By the “Sunday Times”Political Editor
There was a difference when the two friends – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sagala Ratnayake, the newly appointed Chief of Staff of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – met days ago at the Janadipathi Mandiriya (President’s House). The old camaraderie apart, there was a note of grim seriousness.
Beleaguered Rajapaksa politely delivered a message of caution and urged Ratnayake to convey it to Premier Wickremesinghe. The “deal makers” who had during their yahapalana (good governance) era, brought disrepute, were back again. The President named one prominent United National Party (UNP) stalwart and declared he had reliable information that he had already started money-making deals. He has secured for himself an office in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat at Flower Road. Pointing out that “we cannot go on this journey with that old clique,” the President warned that such people might put Wickremesinghe in trouble. It should not happen a second time, the first being under their own government, he pointed out.
President Rajapaksa and the Premier’s Chief of Staff Ratnayake have remained friends. When he was a minister in the yahapalana government’s cabinet, the issue came up on more than one occasion at ministerial meetings. This was after reports that as minister, he had paid a visit to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former minister admitted then that he did so and declared he even addressed him as “Sir.” The only reason, he claimed, was because he had ended the separatist war against Tiger guerrillas. For this, he claimed, he would always show respect.
The note of caution through CoS Ratnayake came in the backdrop of another development. President Rajapaksa confided to a confidant that two senior party members, both onetime cabinet ministers, had met him recently. He did not identify them. The duo had spoken against the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and implored him not to go ahead with it. They had argued that the President had won a mandate with 6.9 million votes whilst Premier Wickremesinghe received no mandate at the presidential election in November 2019. How then, they asked, could the Premier be more empowered through constitutional amendments. To the contrary, they argued, there should be provision to enable the President to remove a Prime Minister at any time.
One of the ex-ministers has been critical of the two Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) members – Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara – who joined the government. He had urged President Rajapaksa not to be “carried away” by threats issued by them to quit if 21A was not passed. He had argued that the duo had no place to go since they had abandoned their party. Were the two ex-ministers sent by ousted Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa?
A spokesperson for Premier Wickremesinghe reacted angrily over the claims. Speaking on grounds of anonymity, he said, “Ranil Wickremesinghe neither sought nor canvassed for the post of Prime Minister. It was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won a mandate of 6.9 million votes and chose him to be Premier. That too, when President Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members could not select a premier from within their own. Now they want to tie his arms, legs and ask him to run.”
At least for the academics, whether an overwhelming victory (6.9 million votes) turns into a mandate for the winner to appoint his main political rival to the number two position in his government is certainly a subject for debate. The absence of a constitutional position has not been a deterrent. However, these are exceptional times notwithstanding the reality that such a situation has been precipitated admittedly by gross mishandling by the winner.
Weeks ahead of the note of caution sounded by President Rajapaksa, an issue concerning the Central Bank’s new Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe has been at play. He had learnt that at a top-level conference, a VIP who chaired the meeting had left allowing a person described as an ‘outsider’ to chair the event. This was despite the presence of the Governor. Later, he and another member of the Central Bank Monetary Board had met President Rajapaksa to allege there was interference.
This was how he ended up giving them an assurance that he would not allow any ‘political interference’ and commended the Governor for the “excellent” job he was doing. A string of websites has now launched a tirade against Governor Weerasinghe. Some are chiding him for playing golf in the morning and evening.
Whilst fuel, cooking gas (LPG), medicinal drugs, fertiliser and a variety of other items are in short supply or not altogether available, the issue is clouded by moves to introduce in Parliament a 21st Amendment to the Constitution. The need for this amendment, publicly admitted by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, was to shut the door from Basil Rajapaksa becoming President. If indeed this was the genuine intention, the question is whether such an argument overrides the national crisis that has paralyzed the country. Those remarks come as an insult to the intelligence of Sri Lankans.
The corollary of it is what Rajapakshe has not said – it is better to ensure Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains in power with limited powers as President than making room, in his grand vision, for Basil Rajapaksa to succeed. This is from a Minister who vowed in acidic language never to serve again under a Rajapaksa, according to a widely circulated video clip. No doubt, Basil has been a principal partner in the country’s worst economic catastrophe together with few others. The colossal damage they caused deserves deeper probe and tough punishment to prevent repetitions.
Therefore, protestors at the Galle Face Green have even been demanding the withdrawal of civic rights of those solely responsible. Why then is Minister Rajapakshe using the constitutional amendments as a scare tactic? If as he claims, Basil is a potential presidential aspirant, would he not be powerful enough to stymie 21A? His ‘marketing stragey’ has turned out to be a transparent ploy.
On Friday, Premier Wickremesinghe had another round of discussions with political party representatives on the draft which the Government proposes to place before the cabinet of ministers on Monday (tomorrow). It has now been finalised with changes. Plans are to gazette the draft thereafter and allow time for citizens to challenge provisions before the Supreme Court. Also taking part in the discussion was Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Rajapakshe.
This time, obviously with the endorsement of his party, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris raised issue over the SLPP not receiving a draft copy of 21A. After raising the issue, he walked away from the meeting. It is not immediately clear whether this was a protest or otherwise. The development came amidst reports that some ministers were to raise issue over 21A when it comes before the Cabinet tomorrow.
At Friday’s meeting, Tamil National Alliance’s Abraham Sumanthiran said the participants should not forget that it was the Galle Face Green protestors who brought both Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Rajapakshe to their new positions. The protestors are demanding the abolition of the executive presidency. Saying that it would take time is not correct. In fact, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s draft would abolish the executive presidential system.
Dilan Perera, one of the SLPP dissidents, pointed out that Sumanthiran was absent at the previous meeting on June 2. At that meeting, he said, it was agreed that any constitutional provision that warranted a referendum should not be changed. However, a plea to go ahead with this draft was also repeated by SJB General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara. The issue ended there.
Minister Rajapakshe, summing up the discussions, declared that there were key issues. There were three different views about the President holding portfolios. One view was that he should continue to hold them. Another was he should hold only the Defence portfolio. The third was he should hold no portfolios. In this regard, Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, who was present at the meeting, said that the Supreme Court had held in an advisory judgement that the subject of defence should be retained by the President. Sumanthiran intervened at this stage to urge him that the latest ruling of the SC (on the draft constitutional amendment of the SJB) be awaited.
There was a heated debate on the issue. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila argued that Parliament should not depend on the Supreme Court for such directions to decide on matters. The final decision was to allow the President to hold only the defence portfolio.
Premier Wickremesinghe agreed to incorporate a provision in 21A to enable the removal of the Prime Minister by the President. “We have to be flexible and accommodate the request,” he said. Earlier, it was argued that the removal of the Premier should have the majority support of Parliament.
Another significant change in 21A has come with the deletion of the words “on the advice of the Prime Minister” when it comes to appointing Cabinet ministers. It has been amended to read that “the President shall consult the Prime Minister…”
Fears whether the Government will be able to seek the passage of 21A are mounting in the wake of developments this week.
The Sunday Times learnt that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also written to minister Rajapakshe giving his own points of view. He has been assisted in this task by Foreign Minister Peiris. The contents of the letter are not known. FM Peiris appears to have been distanced by the SLPP top brass at Nelum Mawatha, Battaramulla, their headquarters, over what a senior member said was a marked shift in his stance or even allegiance on the constitutional changes and other issues.
On June 2, he took part in a meeting minister Rajapakshe held with representatives of political parties. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam told the Sunday Times “Peiris attended in his capacity as a cabinet minister though he informed us that he was going.” Kariyawasam also said he had written to President Rajapaksa, Premier Wickremesinghe, and Minister Rajapakshe that the invitation to (former Premier) Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLPP leader, for that meeting was not received. It has been sent to the wrong address, he said.
In a separate incident, there was also acute embarrassment for Foreign Minister Peiris. A media statement from his Ministry quoted him (the Foreign Minister) as announcing that “the World Bank would disburse approximately USD 700 million to Sri Lanka within the next few months. This pledge was made when the World Bank’s Country Manager in Colombo, Chiyo Kanda, called on Prof. G.L. Peiris at his Ministry….” The World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka Faris H. Hadad-Zervos said, “Recent media reports have inaccurately stated that the World Bank is planning support for Sri Lanka in the form of a bridge loan or new loan commitments, among other incorrect assertions. The bank is concerned for the people of Sri Lanka and is working in coordination with the IMF and other development partners in advising on appropriate policies to restore economic stability and broad-based growth. Until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place, the World Bank does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka, he said….” The claim was like another statement by the Foreign Ministry early this year that members of the UN Human Rights Council had “overwhelmingly” supported Sri Lanka.
Also in the Foreign Ministry, the former Secretary, Jayanath Colombage, who was asked to relinquish office, is to be named Sri Lanka’s new Ambassador to Japan. His agrément (the document containing his personal background) has already been sent to the Japanese Foreign Ministry for approval. If accepted, he will succeed Sanjiv Gunasekera, a Los Angeles property developer, who was appointed by President Rajapaksa. On Thursday, in an address to the Sri Lanka Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Premier Wickremesinghe noted that “relations with Japan had broken down, and it would take a while to repair those relations and regain Tokyo’s confidence.” That task would now fall on a retired officer of the Sri Lanka Navy. Successive governments have tried to woo Japanese direct foreign investment in Sri Lanka.
Besides the letter from the President, another letter by a group of some 47 members of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), also sought to effect changes in the draft 21A. They want to delete the words “the President shall appoint on the advice of the PM” and argue that the PM only represents one single electorate. Their contention is that it is in contravention of Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution as the power of the people is transferred without a referendum, though appointments should be with the concurrence of the President. They argue that in instances where he does not agree, the Constitutional Council’s views are obtained.
The arguments contained in the letter, one source said, reflect the thinking of Basil Rajapaksa. Whilst emphasising on the need to have provision for the President to remove a Prime Minister, they point out that this office is an exception from any impeachment. Even Supreme Court judges, they point out, could be removed but the PM was an exception.
The ruling coalition’s nine former partners, who now sit as ‘independents,’ want to strengthen the role of the Prime Minister, in addition to introducing provisions that could include “on the advice of the Prime Minister.” They have recommended that there should also be a written agreement from the PM. Some of the other significant changes recommended by them are:
• The public be given the opportunity to legally challenge in the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the amendments made to Bills during the parliamentary committee stage, within a month’s period after the Speaker has given his assent.
• Parliamentary approval should be obtained before Sri Lanka signs bilateral and multilateral agreements with foreign governments.
• When obtaining investments or launching joint ventures for strategically important state assets such as ports and airports, the agreements should expand the scope so it could be approved by the Procurements Commission.
• The President can only hold the Ministry of Defence.
The diverse positions from different political parties apart, the question that looms large this week is whether 21 A will have sufficient backers to be passed in Parliament. Government leaders are strongly voicing confidence that they could muster the required numbers. However, there are others including those in the opposition who are skeptical.
The ruling SLPP coalition is known to have some 103 members. If the claim that 47 are signatories to the latest letter seeking changes to 21A in return for their support is accurate, that leaves the remainder at 56. This figure could, however, vary since decision-making by some parliamentarians is mercurial.
How many among this number could be counted as backers of 21A remains to be seen. President Rajapaksa has put on hold the appointment of more ministers and a new set of State Ministers until the outcome of 21A is known. As reported last week, more than 50 positions in all categories have been left open though other partners in the Government want a lesser number. The idea is to lure as many members as possible to cast their votes in favour.
Also under consideration is the appointment of District Ministers to accommodate more parliamentarians.
The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), though not decided formally, is inclined not to vote. It is reflected in the remarks of its General Secretary, Ranjith Madduma Bandara. He told the Sunday Times, “It is too early for decision; we must first see the contents of 21A. If the amendment is made up of 19A plus (proposed by the SJB), we are in favor of it. But if it is 19A minus, then we are against it. If the amendment reflects 18A, we will oppose it.”
There is, however, strong pressure on SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, particularly from western diplomatic missions to extend support. Of course, such pressure was exerted even when the Premier’s post was offered to him, but he placed conditions and later retracted. It was too late. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has announced that its remaining 12 members would back 21A.
TNA parliamentarian Abraham Sumanthiran has already announced they are not in favour of 21A. He is of the view that the executive presidency should be abolished. The National People’s Power led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is seeking changes. Spokesperson Vijitha Herath said, “We are in favour of 21A; we are in favour of any amendment which cuts down the powers of the executive presidency. There are many shortcomings in it. Therefore, we are placing our proposals to be included. The amendment says the president can hold ministerial portfolios. However, 19A says the President cannot hold portfolios. The then President Maithripala Sirisena did hold portfolios as the amendments were effective after him. We propose a clause saying the President cannot hold portfolios.” He said their vote would depend on the final shape and content of 21A. In fact, the JVP has now joined hands with the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) and one of their missions is to seek the abolition of the executive presidency.
In the event 21A is successfully steered through in Parliament, it would no doubt come as a feather in the cap of Premier Wickremesinghe. Even with relatively less powers, he would have successfully helped President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now looking more relieved than before, to survive politically and make renewed efforts at consolidation of his position. If it were to be rejected by Parliament, all the time and effort on a relatively less priority issue would be lost.
This is with solutions yet to be found for fuel, cooking gas (LPG), medicinal drugs and other shortages which continue. The Government has so far not been able to secure substantial funding. The feared food shortage, the result of a dearth of rice, even ahead of the originally expected period, is causing serious concern. There are fears that the price of rice could reach up to Rs 1,000 a kilo if the situation cannot be arrested. The UN is set to make a worldwide appeal for emergency food relief for Sri Lanka on June 8 (Wednesday). The Government believes this would mitigate the shortage though some ministers are going on a merry go round tour offering their own solutions. All of them want to be saviours during the current crisis.
On Monday, President Rajapaksa chaired a government parliamentary group meeting devoted entirely for a discussion on 21A. The meeting was set for 5.30 p.m. and there was other activity that day. On a first-floor room, a Cabinet meeting was in session. Since the protests began outside the Presidential Secretariat, such meetings could not be held there.
In another, Premier Wickremesinghe was waiting to be connected on the telephone to British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson on a telephone call to London. A dining area downstairs was set apart for the group meeting. Among the first to arrive was Basil Rajapaksa. He served himself a cup of tea and talked to others present. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived then. Those who saw him walk in said he appeared preoccupied, and serious looking and somewhat distraught. Just then ministers were coming downstairs, one after another.
Taking their seats in the front were ministers Tiran Alles, Harin Fernando, Nimal Siripala de silva, Mahinda Ameraweera and Basil Rajapaksa (on the left end). Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe sat on the right side. At the head table were Dinesh Gunawardena, Prasanna Ranatunga and G.L. Peiris. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made his entry through a different door. In a brief introduction, he said, the purpose of the meeting was to explain to parliamentarians the provisions of 21A. He said that would be done by Minister Rajapakshe. After the minister made a lengthy explanation of the provisions, Tharaka Balasuriya, former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said he and a few others wished to discuss issues further with Rajapakshe.
That meeting was originally to be held at the Premier’s Office on Thursday but was later shifted to Committee Room One in the Parliament complex that morning.
A former State Minister and Negombo District parliamentarian Nimal Lanza lamented that most of the people were against the Government. “We are living in a bunker,” he noted but added that he was in favour of 21A. Chinthaka Mayadunne spoke about the attacks that were carried out on his house and claimed there was no effort made by law enforcement authorities to prevent it. Former Internal Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera took more than ten minutes to voice his opposition to 21A. He said no powers of the President should be curtailed.
Geetha Kumarasinghe declared that she was punished over a dual citizenship issue. She had to renounce her Swiss citizenship. I ask those who hold dual citizenship to renounce the citizenship of the other country and stick only to Sri Lanka. Turning to President Rajapaksa, she said “Sir, you also did the same thing.” As she sat down, she asked a colleague “kohomada magey grenade praharaya” or how was my grenade attack.
Charitha Herath noted that the current political and economic issues were two sides of the same coin. Harrispattuwa parliamentarian Gunatilleke Rajapaksa made a brief observation and Premier Wickremesinghe intervened thereafter. He said the tasks before him were not very easy. Keshala Jayawardena defended both Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara and declared they were helping the country. She said their actions would give the President some breathing space.
Harin Fernando declared that it was he who created the SJB symbol, the telephone and did a lot for SJB. Diana Gamage from whom the party (with another name) was originally obtained, intervened to counter the claim. “It is me and my husband (Senaka Silva) who did everything,” she argued. By that time, Fernando had left the meeting.
Former Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage accused Minister Mahinda Amaraweera of exaggerating matters related to the food situation. It came to light during the discussion that only 21 MPs had attended a meeting summoned by President Rajapaksa meant for 57 whose houses were damaged after the incidents on May 9. The two-hour meeting ended with dinner for the parliamentarians.
One of the remarks made by President Rajapaksa before declaring the meeting closed was a confession that the most difficult decision in his life was to call upon his brother and mentor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to step down as Prime Minister. Most turned to the former President and later Prime Minister who appeared not to take note of the remarks. He was seen focusing on the surroundings. Quite understandably, forcing his brother out of office, the result of a countrywide public cry is personally hurtful. Yet, there was no public outcry for his ouster. The call was for President Rajapaksa to step down.
However, President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to have, once again, judged the situation wrongly. His most difficult ones should be the wrong decisions he made as President bringing misery and suffering to the country’s 22 million people, men, women, and children. Everyone has been affected and is continuing to pay a heavy price.
He also brought about the biggest disrepute to the country. Besides the lack of fuel, cooking gas (LPG), medicinal drugs and other items, the shortage of food is staring in their faces. Added to that, various taxes have been increased and the burden in the coming weeks and months will be even more severe. Are these not the result of the most difficult hardships his mismanagement has caused? Were they not the result of wrong decisions which are unprecedentedly historic?