Govt, Opposition focus on different priorities | Daily News


Govt, Opposition focus on different priorities

The dust appears to have finally settled on the August 5 General Election with ministers being sworn in, Parliament being convened and political parties getting accustomed to their respective new roles in the Government and the Opposition.

Two entirely different issues are dominating the interest of the Opposition and the Government. In the opposition, the United National Party (UNP) is facing a ‘make or break’ leadership crisis. The Government meanwhile is focused on proposed amendments to the Constitution.

There is still considerable unrest in the United National Party (UNP) which is struggling to find a new leader with different candidates offering themselves as potential leaders, the latest being former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and former Minister of State for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene.

Jayasuriya was not mentioned as a potential successor initially but he has since stated that he had been receiving numerous requests from many grassroots UNP organisations requesting him to accept the leadership as they believe he had the ability to unite the party.

New UNP leader

Two UNP affiliated organisations, the United Professional Group (UPG) and the Young Professional Organisation of United National Party (YPOUNP) made similar appeals to Jayasuriya, who also visited the Malwatte and Asgiriya temples in Kandy to obtain the blessings of the chief prelates there.

Jayasuriya will celebrate his 80th birthday later this month. As such, he would not be ideally placed to lead the UNP to the next national elections which are not due for another five years. However, the expectation is that leadership should be handed to him as an ‘interim’ measure to unify the party.

The first ‘official’ intimation of Jayasuriya’s aspirations came in the form of a statement issued by him last week. In this statement Jayasuriya traced his association with the UNP since 1994, the requests he had received to lead the party and declared that he considers himself suitable for the role.

After the release of the statement, a faction within the UNP protested against the prospect of Jayasuriya leading the party. There were claims that he was not a member of the party at present. It is believed that these public statements had UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s blessings.

The relationship between Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya has been a difficult one. It was Wickremesinghe who brought Jayasuriya in to politics in 1994. Prior to that he had served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Germany during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Wickremesinghe was instrumental in Jayasuriya’s meteoric rise in the UNP. He was appointed Chairman of the UNP in 1995. He first attracted countrywide public attention when he contested the mayoral election in Colombo in 1996 as the UNP candidate and won comfortably.

He contested the 2000 General Election, polling the highest number of preferences among all political parties in the Gampaha district with 237,000 votes. He was then appointed deputy leader of the UNP. Following the UNP-led coalition’s victory in 2001, he was appointed Minister of Power and Energy.

Jayasuriya was a virtual ‘running mate’ for Wickremesinghe at the 2005 Presidential Election, being declared the prime ministerial nominee in the event of Wickremesinghe winning the election. However, Wickremesinghe narrowly lost the 2005 presidential election to present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Thereafter there were several calls from within the UNP to replace Wickremesinghe with Jayasuriya but the former was determined to remain as leader of the party. This paved the way for the first estrangement between Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya which occurred in January 2007.

Jayasuriya led a group of 18 Opposition Parliamentarians who joined the Government. He was offered the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. UNPers loyal to Wickremesinghe saw this as a betrayal of the party and its leader by Jayasuriya.

Some of those who joined then President Rajapaksa with Jayasuriya have remained with him to this day. They include Prof. G. L. Peiris, Gamini Lokuge and Bandula Gunawardena, all of whom hold Cabinet portfolios today. They maintained that they were crossing over to support the battle against terrorism.

However, Jayasuriya did not last long within the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigning from his Cabinet Portfolio and returning to the UNP in December 2008. On his return to the UNP, Wickremesinghe again appointed him Deputy Leader of the party which was a condition for his return.

Jayasuriya remained an active member of the UNP Opposition but calls for Wickremesinghe to be replaced as the party leader were growing. Late in 2011, Jayasuriya formally challenged Wickremesinghe for the party leadership. Other party posts were also contested.

The decision was left to the party’s Working Committee. Wickremesinghe easily won that contest, defeating Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. However, Sajith Premadasa emerged as deputy leader, beating Ravi Karunanayake by 52 votes to 44. Karunanayake was later appointed assistant leader.

Following Maithripala Sirisena’s election as President, Jayasuriya returned to the Cabinet. He was appointed Speaker following the General Election. As Speaker, he earned praise for his conduct during the Constitutional crisis sparked by Wickremesinghe’s sacking as Prime Minister in 2018.

In the run up to the 2019 Presidential Election Jayasuriya was mentioned by some as a potential UNP candidate. This was as a ‘compromise’ candidate as there was a tussle between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa for the UNP candidacy which was handed to Premadasa only a few weeks before the poll.

Since then, Jayasuriya had maintained a low profile. However, as it became clear that Wickremesinghe was not stepping down immediately as UNP leader, he has emerged as a potential candidate for the leadership, promising to unite the party before handing it over to a new leader.

Jayasuriya’s claims are complicated by his chequered history within the UNP and the fact that another potential leadership candidate, Navin Dissanayake, who is the son of former UNP stalwart Gamini Dissanayake, is his son-in-law. Some believe this is a ploy to pave the way for Dissanayake.

The next few weeks will be crucial for the UNP as it decides on the leadership issue. Nevertheless, the task of choosing the leader lies with the party’s Working Committee and it is no secret that the Working Committee is stacked with Wickremesinghe’s appointees, so his choice is likely to prevail.

Within the Government ranks meanwhile, work is underway to replace the 19th Amendment and replace it with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. This is a precursor to the drafting of an entirely new Constitution which is an exercise that will take considerably more time.

A draft of the proposed 20th Amendment has been sent to the Attorney General for perusal and is expected to be discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers this week. Therefore, it is clear that the government believes the 20th Amendment to be a matter of priority and is keen to have it enacted.

During the General Election campaign, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidates claimed that the 19th Amendment will be discarded altogether in the event of the SLPP securing a two-thirds majority at the poll. That will not be the case apparently; some aspects of the 19th Amendment will be retained.

Amendments to the Constitution

These include the five-year terms of office imposed on the President and Parliament, which were reduced from six years by the 19th Amendment. The two-term limitation on an individual holding the office of President is also likely to be retained in the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

However, two aspects of the 19th Amendment have been earmarked for change. They are the clause that prevents dual citizens from running for Parliament or President and the barrier imposed on the President from dissolving Parliament until four and a half years have elapsed.

The abolition of the former provision will pave the way for the mastermind behind the formation of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa- who is also a citizen of the United States- to return to Parliament through the National List. He is tipped to be appointed to a key Cabinet portfolio on his return.

The clause preventing the dissolution of Parliament for four and a half years was the provision that led to the Constitutional crisis in December 2018. Given the uneasy period the country experienced during that time, the Government is of the view that this provision should be repealed immediately.

There is much speculation about the Independent Commissions and the Constitutional Council with many civil society organisations arguing that these should be retained to enhance democratic governance. The opposition too has been demanding that these aspects of the 19th Amendment be retained.

It is understood that the Government is considering this aspect of the 19th Amendment carefully. It is mindful that some aspects of the independent commissions are beneficial. However, it is also aware of the need to make modifications to the current provisions to enable enhanced efficiency in governance.

There is no doubt that the Government will be able to pass the 20th Amendment through Parliament with ease as it enjoys a two-thirds majority. However, the precise shape and form of the 20th Amendment will reflect the Government’s thinking and its plan of action for the next five years.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear to those engaged in drafting the 20th Amendment that Constitutional reform will be a work in progress. The ultimate objective will be a new Constitution. The role of the 20th Amendment will be to ensure smooth governance until such time this is enacted.


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