A quaternary in review | Daily News

A quaternary in review

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the election of President Maithripala Sirisena to the office of President and the commencement of the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ government of National Unity. The latter is no more but that period has been controversial yet constructive and divisive yet decisive, paving the way for some landmark changes in the country’s political history.

To assess this period, the events leading to them must be placed in context. President Sirisena took on the task of challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa, then all powerful and thought to be popular, because Rajapaksa had created an oligarchy centred around his kith and kin. He was asking for a third term in office and, with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in force, could have been President for life.

Chamal Rajapaksa was Speaker, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was Defence Secretary, Basil Rajapaksa was Minister of Economic Affairs and Namal Rajapaksa was being groomed as the heir apparent in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Rajapaksa’s supporters, rewarded with perks, privileges and positions, were acting with impunity, often on the wrong side of the law but without facing any consequences.

That President Sirisena won that election surprised many. Critics will argue that the victory was possible only because of the massive mandate he received in the North and East. While he did receive a ringing endorsement from those regions, his majority was nearly 450,000 votes, compared to Rajapaksa’s wafer-thin majority of 180,000 votes over Ranil Wickremesinghe ten years earlier.

Executive Presidency

The Sirisena campaign had a simple theme. It focussed on the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime and argued for the diminution of powers of the Executive Presidency and restoring most of those powers to Parliament. In fact, eventual abolition of the Executive Presidency was the slogan of the late Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera, whose idea it was to select a ‘Common Candidate’ against Rajapaksa.

When President Sirisena was elected to office, he had to tread a fine line. The party that supported him at the election, the United National Party (UNP) had only a few dozen seats in Parliament. The SLFP-led United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had cobbled together a two-thirds majority. The new President was forced to enlist the support of the UPFA to govern. He was able to do so.

This was achieved by co-opting SLFPers into the government and thus was born the government of National Unity. It was by all means a significant achievement because it was the first time in almost seventy years of post-independence politics that the two major rival political parties had co-operated to form a government. Importantly, it also meant that the government now had a two-thirds majority.

The two-thirds majority enabled the new government to contemplate constitutional changes, in keeping with its campaign promises. This gave rise to now controversial 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The 19th Amendment was passed by Parliament in April 2015, after a series of amendments with 215 of the 225 parliamentarians, including those from the UPFA voting for it.

The changes brought about by the 19th Amendment were far reaching. They clipped the powers of the President. The amendment re-imposed the two-term limit on an individual being elected to the office of President. It also took away the President’s powers to dissolve Parliament at will, imposing a four-and-a-half-year time limit to be able to do so. It also barred dual citizens from running for Parliament.

Critics of the Amendment argue most of these changes, in some way targeted the Rajapaksas. While they may have certainly affected the Rajapaksas, the underlying principle was not to concentrate too much power within any one individual and its value in this regard was amply demonstrated during the recent constitutional crisis, when an interpretation had to sought from the Supreme Court.

Independent Commissions

Arguably the most important change brought about by the 19th Amendment was to reconstitute the Constitutional Council which appointed independent commissions. These commissions included, among others, the Police Commission, the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Audit Service Commission and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

The Constitutional Council was also empowered to ratify appointments to high office which were previously the President’s sole prerogative. These appointments included the Chief Justice and judges of the Supreme Court, The President and judges of the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General, the Auditor General, the Inspector General of Police and the Secretary General of Parliament.

The President’s term of office was reduced from six years to five years. The number of ministers in a government was limited to thirty and the number of deputy ministers and state ministers limited to forty unless a national government was in office. The President was also required to appoint ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister who had to be able to command the confidence of Parliament.

These changes brought about a notable shift in the balance of power between the Executive and the Legislature. Previously, the country had been hampered by an unfettered Executive who was bolstered by a parliamentary majority from his or her own party. Ministers served at the President’s pleasure and so did not antagonise the Executive, often doing as they were told, with no questions asked.

However, it was not all plain sailing. A faction of the UPFA, spurred on leaders of the smaller parties in that alliance such as Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila as well as Rajapaksa’s own inner circle opposed the President and remained loyal to Rajapaksa. It was only a matter of time before the cracks within the UPFA began to surface.

The catalyst for this came in the form of the general election, held in August 2015. It exposed the bitter divisions within the UPFA which by now was headed by President Sirisena who was also leader of the SLFP. In an unprecedented move, the President addressed the nation to declare that even if the UPFA won the election, he would not appoint Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister.

The UPFA did not win the election, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) did. However, it fell short of an absolute majority, winning 106 seats to the UPFA’s 95. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 16 seats in the North and East while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) won six seats. These numbers were to become critical as the constitutional crisis unfolded late last year.

The government of National Unity, riddled by differences among personalities and political philosophies, came to an end in October last year with the UPFA, on the instructions of President Sirisena, opting out of the government. That led to the 51-day constitutional stand-off between the Executive and Legislature over which the latter prevailed, albeit with intervention from the judiciary.

Where to from here? The UNF now control the reins of government but its hold on power is tenuous. That is because it lacks an overall majority in Parliament and is beholden to the TNA for support. Its relationship with President has been strained and the President is now exercising the powers at his disposal without much consultation, as seen most recently in appointing provincial governors.

Proposed 20th Amendment

The UNF is also preoccupied with the proposed 20th Amendment, sponsored by the JVP that seeks to abolish the Executive Presidency. While this is in keeping with its campaign pledge, the chances of this project coming to fruition, is minimal, given the composition of the current Parliament. A more realistic option would be to campaign for this at the next election and seek a mandate from the voters.

For President Sirisena, the big question must be whether he will run for President in 2020. Previously, he has publicly said he would be a one term President but the political landscape has seen enormous changes since then. By appointing Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in October last year, he has also ensured a rapprochement with his erstwhile bete-noire, who himself cannot contest the Presidency.

However, President Sirisena also faces dissent from within his own party, the SLFP. The rank and file of the SLFP as well as its electoral organisers - who were dismissed by the President recently- are distraught that the SLFP is seeking an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas. They fear that the SLFP may have to play second fiddle and ask whether this is the reward for being loyal to the President.

Rajapaksa too must be weighing his options. The Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) of which he is the de facto head emerged winners at the February 2018 Local Government polls and he was anticipating a return to power at the next general elections but the constitutional crisis- and the manner in which his party members behaved in that period- have seriously dented the SLPP’s popular support base.

All this points to 2019 being a very significant year politically as the UNP, SLFP and SLPP jostle for power. The ‘Yahapaalanaya’ experiment is over. There appears to be consensus that it didn’t live up to its full potential. That is certainly true. However, the legislative changes it brought is a worthy product of its cohabitation- as evidenced during the 51-day constitutional drama last year. 


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