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) started by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though not with much knowledge. The leaders of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) who are clueless about what is going on, on the economic front are also generously giving credit to him for the same.
At the same time, the UNP is attempting to lure the members of the SJB to shift allegiance while gradually getting control of the state machinery. The replacement of Governors seems to be a part of that exercise. At a time when there are no elected Provincial Councils in the country, Governors control the PC mechanism unhindered.
The President has appointed a Governor who is acceptable to the Tamil leaders so that he could maintain the status quo in his relationship with those leaders which might be useful in a Presidential Election. He also occasionally holds talks with Tamil leaders on the ethnic problem, despite them having not much hope for those talks now.
The appointment of Governors for the Eastern Province has always been controversial as the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim populations in the Province are almost equal. However, this time, the President has appointed a person from a fourth community, the up-country Tamil, who is also a Trade Union leader.
This might have pleased that community very much apart from preventing resentment in the East.
The post of Provincial Governor has always been used by ruling parties, especially the Presidents for party political ends. The process began in 1993, five years into the institution of Provincial Councils when the UNP got two Governors, M.A. Barkeer Markar and Major Montagu Jayawikarama to deprive the Opposition People’s Alliance (PA) of Chief Ministerial posts in the Southern and North-Western Provincial Councils respectively, despite the PA along with its ally Democratic United National Front (DUNF) getting a slight edge in both councils at the election held on May 17, 1993.
In spite of this move having been annulled by the Appeal Court in October of the same year, President D.B. Wijetunga on December 31, 1993, replaced Governor Barkeer Markar with Mervin Jayaratne, who was then advised to dissolve the Opposition led Southern Provincial Council.
The relationship between the PA and the DUNF began to get sour by mid-1994 and Western Province Chief Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga saw an imminence of her party losing the majority in the council.
When rumours were rife that Kumaratunga was planning to advise Governor S. Sharvananda to dissolve the council, President D.B. Wijethinga unceremoniously sacked Sharvananda and appointed a UNP stalwart, D.M. Swaminathan to the post.
The Provincial Governors are originally expected to maintain a healthy relationship between the Centre and the Provincial Councils in a manner that would realize the purpose of power devolution - the lasting reconciliation.
However, the parties that ruled the country sabotaged the very purpose, from the beginning, using the Governors while the Tamil parties did the same by not making their demands amenable to the changing situations.