constitutional reforms in true spirit
talks between the Government and the main opposition United
National Party (UNP) on the proposed constitutional reforms
appear to be just a formality and part of Parliamentary
Democracy practiced as a mere tradition. In today’s
political context, the Government is confident or may be
over confident that they are in a position to garner the
necessary support to amend the Constitution as and when they
please despite what the Opposition has to say. At the same
time what the Opposition has to say with regard to the
proposed constitutional amendments has little or no meaning
at all as far as the Government is concerned since the
Government has already decided what reforms they intend to
pursue as part of their strategy to make it a popular and a
more people-oriented one.
Voice of people?
Now, what baffles the key political figures in the
Opposition is the stance taken by the UNP and the Opposition
Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead a delegation at frequent
intervals to meet the UPFA hierarchy to hold constitutional
reform talks. President Rajapaksa has clearly voiced his
opinion on the proposed Executive Premiership to UNP leader
Ranil Wickremesinghe, and told him that he is no longer
interested in the Executive Premiership as an alternative to
the Executive Presidency. Even Wickremesinghe is aware that
the Executive Premiership that he was canvassing and
practiced for some time in Israel is an obsolete system.
The president told the Opposition Leader that the
Executive Prime Ministerial system would change the whole
structure of the Constitution and further more, it might
need a referendum in addition to the two-thirds majority in
Parliament, which is not feasible in the current context.
The main thrust of the meeting with the members of the
Opposition UNP and the affiliated parties appeared to be the
removal of the restrictions placed on the Executive
President under article 31 of the Constitution.
The President was keen that the restrictions on the number
of terms be removed and called on the joint Opposition to
help him in this endeavour.
The reasoning and the argument adduced for this by the
Government is simple and they are of the opinion that the
choice of electing the Executive President lays entirely in
the hands of the people and that no restrictions be placed
by the Constitution on the right of the people.
However, countries such as the US, after years of
experiments and through trials had devised that there should
be constitutional impediments placed on the number of
occasions an individual could contest the much coveted
position in the world the US Presidency.
It is important at this point of time to examine what
exactly article 31 of the Constitution spells out:
(1) Any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office
of President may be nominated as a candidate for such
(a) by a recognised political party, or
(b) if he is or has been an elected member of the
legislature, by any other political party or by an elector
whose name has been entered in any register of electors.
(2) No person who has been twice elected to the office of
President by the People shall be qualified thereafter to be
elected to such office by the People.
(3) The poll for the election of the President shall be
taken not less than one month and not more than two months
before the expiration of the term of office of the President
So is the constitutional provision relating to the number of
occasions an individual could contest the Presidency, now it
is up to the legislators to decide as to whether the
provision should be relaxed enabling any individual to
contest more than twice or not.
In all probability, a majority of the legislators is in
favour of this move and the Government hopes to woo the
Opposition to support it that will throw a challenge back at
the Opposition. Of course, the Government will modify the
Executive Presidency to give it a more human face.
A Presidency that would be responsible and accountable to
Parliament and a Presidency without blanket immunity would
do some good to the country than the existing Presidency
that has all the powers arrogated to it, through the 1978
Constitution created by the UNP.
The United National Party has already expressed its
reservations about the Government’s decision to play poker
with the proposed constitutional amendments.
UNP general secretary Tissa Attanayake is reported to have
said that there is no point in the UNP attending talks on
constitutional reform if the Government is not interested in
abolishing the Executive Presidency. However, the UNF
(United National Front) partner, the Sri Lanka Muslim
Congress has different views about the Government’s novel
SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem met the President for talks on an
individual basis to take a pragmatic look at the proposed
Hakeem says that if the proposed reforms do not have any
negative impact on the Muslim community at large, they could
look at the approach in a different perspective and think of
supporting the move.
Hakeem believes that one way of restoring good governance is
to go along with the Government while exerting some sort of
pressure in achieving theses targets.
Has UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also fashioned his
thinking on the same lines as that of Hakeem is the question
posed by many worried UNP members.
Most of the top rung members of the UNP are not in favour of
Wickremesinghe’s stance believing that it would harm the
Party in the end.
Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya is one who opposes this
move though he had not come out strongly against
Wickremesinghe’s decision to meet the Government at frequent
Some people tend to think that Wickremesinghe’s move is
something unusual in the present political context and may
be he is buying time to surmount his own problems that has
surfaced in the party in a larger intensity and magnitude
than ever before.
Jayasuriya, mild in nature but firm in his convictions,
is presently on a tirade against the Government.
While Wickremesinghe has softened his attitude, Jayasuriya
has taken a very strong opposition to what is happening
today in the country and called for Opposition unity to
fight the Government.
The Government has taken the sentiments expressed by
Jayasuriya as an offensive launched by a one-time cabinet
However, Jayasuriya qualifies his support to the
Government during the crucial period of the Elam War IV
affirming that he supported the Government for a limited
purpose of eradicating terrorism and achieving much wanted
The Government made use of a press conference convened by
Minister Susil Premajayantha to show its irritation over
Premajayantha particularly took some swipes at Jayasuriya
deploring the views expressed by Jayasuriya criticising the
Government for the present state of affairs in the country.
Not only Premajayantha, the President and Economic Affairs
Minister Basil Rajapaksa seemed perturbed over Jayasuriya’s
Both the President and Basil Rajapaksa expressed their
displeasure at the meeting they held with the Opposition
Leader and the delegation at the Temple Trees over the
utterances made by Jayasuriya.
The President particularly said that when Jayasuriya was a
Minister in his Cabinet, Jayasuriya had given jobs in offer
to over three thousand UNP supporters using his Ministerial
powers and when the Ministry Secretary was questioned,
Jayasuriya became uncomfortable and wanted to quit the
The remarks showed that the Government is particularly
worried about the stance taken by Jayasuriya but at the same
time delivered the strong message to the Opposition that
they couldn’t care less for the Opposition political
Jayasuriya, an advocate of democracy and good governance
prevailed upon the Government while in Government and
following his departure, to implement the now almost defunct
17th Amendment to the Constitution and to appoint the
Constitutional Council, which has the power to recommend
people to be appointed to high-ranking positions.
Another salient feature in the 17th amendment is to appoint
a Public Service Commission, an Election Commission, a
Police Commission and the Bribery Commission, which could
function as independent bodies devoid of any Government
Seventeenth Amendment’s issues
The Government over the past few years has taken a very
different stand on the Constitutional Council which is a
mandatory body that should function under the provisions of
the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Government’s contention was that the Constitutional
Council has flavour that is more political and that it would
not function as an independent institution.
Many on the Government and those who joined the
Government from the Opposition UNP shared this view. At
times, they went to the extent of blaming the legislators
who approved it almost unanimously during the time of
President Chandrika Kumaratunga that it was a ramshackle
piece of legislation passed by Parliament in a hurry. In
their view the 17th Amendment failed to reflect the
intentions of the legislature and thus needed modifications.
The modifications have already been proposed by the
Government to the Opposition delegation led by Opposition
Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that included SLMC leader Rauf
The meeting took place at the Temple Trees where the
Government delegation comprising President Mahinda
Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and
External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris discussed matters more
than having a cup of tea and other refreshments, with the
UNP Leader and others.
Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya however excused himself on the
pretext of a meeting he arranged with the Buddhist prelates
prior to this engagement hiding his discontent over the
Government’s attitude and the move to repeal the Seventeenth
According to the Government proposal, a five-member body
will be set up in place of the Constitutional Council
appointed under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution that
would advise the Government on key appointments in the state
sector in a bid to maintain its independence.
The five-member body will comprise a representative each
of the President, The Prime Minister, The Speaker of
Parliament, and the Leader of the Opposition and a
representative from the other opposition parties.
The Police Commission will be entrusted with a different
task, which would be a departure from its present functions
to supervise and approve the appointments transfers and
The new task would be to liaise with the public to create
a better environment and a better public police
relationship. It will also be entrusted with looking into
the public grievances against the Police with wide powers
vested with them.
Police transfers, appointments, promotions and other
related matters are likely to be handled by a subcommittee
of the Public Service Commission that would be appointed for
a specific duration.
The Government’s intention is to appoint several
sub-committees under the Public Service Commission in order
to handle various subjects coming under the purview of
various ministries that would ensure transparency and good
Analysts, meanwhile point out that if the Government
could appoint people with some public standing who are
willing to undertake greater responsibility on behalf of the
people to the key commissions and the sub-committees
functioning under the Public Service Commission that would
augur well for the Government and the country as well. By
doing so it is their opinion that the political influence
and flavour that is very much visible today in the
Government sector could be reduced largely, thus creating an
independent Government Service devoid of political leanings
and affiliations which could serve the country better.
The Government’s move to replace the Constitutional
Council appointed under the 17th amendment by a special body
(Which will come into effect with yet another amendment
seeking to repeal the provisions under the Seventeenth
Amendment to the Constitution) may come in for fire by the
This may be on the ground that it was necessitated due to
the corruption and malpractices that took place during a
Provincial Council Election held for the North Western
Province some time back.
It was President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government which
initiated the 17th Amendment with the support of the
Opposition, and that a number of people who sit in the
Government benches today supported it whole-heartedly.
Upholding the constitutional spirit
However, some people feel that if the special body so
appointed could act in the spirit of the Constitution with
consensus reached among them, and make key appointments
ensuring the proper legitimacy of the purpose, there would
not be a serious problem in getting the right person for the
right job. Nevertheless, given the acrimonious nature of the
politics today, it may create problems and the scales may
tilt towards the Government thus upsetting the balance.
The fear of the Opposition is on the nature of the
constitution of the special body that gives an upper hand to
the Government enabling them to hold sway on the decisions
In other words, the government representation has the
majority that means that the Government is in a position to
bulldoze the Opposition if the need arises.
In today’s political context the special body that is
almost certain to be appointed with the constitutional
changes that are on the cards, should study and assess
carefully the aspirations and the intentions of the people
before making decisions. However, in all probability it is
in the best interest of the country if this body or the
institution could act with consensus and without a division.
The agreement reached between the Government and the
Opposition after the constitutional reform meeting is to
make available the proposed amendments to the Opposition
before presenting the same for the approval of the Cabinet
for the Opposition to make their responses known to the
The position taken by the Opposition will not in anyway have
a bearing on the Government, which has already decided to
table the proposed amendments in Parliament in September.
This has prompted the Opposition to follow different
course of action and now moving to consult the other parties
to form a grand alliance opposing the Government.
The SLMC however is likely to differ though they are ardent
partners of the United National Front at one stage.
SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem’s one–on–one meeting with the
President had virtually changed the direction of the party
that there is a strong likelihood that they would support
the Government without strings attached.
Hakeem also had a meeting with UNP Leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe after his meeting with the President which is
crucial for the SLMC.
The meeting of the SLMC high command
on Friday ratified the proposal of the party leadership to
support the government’s effort to introduce constitutional
reforms while being in the opposition.
This was the only way out for SLMC leader Hakeem to save the
party from a possible division.
A number of SLMC Parliamentarians were adamant that they
support the government at this crucial juncture and Hakeem
had no alternative but support the government in a bid to
save the party from possible political erosion.
with a sour taste
It appears that the Opposition is fast loosing its support
base in the face of a strong government; Nevertheless
Wickremesinghe had put his pawns in place in the political
chessboard to cling on to power as the leader of the UNP.
The SLMC’s decision would definitely add to his woes on
top of what he is facing in the party, as discontent and
resentment over his attitude is simmering down the corridors
of Siri Kotha - the party headquarters.
Wickremesinghe’s one-on–one discussion with the youthful
Sajith Premadasa for settlement of issues between the two
has come to a veritable stand off after the proceedings of
the meeting held last Wednesday had been leaked to the
press. It said that Premadasa who has settled his score with
Wickremesinghe, is now eyeing for the Deputy Leadership of
The Press report embarrassed Premadasa, which finally led to
deadlock after the Sunday evening meeting at the residence
of Karu Jayasuriya.
The talks between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa broke down on
Sunday, a Premadasa loyalist told this column.
He said that Wickremesinghe denied any knowledge leaking the
proceedings of the previous meeting to the Press but
Premadasa was fully convinced that it was leaked out to
scuttle his prospects in the party.
Premadasa on Sunday having made a statement wanted to leave
the meeting when Wickremesinghe had one–on–one with
Jayasuriya at the same premises aimed at pacifying Premadasa
and settling matters with him.
Jayasuriya made a relentless effort, but of no avail,
Premadasa left the place after excusing himself and putting
the process on hold.
Wickremesinghe very smartly switched
Premadasa’s battlefield to the deputy leadership from the
leadership and manoeuvred things according to his whims and
The idea of the Leader of the UNP was to divide the
responsibilities of the deputy leader in order to
This however incensed the Jayasuriya camp who opposed it
Jayasuriya in particular was not in favour of de-valuing the
post that he held and wanted to step down honourably and
become back-bencher in Parliament.
The Mahanayakes and other Buddhist prelates were supportive
of Jayasuriya and they personally requested the leadership
to maintain status quo in the party.
What Premedasa believes is that the inspired leak to the
Press on Sunday had in fact been planned to create confusion
in the party and make things difficult for him.
He told his loyalists that he agreed to accept the Deputy
Leadership on the ground that the local body representatives
would be allowed to cast their vote to elect office bearers
for the party.
He now takes up the position that even if he accepted a
position it would not be valid since it would only become
legal after the all island executive committee ratifies the
In his own words to his loyalists, Premadasa says that he
is not interested in any position as for now.
Does that mean that the battle for the leadership would
haunt Wickremesinghe once again? It looks like after
Premadasa was allegedly misled by the party leadership to
believe that nothing would be made public which transpired
during the meeting on previous Wednesday had made its way to
All in all, the month of September is going to be
eventful for the Government as well as the Opposition as
many crucial decisions are to be taken by the Government on
constitutional affairs while the Opposition is pondering how
to make their way forward thawing the iceberg placed on
their way by the Government.
Wickremesinghe as the Leader of the Opposition has to wage a
battle in the home front to keep his position intact while
engaging the Government on the proposed constitutional