Sunday Island Editorial
What Sri Lanka’s leaders do to themselves and their reputations is largely their own business and is of less concern to the country as a whole. But making Sri Lanka’s name mud both at home and abroad, as they have been doing in parliament for three days between Wednesday and Friday last week, is something that affects all the people. The whole country was privy to the unspeakably rowdy and violent behavior of a section of our lawmakers thanks to the live telecasts of parliamentary proceedings. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who President Sirisena and purported Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have roundly condemned, was one figure who stood tall demonstrating courage of a high order in attempting to carry out his duties and obligations. We are fortunate to have a man of his caliber occupying the position he does at this unprecedentedly troubled moment.
There is no escaping the reality that the crisis that has hit the country with a near knockout blow was the doing of President Maithripala Sirisena. The constitution bestows on him the power of calling upon whoever commands the parliamentary majority to become prime minister and form a government. This he did on October 26 sacking the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is obvious that the president must properly use the discretion vested on him by law to satisfy himself that Wickremesinghe had lost the clear majority he demonstrated at a vote of no confidence as recently as April this year with a comfortable majority of 46 votes. He must also determine who commands the majority he opined that the previous PM had lost. President Sirisena decided that it is Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The fact that Sirisena prorogued (or suspended parliament) for 19 days clearly suggest that he knew that Rajapaksa did not command the magic 113 votes in the 225-member House when he switched horses. The prorogation was an obvious time buying exercise giving Rajapaksa the opportunity of inducing defections. Some UNP MPs defected for office that the president and Rajapaksa could bestow on them. Mind boggling figures of cash on offer to defect or not to defect has been widely published in the public domain. But despite Sirisena’s and Rajapaksa’s best efforts, the targeted number could not be achieved. The president then decided to dissolve parliament and set dates for a general election next year. He was clearly encouraged by the results of last February’s local government elections when both the UNP and his own SLFP were routed by the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna which was the Rajapaksa proxy. Those results make MR himself supremely confident that he will comfortably romp home in a parliamentary election; hence his oft-repeated mantra that the best solution to the current impasse is the verdict and mandate of the people.
What happened in the House last week is very likely to be repeated on Monday unless Sirisena, Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe and Speaker Jayasuriya can hammer out some formula to stop what at present strongly appears to be a minority government’s desperate bid to cling to power by force by preventing a floor test of who commands the majority. Let us hope that this will be possible over the weekend. Even one senior member of the SLFP, Kalutara district MP Kumara Welgama, went on record yesterday asking why they should form a government if they did not have a majority. He faulted the UPFA for continuing to claim to be the ruling party without a majority. Like Sirisena and Rajapaksa he says: “What I always say is that Parliament should be dissolved and we should go for an election and then we can show we have the majority.”
We do not agree that the president should have any say of the content of the no-confidence resolution moved by the JVP that was twice passed in the House by a voice vote rather than the most desirable division by name that a matter of this import merits. But Sirisena had wanted the first part of the original JVP resolution removed. Hoping that this compromise, by somewhat watering down the resolution, at least a semblance of normality can be restored there appears to have been some agreement. It must be said in the president’s favour that he has condemned the rowdy violence in parliament and insisted that he will not prorogue the House again. While cynics will say that given the rapidity with which Sirisena changes his mind these assurances must be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.
UNP MP Thevarapperuma, who some say carried a butter knife into the chamber (he says he took a letter opener from the speaker’s table), must be properly dealt with by the police who are now under the president. Ranjan Ramanayake only ‘disarmed’ him. All the others who damaged and destroyed parliament property, flung heavy books and chillie water at their opponents must also be similarly dealt with. But this appears a forlorn hope. Neither Sirisena nor Rajapaksa can absolve themselves from blame over what happened in parliament. Rajapaksa, particularly, could have called off the bloodhounds when the disorder escalated to unprecedented levels. Obviously what happened had been organized and those who sicced the dogs could scarcely be expected to call them off.
The big question now is whether the agents of disorder will want to keep the pot on the boil until the Supreme Court decides in early December whether the dissolution is lawful or not. If so, will they pressure Sirisena to prorogue once again? He may change his mind despite his assertion he would not. Even if the court holds the dissolution invalid, the UNP and its allies and the UPFA can agree to carry a dissolution resolution with the required two thirds majority. Undoubtedly elections – both presidential and parliamentary – are a desirable proposition. While parliament can be dissolved, will the president resign before his term ends? It can be credibly argued that the performance of the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe combination merits electoral review. But are robber barons to be restored in pursuit of that objective?