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The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.30268994In 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’.

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qrcode.30233817In this last lap as it were of my discussion of what should have been  comprehensive Reform Agenda, I thought it would be instructive to lay down the Reforms that were pledged in the manifesto on which the President won the election, and to explain how they have been ignored. Amongst these perhaps the most significant was the pledge about Electoral Reform, which read as follows –

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

This pledge was totally ignored. No all party committee was set up, and no one seemed to have been entrusted with the task. The issue only came to the fore when the Opposition made it clear that that had to go through as well, if support for the 19th amendment was expected. Discussions then started, but many of those involved, politicians as well as officials, noted that the Prime Minister kept stalling. He ignored the clear information the Elections Commissioner gave about how a compromise formula could be implemented swiftly, and kept insisting that the change could not be made in time for his main ambition to be fulfilled, namely having Parliament dissolved on April 23rd. The constant reiteration of that theme and date by his sycophants in his party made clear that that was what they thought the President’s manifesto was about, not the range of reforms that had been put forward.

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qrcode.27916254I begin here with the Preface to Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published a decade or so back. The language is simple, because it was intended as a basic introduction to those new to the subject. I have made some changes to the published version where updates or clarifications seemed necessary.

This book is intended to provide a basic introduction to the structures and functions of government, while the latter part of the book contains a brief overview of the development of such structures in Sri Lanka. This overview also provides a short analysis, intended to evoke further discussion, of the manner in which these structures, as established over the years, fulfilled or fulfil (or not, as the case might be) the functions of government.

A brief account of the manner in which the functions required of government developed historically is also included in the earlier section of the book. In the explication of structures, the different forms of a state, and the various institutions that exercise the powers of government, are described. In doing this, the doctrine of the separation of powers, and its advantages in terms of the purposes of government, are explored.

The different forms in which the executive might be constituted, and the suitability of these forms for the different functions of executive power, are also considered. The various ways in which a legislature may be constructed are also examined, together with some voting systems in current use. Read the rest of this entry »

Prince 2But Vasantha was also aware of the need to strengthen Parliament. Given the usual domination of the House by members supportive of the Executive leadership, he introduced a Second Chamber which would provide other perspectives more systematically, and enable Parliament to fulfil its legislative functions with care. The Senate was to be elected on the basis of equal representation from each Province. This would strengthen inputs from the periphery into decisions made at the centre, which was essential since, whatever the extent of devolution, some decisions, including those concerning national security, would have to be made at the centre. And the TNA had indeed accepted that a Second Chamber was desirable during the negotiation of 2011.

Given however the current oppositional nature of Sri Lankan politics, the proposals had emphasized the primacy of the House of Representatives with regard to matters of finance. They also made provision, obviously necessary given what now seemed a regular occurrence in the United States, for the executive to continue governing the country in the event of Parliament failing to pass the budget.

Legislature

1. Parliament:

All legislative powers of the people shall be exercised by the Parliament which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

2. House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives shall be 200 members elected every 5 years of whom a half shall be elected from territorial constituencies on FPP basis and the balance shall be chosen by a separate vote to determine support for individual parties.

25 persons shall be selected proportionately by the political parties represented in parliament with particular regard to women, youth and demographics not represented adequately in parliament.

All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.

Budget: In the event of non approval of the budget for the year, the budget of the previous year will continue to be in effect

Parliament shall have exclusive powers to make laws on subjects mentioned in the reserved list

3. The Senate:

Four Senators shall be elected at a separate election to represent each province, by the people for a term of five years.

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Perhaps the saddest influence on President Rajapaksa was his Foreign Minister, G L Peiris. There were two main reasons for this influence. One, commonly known, was the hold he had on the President’s eldest son, Namal, who had been elected to Parliament in 2010 and who saw himself as his father’s successor – a prospect made possible when, soon after that Parliament was elected, after a few crossovers from the opposition made a two thirds majority possible, the Constitution was changed to remove term limits with regard to the Presidency.

In principle this made sense, since otherwise the lame duck syndrome would have set in almost immediately. There would then have been internecine warfare between Basil, who had previously assumed he would succeed, and the old guard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This was inevitable given Basil’s political history, even though they had a healthy regard for Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had remained faithful to the party during the dark days when President Jayawardene was using all the powers of government to split and destroy it, and also when he was treated with disfavor, despite his seniority, by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The latter had left the SLFP because of disagreements with her mother over the succession. When she felt sidelined in favour of her more right wing brother Anura, she set up her own left wing group together with her husband. Basil however, in the darkest days for the SLFP, had actually joined Jayewardene’s UNP. His elder brother indeed did not entirely trust him, but found him a hard worker and a capable strategist, and hardly ever spoke ill of him to others.

With Namal the situation was very different. The intensity of his dislike and perhaps nervousness with regard to Basil became clear when he attempted to get a group of young Members of Parliament to send a petition to the President requesting that GL be appointed Prime Minister. That post was held by a senior and very old member of the SLFP, D M Jayaratne, who seemed at death’s door a year or two after he was appointed. This led to the memorable quip by the President that he was the only senior member of the government who was praying for the man to live, whereas his colleagues were all dashing coconuts (a formula to invoke both blessings and curses) for his death. Members of the opposition indeed claimed, when the Prime Minister was in the United States for treatment it was doubted would be successful, that there had been seven aspirants for his post.

The most junior of these, but also closest to the President, were Basil and GL. Though the application of the latter seemed preposterous, Namal’s effort to dragoon support for him made it clear that his ambitions were not without hope of success.

His influence with Namal lay in the fact that he had coached him for his Bar Exams. The boy had been sent to university in England, but had dropped out. Though incapacity was alleged, it was more likely that he had been unable to resist returning to Sri Lanka when his father was elected President, and working towards a political career. His father, who had been mentored in his youth – having been elected to Parliament at the tender age of 24 in 1970 – by the then Secretary General of Parliament, one of the few from his home District of Hambantota to have received a good education in the days before the Second World War, had been encouraged to enter Law College and qualify as a barrister. He pushed his son into the same course, and the boy passed out before the 2010 General Election, albeit to claims that special arrangements had been made for him to take the examination. Read the rest of this entry »

I referred previously to machinations essentially by the opposition to create uncertainty and confusion within government. Trying to advance the date of the Presidential election, or suggesting deep divisions with regard to the position of Prime Minister, are intended to provoke reactions and sometimes precipitate crises that would not otherwise occur.

But there are also intrigues by those within government, and sometimes by elements in the administration who wish to promote their own agendas, regardless of the damage this might do to government – or perhaps to inflict this. One such incident occurred about a year ago, when an Indian Parliamentary delegation visited Sri Lanka, shortly after the resolution in Geneva which India unfortunately supported.

I was reminded of this when there was another Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka this month, this time organized by a Chamber of Commerce. There had been efforts in India to prevent it coming, and naturally one of the Sri Lankan papers opposed to government declared triumphantly that the pressures exercised had succeeded. Fortunately the presence of the delegation in Sri Lanka at the time the report was published enabled swift refutation.

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Much energy has been expended in recent months in speculation as to whether we will soon have a new Prime Minister, and if so, who it will be. I was confidently told by an opposition Member of Parliament that 7 Ministers had applied in writing for the post, and opposition papers are having a field day in declaring that senior members of the SLFP are disaffected because their claims might be ignored.

All this speculation is destructive, not least because those about whom there is speculation feel both that they must defend themselves against allegations of untoward ambitions, and also against the possible untoward ambitions of others. Thus opposition politicians and media outlets will in fact contribute to fulfillment of the prophecies they make.

What is not taken into account in all this is that such speculation is inappropriate when there is no impending vacancy in the position of President. Given that the post of Prime Minister carries little power, there is no reason for anyone to want that appointment. Though it is true that both Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa did much as Prime Minister, they would have done the same without such a position. Conversely, the only person who succeded to the Presidency by virtue of being Prime Minister was D B Wijetunge, and he did nothing of any significance in that position.

I could understand there being frenetic anxiety now for the position of Prime Minister had we not had the 18th Amendment, but since that was supposed to put paid to the lame duck syndrome, it is unfortunate that speculation still continues, and in the process weakens the Presidency. One reason I thought the removal of term limits, which is generally not a good idea, acceptable in the Sri Lankan context is that I had seen what happened to Chandrika Kumaratunga towards the end of her second term. Indeed I was told by a shrewd political commentator around 2004, when I had been impressed by her courage in dealing with the harassment she faced as President when the opposing party was in power, that there was no point in wondering what she might do, for she was history. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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