‘Responsive cooperation’ was at one time a popular phrase in the political lexicon of Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known in the past. It came into vogue through G.G. Ponnambalam, the mercurial leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), founded in 1944.
The G.G. Ponnambalam-led Tamil Congress demanded a political system based on the principle of balanced representation known popularly as ‘fifty-fifty’ to safeguard the minority communities under majority rule after the then Ceylon gained independence from Britain.
What G.G. Ponnambalam wanted was for one-half of the seats in the Legislature to be allocated to the majority community (Sinhalese) and the other half to be divided among the minority communities (Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays). The Soulbury Commission rejected the balanced representation proposal.
The pragmatic Ponnambalam accepted the inevitable with the impending dawn of Independence and adjusted his policies accordingly. He abandoned the politics of confrontation and proposed a new approach of accommodation and cooperation with the majority. The Tamil Congress changed its stance from balanced representation to responsive cooperation.
“We are for responsive cooperation with fair -minded Sinhalese,” said Ponnambalam. The responsive cooperation proposed by Ponnambalam culminated in his joining the Government of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and becoming Minister of Industries, Industrial Research and Fisheries in the UNP Cabinet.
More than seven decades later the concept of responsive cooperation has re-emerged within the political discourse of the Island nation albeit with a variation. The old ‘Responsive cooperation’ has been replaced with the new ‘Responsible cooperation’.
Moreover, unlike ‘Responsive cooperation’ that was a catchphrase of a single political party representing a single ethnic community, the concept of ‘Responsible cooperation’ has been espoused by several political parties cumulatively representing all the people of multi-ethnic, multi-religious Sri Lanka.
The political parties – all from the Opposition – have put forward an offer of ‘Responsible cooperation’ to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They await responsive cooperation from the President. The Opposition offer entails an assurance of support to the Government if President Rajapaksa would rescind the gazette proclamation of 2 March or revive the old Parliament until its term concludes by the end of August. The Opposition parties would in turn pledge not to defeat the Government in a vote or block any legitimate action of the Government. This ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer or pledge is to ensure the governance of the country in a proper and lawful manner in compliance with the Constitution.
Seven political parties, namely, the United National Party (UNP), Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) have issued a joint statement pledging ‘Responsible cooperation’ to the President and Government if Parliament is restored in the best interests of the country and all her people.
The 10-point statement outlines in detail the predicament facing the country. The statement requires a comprehensive reading in order to understand the contours of the current situation. The full text of the joint statement is as follows:
We, the undersigned political parties and formations, representing the majority Members of Parliament, who were members of the Opposition in Parliament when it was dissolved on 2 March 2020 wish to state as follows:
1. Against the backdrop of a public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken by governments to control it, a range of new challenges have emerged in Sri Lanka as well. Regrettably, the optimism that prevailed in our country until a few days ago that the spread of the virus could be managed is now receding. If further spreading of the pandemic is not decisively halted in the coming few weeks, the country will face the risk of the prevailing public health crisis being compounded by crisis situations in the economic, social, and political spheres too.
2. We are concerned that several hundreds have been infected; several thousands have lost their livelihood. Frontline health workers are putting their best efforts to protect us all risking their own safety. Their efforts should not go in vain because of our political decisions.
3. The political situation is specifically in a state of uncertainty due to the dissolution of Parliament and the absence of conditions conducive to hold parliamentary elections as stipulated. There is also no assurance that the elections could now be held on 20 June. The new date was determined by the Election Commission only a few days ago. The Commission has already indicated that this will have to be reviewed against the evolving public health situation in the country.
4. We can reasonably assume that no suitable environment is likely to prevail in the next two months to conduct a free and fair election. Similarly, we do not think the people of our country should be exposed to the unnecessary danger of a public health hazard by holding an election anytime soon. Sri Lankan people have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to the democratic process by actively participating in election campaigns and also turning out in large numbers for voting. A free and fair poll also entails a proper campaign, which would invariably heighten the risk of the virus spreading countrywide. We are acutely aware of the exponential rise in infections last week.
5. Our country, like any democracy, is governed by three institutions with distinct and separate powers, viz, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. All three of these organs are vital, and must be active for Rule of Law to prevail. Their functioning is more important now than at any other time – when we face an unprecedented challenge. But this crisis is taking place at a time when Parliament has been made inactive. Meanwhile, the President has also refrained from exercising the discretion to summon Parliament under Article 70 (7) of the Constitution. In view of the necessity to repeatedly postpone the Election, there is now a risk that Parliament would remain inactive for much longer.
6. It is our genuine belief that re-summoning the dissolved Parliament and through it securing the cooperation of political parties and MPs represented in the dissolved Parliament would greatly contribute to the resolving of a number of urgent governance issues that have emerged amidst the crisis. Getting appropriate and new legislation passed in order to meet the public health crisis and obtaining parliamentary sanction to the utilisation of monies from the Consolidated Fund are some such important and urgent functions of Parliament.
7. We are faced with an unprecedented national crisis which shows no signs of an early ending. As members of the dissolved Parliament, we are duty bound to fulfil our obligations to resolve this crisis in a spirit of responsible cooperation extended to the President. We also emphasise that all political parties and political leaders across the political divide have before them the challenge of transcending partisan agendas and working together for the common good of the people and the country amidst an unprecedented crisis.
8. We are prepared to lend our support to the Government in Parliament to achieve the above so that the governance of the country can proceed properly and lawfully, in compliance with the Constitution. We assure the people of our country that we will not draw salaries nor attempt to defeat the Government nor thwart any of the legitimate actions of the Government during this period. Our good faith has already been demonstrated by the fact that we have cooperated fully with the Government in maintaining the “curfew”, although the same has not been imposed legally.
9. In these circumstances we urge His Excellency the President to respond positively to this offer of responsible cooperation by us at this critical time, and revoke the proclamation dated 2 March 2020 dissolving Parliament so that all of us can jointly fight to eradicate this virus, and also ensure that everything is done lawfully and in compliance with the Constitution. The President can thereafter dissolve Parliament whenever the situation becomes conducive to conduct the Election.
10. In the alternative, His Excellency should at least exercise his powers under Article 70(7) of the Constitution and summon the dissolved Parliament; and His Excellency and indeed the whole country can count on our utmost sincerity and responsible cooperation, which is being offered without any strings and only in the best interests of the country and our people.
The seven party leaders who lent their signatures to the joint statement are Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), R. Sampanthan (TNA), Rauff Hakeem (SLMC) Rishad Bathiudeen (ACMC), Mano Ganesan (TPA) and Patali Champika Ranawaka (JHU). The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is not a signatory to this statement. The JVP however is amenable to the opposition party joint offer to the Government and is expected to issue a separate statement endorsing the responsible cooperation proposal. Apparently the JVP is somewhat reluctant to be a signatory to a statement alongside the UNP and SJB for fear of being labelled ‘rathu aliya’ by the Pohottuwa politicos.
Sri Lanka like many other countries in the world is confronting a COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other countries Sri Lanka is also undergoing a constitutional crisis in addition to the corona crisis. It is the only country facing the coronavirus without a Legislature.
The Parliament elected in 2015 has been dissolved. The envisaged elections to elect a new Parliament on 25 April did not take place because of postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Election Commission (EC) has now fixed the new date of 20 June for fresh Parliamentary Polls.
However, the EC will review the situation on 4 May before finalising it. Given the fact that there has been a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus-affected persons in the past few days, it is very likely that the elections may get postponed again. Even though the country is faced with a pandemic, Parliament has not been re-convened to cope with the emergency. There is also no indication by the President that he would rescind his gazette proclamation dissolving Parliament.
The chances of the postponed election being held on 20 June seem remote at present. If so the possibility of a new Parliament meeting before 2 June as stipulated by the Constitution is highly unlikely. Furthermore even the “legality” of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Cabinet and State ministers would be questionable if Parliament does not meet or not re-convened by 2 June. The country seems to be heading for a crisis of great magnitude.
Unfortunately President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to be blissfully oblivious to the impending calamity. In a TV interview with ex-Presidential Secretary and current Presidential Adviser Lalith Weeratunga, the President reportedly stated: “I have done everything so far constitutionally and have announced the date for the new Parliament to be convened. Unless a new Parliament is elected by 2 June, I will not be able to summon it. It has to be done on a future date. Nevertheless, under whatever reason I will not be able to recall the old Parliament. I don’t even have a legal right to do that.”
Responding to another question, President Rajapaksa said “Today, the people have the opportunity to understand the disguised motives of those who dream that the country could be taken into a constitutional crisis by continuous calling for the postponement of the election. I remind everyone at this point that there is no special legal issue as to what the country needs and how it can be done and it is constitutionally very clear what should be done and who has the ultimate responsibility.”
It is against this backdrop that the Opposition parties have taken the initiative to resolve the crisis by offering an olive branch in the form of the responsible cooperation proposal. The Opposition party pledge and joint statement are the fruits of a combined effort by the parties concerned. However the primary mover behind this initiative is TNA Spokesperson and former Jaffna District Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran PC.
Apparently the idea was sparked off at a TV discussion on 21 April in which Sumanthiran participated along with ex-MPs Ajith Perera and Sunil Handunnetti. When Sumanthiran mooted the idea of a joint offer by the Opposition, both Perera and Handunnetti concurred. The seeds of a joint offer of cooperation by Opposition parties were first sown then.
The idea was reinforced further by an article appearing in the Daily Financial Times of 22 April. It was written by Gehan Gunatilleke. Advocating a re-convening of Parliament under Article 70(7) of the Constitution by President Rajapaksa, Gunatilleke posed the question: “How can the President ensure that Parliament, when temporarily reconvened, would act in the public interest and not out of political interest?”
He then went on to say: “It may be necessary for all parties to put aside their political agendas and support the President in a clear legislative plan to deal with this crisis. A multi-party memorandum of understanding ought to be framed to agree on this special plan. The Legislature and Executive must then come together to frame and enforce a new law that meets all aspects of the crisis. The law must give some flexibility to the Executive to make decisive decisions without unnecessary red tape. It must also institute checks and balances, including legislative oversight and judicial review of decisions.”
It is learnt that ex-MP Sumanthiran got the green light from TNA Leader Sampanthan to go ahead with the project and contacted leaders and representatives of other parties. Taking political realities into account, the ex-Jaffna MP felt a Memorandum of Understanding was not feasible and instead opted for a unilateral offer. Sumanthiran formulated a draft and circulated it for suggestions and amendments.
Sajith Premadasa suggested that the language used should be more people friendly. Valuable input was provided by a top academic. After several rounds of electronic and telephonic discussions, the final statement was crafted and approved by all the seven parties. The JVP agreed in principle but refused to be a signatory.
The seven party statement and proposal was e-mailed and faxed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was also delivered in person to Presidential Adviser Lalith Weeratunga. Some Opposition party politicians are optimistic that the President would respond favourably but others express doubts. The pessimists opine that the President is determined not to rescind the gazette proclamation or re-convene Parliament.
Gotabaya’s recent meeting with the Maha Sangha is cited as proof of his intransigent mindset. They even fear that he would go in for new elections on a staggered basis or even resort to a referendum if necessary to avoid a restoration of the old Parliament. There is speculation that the doctrine of necessity could be invoked.
The Opposition parties are therefore biding their time for the moment. They would wait patiently for a reasonable period of time for President Rajapaksa to respond positively in a spirit of “responsive cooperation” to their offer of “responsible cooperation”.. If he does so, further discussions would be held to concretise an accord with the President and Government. If the President rejects the offer or simply ignores it, the Opposition parties – at least some of them – would seek legal recourse from the apex court. It is felt that the courts would be sympathetic to their position in view of their ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer. The hope is that the bench would appreciate the efforts by the Opposition parties to arrive at some agreement with the President and accept that they were compelled to seek judicial intervention only as a last resort.
There is also rising discontent among various segments of the people about how matters are being handled by the Government. The blatant attempts to hold an election in the midst of the pandemic has upset many. The imposition of curfews without legitimate sanction has enraged people. It is very possible that civil society groups could take the initiative in resorting to legal action against the Government.
Many knowledgeable professionals in the health sector are aghast at the manner in which health-related decisions are being taken. Key decisions being taken from a security force perspective is resented by medical experts. Under these circumstances one would not be surprised if a large number of cases are filed in due course by non-political actors.
Even though some SLPP politicians engage in ignorant jibes and cheap insults about the moves by Opposition parties, members of the Rajapaksa family have neither welcomed nor rejected the ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer publicly so far. The Opposition offer seems to have struck a responsive chord in the minds of the people. There is a groundswell of opinion that the Government should accept the opposition offer favourably.
It is said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who has a reputation of gauging the pulse of the people is aware of this. There is even speculation that the Premier may conduct a conference of political parties represented in the “old” Parliament and discuss the ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer further. It remains to be seen whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would encourage such a move.
The best option under prevailing circumstances would be for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the Opposition party offer and arrive at a working arrangement. The Opposition parties can afford to be patient till such an accord works out. If that is not possible the next best thing would be the procurement of a decisive judicial verdict.
The courts can decide whether an election could be held on 20 June or not. Guidelines as to when an election could be held can be provided. A judicial ruling could also enlighten the President about the extent as well as limits of his powers in the aftermath of the 19th Constitutional Amendment.
In the ongoing unnecessary clash between an unprecedentedly vibrant Executive and a Legislature rendered inactive prematurely, it would be the positively constructive task of the Judiciary to shed light and dispel darkness.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Political Pulse” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of April 29, 2020. It can be accessed here: