PARLIAMENT AT 70: Resilient in the face of Adversity | Sunday Observer

PARLIAMENT AT 70: Resilient in the face of Adversity

The Sri Lanka Parliament which celebrates 70 years of chequered history is replete with landmark achievements, as well as turbulent times, but still continues with much vigor as the custodian and promoter of representative democracy and liberal political thought. It has withstood the impact of the 1962 Coup d’état, the 1971 and 1988-89 youth insurrections, the abolition of the Senate, the 30-year LTTE terrorist war and welcomed the 1972 and 1978 Republic Constitutions in place of the Westminster model, and finally, accommodated itself in an ultramodern building in Sri Jayewardenapura, Kotte. These are some of the significant historic events of its 70-year history. Politicians with varying political hues such as, first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, his successor Dudley Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who championed the cause of a new era, and ardent Trotskyites and Communists such as, Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr.Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena and Dr.S.A. Wickremasinghe and Peter Keunaman adorned the legislature and helped perpetuate Parliamentary government despite ideological and political differences. The maverick W. Dahanayake from Galle added lustre and enlivened the House with his record breaking long speeches.

Age-old practices

Debates, most of which were controversial were conducted with due dignity and decorum. The 19th Amendment launched by the National Unity Government providing for independent commissions and curtailing Presidential powers has left an indelible footprint in Parliamentary history.

After every General Election, respecting the niceties of Parliamentary Government transfer of power took place in a friendly and peaceful atmosphere without a drop of blood being shed. Traditions, conventions, precedents and age-old practices were also adhered to. Humour was also there when some Parliamentarians, including veterans who defied the Chair were suspended and at times bundled out of the House. The gloomiest day of the Sri Lankan Parliament was the bomb throwing by a political extremist killing a sitting member and injuring several Ministers. However, the Sri Lankan Parliament retains its reputation as the oldest legislature in Asia, today.

With neither of the two main coalitions being able to form a government by itself, the UNP (the main Constituent of the UNF) and the SLFP (the main constituent party of the UPFA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to form a National Unity Government for a period of two years. This historic move was the first time the SLFP and the UNP entered into a coalition to form a National Government, but was also met with opposition by a section of the SLFP led UPFA rainbow coalition who continued to stay in the Opposition, describing themselves as the Joint Opposition. Many an eyebrow was raised when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with 16 seats was appointed the official Opposition in Parliament, throwing the Joint Opposition with 52 seats into political wilderness. Another development is the split of the SLFP into two, one faction with the Government and the other with the Joint Opposition.

An epoch making event took place in the annals of Parliament when a special Parliamentary session was convened on Tuesday (October 3) to mark the 70th anniversary of Parliamentary democracy flourishing in the country over the past seven decades without interruption. President Maithripala Sirisena and other prominent political party leaders, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan addressed the solemn occasion while local and foreign dignitaries along with Speakers of Parliaments of SAARC countries graced the occasion to commemorate seven decades of Sri Lanka’s unbroken Parliamentary tradition.

Universal adult franchise

During the special session, a joint resolution moved by the Prime Minister to mark the 70th anniversary of Parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka was debated on the floor of the House. The resolution said, “ this Parliament at its meeting today commemorates with pride the 70th anniversary of its first meeting as an independent Parliament and notes that the Parliament of Sri Lanka is the oldest Parliament elected by universal adult franchise in the Asia region with an unbroken record of democratic governance and wishes for itself and the people of Sri Lanka prosperity, development and further strengthening of democratic traditions, principles and the rule of law.”

The President, Prime Minister and other political Party Leaders- Opposition Leader R.Sampanthan, Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House and Higher Education and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella, Chief Government Whip and Lands and Parliamentary Reforms Minister Gayantha Karunatilleka, Chief Opposition Whip and JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, SLMC Leader and City Planning and Water Supply Minister Rauff Hakeem, EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda and Joint Opposition Leader Dinesh Gunawardena also aired their views during the special debate to mark the landmark achievement in the parliamentary history. Representing SAARC countries, Speakers of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, the Maldives, and Nepal also joined in this historic occasion.

The first State Council of Ceylon was the unicameral for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) established in 1931 by the Donoughmore Constitution. The State Council gave universal adult franchise to the people of the country for the first time. It replaced the Legislative Council of Ceylon, the country’s original legislative body. There were only two State Councils: the First, elected in 1931, and the Second, elected in 1936. The 1947 Soulbury Constitution replaced the State Council with the Parliament of Ceylon, as part of a process of constitutional development leading up to independence, which took place on February 4, 1948. Sir Francis Molamure (July 7, 1931 to December 10, 1934) was the first Speaker of Sri Lanka.

The General Election was held for a period of 19 days from August 23 to September 20 ,1947. The United National Party (UNP) secured 42 seats, thereby obtaining a majority and D.S. Senanayake was elected as the country’s first Prime Minister. The other political parties that won seats at the General Election were, Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Bolshevik Leninist Party, Communist Party, Labour Party, All Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Indian Congress. Twenty Independent candidates were elected as well.

The first Parliament of Sri Lanka ( House of Representatives) met for the first time on October 14, 1947 at the State Council building (Old Parliament Building) in Colombo and consisted of 101 members of which 95 were elected by universal suffrage and 6 nominated by the Governor General. Sir Francis Molamure (UNP) held the Speaker post of the first Parliament from October 14, 1947 to January 25, 1951. Sir Albert F. Peries (February 13, 1951- April 8 1952) was elected Speaker on the death of Francis Molamure. When the Republican Constitution was enacted, the House of Representatives was replaced with the National State Assembly which first met on May 22, 1972 along with 168 elected members. Stanley Tillekeratne (SLFP) was the Speaker of the first National State Assembly.

The National State Assembly was replaced by the Parliament of Sri Lanka when the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic (DSR) of Sri Lanka was enacted in 1972. Dr. Anandatissa de Alwis was the Speaker of the first Parliament of the DSR of Sri Lanka. Later, Bakeer Marker was elected Speaker on the resignation of Dr.Anandatissa de Alwis. Yet another landmark was the fourth Amendment to the Constitution which was approved by the people at a Referendum on December 22, 1982. The duration of the first Parliament was extended until August 4, 1989, but was dissolved in December 1988, the day following the second Presidential Election.

Landmark ruling

The current Parliament is the 8th Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the 17th overall. Since 1947, 14 Parliamentarians have held the office of Prime Minister while 18 have been elected as Speaker of Parliament. There have been seven Secretaries-General of Parliament (previously known as Clerk to the House) to date.

The landmark ruling given by then Speaker Anura Bandaranaike would also be written in gold in Parliamentary history. Making his order in Parliament on the Supreme Court interim order delivered on him, restraining the Speaker from proceeding on the impeachment motion on the Chief Justice Sarath N. de Silva, he held that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue interim orders restraining the Speaker of Parliament in respect of the steps he is empowered to take under Standing Order 78A.

Executive powers

Bandaranaike who read out a 25 page statement giving reasons on his observations said, “The aforesaid interim orders dated June 6, 2001 are not binding on the Speaker of Parliament”. He affirmed that there was no legal obligation to comply with the said orders of the Supreme Court. The Speaker’s statement was received with a round of applause from both sides of the House as he proceeded to instruct the Secretary-General of Parliament to place the motion on the Order Paper.

The Presidential Election of January 2015 and the Parliamentary Election of August 2015 paved the way in rebalancing the powers of Government between the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. As promised by the President, the Government abolished the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and introduced the 19th Amendment, to re-establish independent commissions, strengthen the committee system in Parliament and enact the Right to Information Act. Under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the executive powers of the President were significantly reduced while the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers came to exercise considerable executive powers. The National Unity Government has already been able to deliver some of its most far reaching pledges.

Nearly four decades after the passage of the second Republican Constitution, a broad consensus has been reached among political parties to enact a new Constitution that reflects the present needs and aspirations of the Sri Lankan people. The Interim Report of the Steering Committee was tabled in the Constitutional Assembly on September 21, 2017. The Steering Committee was appointed by the Constitutional Assembly on April 5, 2016 chaired by the Prime Minister, which is responsible for the business of the Constitutional Assembly and for preparing a draft constitutional proposal for Sri Lanka. In addition, despite some setbacks, there is broad consensus among the UNP, SLFP, Joint Opposition and the TNA about amendments to the electoral system.

Economic prosperity

Addressing the special parliamentary session to mark the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lankan Parliament, President Maithripala Sirisena said, the objective of the National Unity Government is to further strengthen Parliament through a new constitution which would strengthen the rights of all citizens within an undivided unitary state. The President emphasized the need for further strengthening Parliament and sought the assistance of all the political parties representing Parliament to make this endeavour a success. The President told the House that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution weakened Parliament but the National Unity Government which came to power on January 8, 2015 replaced the 18th Amendment with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by strengthening Parliament. The President invited all to commit themselves in bringing economic prosperity to the country, while following a political agenda which deviated the power centered on one person to a collective power. He also stressed the need to ensure the supremacy of the rule of law and the judiciary’s right to act independently and impartially. The President also recalled with great respect all the political leaders who rendered yeoman service during the 70 year-long prestigious history of Sri Lanka Parliament.

Delivering the winding up Speech, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said, despite many transformations, steps have been taken to strengthen parliamentary democracy and added that Sri Lanka takes pride in being a country in Asia that has the longest history of parliamentary democracy. The Speaker briefed the House on the landmark achievements during the tenure of the National Unity Government. He said, the Government has established independent commissions to strengthen Parliament and also passed the Right to Information Act.

We have not only appointed Government members but also Opposition and other party members to the Sectoral Oversight Committees. Steps have been taken to bring in electoral reforms and to increase female representation in Parliament. The Speaker further said, the Government has presented a new Code of Ethics for Parliamentarians and introduced an electronic voting system. Our parliamentary relations have reached great heights due to the steps taken by the Government to strengthen parliamentary democracy. 


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