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'156 MPs will vote for 18th amendment’ – Basil Rajapaksa

Sep 4, 2010 8:26:13 PM- transcurrents.com

Government upbeat on support from leftist parties

By Rasika Jayakody

Economic Development Minister and Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa says that Government is confident of passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, providing for the controversial constitutional reforms, with 156 MPs voting in favour.

In an interview with our sister paper, RIVIRA, the Minister also said that he had no doubt that the MPs representing the leftist parties would vote for the amendment.

“I am quite certain that the leftist parties in Parliament would vote for the amendment. These parties had never in the past taken political measures supportive of reaction. I hope that they would continue to act in the same manner,” said Minister Rajapaksa.

Rationale for the proposed CC

Asked to account for the rationale for providing for a body smaller in composition (under the new amendment) to replace the 10-member Constitutional Council (CC), the Minister said that, under the present Constitution, people exercise their legislative power through their MPs. He pointed out the proposed new Council, given its composition, could be called a Parliamentary Council in the real sense of the word.

Minister Rajapaksa added: “Now let us examine the difference between the present CC and the proposed new one. The Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition are members of the CC under the present Constitution. They will be represented by two MPs in the CC to be constituted under the new amendment as well. However, there will be no nominee of the President in the new CC.”

President’s powers pruned

He also pointed out that, under the 17th Amendment, the President can reject the nominees to the CC. But under the proposed new provisions, the President cannot do so. Because, once the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader nominate their members, their appointment will automatically receive legal validity.

He said that, under the new provisions, the powers to appoint members vested with the President have been transferred to the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and to Parliament. “They are all members of the Legislature. That is why I call this CC a Parliamentary Council.”

Our mandate 10% higher

Minister Rajapaksa said: “We are now going to amend a Constitution introduced in 1977 by the UNP, which commanded a five-sixths majority in Parliament. It is the UNP that amended their Constitution a number of times. The number of votes polled by the UNP in 1977 is 3,178,221, which works out to 50% of the total votes polled. At the last Presidential election, President Rajapaksa polled a record 6, 015,934 votes. At the General election that followed, the UPFA mustered a 60.33% of the total vote polled. Therefore, we have received a mandate which is 10% higher than that obtained by the UNP in 1977.”

The Minister said that the Government’s mandate has been further strengthened by opposition MPs crossing over to the government. “UNP MPs Prabha Ganesan from the Colombo district, P. Digambaram who topped the UNF list in Nuwara Eliya, and Abdul Cader from Kandy, are supporting us today. We can easily have the Amendment passed with at least 156 MPs voting for it.”

Present provisions unfair

Under the proposed Constitutional Reforms, provisions restricting the tenure of an incumbent President to two terms have been repealed. Is this not a telling blow to democracy?

“The Constitution stipulates several factors leading to disqualifying a citizen from running for President. Persons who have already held the Presidency for two terms with the popular mandate are among the ineligibles to contest. However, a person who has unsuccessfully run for the Presidency even five times is eligible to come forward as a candidate. The Constitution itself, at the outset of the relevant provisions, says that the people have the right to elect a President of their choice. In this instance, however, the very fact of having been a President elected by the people on two earlier occasions disqualifies a person seeking a third term. Therefore, the obvious logic is that having been a popular choice of the people is a disqualification to seek to become the popular choice of the people again! Is it wrong to find a way out of this imbroglio?”

Hypothetical situation

Asked to comment on the criticism that the provisions of the proposed Constitution have provided room for a President once elected to office, to easily win successive terms open-ended, by abusing the powers of his office, Minister Rajapaksa said that the possibility of abusing the powers of office was there at the last Presidential election, but that did not happen.

“Besides, there is no sense in making Constitutions with provisions aimed at dealing with hypothetical situations, where an elected President would possibly abuse his powers to remain in office,” he added.

Minister Rajapaksa also denied the charge that the proposed Constitutional amendment has violated the independence of the Public Service, by vesting the powers of making appointments to high posts, with the Cabinet of Ministers.

He explained that identical powers relating to the relevant appointments are vested with the Cabinet, under the present Constitution as well.

“The correct position is that, powers of the Cabinet, relating to appointments to the Public Service, in terms of the provisions of the proposed Amendment, are confined to making policy decisions. For instance, the Cabinet may take a decision to recruit engineers whose age is not more than 30 years. But of course, selection and recruitment of engineers are functions devolved on the Public Service Commission.”

Referendum not necessary

Asked whether the Government was prepared to meet the UNP’s challenge to seek a mandate for the proposed Constitutional reforms at a Referendum, Minister Rajapaksa said that his personal opinion is that there is no need to hold a Referendum to test public opinion. “Holding a Referendum would be an unnecessary burden on the economy. We can test the public’s opinion at the upcoming elections to local authorities. As regards the UNP’s challenge, well, they have been shouting all the time on all issues.”

India expressed no views

Asked to comment on the talks he held with the Indian authorities, during his recent visit to New Delhi, Minister Rajapaksa said: “Our talks mainly centrered on relations between the `New Sri Lanka’ and India, and on the present strong economic ties in particular.”

Minister Rajapaksa also said the Indian authorities did not express their views on the Constitutional Reforms. - courtesy: The Nation -