President has acted constitutionally - Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe | Sunday Observer

President has acted constitutionally - Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe

Ports and Shipping Minister  Mahinda Samarasinghe
Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe

In the face of the Opposition challenging the legitimacy of the incumbent Government and the legal validity of the Cabinet approving Rs.1,735 billion Vote on Account, Government Spokesperson and Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said the President had acted constitutionally using powers vested in him to appoint a new Prime Minister and a new Government. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said the subjects of Ministers have since been gazetted and the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Finance Minister submitted a Vote on Account outlining the proposed Government expenditure. At some point, it has to be brought up in Parliament for approval and that is the normal procedure.

Q. The Opposition has filed a case in the Court of Appeal, to suspend the allocation of funds for the Prime Minister and the Government as the No Confidence Motion (NCM) against the Government has been passed in Parliament. What is the legality of this move?

A. I don’t think we should presuppose anything since it is before court and as such and that I don’t wish to comment on it. In fact, we made this point when the motion was presented in Parliament on Thursday that it was sub judice. Of course, nowadays the Speaker doesn’t look at the rules and regulations. He formulates his own rules and regulations. Despite our objections he allowed it and started a debate on this whole issue and we didn’t participate on principle. So, let us wait and see what the court has to say, because this seems to me to be an afterthought because it’s now one month since the new Prime Minister was appointed and the previous Prime Minister was removed.

So, they should have gone to courts immediately and we were expecting them to do so. They would have expected that the President has acted constitutionally and legally. Now, what is being done in Parliament is to showcase the so-called majority that they have and various steps are also being taken to move court on these matters for exposure and publicity. Of course, to go before courts is any citizen’s right and we have our own lawyers who will be arguing the case on behalf of us. So let’s wait and see.

Q. All together 122 Opposition MPs including UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has filed a case in Court of Appeal seeking a writ of Quo Warranto challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa’s constitutional status as Prime Minister. What are your views on this?

A. Once again it seems to be an afterthought as to why they took one month to do so. They should have done it immediately. We simply look at it as a publicity stunt which is their entitlement. Any citizen in this country can go before court and seek relief.

Q. In the face of the Opposition challenging the legitimacy of the incumbent Government, what is the legal validity of the Cabinet approving Rs.1,735 billion Vote on Account?

A. Absolutely no issue because the President has acted constitutionally using powers vested in him to appoint a new Prime Minister and a new Government. The Cabinet has been meeting regularly and since then decisions had been taken which is all legal and the subjects of Ministers have been gazetted and on that basis Ministers submit Cabinet papers. The Prime Minister being the Finance Minister submitted a Vote on Account outlining proposed expenditure. So, at some point it has to be brought up in Parliament. The Parliament will approve it and that is the normal procedure. The Cabinet has approved the Vote on Account. With that approval, the Finance Minister will present the Vote on Account during one of these days.

Q. Why is the Opposition with their so-called majority not willing to go for a General Election?

A. I suppose everyone is waiting for what the court would say. There is a Stay Order on the President’s gazette which stipulated dates for the election and dissolution of Parliament. So, I think it is premature to talk about the election or the continuity of Parliament as it was before. Let’s wait and see what the court has to say and based on that if the court says the President has legal powers to dissolve the Parliament then, of course everyone will have to fall in line and face an election. But if the court says no then we shall resort to the 19 th Amendment under which the Parliament by a two thirds majority will have to adopt a resolution calling for Parliament to be dissolved and elections gazetted by the President.

The President has used the powers vested in him to go for elections considering the situation in the country and the court has to pronounce whether that is valid or not. Notwithstanding going for elections prematurely, I feel there are people who are arguing for early elections and there are also those who feel that the full term should be completed. I know the MPs who have entered Parliament first time are looking forward to getting their pension. I believe quite a lot of them will not be entitled to a pension for no fault of their own. If we go for early elections, these are the things that the MPs consider when they take a stand but it certainly an option on the table at the moment to go for early elections. Now since it’s before court, the court will have to pronounce whether the President has the right to dissolve the Parliament or not.

Q. What have you got to say about UPFA requesting Speaker Karu Jayasuriya not to publish Hansard reports of the House proceedings on November 14, 15, 16, 19, 21 and 23 as they are not legally acceptable?

A. Our position is that the correct procedure was not followed and that the Hansard should not reflect incorrect procedure of Parliament. So, if the Hansard is disputed we have to put it in writing and give to the Speaker. The Speaker doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there is a Government. There is a dispute there and the Speaker seems to be going around and listening to the so-called 123 that the Joint Opposition seems to be having and saying that there is no Government and the Prime Minister and ‘ I am the King of the Parliament. Therefore, I decide on everything.’

So, there is an issue there. Despite that we have taken whatever steps necessary to challenge this decision and one such step was to say that we don’t accept the Hansard which is of course a recording of what takes place in Parliament.

Every Member of Parliament has the right to challenge what is there. When we go back to history we observe how Hansards have been corrected. Hansards are not set in stone, so to speak. There are provisional Hansards to be followed by the final Hansard. The whole idea of issuing a provisional Hansard is, if there are corrections such corrections can be made. It is up to the Speaker to listen to all sides and then take an objective decision. We have very firmly put it in writing that we don’t accept it.

Q. The Opposition alleges that the Government is evading its opportunity to participate in Parliamentary proceedings as it has no clear majority. Would you like to explain this in detail?

A. They have a collection of Opposition parties who on two occasions had shown that they had a clear majority through electronic voting. The proper procedure has to be followed when a vote is taken. In the first instance, when they brought a motion against the Prime Minister and the Government, the Standing Orders were suspended. In fact, there was not a specific Standing Order that was suspended. As proposed by TNA MP Sumanthiran the entire Standing Orders were suspended. So there were no Standing Orders for the Parliament to operate. When you suspend the entire Standing Orders, how can you run the Parliament? The correct Procedure was not resorted to. When you bring a substantive motion in Parliament, especially a motion that involves the Prime Minister and the Government that the House doesn’t have confidence in them, you should not resort to shortcuts of suspending Standing Orders and then running and handing over a motion to the Secretary General in the well of the House. None of us knew what that paper was all about. The paper was read out, seconded and a vote was taken not by name but by sound. It is very unfortunate that the Speaker resorted to such shortcuts when the subject matter under consideration was a No Confidence Motion. If the Opposition had the required numbers, all they had to do was to hand over the motion to the Secretary General giving five days notice as per the Standing Orders.

When it appears in the Order Paper, then the Party Leaders would meet and fix a date. What happened there was that they thought that the President would prorogue Parliament again. The President had given an assurance that he was not going to do it. Of course, they felt that since they had the majority on November 14 they should use the Speaker and then take these shortcuts and show the world that they have the majority.

We saw on that day diplomats coming and sitting and taking photographs, some of them applauding. I don’t want to mention the names. This kind of thing is not good for the image of the country, certainly not for the Parliament of Sri Lanka. The main fault was on the part of the Opposition in resorting to shortcuts and suspending Standing Orders and taking this vote. All what the Opposition had to do was to have a two line resolution which says that this House does not have confidence in the Prime Minister and the Government, and take it up for debate and put it to a vote and send it to the President and ask him to act under the relevant clause in the Constitution and appoint a new Prime Minister and a Government. But I think they were more interested in the publicity side of it.

Even on Thursday, the motion that was put to a vote can’t be treated as a vote of No Confidence. As I mentioned earlier, the resolution itself was not legal. It questioned the President’s action on the issuing of those two gazettes. The Parliament can’t do that. If anyone wants to question the President’s action, they must go to the court and ask for an interpretation. For me, it is clear that the Opposition now has the majority. The President has gone on record saying that ‘if you follow the proper procedure, I will act.’ Hopefully, this whole impasse will come to an end soon. I think it is important that we finish this soon because the country is suffering. There are so many people to be blamed, not just one party. All of us have to take the responsibility.

Q. The Government, the majority masses and people’s organisations are unanimously demanding a General Election as the panacea for all current political ills. Your views?

A. Some people want to hold elections, others say no and some others say, ‘let’s have our five years.’ So it can’t be a panacea. But it is an option that is on the table. Once again it all depends on what the court has to say.

Q. The Opposition alleges that the confidence of the international community in the Government is on the wane due to its lack of legitimacy. Is there any truth in this?

A. There is an issue here. Some Ambassadors who represent the countries with whom we have very close diplomatic ties seem to feel that the majority is with the Opposition and the present Government does not have the majority to function. Some of them have not accepted the new Government on that basis. There is an issue that we need to address. This is what the President is trying to do now. The President on Friday met the TNA and UNF leaders separately. Hopefully, the problem will be sorted out very soon as we can’t afford to portray Sri Lanka as anti democratic. We need to ensure that the image that we have is not tarnished in any way. It is unfortunate that this incident occurred. We now need to resort to damage control and get back to where we were.

Q. Given the SLFP split into two camps-SLFP and SLPP what are the electoral chances of the SLFP? Are you thinking of an alliance with SLPP, since even Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is now a member of the SLPP?

A. We have always contested elections under an alliance. So, we would like to unite the party. There can’t be a superior party and a junior party. I think we are in a very strong position because despite some leading politicians taking membership in the SLPP, I believe our vote base has increased rather than decreased because there is confidence in the President as being a decisive leader. In any future election we are going to be in a quite a good position because I would like to say no Government can be formed without the support of the 23 MPs who are with the President. The TNA or the JVP are not going to support a Government. They have said they would support the pre-October 26 situation but that does not mean that they are going to be a part of the Government. It’s the SLFP which holds the balance of power and even at a future election that is going to be the case. Without us, I think no Government would be able to be formed in the future. On that basis, if we can further unite and strengthen the party, then we will take whatever steps necessary to accomplish it. At present talks are underway and let us see what the results are.

Q. If the UNP led Opposition shows its majority in a genuine manner are you all willing to step down and pave the way for a UNP led Government again? However, the President has said that Ranil Wickremesinghe will not be made the Prime Minister as long as he is alive?

A. Well, that is how the President has gone on record. Even the TNA in their letter addressed to the President does not talk about a particular individual or personality to be appointed as the Prime Minister. They have left it to the President and that is the constitutional responsibility of the President in his opinion to decide who the person who commands the majority confidence of Parliament.

I mean we all want to see an end to this stalemate. Parliament can’t function in the proper manner without a Government which has a majority. Otherwise, the Government’s business cannot be conducted. Whoever has the majority must form the Government and something will happen very soon.