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President urges support for constitutional amendments

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There was drama aplenty in Parliament this week, but the government’s efforts to enact the 19th Amendment to the Constitution are yet to become a reality. It has been thwarted by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which is determined to push through electoral reforms at the same time.

Parliament is now scheduled to meet again tomorrow in what would be the final effort to push through the reforms. Despite many optimistic pronouncements from both the government and the opposition, their passage through the legislature is not certain.

That is because the opposition SLFP remains divided. The factions loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa are pulling in different directions. The latter is gaining momentum with Rajapaksa making regular public appearances to shore up support.

That Rajapaksa is on the ascendancy was evident when parliamentarians protested with a so-called ‘fast unto death’ on hearing that he was to be summoned before the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). As farcical as it was, it was effective nevertheless.

The matter at stake - Rajapaksa being summoned to the CIABOC - was only an excuse for an issue. There was no reason why the former President should have been treated differently. The government, by directing the CIABOC to visit Rajapaksa instead, only highlighted how weak it was.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/logo/tis.jpgAlmost all SLFP parliamentarians barring those holding ministerial portfolios - and not merely the Rajapaksa loyalists - participated in this protest. This had led to suspicions that it was a tactic by the party to delay the debate until Parliament could consider electoral reforms as well.

Last week’s events suggest that President Sirisena does not hold the kind of firm grip over his party that his predecessor enjoyed. However, he may be pushed to act decisively against those who are defying him. After all, he still enjoys all the powers that Rajapaksa had.

The President finds himself in an unenviable position. He is indebted to the United National Party (UNP) for garnering the bulk of the votes that assured his victory at the presidential poll. He is also committed to fulfilling the key promises he made to the electorate during his campaign.

However, to do so, he needs the support of the SLFP where a majority of parliamentarians actively worked against him at the elections. Some of them are under investigation for serious allegations of abuse of power and corruption. Others are die-hard Rajapaksa loyalists.

Many of them fear that, in the event of a general election, they will not receive nominations from an SLFP led by President Sirisena. These individuals have nothing to gain and everything to lose by the passage of the 19th Amendment which will only ensure an early dissolution of this Parliament.

Apart from the Sirisena and the Rajapaksa camps in the SLFP, there is a third faction consisting of party seniors - Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Yapa and the like - who are performing a balancing act trying to work with the two warring factions to reach common ground.

For all these groups to agree to vote on the 19th Amendment (and, the proposed 20th Amendment which will enable electoral reforms and a return to the first-past-the-post system in tandem with the proportional representation system) is a Herculean task as much as it is a historic opportunity.

It is complicated by Rajapaksa’s dreams of a political comeback. Rajapaksa is certain to enter the fray at the next general elections, and President Sirisena was to say this week that there was no bar for him to seeking nomination. However, he could not be nominated as a prime ministerial candidate, he said.

That Rajapaksa is preparing for his grand entrance became evident with the return of his younger brother Basil - who was the political livewire behind the Rajapaksa regime - to the country. Basil’s arrest on Wednesday night will only complicate matters vis-à-vis the Rajapaksa faction even more.

It has become clear in the past few weeks that President Sirisena - and the nation, for that matter - can ill afford to continue in this state of confusion and indecisiveness for long. The President has two options: Dissolve Parliament or crack the whip on the SLFP and bring it firmly under his wing.

The President and the ruling UNP are known to prefer the option of an election where the UNP hopes it can cash in not so much on its performance so far but on the divisions in the SLFP and a potential three-way contest, if Rajapaksa chooses to contest on his own.

The President re-iterated his call for support for the 19th and 20thAmendments in his address to the nation on Thursday night, but if the first 100 days of the Maithripala Sirisena administration are anything to go by, the only certainty is that the best laid plans can go awry.

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