Objections against SLPP Parliamentarian Premalal Jayasekara’s oath taking and the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A) dominated the political discourse last week also creating ripples in Parliament.
Both were opportunities for the Opposition parties to get their act together and score a few points against the Government. The Opposition was keen to turn them into rallying points to be back in the limelight after its major electoral setback last month.
The Government members defended MP Jayasekara’s right to office, and tried not to allow the issue to be dragged on, noting that the Appeal Court’s interim order and the Speaker’s decision have put finality to the matter.
On the other hand, the 20A has become a sore point within the Government itself, and it has decided to tread more cautiously on the topic so as not to upset its alliance partners and forces and to give an ear to their different opinions.
Constructive dialogue on both developments must be welcomed as those matters can have a profound influence on the future trajectory of the country’s politics and governance.
Verdict of the People
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or ideal form of Government . Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” was a famous remark by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1947.
Democracy is messy and there are innumerable occasions, not only in our part of the world but also in western democracies, where the choices of the people have come into question. When we accept democracy and have faith in the ultimate choice of the people, we must also be prepared to reconcile with all the imperfections of the people’s rationality.
Certainly, the moment a convicted prisoner in death row, whose appeal is pending, took oaths as an “honourable” Member of Parliament (MP) and the subsequent international media spotlight this attracted , could not be a proud moment for our Parliament.
The question was not about Parliamentarian Premalal Jayasekara, but about not setting a precedent that might lead to further deterioration of our already sullied political culture. Then again, more than 100,000 people in the Ratnapura electoral district thought him fit and proper to be a law-maker and their representative at the country’s supreme legislative body despite his conviction for the gravest of crimes.
In hindsight, the High Court’s verdict delivered with less than a week for the General Election had not been a deterrent, but an impetus to his political campaign to poll the second highest preferential votes in Ratnapura, the electorate he represented since 2001.
“My conscience knows that I am innocent,” MP Jayasekara said making his first speech in the new Parliament within hours of his swearing in. He maintained that the CID had framed him for political reasons. He thanked his constituency and the judiciary for the opportunity granted to him to be a member of Parliament.
At the end of the day, every Parliamentarian has received a people’s mandate and that has to be respected. MP Jayasekara is not the only MP to travel to Parliament from prison. Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP) MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias ‘Pillayan’, who is indicted for the murder of former MP Joseph Pararajasingham, is also attending Parliament from prison pending his Court verdict.
Viewing things in a different light, many other contemporary politicians too have a chequered history. Though charges are not proven before the Courts of Law, one cannot help but get the impression that, a considerable number of them cannot save face in the court of public opinion.
The main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) wore black shawls and heckled while Jayasekara took oaths in Parliament. Later they staged a walkout in protest. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa reminded the House that in a similar situation in 1982 then Speaker M.A. Bakeer Markar did not permit Selvarajah Yogachandran, also known as ‘Kuttimani’, one of the leaders of the TELO, to take oaths in Parliament.
Yogachandran was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and while his appeal was pending Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Secretary-General A. Amirthalingam nominated Yogachandran as a new MP following the death of MP T. Thirunavukarasu. However, then Prison Commissioner Priya Delgoda refused to release him from prison to take oaths and subsequently he was disqualified from becoming an MP. The seat remained vacant for about seven months till Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, the alternative nominee by the TULF, took his oaths as an MP in 1983.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena stated that he acted in line with the Appeal Court’s interim order when he allowed MP Jayasekara to be sworn in. “Those arguments should have been raised at the Court. I did not delve deep into the matter but simply followed the Court order,” the Speaker responded.
Citing the rulings of former Speakers Chamal Rajapaksa and Anura Bandaranaike, the Opposition MPs argued that there had been instances in the past where the Speaker took his own independent decisions without necessarily falling in line with the Court’s orders. They also stated that the Court in its order had allowed the Speaker to make the final call.
The interim order running to a few pages delivered by Justice (President) A.H.M.D. Nawaz permitted the petitioner to attend Parliament, since the election of the petitioner as an MP has not been invalidated so far.
“It has to be pointed out that Articles 89 and 91 do not prohibit the oath taking of an elected Member of Parliament when his election remains valid and un-impeached.
“We would make the observation that as long as the election of the Petitioner remains valid and effectual, he cannot be prevented from attending Parliament and taking his oaths…The question of sitting and voting does not arise before us and it is the province of the Speaker to deal with that matter or any other competent body. What is before us is a challenge to the letter which prevents the Petitioner from attending Parliament and the House has exclusive rights to make judgments concerning the conduct of members and others in relation to Parliament,” the Court order stated.
Turning to the Constitutional amendments, the SJB and the National People’s Power (NPP) have vehemently opposed the 20A and have made a strong case against concentrating powers on one individual and weakening the powers of Legislature and Independent Commissions. A number of nationalist groups and professional bodies as well as several Buddhist monks have also called for dropping certain Clauses in the draft Bill.
In this backdrop, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a nine-member committee chaired by Education Minister and Constitutional Expert Prof G.L.Peiris and comprising of Parliamentarians to study the proposed changes. Its report was expected to be presented to the Cabinet today.
Taking a pause to heed the opinions of the civil groups, which paved the way for the incumbent President and the Government to seal an unprecedented electoral win, was an indication that the Government takes them seriously and is keen to maintain a good rapport with its partners.
In the ‘Grand Old Party’, Monday’s crucial Working Committee meeting ended with the appointment of UNP Deputy Secretary General Ruwan Wijewardene as the new Deputy Leader while UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to keep his post intact until January next year. This agreement has been arrived after days of closed door meetings. Accordingly, the much called for leadership change has been postponed for the umpteenth time.
However, the Deputy Leader is tipped to succeed as Leader early next year. Leadership aspirant and new Deputy Leader Wijewardene hails from Senanayake-Wijewardene political dynasty and is the nephew of former President late J.R. Jayewardene and a cousin of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was elected following a secret ballot as UNP Assistant Leader. Ravi Karunanayake also contested for the position.
The post fell vacant after Sajith Premadasa walked out of the UNP. None of the other Party seniors, who previously showed interest in succeeding Wickremesinghe as Leader, contested for the Deputy Leader post. There has been no agreement yet on the Party’s nomination to fill its National List seat.