This is my Nation  


Ruling party consolidating its power

Several events unfolded in the local political landscape this week and the issues they raise are likely to have significant repercussions for both the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the collective opposition in the coming months.
First, it was stated that seventy-six parliamentarians from the ruling party have submitted a request to the Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to probe the conduct of former Chief Justice Sarath Silva. Silva, previously a personal friend of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is now a bitter critic.
A few days later it was announced that Kesara Senanayake, a former United National Party (UNP) mayor of Kandy, who had been convicted of misusing public funds, had been pardoned by President Rajapaksa using the powers vested in him under the Constitution.

This was followed by Parliament preparing to pass legislation termed the ‘Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilised Assets’ as an urgent Bill in the national interest, a move that has left the Opposition furious and the business community confused, to say the least.
Amidst all this, the President found the time soon after his return from Australia to visit injured MP Duminda Silva at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital. Shortly afterwards, Silva was discharged from hospital and flown overseas for treatment.

These events are indeed unrelated to each other; nevertheless they constitute a palpable political statement from the government: the President and the ruling party are now seeking to consolidate their political gains in no uncertain terms at a time when the opposition parties are hopelessly divided.
In pursuing a probe against Sarath Silva, the ruling party appears to be preparing for a showdown with the former Chief Justice. Silva has protested his innocence but it cannot be denied that his tenure as the head of the judiciary was controversial, to say the least.
It will be recalled that Silva himself headed a bench that once delivered a verdict against former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the ‘Waters’ Edge’ case. In delivering judgment the former Chief Justice made the point that politicians, despite enjoying immunity, should be held accountable.
The tables appear to have turned now and the government is keen to hold Silva accountable for his actions. However, critics of the ruling party will argue that this sends the wrong message to the judiciary and will not encourage judicial independence and integrity.

The President’s decision to pardon Senanayake also raised a few eyebrows. Senanayake is the son of the late E.L. Senanayake, an iconic UNPer from Kandy belonging to a different era. However, he is known to have shifted loyalties to the UPFA and now it is being suggested that this was a ‘reward’. 
Ironically, Senanayake’s conviction for the misappropriation of Rs.185, 185.65 was affirmed by a Supreme Court bench headed by present Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in December 2010. Again critics of the government will suggest that the ‘wrong message’ is being sent to the judiciary.
That was also the thrust of the opposition when it was revealed that the President had visited MP Duminda Silva in hospital. Silva was seriously injured in a clash with another Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwart, Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was killed in the confrontation.
The Premachandra family has been at the forefront in questioning why Silva is not being treated as a suspect in the incident and other senior SLFPers are known to be perturbed because Premachandra was a trusted party loyalist. The President, however, had no reservations in visiting Silva.

While these were all incidents involving individuals, a potentially more significant law was also taking shape in the form of the ‘Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilised Assets Bill’ which allows the government to take over business enterprises that were deemed to be inefficient.
The government contends that there are many such enterprises which could be taken over and run more efficiently but the Opposition counters that this is a smokescreen to take over businesses with a view to intimidating political opponents with business interests.
The bill has been found to be consistent with the Constitution by the Supreme Court, requiring only a simple majority in Parliament. In any event, even if a two-thirds majority was required, the government has the numbers in the legislature to see it through.

This will be a ‘test case’ for the ruling party because a few months ago, it attempted to pass legislation setting up a pension scheme for the private sector. That was thwarted not in Parliament but in the streets of Katunayake, when Police shot dead a free trade zone worker protesting against the bill.
The resulting hullabaloo meant that the ruling party could not push through that legislation. It was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that was leading the campaign against that Bill and the party is now bitterly divided into two camps and not in a position of strength to mount another campaign.
It is the UNP that has so far led the protests against what is being called the ‘Business Takeover Bill’ but again that party too is still in the throes of a leadership struggle and whether it can challenge the government on this issue remains to be seen.

Of interest will be the response of the business community which, after all, will be the affected party. To date, no business leader or business organisation has taken up cudgels against the bill and that is an indication that mass scale protests - which will be needed if the Bill is to be thwarted - are unlikely.  
The common thread that runs through all these developments is that the ruling party and President Mahinda Rajapaksa in particular are keen to build on their current stranglehold on power, in a manner reminiscent of the J.R. Jayewardene era - and it is Jayewardene’s constitution that makes this possible.
The President, no doubt, believes that having delivered the country from the woes of terrorism, he must now take Sri Lanka to greater heights and that to do so, he must have a free hand. It is a laudable motive but the government would do well not to push the boundaries of democracy in the process.