In these last few articles on the tragedy that befell our hopes for comprehensive reform, I thought I should spell out how exactly Ranil Wickremesinghe and those working to his agenda hijacked the process. Their purpose, far from broadbasing power and ensuring a range of different authorities, was to concentrate power in the hands of what one of them lovingly described early on as an Executive Prime Minister.
Thus they took upon themselves alone the drafting of the 19th Amendment, without open discussion as had been pledged through the National Advisory Council. And so the discussion paper that came out in early March, circulated only to a select few, declared that
33A (2) The President shall, except in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister or as otherwise required by the Constitution, act on the advice of the Prime Minister or of such other Minister as has been authorized by the Prime Minister to advise, the President with regard to any function assigned to that Minister
The rest of the draft was based on this proposition, with the Prime Minister being ‘the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers’.
I had been left out of all consultations to which in theory leaders of political parties were invited, and I made a strong protest about this when I realized what was happening. I was then invited to a meeting chaired by the President on March 15th, at which all other political parties expressed their opposition to the above provisions. Ranil started to whine, and claimed that Nimal Siripala de Silva had agreed with this, but Nimal denied this. Ranil then said that he would complain to Chandrika Kumaratunga, since this had been agreed earlier, but everyone else was adamant, and it was decided instead that the draft should reduce the President’s powers in several particulars, without the wholesale transfer to himself that Ranil wanted.
Jayampathy Wickremaratne was asked to take down these particulars but, as Champika Ranawaka graphically put it, Mr Wickremaratne did not take down what was read out. As it happened, the draft that was subsequently gazetted omitted aspects we had decided on, such as taking away the power of the President to call an early election for his position. This is something unprecedented where there are elected Presidents, and was an absurd provision introduced hastily by J R Jayewardene that has caused many problems given that it also provides for two different dates for the victor of such an election taking up office, depending on whether the incumbent or a challenger is elected.
The draft that was gazetted did remove the offending clause cited above, but it retained the provisions about the Prime Minister being the Head of the Cabinet, and about the Prime Minister determining the number of Ministers and so on. When it was pointed out to Jayampathy, at a meeting held in Parliament that was about Electoral Reform, that this was not what had been decided, he claimed that that was a mistake. He plaintively said that it was human to err, and that he himself had ensured that 33A(2) was changed but had not bothered about the consequential changes. I asked G L Peiris, who had been mandated to check on the matter with Jayampathy, how he had allowed this to pass, but it seemed that he too had left the matter to the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, which Jayampathy claimed had erred. However Jayampathy promised that the matter would be rectified.
The next thing we knew was that the government had informed the Supreme Court, which was to adjudicate on the gazetted version of the 19th Amendment, that it would introduce amendments in Committee Stage. These included restoring 33A (2). When I asked Jayampathy what had happened with regard to his promise that the gazetted version would be changed in accordance with the decisions taken on March 15th, he claimed that the Cabinet had decided to restore his and Ranil’s original dream version.
What had happened in the interim was that there had been new appointments to the Cabinet. Members of the SLFP had been sworn in, and presented with Jayampathy’s revived amendment, and it seems they had agreed. One had the impression that this was the Wickremesinghe version of the bribery that President Rajapaksa had been accused of with regard to Tissa Attanayake. A more charitable view is that advantage was being taken of the ignorance of the new recruits to the Cabinet who were not aware of what had been agreed on March 15th.
Fortunately the new adherents proved of sterner stuff than Ranil and Jayampathy had anticipated, and were as tough as the other participants at the March 15th meeting had been in insisting that the 19th Amendment should not be about empowering the Prime Minister. And of course the Supreme Court made it clear that such changes were totally unacceptable.
Unfortunately the Supreme Court did not specifically reject the provision that the President should act on the advice of the Prime Minister in appointing Ministers. This seemed anomalous given that ‘the Court in the Nineteenth Amendment Determination came to a conclusion that the transfer, relinquishment of removal of a power attributed to one organ of government to another organ or body would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4 of the Constitution. Though Article 4 provides the form and manner of exercise of the sovereignty of the people, the ultimate act or decision of his executive functions must be retained by the President.’
It is also anomalous in that the final version put before Parliament specifies that ‘The President may at any time change the assignment and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers’. The SLFP was then perfectly right in wanting the need for the Prime Minister’s advice in appointing Ministers removed. But, as the Secretary of the SLFP put it to me, if that too were taken away, poor Ranil would have nothing, and that might seem too hard on him. I could understand that the opposition did not want to break his heart, given his propensity to go running to mummy, as he had declared he would do on March 15th. Since the power to change remains with the President without adulteration, I suppose we can live with the anomaly with regard to initial appointments.
But the whole exercise makes it clear that Ranil cannot be trusted an inch. I suppose that is not something that should surprise us, given for instance the manner in which he let down Chandrika Kumaratunga with regard to her Constitutional Amendment in 2000 that she thought he had pledged to support. That, it may be remembered, was burnt by the UNP on the floor of the House on the grounds that it gave away too much to the Tamil people, and Ranil studiously kept his arms akimbo and allowed this to happen.
But it is also worth considering the excuse he offered, which is that his opposition to Chandrika’s draft was because she had not abolished the Executive Presidency forthwith but had provided for her continuing to exercise its powers till the end of her term of office, five years hence. Of course one may wonder whether her adviser Jayampathy had been responsible for this provision, given that now he keeps asserting dogmatically that not a day should be wasted in abolishing the Presidency.
But double standards have become endemic, even amongst those who one were thought to be idealists. The demands of the master or mistress they serve are seen as paramount. And in the process written or oral commitments are forgotten, and only personal convenience and aggrandizement are pursued.