SPECIAL REPORT : Part 60January 27, 2015, 8:23 pm
MP Vasantha Senanayake arrives at UNP headquarters Sirikotha in late Nov 2014. Senanayake is flanked by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ruwan Wijewardene, Dr. Harsha de Silva and R. Yogarajan
by Shamindra Ferdinando
An unexpected attempt by Gampaha District UPFA MP Vasantha Senanayake to move a controversial Bill titled 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, in May last year, reflected the growing discord among a section of the parliamentary group.
The SLFP leadership thwarted his effort. The MP was told to back off or face the consequences. Undaunted by the SLFP leadership’s attitude, MP Senanayake persisted with his efforts until he switched his allegiance to the UNP, on Nov. 20, 2014, two days before the then SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena declared, his intention to challenge the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January 8, 2015 presidential poll.
In fact, MP Senanayake had been the first SLFP/UPFA member to strike a discordant note, publicly, at a time the then ruling party felt it was invincible. The top SLFP leadership refused to allow MP Senanayake to explain his position.
The SLFP again prevented MP Senanayake from presenting the Bill, on September 25, 2014. Under pressure from his party, MP Senanayake put off the presentation of a Private Member’s Bill, titled, "Bill to amend the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka."
The presentation of the Bill was listed on the Order Paper for Sept. 25 2014, but when he was asked to move the Bill, the MP said he was postponing the presentation and instead, asked the Government to consider appointing an all-party committee to go into Constitutional reforms and to study what has been put forward by him and other MPs, as the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) does not seem to be doing this.
However, several UNP MPs were visibly disturbed by MP Senanayake’s decision to back off at the last minute, with UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake offering to present it to the House, if the UPFA MP did not want to do so.
"We appreciate the attempt by the UPFA MP and approve the contents of the Bill. He has done a good job which should be commended. If he is forced to withdraw it, we would like to present it to the House," Karunanayake said.
However, this was not allowed by Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkody saying the Bill had been withdrawn by MP Senanayake.
Subsequently, an irate MP Senanayake told this correspondent that the SLFP leadership refused to see ground realities. Unless they addressed contentious issues, the UNP-led coalition could take advantage, he said, adding that his was a genuine attempt to counter ongoing Opposition projects aimed at causing political instability (New Constitution needed to defuse ‘political time bomb’-Govt MP tells SLFP-The Island, Sept. 27, 2014).
Interestingly the first salvo was fired by an MP, representing the Gampaha district, whose leader Basil Rajapaksa, the former National Organizer of the SLFP, is widely blamed for the catastrophic defeat suffered.
Senanayake dared to challenge the SLFP leadership at a time when the seniors remained silent. The young politician told The Island, several weeks before Maithripala Sirisena’s revolt, that a new Constitution could help the SLFP-led ruling coalition to defuse, what he called, a ‘political time bomb’. The Sinhala media largely ignored his efforts.
Senanayake was responding to this correspondent soon after the SLFP leadership, on Sept 25, 2014, thwarted his bid to present the Bill which sought to restrict the number of ministers and deputy ministers to 30 and 31, respectively. The young politician also proposed that the amendment guaranteed that the President could hold only the Defence portfolio.
Asked whether he had withdrawn the Bill due to pressure from UPFA seniors, MP Senanayake said that he would persist with his bid, though it was unlikely to be endorsed publicly. "Having had discussed the ways and means of addressing public concerns, relating to JRJ’s Constitution, I wanted to present the Bill in May (2014). However, the party seniors felt that the Bill shouldn’t be presented without being discussed among the members. I agreed. Unfortunately, the party deprived me of the opportunity, at least to discuss the issue."
Senanayake primarily blamed the then SLFP National Organizer, Basil Rajapaksa, for the crisis in the party. Party seniors remained silent for their survival.
Responding to a query, the young politician revealed that he hadn’t received a response from SLFP General Secretary and Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, though he had written to the minister as regards his proposals, submitted to a special Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), as well as the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. The MP said that a copy of the letter sent to the SLFP General Secretary had been submitted to Chief Government Whip and Water Supply and Drainage Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena.
In his letter to Sirisena, and Gunawardena, the SLFPer said that (a) the 22nd Amendment would help the government to address issues pertaining to its image as well as transparency (b) convince the electorate of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s genuine intention to do away with the 1978 Constitution (c) emphasized that the government recognized that JRJ’s Constitution was contrary to the thinking of SWRD Bandaranaike’s as well as the Rajapaksas, (d) regain public support by constitutionally restricting the size of the cabinet due to perception that even those struggling to make ends meet had been taxed to sustain the luxurious lifestyles of ministers, (e) ensure efficiency and accountability and (f) most importantly preventing those who switched allegiance to the government, in return for portfolios, from demanding portfolios.
Senanayake said that the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was part of constitutional proposals made to the PSC, in 2013. The MP alleged that some UPFA members of the PSC acted as if he had been doing something detrimental to the interests of the SLFP. "I had no option but to remind them that JRJ was the architect of the 1978 Constitution and SLFP leaders had always opposed it."
Asked whether he was so naive as to believe that the government would reduce the size of the Cabinet in the run-up to national level polls, in early 2015, the MP stressed that the proposal was meant to come into operation following the next parliamentary election. It wouldn’t have a bearing on the present Parliament, Senanayake said, adding that he earnestly hoped the party seniors realized he wasn’t pursuing a project detrimental to the then SLFP-led government.
The MP explained that the government should act swiftly and decisively to thwart the UNP as well as other opposition elements, from using their demand for abolishing the executive presidency to garner public support. The entire Opposition strategy could be neutralized through constitutional means, Senanayake claimed.
Senanayake alleged that the SLFP leadership sabotaged his genuine effort though it repeatedly accused Opposition political parties of not making their constitutional proposals to the special PSC.
It would be pertinent to mention that Senanayake acted even before, Socialist Alliance, comprising the CP, LSSP and the Democratic Left Front (DLF), as well as the Liberal Party, urged the then President Rajapaksa to abandon his decision to call for early presidential poll. At the time, Senanayake challenged the SLFP, the JHU, or Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), hadn’t even contemplated pushing the SLFP to change its course. The NFF called off its campaign halfway whereas the JHU persisted with its offensive until the Rajapaksa administration was brought down.
The then UPFA National List MP and present Higher Education Minister Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Liberal Party leader) was the only politician to react to MP Senanayake’s front-page interview in Sept 27, 2014, edition of The Island.
Prof. Wijesinha asserted that Senanayake’s criticism of the SLFP leadership reflected the failure on the part of the coalition to address issues of concern. Prof. Wijesinha pointed out that resisting the push for constitutional amendments, meant to drastically restrict the powers of the then President, wasn’t surprising when the ruling party wasn’t even interested in amending the Standing Orders to ensure the smooth functioning of the parliament. In a brief interview with The Island, headlined Committee on Standing Orders hasn’t met for four years, with strap line, Failing to amend Standing Orders inexcusable-Prof. Wijesinha-The Island, Sept 29, 2014), he explained the developing crisis.
Failure on the part of Parliament to amend the Standing Orders to ensure the smooth functioning of the House was inexcusable, U Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha said.
Prof. Wijesinha alleged that for want of remedial measures the situation continued to deteriorate much to the disappointment of those who still believed in restoring the supremacy of parliament.
Referring to UPFA Gampaha District MP Vasantha Senanayake’s comments, Prof. Wijesinha said he couldn’t comprehend the inordinate delay in amending the Standing Orders, particularly in the wake of the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Responding to a question, Prof. Wijesinha said that many issues, including the impeachment of the Chief Justice, could have been handled properly but for a lacuna in the Standing Orders.
Asked whether he as an MP, had at least raised the issue in parliament, Prof. Wijesinha said that he had requested Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to take remedial action.
"In fact, after having examined the existing Standing Orders, I proposed a series of amendments to restore the supremacy of Parliament with regard to legislation and oversight. The 1978 Constitution weakened Parliament. Hence the need for revision of the Standing Orders."
The MP said that he had written to Speaker Rajapaksa, after having given notice to the Secretary General of Parliament of the motion moved under Standing Order 134 seeking far reaching amendments to the Standing Orders.
"Although I expected the Committee on Standing Orders to take up my motion, it is yet to meet. My efforts to reconvene the Committee failed. In fact, it hadn’t met since 2011."
Prof. Wijesinha said that the Committee on Standing Orders had met a couple of times, during the early part of 2010. The then UNP-led Opposition, too, was responsible for, what he called, the sorry state of affairs in Parliament. Responding to another query, the MP said that he had discussed the issue with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chief Opposition Whip John Amaratunga (UNP representative in the Committee on Standing Orders), Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena as well as Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Prof. Wijesinha said that Minister Nanayakkara had raised the issue at the party leaders’ meeting though the Committee was never reconvened.
In his letter to Speaker Rajapaksa, Prof. Wijesinha said that he was ready to discuss amendments to the motion which proposed specific changes to the existing Standing Orders.
The Parliamentarian said that the Amendment No 1 was designed to ensure that questions raised in Parliament were answered promptly. Amendments 2 to 4 were meant to give Consultative Committees to peruse Bills before presentation and to ensure the Bills were available in all three languages.
Prof. Wijesinha said that a recent statement attributed to the former Director, administration, of Parliament, Lacille de Silva, highlighted what was happening in Parliament. Lacille de Silva called for drastic reduction of the number of members in Parliament as he felt the taxpayers’ money was being squandered on a group of useless people. The outspoken official asserted that the country could be best served by a smaller group of politicians representing the government and the Opposition (Examine possibility of reducing number of MPs-top ex-administrator-The Island Sept. 26, 2014)
MP Wijesinha warned that the government’s failure to rectify shortcomings was advantageous to the Opposition. Opposition lawmakers believed in creating chaos in Parliament to help their strategy, the MP said.
The following are the remaining amendments proposed by Prof. Wijesinha:
"Amendments 5 and 6 meant to introduce a judicial aspect into impeachment procedures, by providing for investigation by an external body, which shall allow for the laying out of charges and defence as is the case in other Parliaments which have impeachment powers. Amendment 7 is to strengthen the role of Consultative Committees.
Amendments 8 to 15 are to strengthen the role of the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises.
Amendment 16 is to strengthen accountability with regard to the Committee on high Posts and also the Parliamentary Council, where the current practice of the Opposition of avoiding their responsibilities must be overcome."
The then President Rajapaksa could have averted the ignominy of a humiliating defeat had he bothered to examine the ground situation. But, unfortunately, those who had been around him never allowed time and space to hear a dissenting opinion. Those who genuinely wanted the SLFP to charter a people - friendly course publicly criticized the administration in a bid to convince the SLFP leadership to change its style. JHU heavyweight, Patali Champika Ranakawa, was one of those who made a desperate bid to compel the government to change its style. But the SLFP remained adamant until the very end. The top leadership had been blinded by the positive media coverage it had received from those who immensely benefited from their largesse. The media thrived on the UPFA largesse, hence they tend to present a rosy picture. The government ensured that Messrs D.E.W. Gunasekera, Prof. Wijesinha and Vasantha Senanayake didn’t receive adequate media coverage, thereby depriving them of an opportunity to pressure the top leadership.
In fact, the former President had adequate space to take remedial measures, as late as Sept 2014, when an influential section of the UNP was still thinking of naming Sajith Premadasa as its prime ministerial candidate. Close on the heels of a magnificent performance at the Uva Provincial Council poll, late last year, the then Opposition Leader of the Uva PC, Harin Fernando declared that Premadasa should be named the prime ministerial candidate to facilitate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s campaign at the presidential poll (UNP needs Sajith as PM candidate to win presidential poll-Harin-The Island, Oct 6, 2014).. Obviously Harin Fernando hadn’t been aware of secret efforts to engineer Maithripala Sirisena’s defection at that time. The UNP’s rising star declared his intention to push for Premadasa’s appointment as the prime ministerial candidate at a UNP meeting in Kolonnawa, on Oct 5, 2014, much to the delight of those awaiting for a Premadasa era in the UNP. But Wickremesinghe advised Harin Fernando soon after his return from the UK (the UNP leader was overseas when HF made his pronouncement) not to pursue the matter (Naming prime ministerial candidate not realistic with strap line Ranil tells Harin-The Island Oct 11, 2014).
The SLFP should appoint a committee to examine its unceremonious exit from power, consequent to the ill-fated decision to go for snap presidential poll. A comprehensive study is necessary to ensure that the new leadership takes remedial measures. In fact, all political parties can benefit from such a study. It will help establish the so-called royal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, role in the previous government’s downfall. Since president Rajapaksa’s defeat, Abeygunawardena, had made desperate bid to save himself from the wrath of the former President, as well as those who genuinely loved Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the former President wouldn’t have expected 63-year-old Abeygunawardene, formerly director of the state-run ITN and the National Savings Bank (NSB), to say the following: "Not all of Nostradamus’ predictions have come true either. There was only so much I could do to help him win, maybe 5%. But you must have luck to be the president."