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20A encounters contentious issues

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Talks between President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa on  Wednesday proved inconclusive Talks between President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday proved inconclusive

Even as the dust settles on the 19th Amendment, the main political parties are scrambling to have the next amendment, the 20th Amendment tailored to their reaspective needs in view of the general election that is expected to be called, possibly in late May or June.

Unlike with the 19th Amendment, the United National Party (UNP) and the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) both agree in principle on the concept of the 20th Amendment: combining the proportional representation (PR) and ‘first past the post’ (FPP) systems.

However, they have strong disagreements on how it should be implemented: the UNP wants an immediate dissolution of Parliament with the next elections held under the existing PR system; the SLFP is demanding that polls be held under the new system which will effectively delay elections.

The UNP believes that it needs to cash in on the goodwill created by the January presidential election, the easing of some financial hardships of voters by their ‘mini’ budget and now, the passage of the 19thAmendment, largely due to its commitment towards pruning the powers of the President.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/logo/tis.jpgIt also fears that, if elections were to be held later rather than sooner, the burdens of incumbency will create a negative impact. Already, there are complains that some government sectors are under performing. Scandals - such as the one involving the Central Bank Governor - can also be damaging.

The SLFP, on the other hand, needs time to get its act together. The rift caused by the defection of Maithripala Sirisena before the presidential poll is yet to heal. The party is divided into three factions: a Sirisena faction, a group loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and those who are ‘neutral’.

President Sirisena held talks with Rajapaksa on Wednesday but they proved inconclusive. Rajapaksa was insisting on being named as prime ministerial candidate for the elections and the President was non-committal. The former President was also seeking nominations for his loyalists.

Having conceded a significant portion of his presidential powers to the Prime Minister through the 19th Amendment, President Sirisena would now be loath to hand the premiership to Rajapaksa, having himself borne the brunt of the latter’s autocratic leadership style during his days as a minister.

The positions adopted by the Rajapaksa faction recently are curiously paradoxical. It fought tooth and nail to stall the 19th Amendment; the fear was that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be the next Premier and hence his powers should be limited. Now, Rajapaksa wants to be nominated for the Premiership!

The extent to which the Sirisena-Rajapaksa rift heals - if it does at all - is crucial for the SLFP at the next election. It is highly unlikely that Rajapaksa will be named as prime ministerial candidate but he may be accommodated with a nomination to contest. His loyalists may not receive the same courtesy.

That is because a significant number of them have charges of corruption against them. Also, some of them were the most vitriolic critics of President Sirisena during the presidential election campaign. Some of them such as Wimal Weerawansa continue to hurl insults, making reconciliation difficult.

If Rajapaksa decides to go it alone, then the SLFP will have a real problem on its hands because the anti-UNP vote will be split, making it easier for the UNP to become the single largest party and stake a claim to form a government - even if it does not obtain a simple majority in the next Parliament.

If the two major parties agree, the 20th Amendment will sail through Parliament but the smaller parties have made it known that is unhappy with a system that allows for the bulks of the seats in Parliament - possibly 160 out of 255 - to be determined under the ‘first past the post’ method.

Parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, despite a strong support base throughout the country, would find it difficult to win at an electoral level under this system because the two major parties would dominate those contests.

Depriving such parties of reasonable representation in the legislature can result in serious long-term repercussions where pent up frustrations can erupt in many forms. After all, this country does have recent history of ethnic riots, religious tensions and youth insurrections.

Also of concern is the decline of the population in the North and East after the war. If electorates are to be re-demarcated this would mean a reduction in the number of parliamentarians from those regions despite an increase in their total number. That will not augur well for ethnic harmony.

It is imperative that those engaged in drafting the 20th Amendment take these factors into careful consideration. The 1978 Constitution caused much angst and resulted in drastic revisions. The country’s lawmakers must learn from those mistakes and be careful not to repeat them.

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