In the last few articles in this series, I think I should look at how and why the great hopes with which this government was elected have been shattered. I thought this essential because I have read many versions of how the 19th Amendment was passed. Many of the commentaries written in English seem largely designed to place in a bad light those who wanted amendments to the various versions put forward in various ways by government. What is forgotten now is how the Amendment was produced without consultation, in contrast to the promise in the Manifesto of the President.
Since memories are so short, I will note here some important pledges that were completely ignored by the cabal that decided to take charge of the Reform Process
1. Saturday January 10
The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, will take his oath of office
2. Sunday January 11
A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament, will be appointed with Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister
3. Monday January 12
In order to strengthen democracy, a National Advisory Council will be set up inclusive of representatives of parties represented in Parliament as well as Civil Society organizations.
Monday January 19
Parliament will meet
4. Tuesday January 20
The Standing Orders will be amended and, in terms of Proposal 67/10 now tabled in Parliament, Oversight Committees will be set up comprising members of Parliament who are not in the Cabinet and their Chairmanship will be given so as to ensure representation of all parties, after consultation with the leaders of all parties represented in Parliament.
5. Wednesday January 21
The process will begin of abolishing the authoritarian executive presidential system and replacing it with an executive of a Cabinet of Ministers responsible to Parliament, and of repealing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened and independent institutions, including a Judicial Services Commission, a Police Commission, a Public Service Commission, an Elections Commission, a Commission against Bribery and Corruption and a Human Rights Commission. This will be through a 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which will be presented to Parliament and passed as swiftly as possible.
6. Wednesday January 28
An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.
Tuesday January 29
A Vote on Account will be introduced in Parliament to implement special measures to provide relief to the people by reducing the rising Cost of Living.
Wednesday January 30
Salaries will be raised and direct and indirect taxes on necessary goods and services will be reduced.
7. Monday February 2
An Ethical Code of Conduct will be introduced legally for all representatives of the people.
There are 10 items here, 7 of which were not fulfilled properly. I have numbered the first because, while the President did indeed take oaths, Ravi Karunanayake introduced the idea of the Prime Minister also taking his oaths at the same time. It was pointed out that this would not be proper if the previous Prime Minister had not vacated office, and Ravi was delegated to ensure that that happened, but he failed. So in fact the Prime Minister took office when there was no vacancy.
No one at the time grudged Ranil Wickremesinghe being made Prime Minister, as pledged. But to flout the system, and not even engage in the simple mechanism of the President formally dismissing his predecessor before appointing him was a bad omen. After all it was the collapse of systems that had allowed for the authoritarian decision making of the previous government, and it would have set the right tone had we always done the right thing in terms of legality.
But the haste was understandable. While we were drafting the manifesto, Jayampathy Wickremaratne announced that, the day after the President took office, a Bill would be introduced transferring power to the Prime Minister. He said that the Bill was being prepared and would be made public during the campaign.
I pointed out that in the first place that would be playing into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands, since the former President would like nothing better than to present the election as a contest between him and Ranil. Jayampathy’s Bill would hand the election over to the government. Secondly, it would be immoral to ask the people to vote for one person, in order to give power to another – who had been persuaded to step down by his own party, because they knew he could not win.
Jayampathy told me the next day that I was correct, but I suspect all he abandoned was the publication of his Bill, and that he was determined to introduce it after the election. In fact when we sent the draft of the 100 day programme to Ranil Wickremesinghe for his observations, one of the changes that he wanted was the empowerment of the Prime Minister, but that was omitted after discussion.
The commitment then was to ‘abolish the authoritarian executive presidency’ not as has been claimed to ‘abolish the executive presidency’. Similarly, the commitment was to ‘repealing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened and independent institutions’ not to reintroduce the 17th amendment.
Lakshman Kiriella, normally a circumspect man, kept insisting during our discussions about the 19th Amendment that we were pledged to restore the 17th. When I pointed out that there was nothing of the sort in the 100 Day programme, he said it was in the longer manifesto. I did not have it with me at the time, but when I checked I found that there is no mention there either of the 17th Amendment. He also argued that repealing the 18th meant reintroducing the 17th, an absurd argument since there is a commitment to further legislation.
But obviously Ranil and Jayampathy were determined to go ahead with their original plan. That is why the second commitment was violated. Not only were there more than 25 members of the Cabinet, with Ranil having been elevated to appointment on Day 1 rather than Day 2, it did not have representatives of all political parties. Instead it was predominanty a UNP Cabinet.
Worse, the National Advisory Council did not have representatives of all parties, because that would have led a a broader process of consultation. Instead it consisted mainly of those Ranil Wickremesinghe felt he could dominate. And instead of discussing matters comprehensively, it worked through allocating responsibilities for particular tasks to particular members, with Ranil taking charge of what was most dear to him, the effort to abolish the Executive Presidency and endow himself with plenipotentiary powers.
Before I go on to examine how he and Jayampathy tried to push that idea through, let me note that the Code of Conduct seems to have been simply entrusted to Anura Kumara Dissanayake, with no obligation to consult others. He it seems did submit a draft very soon, but said that had been ignored. He should have pushed it, but given that the Council does not meet regularly, and given his lack of authority in such a forum, it is not surprising that the matter has been practically forgotten. Ironically, when we last discussed the matter, he asked me what could be done. But with no one else even raising the issue, I fear his draft will lie dormant until Ranil has got the election he craves for.