Moves again to abolish executive presidency

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  • Resolution in Parliament proposed to conduct national referendum on this issue, but questions about
    whether two-thirds majority could be obtained
  • SJB, JVP unlikely to extend support, unless immediate general elections are held; Justice Minister
    says no moves to delay elections
  • UN Human Rights Chief’s office highly critical of Anti-Terrorism Bill and Online Safety Bill;
    expresses concern about abuse

By Our Political Editor

Is the talk about abolishing the executive presidency, gaining momentum, a trial balloon floated by an influential section of the government? So, it seems to be the likely answer.

The apparent rationale behind the move is to obviate the need for a presidential poll. It is proposed to be carried out through a national referendum. That is to pave the way for a general election and a return to parliamentary democracy. No doubt the fruition of such a move has been much talked of but never executed. It would come as an acknowledgment that since 1978, the executive presidential form of government has been a failure for more than 45 years.

The soundings came from a key government stalwart to opposition groups, mainly the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP). The nature of the soundings, couched in an air of informality, was to conduct a national referendum for abolishing the executive presidency. The political broker was also keen to make it known that he was tossing the suggestion casually, meaning that he did not wish to be identified by his party or his own name. For obvious reasons, disclosure of their names is bound to therefore draw denials. The response of the two major parties, the SJB and the NPP, was clear-cut. Any resolution in Parliament to conduct a referendum should also make provision for the immediate conduct of parliamentary elections, something which they are not inclined to do until electoral reforms are completed. Added to that are the achievements of their major economic recovery efforts. Presidential elections are scheduled for any time between September and October next year,

It is these reforms that are being misconstrued in some quarters as moves by the government to put off elections, said Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. “These reforms will not delay elections. They are not even related to the presidential elections,” he told the Sunday Times.  He added, “This country is a country of phobias. When we bring changes, they say what is the urgency to bring them. When we delay, they shout ‘Why did you take so long to bring the reforms.’ The government will not delay elections due to reforms. The reforms envisaged will see the election of 160 members to Parliament under the first-past-the-post system. The remaining 65 members from a 225-seat Parliament would be represented by the National list and District list depending on the number of voters under the proportional voting system.” He said the proposals would be discussed with leaders of political parties. He said suggestions made by them would also be considered. Hence, at this stage, these are only proposals, he pointed out.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the Galle Dialogue forum where he voiced concerns over the impact of the war in the Middle East on the changing world order and the economies of developing countries

The conduct of a national referendum, other than one that is non-binding (which has no legal power), to abolish the executive presidency, would still require the contents to be approved first by Parliament with a two-thirds majority. One may argue that unless equations have changed drastically, that is not a difficult task. On July 20, last year, Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected President by Parliament with 134 MPs voting in favour. This month MP and Cabinet Minister Nazeer Ahmed was disqualified after the Supreme Court ruling upholding a decision by his party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, to expel him for going against one of the party decisions. However, the number has now gone up to 135 with parliamentarians Suresh Vadivel and A.H.M. Fowzie joining the government ranks. That leaves the support of only 15 more MPs to reach 150 votes, which is two-thirds in the 225-member Parliament. It may still not be a difficult task to lobby those from the Tamil political parties. Of course, they may hinge on political assurances being given to them.

It was just last week C.V. Wigneswaran, leader of the Tamil Makkal Thesivya Kootani, said in a letter to President Wickremesinghe that “Tamils are thinking of a Common Tamil candidate” at a future presidential election. “Many matters promised by Your Excellency have not seen the light of day. The Advisory Committee under Dr Vigneswaran has not been clothed with authority…..” There are also a few in the opposition who are supportive of President Wickremesinghe.

The move for a referendum in Parliament can be a double-edged weapon. Its non-passage would impact badly on the government when elections are held at any time thereafter. On the other hand, if the government can carry it through Parliament, there is a near certainty it could lose the referendum. That is with both the SJB and the NPP, with no assurance of a parliamentary polls, would oppose it. Put together, these two major parties make up about two-thirds of the country’s total vote base.

The last and only national referendum was held in Sri Lanka on December 22, 1982, by late President J.R. Jayewardene. He sought to extend the tenure of Parliament by six years. The term was due to expire in August 1983. That helped the United National Party (UNP) government to maintain its more than two-thirds majority in Parliament. Earlier, Parliament approved by over two-thirds majority the 4th Amendment to the Constitution that sought to extend the term of Parliament by six years.

In 1977, the UNP won a record victory by garnering 140 of the 168 seats in Parliament – near five-sixths of the seats. Under the leadership of Jayewardene, the party ceded only eight seats to the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which ended as the third largest party in Parliament after the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) which won 18 seats. That government introduced a new constitution, a proportional representation system of voting and increased the number of members in Parliament to 225.

In the fast-changing political scenario, the unease in the New Alliance – the body formed by Gampaha District parliamentarian Nimal Lanza, who was once with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – continues to face some uncertainties. As previously reported, the alliance with some 29 parliamentarians, mostly from the SLPP supporting it, and 19 touted as joining soon, was primarily aimed at supporting Wickremesinghe at a presidential election. If the numbers were accurate, they surpassed the strength of the SJB in Parliament. Such support was to be extended by them without joining directly as members of the UNP. During the formative weeks and months, Lanza functioned from an office at the Presidential Secretariat. Later, he named the grouping as New Alliance and found an office at Lake Drive in Rajagiriya.

This week, the members backing the group were invited to a workshop at a leading tourist hotel in Negombo. By their own admission, only 12 parliamentarians took part in the event. It was held to brief the members on current developments and the economic situation in the country. Among those present were Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Trade Minister Nalin Fernando. The New Alliance plans to hold its major inaugural in January next year though one is not sure of the status of its membership by then.  It is not unusual for some to keep away and thus save their own positions in an evolving political scenario that discourages them. In some instances, other than the New Alliance, the Supreme Court ruling on Environment Minister Nazeer Ahmed has also sent tremors on groups that have walked out of the SLPP. Ali Zahir Mowlana will succeed Ahmed in Parliament. The Environment Ministry has been brought under President Wickremesinghe. However, a few argue that there have so far been no disciplinary initiatives against them. To the contrary, they claim, that the hierarchy has acknowledged their new positions.

Two bills come
under criticism

These developments come as the government is under scrutiny over the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Online Safety Bill. Minister Rajajapakshe countered criticism this week by declaring that the bills had not been presented in Parliament so far. That meant that there was still time for those who wanted to challenge its contents in the Supreme Court to do so.
This week, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on the two bills. It said:

“We have serious concerns over two bills under consideration in the Sri Lankan Parliament — the revised Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Online Safety Bill — which give the authorities a range of expansive powers and can impose restrictions on human rights, not in line with international human rights law.

“The Anti-Terrorism Bill is intended to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has long been of concern to the UN human rights mechanisms. While some positive revisions have been made in the draft, including the removal of the death penalty as a possible punishment, there are still major concerns about the scope and discriminatory effects of many provisions in the revised draft. Restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are very likely to fail to meet requirements of necessity and proportionality.

“The Bill still includes an overly broad definition of terrorism and grants wide powers to the police — and to the military — to stop, question and search, and to arrest and detain people, with inadequate judicial oversight. Other issues remain over the imposition of curfews, restriction orders and the designation of prohibited places, all of which raise concerns about the scope of powers granted to the executive without sufficient checks and balances.

“With respect to the Online Safety Bill, we believe it will severely regulate and restrict online communication, including by the general public and will give authorities unfettered discretion to label and restrict expressions they disagree with as “false statements”.

“Many sections of the Bill contain vaguely defined terms and definitions of offences which leave significant room for arbitrary and subjective interpretation, and could potentially criminalise nearly all forms of legitimate expression, creating an environment that has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

“The UN Human Rights Office urges the Government to undertake further meaningful consultation with civil society and UN independent experts and to make substantial revisions of the draft laws in order to bring them into full compliance with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.”

Consequences of
a West Asia war

In another development, President Wickremesinghe has directed government officials to prioritise the immediate requirements of Sri Lankan citizens residing in Israel, especially their safety, considering the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The President’s Media Division said, “Consequently, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Israel and relevant government departments have collaboratively initiated a special programme aimed at offering the utmost possible assistance to the Sri Lankan community living in Israel.”

Addressing the Galle Dialogue on Thursday, President Wickremesinghe noted: “Last week, while I was free, I jotted down a few points to talk about the new emerging order. Yesterday I tore it up. What has happened in between has made what I’m going to say redundant. But it will affect what is going to happen now, after the Hamas attack on Israel.

“You could see politics taking its place. Israel has already formed a unity government. So, destroying Hamas is one thing. They can take military action against it. But what’s the reaction if you go and destroy Gaza? The whole situation will change in 24 hours. Nothing the governments here can control. From here all the way to Indonesia, elsewhere, governments will lose control of the situation. This whole picture of what I say will change. I wouldn’t envy being involved in those negotiations.

“What do you do? On one hand you have a unity government in Israel wanting to strike back. If you go into Gaza, the whole Middle East will be on fire and that will affect all of us here. Up to Turkey on one end, up to the Philippines on the other side. It will affect Central Asia, including Xinjiang. So in the next few days we will decide what the options are. I wouldn’t like to be in President Biden’s shoes. How does he handle it this way? Bad enough with allies on both sides? How do you handle it domestically? When you must think of the Jewish vote bloc for the next election? And his difficulty of speaking with Congress.

“It may be easier for him to speak to Hamas than to speak to the Congress leadership. It is how delicate it is. But his decisions will depend on what happens. So, all this that we said today can change tomorrow. So, let’s hope wise leadership prevails and I think a lot of backdoor diplomacy is going on. That all that will succeed and somehow, we can hold the situation. Otherwise, we will have to meet again to decide what new order has emerged.”

According to CNN on Friday, “Israel has called on all civilians in Gaza City to leave their homes and head south today ahead of a potential ground invasion in response to Hamas’ terror attacks that killed more than 1,300 people. The UN, however, said an order for the mass evacuation was “impossible” without major humanitarian consequences. Israel has amassed more than 300,000 reservists along its southern border for its possible intensified military operation, but Hamas militants told Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip not to leave their homes.” This has set a poser for the UN. How
to evacuate 1.2 million people living there. This was also widely reported by others. The UN has warned that the Israeli evacuation order is
impossible without enormous humanitarian consequences.

According to the Washington-based well-informed website POLITICO’s National Security portal, ”the Biden administration wants Israel to abide by the laws of war as it responds to Hamas’ barbaric attack, but Jerusalem doesn’t appear to be listening. Israeli military officials conceded early on that some of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents would die amid overwhelming force, partly because Hamas places many of their offices and assets near hospitals, schools, and homes. But Israel is a democracy, they added, and would work to spare civilian targets — and civilians themselves — as much as possible.”

The same portal said on Saturday that it had learnt that the order for a 24-hour evacuation of northern Gaza comes ahead of an “imminent” ground invasion of the enclave. The problem is it’s unlikely that the 1.1 million people will get to safety before tanks start rolling in. Oxfam America sent an urgent message to the State Department and White House, obtained by NatSec Daily, insisting the evacuation order “will heighten the dangers civilians are facing.” The United Nations said such a movement was “impossible.” The International Committee of the Red Cross stated Israel’s instructions “are not compatible with international humanitarian law.”

The CNN said on Saturday that “Israel’s military warned 1.1 million people living in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes and head toward the southern portion of the Gaza Strip ahead of a potential Israeli ground operation. The warning came in part by airdropped leaflet. For comparison, that’s like telling the population of Washington, DC, plus an extra 300,000 or so people, to get out of the city in a day.”

A war in any part of the world today is bound to have an impact on other countries including small Sri Lanka. One of the direct consequences, as President Wickremesinghe warned, is an upward spiral in oil prices. This in turn impacts a rise in the cost of air travel and many other areas. What an Indian strategist has pointed out about his country has also direct relevance to Sri Lanka except in one single area. The lessons to be learnt from Hamas’ terror attacks, according to him:

n     If you haven’t had a war for many years, don’t assume the enemy has disappeared into thin air. He is lurking around, looking for your soft belly to hit.

n     Total dependence on technology is not security, alert foot soldiers on the ground are important.

n     If you had no war, stop thinking soldiers are a drain on your exchequer. They may not be financially productive, but they are assets protectors.

n     Stop tinkering with the time-tested military establishment. No amount of new guns will help. It is always the man behind the gun who wins war.

n     It is better to stay protected rather than seeing your expensive assets being blown up as rubble; You must pay even to clear the rubble.

n     National Defence is too serious a matter to be left for the calculative politicians/bureaucracy (red tape) to handle.

The other reference is to the recruitment of agniveers (younger soldiers).  It said that their morale had been hit hard since their pension was considered a luxury. They are required to serve a tenure of four years including six months training and three and half year’s deployment. Only 25% were being entitled to their pensions whilst the rest would have to retire.

That brings us to the question of how Hamas is identified by the media. The BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson had the reputed organisation’s definition. Here are excerpts: “Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

“We regularly point out that the British and other governments have condemned Hamas as a terrorist organisation, but that’s their business. We also run interviews with guests and quote contributors who describe Hamas as terrorists.

“The key point is that we don’t say it in our voice. Our business is to present our audiences with the facts and let them make up their own minds.

“As it happens, of course, many of the people who’ve attacked us for not using the word terrorist have seen our pictures, heard our audio or read our stories, and made up their minds on the basis of our reporting, so it’s not as though we’re hiding the truth in any way – far from it.

“Any reasonable person would be appalled by the kind of thing we’ve seen. It’s perfectly reasonable to call the incidents that have occurred “atrocities”, because that’s exactly what they are.

“No one can possibly defend the murder of civilians, especially children and even babies — nor attacks on innocent, peace-loving people who are attending a music festival.

“During the 50 years I’ve been reporting on events in the Middle East, I’ve seen for myself the aftermath of attacks like this one in Israel, and I’ve also seen the aftermath of Israeli bomb and artillery attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon and Gaza. The horror of things like that stays in your mind forever.

“But this doesn’t mean that we should start saying that the organisation whose supporters have carried them out is a terrorist organisation, because that would mean we were abandoning our duty to stay objective.

“And it’s always been like this in the BBC. During World War Two, BBC broadcasters were expressly told not to call the Nazis evil or wicked, even though we could and did call them ‘the enemy.’”

Countering Simpson’s claims is Oliver Darcy in CNN’s Reliable Sources. He notes that a spirited debate has opened up in media circles over the language used to describe members of Hamas who carried out the horrific weekend attack on Israel: “terrorists” or “militants”? The BBC, which has come under scrutiny for not using the term “terrorist,” defended its stance on Wednesday. The BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson said in an essay that it’s a “loaded word” and that the BBC’s job is to “present our audiences with the facts and let them make up their own minds.” A BBC spokesperson told me it is an approach “that has been used for decades.”

Darcy added: “The BBC’s explanation, however, has a hole in it: namely, that it has repeatedly described those who have carried out other terrorist plots as “terrorists.” When I pointed this out to the BBC press office with a handful of specific examples, asking how it could now claim that it hasn’t used the term, my repeated emails went unreturned.

“It’s worth noting that, contrary to what some dishonest right-wing media figures are claiming, the entire press corps is not refraining from calling the Hamas terrorists, well, “terrorists.” A CNN spokesperson noted to me that the network is calling the perpetrators of the attacks “terrorists,” which has been on full display all week. The CNN spokesperson noted the term “militants” is also being used, given it too is accurate. And The New York Times has also used the term “terrorists” in its reporting.”

The escalation of fighting as Israel prepares an onslaught into Gaza will have its repercussions the world over including Sri Lanka. What it portends during the critical phase of an economic revival and impending elections would be important.

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