A Victory for the Franchise | Daily News


A Victory for the Franchise

Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
Supreme Court of Sri Lanka

With all eyes firmly focused on the Supreme Court yesterday, the five eminent judges including the Chief Justice unanimously dismissed all the Fundamental Rights petitions filed against the dissolution of Parliament and holding the [June 20] General Election. Matters of Parliament and the Election were argued at length for ten days before the five judge-bench. By refusing to grant Leave to Proceed on these FRs, the Supreme Court has cleared yet another hurdle that had stood in the way of holding electoral polls. While the June 20 date is now clearly out of the question, there is no other barrier for the polls since the health authorities have also given the green light in principle.

Now all eyes will be on the National Election Commission (NEC) as it takes the next steps. NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya had already said the Commission would soon fix a new date for the Election if there was no legal barrier. He brushed the criticism away stressing that the NEC was not deliberately delaying the Election, a point argued by the NEC’s lawyers too at the SC hearings. He pointed out that around 60-70 days would be required to hold the General Election in line with the health guidelines under the prevailing circumstances. The NEC has also requested the political parties to come up with suggestions on campaigning options to assure a level playing field for all candidates. Many have suggested that electronic media be used extensively to take the message to the voters.

In another development, the National Budget Department of the Finance, Economy and Policy Development Ministry has finalized the third ‘Vote on Account’ (VoA) for the year as the Budget is further delayed owing to the postponement of the General Election.

The latest VoA, which will be over Rs 1 trillion, is to cover the expenditure for the period of three months from June to August. The money, which will be raised from the Consolidated Fund, will be used for uninterrupted continuation of Government services and development activities, COVID-19 control measures and holding the Parliamentary Election.

The Department said a circular containing the VoA would be issued this week once approved by the President.

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially approved Rs. 1.2 trillion from the Consolidated Fund for public spending from March to the end of May, he was hoping to present a full Budget for the year soon after the next Parliament meets. Yet, the unforeseen circumstances developed with the COVID-19 pandemic have now pushed back the Election date beyond June.

The President, being the only elected representative at the helm, has been relying on the provisions of Paragraph (3) of Article 150 of the Constitution to authorize public expenditure in the absence of a Budget even as the first half of the year ends.

However, Opposition parties were up in arms against the Government for going ahead with public finances without a Parliamentary nod. The Opposition led by Sajith Premadasa, which scuttled the passage of revised VoA in Parliament on February 20, cried foul over not reconvening the old Parliament to pass the required allocations.

Two projects under scrutiny

In the meantime, two Government projects were mired in controversy this week and the Government was at the receiving end of a myriad of complaints and allegations. As the public outcry grew and as the opposition parties began cashing in on them to score political marks, the Government took swift measures to explain the grey areas of the projects in question through the officials responsible for them.

Firstly, the Cabinet decision to import 2,500 milch cows from Australia raised a furore as similar moves in the past had not gone well. The Head of the National Livestock Development Board defended the move stating that this time the milch cows would not be distributed among the dairy farmers as done in the previous instances, but would be used for the purpose of breeding them at two farms belonging to the Board. Thus there is no danger of the recurrence of unfortunate circumstances that marred the earlier projects, he noted. He underlined that developing the local dairy industry under the ‘Saubhagya’ programme with a long term plan to reach self-sufficiency in milk by 2025 is the intention behind the project.

However, the opposition parties and trade unionists questioned as to why the Government has chosen ‘Wellard Rural Exports Pvt. Ltd’, the same Australian company involved in the previous importations which apparently resulted in a heavy economic loss to the country as per the Auditor General’s findings. The officials replied that the project is being carried out under a loan facility by Australia, but that the company which supplies the milch cows may change this time.

Secondly, the beach nourishment (sand nutrition) project carried out by the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) at Mount Lavinia, Angulana and Calido beach (Kalutara) at a cost of Rs. 890 million to mitigate coastal erosion was under fire by political representatives, environmental organizations and residents in the areas stating that it was a failure.

However, the CCD maintained the position that the project was successful and that the re-filled sand had been reconfigured in due places as aimed by the project. He took pains to convince that the funds utilized had not been wasted and that Rs.890 was a collective expenditure for three projects, not only the Mount Lavinia project.

SLPP Chairman Prof G.L. Peiris on the same day said that an inquiry has begun on the complaints of washing away of sand piles filled under the CCD project. This reaction on the part of the Government to both these was pro-active and encouraging. The Government has shown that it is open to greater clarity and transparency on both projects.

The die is cast

Meanwhile, the power struggle of the United National Party (UNP) came to a head last week splitting the Grand Old Party down the middle with an unprecedented purge of 99 members.

Embroiled in its internal crisis, one of the oldest democratic parties in the country, formed on September 6, 1946 with the leadership of first Prime Minister late D. S. Senanayake is perhaps in its weakest state today ahead of a crucial national election.

While the two factions led by UNP incumbent Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and ‘Samagi Jana Balavegaya’ (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa are at war with each other, their main political rival ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’ (SLPP) is heading for a major electoral success.

Yet, the impending electoral loss seems to be of no concern for both the hostile groups which fume against each other claiming the true ownership of the UNP. Wickremesinghe loyalists, who held a meeting of the Working Committee (WC) last Friday, suspended the membership of those who handed over nominations to contest the upcoming General Election under the ticket of the SJB and removed them from all the positions they held in the Party. Even the members whose names were included in the SJB’s National List were not spared.

Among the suspended members were UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, who is in a leadership feud with Wickremesinghe, UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim and UNP seniors like Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Lakshman Kiriella, Malik Samarawickrama, Thalatha Athukorale, Gayantha Karunathilake and Mangala Samaraweera.

Eight members who remain loyal to Wickremesinghe were appointed to the UNP’s apex decision making body to fill in the places of those expelled. More such appointments can be expected in the coming weeks. Holding control over the Working Committee had been Wickremesinghe’s strategy when faced with in-house power crises even in the past.

UNP Deputy General Secretary Ruwan Wijewardene, addressing the media shortly after the WC meeting, said that those who flouted the Party Constitution have been given a week’s time to respond to the charges against them.

UNP’s fate

On the same day, the SJB front-runners led by Premadasa, who met at their office a few yards away from ‘Sirikotha’, decided to bring in No-Confidence Motions against Wickremesinghe and his loyalists at the WC. They claimed that the majority of the WC was with them and therefore the membership suspensions have no effect and could be legally challenged. They vowed to save the Party from the clutches of a few cronies whom they alleged were engaging in “deal politics” with ruling party members.

Premadasa told the media that no SJB member could be expelled from the UNP as the SJB was formed with the approval of the UNP’s WC. He urged his supporters to fearlessly gather around him assuring that they would be protected against expulsion.

Wickremesinghe loyalists however argued that the UNP Constitution does not provide for No-Confidence Motions against the top rung of the Party.

The power struggle between the UNP and the SJB could further aggravate when the polls campaign begins, and is likely to continue months after the General Election. The UNP’s fate is most likely to be decided at a Court of Law as its Party Constitution will need to be freshly interpreted in the wake of current disputes.

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