By Shamindra Ferdinando
Former National List MP and ‘constitutional expert’ Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, PC, said yesterday that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had no option but to withdraw proclamation, dissolving parliament, to prevent an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
Wickremaratne said that as President Rajapaksa, had, in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, called an early general election, the initiated process could be reversed by reconvening parliament by proper means. “Then parliament can go on until 01 September. Elections can be held in late November or before. But if the situation improves and a free and fair election is possible, then he can dissolve Parliament, before 01 September,” the former Lawmaker said.
The one-time LSSP stalwart played a significant role in introducing the 19th Amendment, enacted in 2015. The UNP accommodated him on its National List, following the last parliamentary election, conducted in Aug 2015.
Responding to another query, the former MP insisted that the President couldn’t be allowed to govern the country for more than three months, without being subjected to parliamentary oversight.
“Parliament’s function is not only law-making.
It has an important oversight function. The House oversees the executive. The President is accountable to the parliament. Parliament also controls public finance. Parliament is one of the three pillars on which our State rests. That is why the Constitution permits governance, without parliament, only for three months,” he said.
PC Wickremaratne quit his NL seat, in January this year, to take up an assignment overseas.
The former MP, who functioned as the constitutional affairs advisor to the then President Maithripala Sirisena, emphasized that a free and fair election couldn’t be conducted, within the next couple of months, without jeopardizing public security, due to the continuing threat posed by COVID-19.
In spite of the government relaxing curfew, and other restrictions, having categorized administrative districts to two clusters, the country faced a severe threat yet, PC Wickremaratne claimed, urging the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) not to play politics with the safety and security of the people.
The former MP said: “How can we have an election when there is social distancing and the country is not functioning properly? A parliament elected in the present circumstances will not have legitimacy; it will be like the parliament, after its term was extended by the infamous Referendum of 1982. An election is not only about individual voters voting in secrecy. The whole election process is a participatory one. Candidates belong to parties and independent groups. How can there be a free and fair election when candidates, or their supporters, cannot visit voters in their houses and canvass? Voters will run away when canvassers come.”
The former lawmaker emphasized that it wouldn’t be fair to step up pressure on the Election Commission (EC) to fix a date for parliamentary election as the country was yet to overcome the health emergency. Noting that the EC was scheduled to meet on Monday, April 20, to discuss the situation, PC Wickremaratne stressed that it was too early to decide on a date as Sri Lanka was not yet out of woods. The former MP said that no one would be able to safely predict a date for the next parliamentary election. When The Island pointed out that the SLPP had justified elections, amidst the corona crisis, on the basis of South Korea conducting its general election last week, with a much bigger number of infected citizens, PC Wickremaratne urged the government not to risk a massive eruption of COVID-19 by seeking to exploit the health emergency to its advantage.
The one-time national list MP said that there was no way out of emerging constitutional crisis than reconvening the House, dissolved on March 02. Sri Lanka recorded its first native COVID-19 positive case, on March 11.
The country has so far recorded seven deaths and nearly 300 positive cases.
The former MP said if parliamentary election was held, as originally planned, on April 25, the parliament could have met on May 14, as declared by the President. But, due to the EC, on March 19, indefinitely putting off election, the independent commission was now under pressure to meet the June 02 deadline for the parliament to meet. The former MP pointed out that June 02 was not a date decided by any person or a body but in terms of the Constitution, the new parliament should meet, within three months, hence the deadline in the wake of dissolution of March 02.
Asked to recommend a course of action which he believed could be followed by political authorities, the legal luminary said: “The President can, as a first step, postpone the date for the new parliament to meet on 02 June. Then, we have a little breathing space. One concern, especially for parties in the Government, is that the nominations accepted will be invalid if the order of dissolution is withdrawn. A solution to this is a constitutional amendment applicable only to the next general election that would validate the nominations received to be used at the elections.
That would need a 2/3 majority and I am sure all parties can agree on that. A draft Bill for that purpose can be referred, with the agreement of parties, to the Supreme Court, by the President, for the Court’s opinion. The draft would have a Preamble explaining the extra-ordinary circumstances in which the amendment is required. I am confident that in the present circumstances, a Referendum will not be required.”
The former MP said that the President could withdraw the Proclamation of dissolution, which must be done before 02 June. The constitutional amendment could be then presented to parliament and passed, PC Wickremaratne said, adding that the House could also meet occasionally for urgent business. “Once the situation is conducive for a free and fair election, the President can dissolve Parliament at any time, before 01 September, or let parliament be automatically dissolved, on 01 September. Then the general election could be held on the basis of the nominations accepted,” the former MP said.