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Hue and cry over Opposition Leader's position

The decision by 26 SLFP MPs to join the newly formed National Government and secure ministerial portfolios has created a volatile political situation in the composition of Parliament leading to a hue and cry over the legitimacy of a SLFP parliamentarian functioning as the Leader of the Opposition.

The issue turned into a hot debate on the floor of the House due to the divergent views expressed by the JVP and some coalition partners of the main Opposition UPFA who called upon Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to seriously consider this situation and give a ruling to safeguard the dignity and decorum of the House.

JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake raised a point of order on the legitimacy of Nimal Siripala de Silva MP functioning as the leader of the opposition when the SLFP has also become an integral part of the ruling coalition and several senior SLFPers and officebearers hold ministerial positions in the Cabinet. The MP said the incumbent Government is a coalition in which some MPs sit in the Opposition with others in the Government. He described this as abnormal and queer.

The MP attempted to convince that this situation would denigrate the dignity and decorum of the House. Dissanayake stressed that none could condone attempts at creating Governments and Oppositions like children building toy-houses. In a situation where the Leader of the Opposition has failed to muster the support of Opposition parties, the MP flatly refused to accept him as the Leader of the Opposition.

The point raised by MP Dissanayake was that the House is governed by Standing Orders, and whenever there is a lacuna in the Standing Orders, the House should take the precedence and follow the tradition.

Unprecedented

He pointed out how the coalition formed by the Government in collaboration with the main opposition UPFA has created an unprecedented situation in Parliament. The party which commands the majority in the Opposition ranks should be given the position of Opposition Leader.

However, the issue eventually developed into an extensive dialogue as UPFA MPs Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Susil Premjayantha, Front Line Socialist Party MP Ajith Kumara and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed various opinions on the position of Leader of the Opposition. The topic turned into a debate as the constituent partners of the UPFA-led coalition, Dinesh Gunawardena and Wimal Weerawansa expressed their displeasure over Nimal Siripala de Silva functioning as the Leader of the Opposition.

MEP Leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena stressed the importance of leaving no room to challenge the supremacy of Parliament and to denigrate its status. He criticised the attempts of some SLFP MPs who were given ministerial portfolios in the Government. Gunawardena pointed out that a group of UNP MPs had also crossed over to the UPFA when it was in power.

The UNP never accepted them as the stakeholders of that Government but disciplinary action was taken against them. If some UPFA MPs had joined the Government and received portfolios, the UPFA would not have endorsed that decision. The people question whether the SLFP is in the Government or in the Opposition. This House should not become a mockery. MP Gunawardena warned that the people would loose their confidence in Parliament.

NFF Leader MP Wimal Weerawansa describing the volatile political situation in the House said that it is entirely up to the Opposition to select a suitable person as the Leader of the Opposition, else the Government doesn't need an Opposition leader.

Silent

Despite the divergent views expressed by the Opposition parliamentarians on the issue, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe remained silent without joining in the discussion. This led MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake to query as to why Premier Wickremesinghe who cites examples from British parliamentary tradition is silent today.

The Prime Minister told the House that he held the position of Leader of the Opposition for 11 years and there was no problem of this nature at the time. This matter should be sorted by the Opposition parties. UPFA parliamentarian Susil Premajayantha told the House in lighter vein that the Prime Minister had said he held the Opposition Leader's post for 11 years and we call upon him to revert to the same position and there would be no problem.

The Premier told the MP that he did not mind being the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. MP Premajayantha said the UPFA is represented by 15 constituent parties with 138 MPs. Of them 120 are SLFPers and as such he called upon the Speaker to consider the number of MPs in each party before giving a ruling as this is a unique situation.

The Speaker told the House that he would take time to give a ruling as the issue was quite problematic. He would inform the House soon as to who should be the Leader of Opposition in Parliament.

If the SLFP MPs didn't accept ministerial portfolios, this problem would not have arisen, he said. However, UPFA MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said that there were MPs and parties which represent the National Executive Council and requested the Speaker to take it into consideration.

Referendum

Fulfilling yet another promise given under the Government's hundred-day program, the Prime Minister presented the Bill on the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament to prune certain powers of the Executive Presidency.

Leader of the Opposition Nimal Siripala de Silva and JHU Parliamentarian Ven. Aturaliye Ratana Thera raising a point of order said that this Bill could not be passed in Parliament as some of the Amendments it envisaged to bring about should be approved at a referendum. Ven. Ratana Thera expressing his displeasure said that several important matters raised by the Pivithuru Hetak National Council have not been included in the draft 19th Amendment. He said the JHU had agreed to an Amendment which would not require a referendum.

He alleged this draft Amendment has been presented in Parliament without holding any discussions with political parties. The Premier said that it was agreed to present the 19th Amendment without going for a referendum. He said several petitions have also been submitted to the Supreme Court on this issue.

The Government is awaiting the Supreme Court determination. The Leader of the Opposition said the stance of the SLFP is that the 19th Amendment and the proposed electoral reforms should be taken up simultaneously.

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