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Sunday, 12 September 2010

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People's power reigns supreme

The Government secured a landslide victory when the 18th Amendment was passed in Parliament on Wednesday with a majority of 144 votes - the biggest margin in parliamentary history in Sri Lanka.

The Government secured the votes of Parliamentarians belonging to all political parties represented in Parliament, except the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), led by the extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

In a significant move, a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP also voted with the Government.

Never before in Sri Lanka's parliamentary history was an Amendment, or a Bill for that matter, been passed with such a thumping majority. The total number of votes cast in favour of the 18th Amendment - 161 - is indeed a record. No other Government in living memory received such an overwhelming majority.

All constituent parties of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government, namely the LSSP, CP, EPDP, DPF, JHU, CWC and UPF voted in favour of the Amendment. The highlight of the Amendment was the repeal of Paragraph 2 in Article 31 and Paragraph 3A (a)(1) of same, thus lifting the restriction on the two term limit for an incumbent President.

The United National Party (UNP) and JVP stopped at nothing to block the latest Amendment being passed. Neither could they build public opinion against it nor win the confidence of their own MPs. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe not only failed miserably in his attempt to change public opinion, but also cut a sorry figure, having failed to command his own parliamentarians.

At a time the UNP had to face the challenge as a responsible Opposition, Wickremesinghe kept away from the debate and voting. This was done for his own protection, fearing that the UNP's true strength and its shaky leadership would be exposed again. On the day of the crucial debate and voting, Wickremesinghe turned down a request by the majority of his MPs to call a UNP parliamentary group meeting while UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake conveniently ignored his responsibilities by going abroad.

Hence, the UNP's opposition to the 18th Amendment was confined to a few demonstrations in Colombo and elsewhere and that too due to the keenness of certain diehard supporters and some backbenchers.

In this scenario, Wickremesinghe could not prevent six UNP MPs joining the Government and several other UNP MPs voting with the Government. Senior UNPers Abdul Cader, Lakshman Seneviratne and Earl Gunasekera, along with newcomers Manusha Nanayakkara, Upeksha Swarnamali and Nimal Wijesinghe joined the Government ranks. Seven more Opposition MPs, who had entered Parliament on the UNP ticket and eight Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) MPs including its leader Rauf Hakeem, along with Citizens' Front leader J. Sri Ranga, voted in favour of the 18th Amendment.

Wickremesinghe saw the writing on the wall, that he could not display any strength, even if the UNP had participated in the debate and voted against it. Perhaps, he feared that there would be more crossovers, had he taken his remaining UNP MPs to Parliament for the debate.

The overwhelming majority for the 18th Amendment, the first in nine years in Parliament amply demonstrates the support President Mahinda Rajapaksa commands both in and outside Parliament.

There was no need whatsoever for the UNP to panic as the Amendment was not to extend the current term of President Rajapaksa. The Amendment would only permit a successful candidate after two presidential elections to contest a third term. This is by no means a 'passport' for President Rajapaksa to remain in office for a third term without facing an election.

The Amendment only allows the incumbent President, or any other future President for that matter, to contest the Presidential elections after two consecutive terms. In other words, President Rajapaksa has to go to the polls and seek a fresh mandate at a future Presidential election for a third term - that too only if his party picks him as its candidate.

Despite what Wickremesinghe and his few remaining MPs and the JVP attempted to portray, the 18th Amendment is a victory for democracy and it further strengthens the power of the people. More importantly, it has given more powers to the legislature, reducing the sweeping powers conferred on the Executive under the 1978 Constitution.

By making it mandatory for the President to attend Parliament at least once in three months to answer questions by MPs, the 18th Amendment has not only made a vital link between the Executive and the Legislature, but has also made the President answerable to Parliament. Had President Rajapaksa given thought to dictatorship even in his wildest dreams, he would never have decided to attend Parliament once in three months.

Despite being elected twice to the high office, President Rajapaksa strongly believes in parliamentary democracy and is keen to attend Parliament and follow proceedings whenever time permits. Isn't this characteristic of a truly people's leader who firmly believes in the power of the ballot?

We are perplexed at the UNP's negative mentality. Wickremesinghe is striving hard to put his own house in order before contemplating national politics. Perhaps, Wickremesinghe had opposed the 18th Amendment in the belief that he could never get the better of President Rajapaksa even at a future presidential election. It is a pity that the main Opposition is unable to see the positive side of the 18th Amendment in its true perspective. The JVP's stance is quite understandable as the moribund Marxist party has no option but to vehemently oppose every Government move for its survival.

In opposing the 18th Amendment, the JVP has said that they are against the Legislature securing more powers and the Executive becoming accountable to the Parliament.

Whatever said and done, the people's power reigns supreme in a democratic country. President Rajapaksa has always cherished it and proved his firm belief in parliamentary democracy.

 

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