Political Commentary

The failure of public opinion to function in a manner that considers all sections of society equitably can be seen in the matter of journalists who have been victims of human rights violations. There was a time when Sri Lanka was known to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work. Today the situation has changed significantly so that Sri Lanka is described as the best destination for international tourists to visit. That change occurred four years ago with the change of government. But ironically, all the perpetrators of the crimes against journalists remain at large.

The dispute over the position of the Leader of the Opposition is not attracting much attention. It is taken for granted by most people that the Leader of the Opposition should be from the party in opposition that is largest, which is clearly the UPFA which has 95 members of parliament. During the recent political crisis, the UPFA and its allies were able to consistently show as many as 103 MPs on their side. Therefore, it is not surprising that following the withdrawal of the UPFA from the government alliance by President Maithripala Sirisena, the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya should have selected former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be Leader of the Opposition. By way of contrast, the former Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan of the TNA, is currently able to muster the support of only 14 MPs.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s announcement in parliament that the new Leader of the Opposition would be former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has been controversial. Following criticisms Speaker Jayasuriya, who had earlier played a key role in resolving the political crisis in the country, told parliament that he would soon make a statement with regard to the position of the leader of the opposition. Making a special statement in Parliament TNA leader R Sampanthan said the Speaker had not removed him from the opposition leader’s post though he had announced the appointment of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as opposition leader. This is reminiscent of the fate that befell Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when President Maithripala Sirisena replaced him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa but without informing him beforehand.

The social media got a boost like no other during the past seven weeks of political crisis that enveloped the country. On October 26 itself no sooner was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa sworn in as prime minister the stormtroopers of his political alliance entered state media organisations and took control. Thereafter they began to give only pro-government news and views to the nation. Most of the privately-owned media also succumbed voluntarily to the menace of the new dispensation and to the unlimited patronage they could potentially offer those who fell in line. Consequently, dissenting opinion had to take to the alternative media of websites, facebook and twitter to get the other side of the matter. Those who wished to get news and analysis that was not pro-government also had to follow suit and go to the social media.

The country being on the verge of imminent division due to envisaged constitutional reform was one of the main justifications of the backdoor seizure of power of October 26 by members of the hitherto opposition who are now members of the government. The threat they alleged came from the constitutional reform process. This is a process that has been continuing since the former government got elected in 2015, though it is now at a standstill due the political crisis. The key elements of this constitutional reform process, which was envisaged to culminate in a new constitution, have been to change the executive presidential system, obtain a new electoral system to replace the current one which is based on proportional representation, and to ensure a more effective devolution of power as a solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities in general and to the Tamil people in particular.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to issue a stay order on the president’s dissolution of parliament, the constitutional are nearer to being resolved. The reconvening of parliament after the stay order has seen the newly appointed government repeatedly defeated in votes in parliament. Two no-confidence motions against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have been passed and two motions to halt the allocation of funds to government ministries have also been passed. The government’s inability to muster sufficient numbers in parliament to outvote the opposition has led to the unprecedented situation, at least in Sri Lanka, of the government itself boycotting parliament.

In a constitutional democracy, the constitution is the supreme law and governance cannot be on the basis of personal prejudices or the whims and fancies of individuals. The purpose of the constitution is to take political decision making out of that personal realm to give stability and predictability to government. It is now a month since the Black Friday of October 26 when the Sri Lankan polity was plunged into a constitutional and political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena when he decided he had no option but to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, and just as arbitrarily to replace him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from the ranks of the opposition.

The political crisis that erupted unexpectedly on October 26 still continues and is now entering its fourth week. President Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected decision to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa unleashed the problem on an unsuspecting country. The problem is that the former president has been unable to show he has the support of the majority in parliament to legitimately take his new position as prime minister. On two occasions in the past fortnight 122 MPs out of 225 have voted and signed documents of no-confidence in the newly appointed prime minister. On both occasions the President has refused to act citing procedural issues. The entire country is looking to see the deadlock end soon. Unless resolved soon the damage to the country will grow.

Several political parties and civic groups are to file appeals to the Supreme Court against the dissolution of parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena. Their common position is likely to be that the president has acted in violation of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. This amendment meant to restrict presidential power was passed virtually unanimously by parliament with only one dissenting vote in April 2015 shortly after the change of government that was occasioned by President Sirisena’s victory at the presidential elections earlier that year. At that time, and subsequently on innumerable occasions, the president referred to the unprecedented sacrifice he has made in curbing the powers of the presidency through the 19th Amendment. The president also received praise locally and internationally for his statesmanlike attitude towards power.

Even as the political crisis continues to drag on the cost to the country is immense. This past weekend I was in Deniyaya to meet with civil society activists for an activity that had been arranged prior to the political crisis. This was to create awareness in the rural areas about the mechanisms that the government set up during the past three years to enable people to protect their human rights. These are some of the fruits of the reconciliation process of the past three years since the Government of National Unity came into being. These include the mechanisms of the Right to Information Commission, the revamped Human Rights Commission and the Office of Missing Persons.