THE dispute over the position of the leader of the opposition is not attracting much attention. It is taken for granted by most people that the leader of the opposition should be from the party in opposition that is largest, which is clearly the UPFA which has 95 members of parliament. During the recent political crisis, the UPFA and its allies were able to consistently show as many as 103 MPs on their side. Therefore, it is not surprising that following the withdrawal of the UPFA from the government alliance by president Maithripala Sirisena, the speaker Karu Jayasuriya should have selected former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be leader of the opposition. By way of contrast, the former leader of the opposition, R Sampanthan of the TNA, is currently able to muster the support of only 14 members of parliament.
The loss of the leader of the opposition position has dealt a major political blow to the TNA. The fact that the speaker should have announced the change of leader of opposition without discussing the matter with the TNA or with Sampanthan has been a matter of distress to them. They feel that they did everything they could do to ensure that the government was restored after it had been sacked by president Maithripala Sirisena. They went out of their way to support the prime minister and speaker. But after the government was restored, they became a victim instead of being appreciated for the service that they had done. This has provided grounds for the political rivals of the TNA within the Tamil community, who espouse Tamil nationalism as their instrument of political mobilisation, to point this out to the Tamil community to the detriment of the TNA.
The leader of the opposition is a prestigious position that gave the TNA an official status both within and outside the country and made its leader one of the topmost in the pantheon of the country. This was not merely a symbolic honour to the TNA and to the Tamil community that voted for it. There was also a very practical reason why the leader of the opposition position is important to the TNA. As this position is high in the hierarchy of the state, the leader of the opposition is able to get more things done than can be done by an ordinary MP or even as leader of a political party. A request by the leader of the opposition would carry more weight and get more things done especially from the government bureaucracy and even the military. In addition, the leader of the opposition is provided with a fully equipped office with staff.
OVER the past three years the TNA enjoyed this single source of state power that the Tamil community has seldom had the opportunity to enjoy. The significance of the leader of the opposition’s position is that it gives the TNA, which represents a minority community, a position within Sri Lanka’s hierarchy of political leaders. The position of the Tamil polity has almost always been one of dissenting from the mainstream and not wishing to join governments that did not prioritise obtaining for them their rights as a distinct nation entitled to be treated as an equal constituent part of the larger Sri Lankan polity. In the late 1960s the main Tamil party of that time, the Federal Party, joined the government of prime minister Dudley Senanayake for about two years, but then withdrew from it when the government was unable to deliver on its promises to them.
The crisis over the leader of the opposition’s position is yet another reason why the Sri Lankan constitution needs to be revised to accommodate the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities so that they may have a fair share of power. This is a pledge that was made at the general elections of 2015 and which needs to be kept. The intention of the government to resume the constitution-making process which had been at a standstill for a while as a result of the recent political crisis and prorogation of parliament is a commendable one. The Parliamentary Steering Committee appointed to draft the new constitution is scheduled to meet during the first parliamentary week in January. It will take up for discussion a report compiled by the experts committee appointed to advise the steering committee on preparing the draft constitution. The steering committee consists of members of all the political parties in parliament.
The TNA is reported to be preparing to appeal their case to the courts of law. The courts have shown themselves to be able to decide logically, unlike the political leadership which is carried away by their self-interest. There are two key arguments that the TNA can make. The first is that president Sirisena who heads the UPFA is part and parcel of the government and it is therefore illogical that a member of the UPFA should also be the leader of the opposition. President Sirisena is part and parcel of the government on account of his holding three cabinet ministries, namely the ministries of defence, Mahaweli development and environment. In addition, he has attached to himself the police department which was formerly under the ministry of law and order and the government printer’s department which was formerly under the ministry of parliamentary reforms.
IT IS noteworthy that the 19th Amendment which granted to president Sirisena the ministries of defence, Mahaweli development and environment envisages that it will be specifically limited to him, and to no other president who follows. Section 51 states that ‘Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the constitution, the person holding office as president on the date of commencement of this act, so long as he holds the office of president may assign to himself the subjects and functions of defence, Mahaweli development and environment and determine the ministries to be in his charge for that purpose…’ This provision will cease to function after president Sirisena ceases to hold office. Therefore, it can be argued that the 19th Amendment envisaged president Sirisena to be part of the government and not as an opposition figure. As president Sirisena heads the UPFA, and is part of the government, it is not logical that another member of the UPFA can be leader of the opposition.
A second argument that can be made is that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be leader of the opposition on account of his joining the SLPP, which is not a constituent party of the UPFA. Shortly after president Sirisena dissolved parliament on November 9, Rajapaksa and several other MPs joined the SLPP. This was given wide prominence in the news media at that time. Therefore, there is a case to be made that they no longer belong to the UPFA. The question is whether they can be members of two political parties at the same time so long as no objection is made by the two parties they belong to. So far, no such objection has been made. Former president Rajapaksa and the rest of his party, who took membership of the SLPP with much fanfare and publicity, now deny that they took such membership. It is both sad and disappointing that they deny the truth in a most unabashed manner. This disregard of the general public, and the truth, is not a reassuring portent of things to come.
In this situation, it is incumbent on the part of the government to do its best to support the TNA in its bid to retain the position of leader of the opposition. In the context of the political crisis, where the president himself was judged by the Supreme Court to have violated the constitution in dissolving parliament, the TNA under the leadership of R Sampanthan comes across as a party that stood for principle and did not bargain with either side, but did its duty by the constitution and the right thing that needed to be done. But today the TNA has been put into the politically difficult position of showing its own voters that it achieved something for them too. If it is unable to do this, the TNA’s political strength is likely to be eroded by Tamil nationalist parties who will, together with the ethnic nationalists of the other communities, once again take the country on the part of ethnic polarisation that the TNA has tried to prevent.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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