The unanimous decision by the Working Committee of the UNP to defeat the no-confidence motion against the UNP Prime Minister has offered some relief to the beleaguered Ranil Wickremesinghe but he is not out of the woods yet. Indeed he will not be safe until the vote is taken and it is established that he is through. As D-day nears and the SLFP still has not taken an official position on the no confidence motion, the likelihood increases that most of the SLFP members in the government may keep away on the day of the debate and the vote. The toughest statement that the SLFP has officially made so far is that they ‘cannot oppose’ the no confidence motion. That is a far cry from the rhetoric that we heard being spewed forth on the stage by President Sirisena who painted the UNP in the darkest colours and tried to portray his faction of the SLFP as being more anti UNP than the SLPP. Today those roars of defiance have subsided into barely audible mutterings.
Unless the Sirisena faction shows a lively leg and comes out strongly against the UNP by being present on April 4 in Parliament and votes en masse against the UNP, the biggest casualty of the no confidence motion after Ranil Wickremesinghe is going to be Sirisena. In the past few days, he weakened Ranil’s position further by abolishing the Cabinet Subcommittee on Economic Management comprising of some of Ranil’s closest cronies, and assigning institutions like the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission which had hitherto been under the Prime Minister to the Finance Minister without consulting anyone in the UNP. However that will not compensate for any lack of resolution that the Sirisena faction may display on the day of the vote. If the SLFP group in the government shows any signs of being undecided at the moment of truth when the vote is taken, the Joint Opposition is going to be shouting from the rooftops that Sirisena has deceived the people once again.
At the recently concluded local government elections, the votes that the Sirisena faction of the SLFP got were anti-UNP, and even anti-government votes because Sirisena tried to portray himself as the real opponent of the UNP, not the SLPP. His whole campaign was pitched at the opposition and anti-UNP voter, portraying the UNP as a rougues. In hindsight, one wonders what President Sirisena expected to get out of such a strategy. Even if he did manage to deceive quite a number of opposition types to vote for his candidates, still it was only a matter of time before he would stand exposed before the anti-government voter who would see him continuing the coalition government with the UNP. That in fact is what is happening now. The Sirisena faction is no doubt acutely aware of the trap they are in as can be seen from the reaction to the news that a meeting had been held between RW and MS at Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s house to iron out differences.
Not only was this story denied by a comminique from the President’s media divison, the pronouncements by Ministers like Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene became shriller. But once again, even the pronouncement made by Laksman Yapa stopped at saying that the SLFP ‘cannot oppose’ the no-confidence motion. That seems to be as far as the Sirisena faction can go. As we pointed out on previous columns, there is an international dimension to all this because the yahapalana government and all its constituent parties are quislings or captives of certain foreign powers and this obviously restricts Sirisena’s choices.
Despite the attempt on the part of the Sirsena faction to masquerade as a part of the opposition, every unpopular and harmful step taken by this government has been done with both partners acting in concert. The Hambantota harbor would never have been privatized if not for the personal intervention of Sirisena. Likewise Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution 30/1, the passing and implementation of the Office of Missing Persons Act, the passing of the Act to enforce in Sri Lanka the provisions of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearences, the proposed ETCA with India and of course the proposed new constitution have all been promoted or implemented with RW and MS acting in concert.
Given this fact, it was the height of folly for Sirisena to try to masquerade as a part of the opposition by taking an anti-UNP stand. Having thrashed the UNP soundly at the last election with the bond scam being the centerpiece of their offensive strategy, the SLFP now can’t duck the vote on a no confidence motion that is itself based largely on the accusations Sirisena himself hurled at the UNP at the last elections. Voting for the no confidence motion will be fraught with its own dangers. The Constitution and the Standing Orders of Parliament do not prescribe an absolute majority of the total number of MPs in parliament for a motion of no confidence to be passed. Even a perusal of Erskin May and A.V.Dicey seems to confirm this. Therefore a no confidence motion will be carried if the majority of those present and voting vote in its favour.
Even important laws are passed with just a simple majority of the MPs present and voting. Recently, the Enforced Disappearences Bill was declared passed in parliament with only 53 MPs in a parliament of 225 voting in its favour. So when the no confidence motion is taken up in parliament on April 4, those who keep away or have flat tyres or those who fall ill on that day will be as important as those who turn up and stay for the vote. It will be possible to engineer a victory or defeat by strategically keeping away. It will be important for the UNP to ensure attendance on D-day as it will be for the JO. The Sirisena faction in particular will have to ensure that once the vote is analyzed, it does not turn out that RW won because some SLFP ministers had kept away. In the meantime the pressure is building up on the UNP with a march from Kandy to Colombo demanding RW’s removal getting under way.
JVP’s Bill to abolish executive presidency
Whether RW survives this challenge or not, the moment this no confidence drama is over, it will be President Sirisena’s turn to face the private members Bill to be brought by the JVP to abolish the executive presidency. The JVP’s move has nothing to do with any change of leadership in the UNP but everything to do with the need to prevent a nominee of the Joint Opposition be it Gota or otherwise, becoming the executive president after Sirisena. So their move will no doubt go ahead regardless of any change that takes place within the UNP. What will apply in this case will be the Standing Orders of Parliament on Private Member’s Bills and the provisions in the Constitution relating to the amendment of the Constitution.
According to Standing Order 47, A private member desiring to introduce a Bill will have to apply for leave to present it to Parliament in the form of a motion and simultaneously deliver to the Secretary-General of Parliament, a copy of the proposed Bill. The Secretary-General of Parliament shall thereupon cause the Bill to be published in the Gazette. At any time after the lapse of a period of 14 days from the date on which the Bill was published in the Gazette, the motion applying for leave to proceed with the Bill shall be placed on the Order Paper of Parliament. Once Parliament grants leave on a question put, and carried, the Bill that was gazetted is then deemed to have been read the first time and it will be ordered to be printed and shall stand referred to the Cabinet Minister dealing with the subject to which the Bill relates and no further proceedings shall be taken upon such Bill until the Minister to whom it has been referred has reported to Parliament there on.
After the Minister in Charge of the subject submits his report, or a period of six months lapses from the date on which the Bill was referred to the Minister and no report is forthcoming, the Bill shall be set down for the Second Reading upon such day as the member presenting the Bill desires. Every such Bill after being read a second time shall be allocated by the Speaker to a Standing Committee or upon a motion made by a Cabinet Minister, Parliament so decides, it shall be referred to a Select Committee to be nominated by the Speaker. The Committee can strike out clauses, add new clauses and make other amendments. It is only after going through this entire procedure that the private member’s Bill will be put to a vote in Parliament. So it’s not as if Sirisena will be booted out overnight even if the JVP presents their private member’s Bill within the month of April. In fact we will be lucky if the Bill finally comes up for the vote in Parliament before the next presidential election is declared sometime in October 2019!
There are several hurdles to be cleared. The first hurdle is getting the permission from parliament to proceed with the Bill after it is gazetted. Assuming that such permission is granted, the JVP will then have to wait for six months for the Minister in Charge of the subject to report back to Parliament. Then there will be the Committee stage which too could get extended if the Bill is referred to a Select Committee. Even if everything is fast forwarded through Parliament, it may still be the end of this year by the time it comes up for the vote in Parliament. If the constitutionality of this private member’s Bill is challenged before the Supreme Court, it may be necessary to hold a referendum as well, to finally pass this Bill into law. According to Article 85(1) of the Constitution, it is the President who has to submit to the people Bills that need to be approved by a referendum. According to Article 87(1) the referendum will be conducted by the Elections Commission and the result will be communicated to the President.
After a Bill is passed at a referendum, it is the President who finally certifies it as having been duly passed. Thus we see that even if the JVP’s private member’s Bill makes it all the way through and gets a two thirds majority in Parliament, the President has at least two opportunities to delay it further. He can delay it by delaying the referendum. When the result is communicated to him, he can sit on it again without signing the certificate stating that it was duly passed. Even if the JVP’s Bill succeeds at every turn, this President is still going to spend every last day he can in that position.
The need to reform LG elections system
One thing that the events of the past week have convinced almost everybody is that the present system of elections for the local government institutions will have to be changed before the next local government elections due in four years time. This system was rammed through Parliament by the government in the face of stiff opposition from the JO. A whole new system of elections was introduced as committee stage amendments to a Bill that had been gazetted to correct some technical defects in the local government elections law. It had the support of the UNP, SLFP (Sirisena faction), the JVP, the SLMC, ACMC and the passive participation of the TNA as well. The local government electoral system that we have today is a pure proportional representation system with each party being entitled to seats in proportion to the number of votes it gets in each local government area.
After the winning candidates in each ward are announced, and the number of candidates on the proportional representation system are calculated, if it so turns out that a party has not got the number of seats it is entitled to, the number of representatives to be elected to that LG body will be expanded to enable each party to have representation in accordance with the number of votes it got. After the recent local government elections, the Colombo Municipal Council has nine such extra members. The Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte MC has three, the Kaduwela MC two, and this situation can be seen throughout the country. If a party has got over 50% of the votes in a particular LG body, a stable administration can be formed. But in bodies where the winning party has not secured 50% all hell will break loose with the losers ganging up to defeat the victor. This has happened in many local government bodies which were won by the UNP most spectacularly and embarrassingly in MCs such as Galle, Dehiwala-Galkissa and Badulla. In the wake of this fiasco, the minister of public administration Vajira Abeywardene had the humility to come before the public and admit that this new elections system was a disaster brought upon the people by the yahapalana government. However even with footage of running street battles, the uttering of unprintable expletives, and fisticuffs featuring in the news channels every day, we hear minister Faizer Mustapha still defending the LG elections system which he has obviously fathered. This makes Mustapha one President’s Counsel who should not be allowed within ten kilometers of any place where constitutional reform is being discussed.