President has acted constitutionally: Minister Amunugama | Sunday Observer

President has acted constitutionally: Minister Amunugama

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr.Sarath Amunugama
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr.Sarath Amunugama

Clarifying the legitimate role of the Speaker in the context of President Maithripala Sirisena appointing a new Prime Minister and the prevailing political scenario, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr.Sarath Amunugama said the Speaker had no role at all to play in this regard as he was only the Speaker of Parliament and nothing beyond. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Dr.Amunugama said the Speaker had only to give effect to what the President had decided in terms of his constitutional powers. The Speaker too should not have any ideas of his personal thinking or political affiliations. His main function was to ensure the activities of Parliament but he cannot adjudicate who is the Prime Minister and who is not.

Q.What is the constitutional position with regard to the change of Government? Some legal experts say that the President was correct while others say he does not have the power to sack the Prime Minister under the 19 th Amendment. What is the correct position?

A. The correct position is that the previous Government was a coalition Government. Basically, two parties, the UNP and UPFA entered into an agreement to form the new Government under President Maithripala Sirisena. In terms of that agreement, the Prime Minister was able to come to Parliament and say that he wanted more Ministers than 30 as stipulated in the 19th Amendment. Provision for such an increase is there in the 19th Amendment if there is a coalition Government. So, the Parliament approved 43 cabinet Ministers. Then on that Friday, the UPFA by a letter addressed to the Speaker and also the President withdrew from this arrangement. The moment you withdrew from that arrangement, the Cabinet of 43 that was set up under the coalition and approved by the Constitution collapsed. There was no coalition anymore. Now, when there is no coalition and there is only one signatory party, then that Cabinet is defunct or functus from that very moment. On that Friday, the Cabinet ceased to exist. When the Cabinet ceases to exist the Prime Minister too ceases to exist. So, immediately a vacancy was there for the post of Prime Minister quite legally because following the withdrawal of the coalition partner, there was no problem if the Cabinet consisted of 30. But in fact, it was over 30. Automatically in terms of the Constitution, that Cabinet was defunct and with that the post of the Prime Minister was also defunct. So, at that point another part of the Constitution comes into play. That is where the President is empowered to appoint a Member of Parliament whom he considers is capable of commanding a majority of votes in Parliament as Prime Minister.

Even when Ranil Wickremesinghe was made the Prime Minister, there was no reference to the previous Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne or to the numbers in Parliament. It was a decision of the President in terms of the Constitution. Similarly, he has exercised that authority. In 2015, nobody tested whether Ranil Wickremesinghe had a majority or not. Actually, he didn’t have a majority. He had only some 50 votes or something like that. It was a very small amount compared to what Mahinda Rajapaksa had. But there was no challenge either by way of a Vote of No Confidence or by defeating the Budget. It was only later that the UNP emerged with the highest number of votes at the Parliamentary Election. That is the situation. The President has used his discretion which is given solely to him under the Constitution to appoint the Prime Minister who he thinks can get that majority.

Q.The Speaker has said that this is unconstitutional. What is your opinion on the Speaker’s assertion and conduct?

A. It is very clear that the Speaker has no role in this matter. He is only the Speaker of Parliament. He is not the Speaker of the President, the Constitution or the country. He is the Speaker of the Parliament. So, this is outside his purview. He has to only implement what the President has decided based on his constitutional powers. He should not bring his personal thinking or political affiliations and we are not interested in that. His job is to ensure the activities of the Parliament. He can’t adjudicate who is the Prime Minister and who is not. That is not his job. If that is the case and if he was given that power, then he can appoint himself as the Prime Minister. It has to be constitutionally valid. Otherwise, every Speaker will try to be the Prime Minister.

Q. There are allegations that both sides are giving huge sums of money to MPs who cross over. What is the truth with regard to the allegation that money is being offered for the MPs who cross over?

A. I cannot answer this question. But it appears that people are crossing sides both ways. Up to now the argument was that this was only one way. But now you could see that one of our Deputy Ministers also crossed over to the other side recently. The argument that only one side is plucking people out is not true. Both sides are into this game.

Q.Several MPs from both sides have expressed the opinion that a General Election should be held as soon as possible to end this political deadlock. What is your opinion on this?

A. There is no political deadlock as such. If there was to be a political deadlock, then it would have happened in 2015, because in the Parliament at that time, there was a clear majority against Ranil Wickremesinghe. But it didn’t lead to a deadlock. There is tenure of the President and the Parliament which has to be respected unless, of course other constitutional provisions come into play to warrant it.

Q. Only a few foreign governments have so far expressed support to the new Government. What are your plans to gain global recognition for the new Government?

A. There is no question of recognition here. No foreign Government has stopped recognising the Government of Sri Lanka as embodied in the President of this country. Only the other day, the President accepted the credentials of Ambassadors for US, France, Japan and Afghanistan. There are daily contacts with the foreign representatives in Sri Lanka. So, there has no issue of recognising. All are recognised and nothing has been changed. So as far as this Government is concerned, it is business as usual. In terms of the Constitution, the President has taken some decisions that are not the concern of others.

That is a constitutional right which has been given to the President and he has exercised that right. If foreign Governments want, they can express an opinion. So, in the country to country relationship, there is no change at all. Some foreign Governments desired that there should be calm and no violence. That is hundred percent achieved in our country. I am very happy to say that during this whole episode there have been no acts of violence.

What some of the media has portrayed abroad as acts of violence were matters unrelated to politics. In fact, during this period there has been less violence than even normal times. Even the sort of average crime rate concerning politicians has dropped because everybody has been asked to be on his best behaviour. So, there is really no complaint. There can be debates and discussions and two parties have naturally different ideas. The media gives different versions. That is part of democracy. But there is no violence.

Q. Sixty two million voters gave a mandate to President Maithripala Sirisena to change the existing political culture and you were also one of his ardent supporters over the last three and half years. What is the justification for joining hands with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at this juncture?

A. This new Yahapalanaya was established and we were Cabinet Ministers under it. We have to remember that the UNP was also trying to take seven or eight people from our side and form a Government of their own. Such attempts were publicly discussed. The UNP MPs were saying that they had to take seven or eight people more and they can act of their own. So, the challenge to Yahapalanaya was already there by the UNP saying that unilaterally they wanted to have a Government of their own and make a prisoner out of the President despite certain constitutional provisions. So, they are not the innocent babies they pretend to be.

They were also busy trying to take people and form a Government of their own. We should say that the idea of a coalition on the Yahapalana basis was challenged by all sides because things were not going very well, including the UNP. The UNP was not happy and we as the UPFA were also not happy. The President is outside that set up. So you can’t put the blame on A, B or C because the UNP was also trying to have a unilateral approach to this question.

Q. What are your plans for a General Election? Will the SLFP and the SLPP contest as a joint entity and has President Maithripala Sirisena been confirmed as a joint candidate of the SLFP and SLPP at the Presidential Election in 2020?

A. That is a premature question because this new arrangement has been there even less than a week. All we can say is that it has a lot of popular support. The people who supported Pohottuwa as well as the supporters of the SLFP are all happy that this arrangement is in place. It has lot of goodwill in the countryside. The actual mechanism of how we are going to unite is subject to whether there is going to be a General Election soon. This will be decided step by step at a later point.

At the present moment we are not putting our minds into whether there is going to be integration or not. For the moment the present structure is prevailing. There is no attempt to integrate at this stage but later on the leaders will discuss and see how things can be done. There is no immediate need for it.

Q. What will happen to the Budget 2019 since there is no time to present an all together new Budget and will you be presenting a Vote on Account instead?

A. Most likely. That is a matter for the Minister of Finance and he has to come to Cabinet. So, far the Minister of Finance has not intimated to Cabinet what format it will take- whether it will be a Vote on Account or a Budget. That is up to the Minister of Finance who will then proceed to explain to the Cabinet and then the Cabinet will decide whether it is going to Parliament or not. Without knowing the details of that internal condition, I can only speculate as a former Minister of Finance that it is mostly likely to be a Vote on Account.