By Jehan Perera
The issue of the Leader of the Opposition’s position once again came to the fore when it was brought up in parliament last week by TNA leader R Sampanthan. This issue seem to have been resolved when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya issued a ruling earlier this month that the UPFA’s Mahinda Rajapaksa would be the opposition leader. Parliament, the media and majority opinion seem to have taken this decision in their stride as the right and proper one. Certainly the UPFA is much larger in numbers than the TNA, both in parliament and outside parliament, and more vociferous in their opposition to whatever the government is doing.
However, until the breakdown of the UNP-SLFP national government in October last year it was the TNA leader who held the opposition leader’s position. During the three years in which Mr Sampanthan held that position, the UPFA which included SLFP members was much larger than the TNA and more vociferous in its opposition. But during those three years, Speaker Jayasuriya ruled that the UPFA could not hold the Leader of the Opposition position as its main component party, the SLFP, was participating in a national government.
It was the breakdown of the UNP-SLFP national government that changed the equation for Speaker Jayasuriya. With the SLFP no longer in government he awarded the position of opposition leader to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who was nominated to that position by the UPFA. But what may seem to be the correct decision to some, even though they be a majority, can be challenged as incorrect by others who may be in a minority. TNA leader Sampanthan’s speech in parliament points to the need for solutions to be found.
Democratic governance is not only one of popular sentiment and what seems to be common sense. It is also about the rule of law and adherence to constitutional provisions. If democratic governance meant only catering to majority sentiment, President Maithripala Sirisena’s sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October last year would have been a reality. During the time of the political crisis, when the newly appointed prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was unable to secure a parliamentary majority and unwilling to step down, there was popular support for fresh general elections as the way out of the political deadlock that had set in.
However, the political deadlock was finally broken by the judiciary on the basis of their interpretation of the constitution and the rule of law. The main underlying issue at stake was the transfer of power from one government to another in conformity with the rule of law. The judiciary did not shirk its constitutional responsibility. It took the lead in taming the politicians who would run amok in both the executive and legislature. The TNA was one of the parties that filed legal action asking the courts to declare the president’s action in dissolving parliament to be unconstitutional. TNA leader Sampanthan’s position was that in matters of governance the constitution should be strictly followed.
In a like manner, on the issue of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Sampanthan has made it clear that the constitution should be followed. President Sirisena’s dual role as head of the cabinet and holder of three ministerial portfolios and more than 40 government departments, while his party member former president Mahinda Rajapaksa simultaneously leads the opposition is questionable. The TNA has also questioned the validity of those members of parliament, including Opposition leader Rajapaksa, who have taken membership of the SLPP which is not registered as a party represented in parliament. However, in the absence of a legal initiative in the courts, this situation is unlikely to change.
Ensuring adherence to law is of special importance to those who are minorities. Whether they be ethnic, religious or social minorities, the view of minorities is less likely to be taken into consideration in situation involving political power. Due to their lesser numbers they have less voice. The opposition leader’s position was important to the Tamil minority because, in the absence of their willingness to join governments like members of other minorities, it gave them some limited but official access to the institutions of the state.
In the course of his speech in parliament objecting to the change in the opposition leader, Mr Sampanthan referred to an article written by Dr. Nihal Jayawickrema, that “Under the Constitution the President is the Head of the Government. Of his own choice Maithiripala Sirisena is also the President of SLFP and the UPFA which is a coalition of likeminded political parties that includes the SLFP. Mahinda Rajapaksa who claims to be member of the SLFP /UPFA is reportedly now the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, Parliament is entitled to ask the President to explain how he can concurrently serve as Head of the Government and as Head of the Opposition and whether he does not understand that functioning simultaneously in both capacities is a gross violation of the fundamental democratic basis of the Constitution”.
On the other hand, Speaker Jayasuriya, making a special statement in response to the matters raised by TNA Leader R. Sampanthan on the Opposition Leader’s post, said that a remedy to the issue could not be found within the confines of the present Constitution and the Standing Orders. He said, “In my ruling, delivered on 08th January 2019, I have not in detail touched upon the subject of conflict of interest pointed out by Sampanthan. The recognition of MP Mahinda Rajapaksa was not consequent upon any request from the UPFA General Secretary, but because of the age old convention of this House that the Speaker should recognize the Leader of the Parliamentary Group of the recognized Political Party having the largest number of Members sitting in the Opposition, as the Leader of the Opposition.”
However, the political reality is that the power of numbers lies with the UPFA as against the TNA. In addition, President Sirisena is presently working in close cooperation with former president Rajapaksa. The current arrangement where the duo control the commanding heights of both the government and opposition is too advantageous for them to give up. President Sirisena’s visit to Singapore in which he took members of the SLFP with him as part of his official entourage brings the opposition into governance. This is the contradiction that TNA leader Sampanthan has shown, which needs to be changed.