02 January 2019

The 19th Amendment: Blessing or Curse?

Did those who screamed FOR the 19th Amendment actually read the draft?
There are those who hail the 19th Amendment as THE piece of legislation that trumped a would-be dictatorship and preserved democracy. A sober consideration of the events over the past few weeks and a close reading of the document would yield quite a different picture, however.  

Let’s consider first the outcomes. We got more clarity on the limitations of Presidential power, especially with regard to dissolution of parliament. The case was essentially an SC vs SC affair at least in terms of previous positions taken, namely the petition filed by Jayampathy Wickramaratne in 2002 regarding dissolution. 

The determination has rendered meaningless the surreptitiously inserted clause permitting dissolution following an SC objection to wording in the draft. This naturally makes us wonder what the main authors, Wickramaratne included and of course the entirety of the Yahapalana movers and shakers led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, were thinking when they came up with the 19th Amendment. The SC determination implies that the lawmakers (authors plus approvers) were negligent or worse, mischievous.  

Ranil Wickremesinghe has been reinstated as the Prime Minister following a tacit acceptance of a hilarious vote taken in Parliament with the full complicity of a scandalously partisan Speaker. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) supported motions against Mahinda Rajapaksa and in favor of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Interestingly, these two parties consider themselves part of ‘The Opposition’. This brings us to the issue of the Opposition Leader. 

The question is simple enough: ‘Can any party support a government in a crucial vote such as the one on who should be the Prime Minister and at the same time have any claim to a voice in who should lead the Opposition?’

What the past couple of months clearly established is that the TNA, led on this occasion by M.A. Sumanthiran were operating not as supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe but as masters leading the UNP puppies. It is also important to note that with the parting of ways between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the largest political force in the parliamentary opposition is the UPFA and not the TNA. In any event, the TNA’s claims rested on a technicality because the Joint Opposition (at that time claiming a separation from the UPFA) had contested under the UPFA, which, at that point, was part of the Yahapalana Arrangement, so to speak, with the UNP.  The Speaker, in retrospect, was partisan in his affirmation of this technicality; ‘partisan’ because it served the interests of the UNP and parliamentary chum, the TNA.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya can call for a vote from among those who consider themselves to be part of the parliamentary opposition. He could ask for a ‘aye-nay’ opinion and within a few seconds deliver a determination of support one way or another, as he hilariously did a few weeks ago.  Instead, this man who has disgraced himself and his office, is sitting on the matter. Now that his prime objective, that of reinstating Wickremesinghe and the UNP, has been achieved, Jayasuriya is back in the same sloth-mode that he demonstrated when a vote of no-confidence was brought against Ranil Wickremesinghe early this year.  Tellingly, born-again democrats, funded-voices and candlelight ladies, have also returned to the blissful regions of the feigned apolitical.

Do we have an identity crisis here? The JVP wants people to believe it is the party of the oppressed, the insulted and humiliated, the exploited; and yet it time and again resurfaces at critical points to save the UNP’s behind and in particular to support Ranil Wickremesinghe. The TNA claims it is part of the Opposition, but is considered by the majority of Opposition MPs to be hell bent on safeguarding the interests of the UNP, although they, the TNA would claim that the interest is democracy and nothing else. As mentioned above the TNA has not been the tail wagging the UNP dog but the contrary, the dog that puts a wag in the UNP tail. The SLFP made out that it was in a coalition with the UNP but in effect has operated as a subversive agent in that coalition. While Sirisena has been the wet blanket on almost all key proposals of the UNP, his rank and file have either in heart or body or both stood with his one-time arch rival in the party, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sections of Rajapaksa faction who were once virulently anti-Sirisena now consider him to be a friend.

In the end, we still have a flawed 19th Amendment. We still don’t have clarity on two important issues: a) the definition of ‘national government’ and b) how Parliament chooses an Opposition Leader. Interestingly, the latter was vague even prior to the 19th Amendment. The UNP, already morally compromised on account of practices antithetical to the good governance promise, is busy seeking the possibility of expanding the size of the cabinet of ministers, ironically by exploiting carefully scripted vagueness in the 19th Amendment. Wickremaratne has gone as far as to say that since the SLMC is still with the UNP, the ‘national government’ still stands, making way for Parliament to decide the size of the Cabinet. If it comes to that, it would be fun watching how the TNA and JVP will vote on the matter!  

The 19th, in terms of stated intention, was still born; this has been established beyond any shadow of doubt. Only it’s ghost remains and it is the UNP, TNA and JVP and their cheer-leaders who are trying to convince the people that the ghost has a corporeal strain. It’s dead, folks. Still born. But if we are talking of ghosts and spirits, then the least this Government and it’s buddies sporting a badge with the legend ‘Opposition’ could do is to limit cabinet size to 30. 

Instead, they are wondering if the Prime Minister and President were to be counted out in terms of the limitation clause in the 19th Amendment. Heck, couldn’t they have been clear on it when they wrote that trashy document? 

That’s it. Clarity is not their thing, vagueness is. And it was and is deliberate. Constitutional reform was and is about self-preservation. 

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