A parliamentary battle

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

The defeat of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance in the election to the post of Parliament Speaker is an indication of the political instability that Sri Lanka faces.

in Colombo

WHEN Sri Lanka's 13th Parliament met on April 22, it was the day of reckoning for the island-nation's deeply divided politics, particularly the ruling minority United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). It was also an indication of the shape of things to come when the House, which has every shade of Sri Lankan society represented in it, sat through a historic nine hours to elect a Speaker.

The election of the Speaker, normally the quickest business session of any new Parliament, saw the parties attempt every game in the book. A day of chaos and drama ended with the newly elected UPFA government being defeated by a crucial one-vote margin. After the final vote count, the tally was 110 for the candidate of the United National Front (UNF), the main Opposition group, and 109 for the ruling combine. Five Buddhist-monk MPs abstained and one Tamil MP was absent.

A direct outcome of the election of the Opposition candidate, W.J.M. Lokubandara, as the Speaker is that it can put hurdles before President Chandrika Kumaratunga's plans to bring in constitutional reforms. In fact, it was the proposed constitutional reform that was among the factors that led to the defeat of the government's candidate, D.E.W. Gunasekara.

Both contestants to the post are veteran politicians. Lokubandara of the United National Party (UNP), was earlier the Minister for Justice, Law Reform and National Integration and the Minister for Buddha Sasana. Gunasekara, the general-secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), was a head of the Official Languages Commission and the head of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation.

The configuration of the new Parliament is no source of strength for the UPFA, which has 105 members. The constituents of the front are the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the CPSL, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the National Unity Alliance (NUA), the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), and a faction of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). In addition, the UPFA won the support of the one-member Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), taking its total strength in Parliament to 106.

The UNF includes, apart from the UNP, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the SLMC, though these two parties are free to act independently. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Upcountry People's Front and the Western Province People's Front are also in the Opposition, which has a total strength of 119.

With the victory of the government candidate depending on the ability of the ruling party to win Opposition votes, attempts were on to woo Opposition groups. Just before Parliament was to convene on April 22, the only indication was that two out of nine Buddhist monks from the JHU would vote with the government.

THE 13th session of Parliament started on a frictional note. After government and Opposition members took their seats at 10 a.m., Priyani Wikesekera, the non-elected Secretary-General of Parliament who functioned as the presiding officer, called for nominations. The outgoing Speaker, Joseph Michael Perera, from the UNF, proposed the name of Lokubandara, which was seconded by SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse proposed Gunasekara's name, and that was seconded by the JVP's parliamentary leader Wimal Weerawansa.

As a secret ballot was called and the ballot papers were distributed, seven monks of the JHU started to leave the House as they had decided to abstain. As the presiding officer was reading out the Standing Order for voting - that each member should write the name of one candidate and affix his/her signature - procedural points were raised by MPs on whether the signatures were required. Meanwhile, the first of the several interruptions of parliamentary business that day was about to begin. Ruling party MPs spotted an Opposition member near the vacant seats of the JHU monks and stood up alleging that the MP "took away" the ballot papers of the abstaining monks.

Matters rapidly went out of the presiding officer's control. "The world is watching you. You must ensure that the elections are free and fair," a ruling party MP said, demanding a second distribution of ballot papers. The Opposition countered it by saying that a second ballot paper cannot be given. "You can check and ensure that we are casting just one vote," the MPs said.

Finally, a good 45 minutes after the election was announced, voting began with a fresh set of ballot papers, which were kept near the ballot box in the well of the House. The MPs voted as the presiding officer called out their names.

The result, announced at the end of a two-hour-long voting process, was along predictable lines - the ruling party's candidate got 108 votes, which included the votes of two monks from the JHU. The Opposition candidate had also won 108 votes. One vote was declared invalid. The few seconds of silence that engulfed the House during the announcement of the result was the only patch of quiet on an otherwise noisy and chaotic day.

With no option left, the presiding officer announced a second vote, and the ballot papers were distributed again. According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, the President convenes the House, which elects the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees. Without transacting that business, Parliament cannot be adjourned, as adjourning the House is the Speaker's privilege.

While the second voting process was on, the presiding officer called it off after ruling party members objected to Opposition MPs showing the written ballots to their frontbenchers before putting them in the box. As the first round had ended in a tie, many MPs had shown their written ballots to their frontbenchers, including at least one prominent MP from the ruling party, in the second round. Citing procedural violations, ruling party MPs said the secrecy of the ballot was lost if an MP displayed it. Opposition members contended that if a member volunteered to do so, it could not be faulted.

In the chaos that followed, government MPs invaded the well of the house - one of them sat on the ballot box - and demanded that the vote be cancelled and the ballot box be shifted from the well to a secure place. As a way out, the presiding officer moved the ballot box to a place behind the Speaker's chair and placed screens around it to ensure secrecy.

The final vote started late in the evening. Meanwhile, at every interruption, government and Opposition MPs were seen persuading the abstaining JHU MPs to vote. The government, particularly, made overt attempts, with the frontbenchers and at one stage the Prime Minister holding talks with the monks. The monks then decided to cast two votes in favour of the Opposition candidate to "neutralise" the two votes cast by their group for the government candidate.

As the final result was announced, the prospect of the UPFA being defeated by a single vote loomed large. Ruling party members were up on their feet heckling the monks who voted for the Opposition candidate. Finally, at 7-15 pm, Lokubandara's election as Speaker was announced.

More chaos followed. The speeches of the parliamentary leaders of the TNA and the JHU were interrupted. The government alleged that the monks had voted for the same candidate as the TNA and were hence supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which backed the party in the elections. The monks were shouted at, parliamentary files were flung at them and later one prominent JVP MP subsequently called them "not the Hela Urumaya (National Heritage), but the Hela Karumaya (National Curse)". As the noisy scenes in Parliament continued, the elections to the two other posts - Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of Committees - were withheld until the next sitting.

With the adjournment of Parliament until May 18, the issues confronting the island-nation - constitutional reform, peace talks and the ability of the UPFA to convert its electoral victory into effective governance - have been postponed. Thus, the disarray in Sri Lankan politics continues.

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