By Nisthar Cassim
President Maithripala Sirisena said yesterday the country would have a new Government by September,suggesting that the Parliament would soon be dissolved, paving the way for a general election.
Speaking to media owners and editors at a breakfast forum at President’s House, Sirisena said that the responsibility of approving electoral reforms via the 20th Amendment rested with MPs and a final decision would be made whether to hold elections in the old systemor the new.
However, the President assured that the Constitutional Council, a key move arising out of the recently-passed 19th Amendment, would be constituted before the dissolution of Parliament.
The Constitutional Council (CC) will appoint several independent commissions aimed at improving democracy, good governance and rule of law. He said the term and the composition of CC would not change following the election of a new Parliament.
In what his second meeting with media owners and editors since assuming office, the President said that he had delivered on key pledges made during his election campaign. Sirisena pointed to the passing of 19th Amendment, which reduced some of the excessive powers previously enjoyed by the post of president, and making him as well as finances of Presidential Secretariat accountable to Parliament.
“Via my lawyer as well as Attorney General, I requested from the Supreme Court that certain powers vested in me be removed or reduced. However, the Supreme Court held the view that such recommendations required a referendum. Nevertheless, the 19th Amendment is a major achievement,” President Sirisena said.
He recalled that when the previous Cabinet discussed the contentious 18th Amendment, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had said that powers vested under the 1978 Constitution for the President weren’t enough.
“Eventually the 18th Amendment conferred excessive powers on the President. I too raised my hand when it came up for voting in Parliament,” recounted Sirisena, who however stressed that both the SLFP and UNP had been united in the stand to reduce excessive presidential powerssince 1999.
“It was SLFP Leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike who as the Opposition Leader first flagged off the dangers of presidential powers under the 1978 Constitution. The UNP Convention in 1999 too passed a resolution to abolish the executive presidency. So since then the two main parties have had a common objective,” the President added.
Sirisena also claimed that if anyone had faced the worst pressure of an excessive presidency, it was him as SLFP Secretary and Minister under Rajapaksa. “I can imagine how ordinary people would have felt the pressure of such a Presidency,” he said adding in that context reduction in powers of the Presidency via the 19th Amendment was significant.
“People are and can be happy that their vote for me on 8 January wasn’t a waste as I have delivered on my promise. When I meet people of all walks of life, they are grateful and enjoy a sense of freedom because of the changes made,” the President said.
Focusing on the contentious 20th Amendment, Sirisena said that majority of MPs were united in the view that the present electoral system must be changed but for want of getting a proper system as well as the need to educate the electorate on its importance and the time required to restructure party organisations at grassroot level, there was a request from MPs to defer the 20th Amendment.
The President acknowledged that the current system based on preferential votes was highly detrimental, leading to corrupt practices and financially-costly contests. “An MP, once elected, has to earn more or opt for corrupt practices to pay back the money spent as well as save enough for the next poll,” said Sirisena.
“However the responsibility of passing the 20th Amendment now rests with Parliament,” the President said, adding, “I have done my part.”
He expressed the hope that all parties would refrain from nominating unscrupulous candidates for the upcoming general election. For its part, the SLFP, the President said, was ready and would have a strict policy.
The party will issue notice this week calling for submission of nominations for consideration following an interview process.
Maithri looking for LTTE flag that Mahinda saw
President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday was witty with his rebuttal to his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has claimed that flags of the once-defeated LTTE were fluttering again.
When Rajapaksa’s alleged remark that LTTE flags were being waved during Monday’s Remembrance Day in the north for those who died in the armed conflict was brought up, Sirisena denied any knowledge or alerts from intelligence personnel.
“I am not sure whether the so-called LTTE flag was waved at only Mahinda Rajapaksa or only he could see it. I must use my glasses to confirm whether it is so,” quipped Sirisena.
However, on a more serious note, the President said that if intelligence services confirm such use of LTTE flags the Government would take strict action. Sirisena also said that since the end of the war in May 2009, annually people in the north had held smaller ceremonies of remembrance for kith and kin lost during the conflict.
In a related development, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene also strongly rejected the allegation made by the former President and Opposition MPs who stated that the LTTE flag was hoisted in parts of the North on 18 May when Sri Lanka commemorated the sixth year of defeating separatist LTTE terrorism.
“Reports received by intelligence agencies state that no such incident was staged in the Northern or Eastern provinces. These rumours are spread by certain persons with vested interests, media sources and social websites to achieve their own political agendas,” the Minister said.
He said that no incidents of this nature had been reported from the region and this reflected the disapproval of the people of the North and East in the resurgence of terrorism.
The State Minister, echoing President Sirisena, said the President as the Minister of Defence, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and himself as the State Minister of Defence were committed to ensuring national security, reconciliation and harmony among the people of the country.
While expressing regret over the actions of certain sections in misleading the people of the South by spreading false information to attain petty political gains, Wijewardene pointed out that the Opposition should understand that extremist elements in the country were the ones to gain from such baseless allegations.
The State Minister requested the people to be vigilant about campaigns carried out by certain social media websites using media reports and video clippings of recent LTTE commemorative events held in some countries, including in parts of south India.
The State Minister noted that political and extremist elements were trying to mislead the people in the South and they should believe President Sirisena’s statement to the nation on 19 May where he categorically said that the present Government would not leave any room for the resurgence of the LTTE or any other terrorist elements in the country.
Work on domestic mechanism to start next month
The Government will commence work on a domestic mechanism to probe alleged human rights violations during the last stages of war from next month.
President Maithripala Sirisena stated that work would have to commence ahead of the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which to take place in September. The council’s March sessions gave the Sri Lankan Government a period of six months to prove its sincerity. Since then many credible measures have been taken by the Government towards reconciliation.
During a meeting with media owners and editors yesterday the President said those who gave leadership and contributed to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and democracy by defeating terrorism via the humanitarian operation will be safeguarded. However he asserted that if there had been any violation of human rights those incidents would be probed and if found to be credible, legal action will be taken locally.
The President recalled that earlier in the year he told the visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Special Representative that the Government would not agree to an international investigation. However Sirisena said yesterday the Government will seek UN advice in proceeding with the domestic mechanism.
No SLFP decision or promise to disband FCID: Sirisena
President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday categorically denied that there was a decision or a promise by the SLFP to disband the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) if it came to power or a request to do so from members.
At a meeting with media owners and editors yesterday, the President said that FCID would conduct its own investigations impartially but if there were genuine complaints of unfairness, then the Government would look into them.
Sirisena said that he howeverdid suggest certain changes to the gazette notification on the FCID.
When questioned by the media on whether the SLFP’s planned no confidence motion on Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake had the blessings of the President, Sirisena said the SLFP MPs had the space to decide and act on their own, collectively or individually.
With regard to follow up action on the 30 year Treasury Bond auction in February, the President said recommendations contained in the report of the experts committee will be considered.