In this historical new era of a new political culture and good governance, a historic consensus and compromise was reached yesterday in relation to the controversial 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
A major split in the new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had erupted last month after the draft 19th Amendment was tabled in Parliament. One of the government’s influential coalition partners the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) came out strongly against certain clauses which it claimed devolved executive powers from the President to the Prime Minister. The JHU vowed it would do everything in its power to block such clauses and it warned the party would even canvass support from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to prevent the approval of the 19th Amendment with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Amid crises within crises, conflicts within conflicts and even signs of a dangerous showdown, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa announced in Parliament yesterday the Supreme Court had ruled that certain clauses in the 19th Amendment would require not only a two- thirds majority in Parliament but also approval by the people at a referendum. The United National Party-dominated government had said that it believed that clauses in the draft 19th Amendment could be passed with a two-thirds majority without a referendum. This was largely because the UNP is insisting on a dissolution of parliament this month and a general election sometime in June. Therefore it would not be possible to conduct a referendum also during that period.
But yesterday we saw a welcome sign that the independence of the judiciary — drastically damaged and politicised during the Rajapaksa regime — is being restored. A three-member bench comprising Chief Justice K. Sripavan, Chandra Ekanayake and Priyasath Dep — all known and respected for their strong independence and integrity — ruled that certain clauses required approval by the sovereign people at a referendum. In terms of these clauses, the Prime Minister would have been the head of the Cabinet of Ministers with power to determine the number of Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to them. The clauses would have given power to the Prime Minister to at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and recommend to the President changes in the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers.
The JHU and other petitioners had claimed that these clauses would make the President a puppet or a ceremonial President. Graciously, Prime Minster Wickremesinghe told Parliament yesterday the relevant clauses would be amended and the draft presented to parliament on April 20. Equally graciously, President Sirisena said yesterday the 19th Amendment would be presented to Parliament for approval on April 20 and once it was approved, parliament would be dissolved.
Mr. Sirisena’s announcement indicated that in his capacity as SLFP President he would take steps to bring about a compromise and consensus whereby a majority of SLFP members would vote for the 19th Amendment. At present, though there is a national government for the first time in Sri Lanka, the SLFP appears to be split down the middle with a section supporting President Sirisena and another section appearing to support a comeback by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
However we hope the country-first principle will prevail not just in precept but in practice so that during the next few years we will see the rebuilding of a new Sri Lanka where power is devolved from the Executive President to Parliament and to Independent Commissions for the judiciary, elections, the police, the public service and to probe allegations of bribery or corruption. So as we celebrate the National New Year our wish is that this festival of National Unity will go beyond April 14 and into our history books.
EDITORIAL / 2015-04-10