Many options for the Opposition but leadership is missing

Saturday, 30 April 2022 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa


The protests against the Rajapaksa regime started in earnest on 31 March 2022, in Mirihana. Despite continued protests which have spread across the country with the Galle Face Green as the signature site, the Rajapaksas are doing everything they can do to stay in power.

To understand their need to stay in power, one only needs to imagine the fear that Mahinda Rajapaksa may feel at this time as a newly awakened generation of youth tells the world loud and clear that Rajapaksas have stolen their future, and demand justice. Mahinda Rajapaksa risked the saviour mantle he earned after winning a war against LTTE to promote with vigour his family and groom his son as his heir. He will fight with hundred times that vigour to save his family from the wrath of an angry populace, using all the trump cards he has – be it false patriotism, religious fervour, minority-phobia, or xenophobia. His behaviour is despicable but understandable.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest of his family too will try to stay in power using every tool. Gotabaya appointed a cabinet of yes-men in the pretext of appointing a cabinet of youth. Then he confessed. Yes, I did wrong but now I am doing everything right. The latest is the invitation for an all-Party meeting to form an interim government, obviously with him still as President. He will continue to go through various songs and dances, as the country slides further, because they can foresee what will happen to them once out of power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions are pitiful but understandable.

What I cannot understand is the irresponsible behaviour of the leader of the Opposition, and the deafening silence of others in his party, other opposition parties or civil society regarding his behaviour. The leader of the opposition title is given for the leader of the Party with the second largest number of seats in the Parliament, but he is called the leader of opposition for nothing, especially at this time when people are suffering and the country sliding into meltdown.

Educated youth protesting in their fashion and the poor and vulnerable are taking to streets in modes more chaotic and violent. They are doing so out of their own volition and there is no telling where this anger would be headed next. It is clear even to a child that holding an election at this point is not feasible and if we do not find a solution within the existing Parliament, the country will slide into anarchy. Yet, our Opposition spends more time on the streets themselves instead of the Parliament. There are 22 million suffering citizens to protest, but only 225 are privileged to attend Parliament on our behalf and the Opposition is our only recourse at this point. Should not the Opposition focus on doing its job in the Parliament?

What is the record of the leader of the Opposition so far?

 As I understand, the present leader of the Opposition and Party led by him have been rejecting efforts by political parties and civil society for a common front of resistance to the Government. One example is the apparent refusal to turn the debate on the PTA Act into a no-confidence on the Government. Next the Samagi Jana Balawegaya or SJB brings a no-confidence motion as something initiated by them though it commands a bare minimum 53 MPs, not even half of the 113 required for a majority. Next SJB tables an amendment to repeal the 20th Amendment which is indeed a good document that reflects much of the public discourse conducted by civil society organisations led by National Movement for Social Justice, but it is presented as a SJB document.


The Rajapaksas are experts in gaining power and staying in power. The role of the Opposition at this point is to represent the people who are suffering because of the Rajapaksa regime and its policies. As the Rajapaksas expertly play their trump cards to stay in power, people deserve an Opposition which works day and night to represent their interests. There is more than one way to protect the public’s interests and aspirations at this point but first and foremost we need a true leader of the Opposition



The group of the 41 MPS (less two by now) who declared themselves independent a few weeks back proposed a structure and a process for an interim government  which was conceptually similar to the 21st Amendment tabled by SJB. A true leader of the opposition would have jumped at the similarity of interests to forge an alliance, but unfortunately it was not to be so.

What is really needed at this time is a Leader of the Opposition who can mobilise all forces even at the risk of his own political life because too much is at stake. The political lives of any of the 225 is nothing compared to the lives of the citizens which are at stake here. 

Many tools available to the Opposition

 The office of the leader of the Opposition should not be the Party office for the leader of the Opposition, as has been the practice. It should be the place that maps a strategy for getting rid of the Rajapaksas and thrashing out a roadmap for forming an interim government and a common program. This may not be a familiar role for a leader of the opposition, but we are not on familiar grounds anymore.

The Opposition as the Party in waiting is not true anymore. Government MPs who join the ranks of Independents are increasing every day and soon SJB could be just another cluster of MPs in an opposition made up of several clusters of MPs. A true leader of the opposition is not one with the most seats but the one who can rally all the opposition forces together and use many tools available to the Parliament to ride the present crisis.

What are the tools at the hands of a true leader of the opposition? 

A 21st Amendment is a critical tool

 The 21st Constitutional Amendment (21A) recently tabled in the Parliament by SJB was made with the contributions of many, including the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ). It is indeed what one might call a 19+ in its substance since not only does it reactivate the 19th Amendment which reduced the powers of executive president significantly but goes beyond that and makes the executive presidency a nominal one.

Whether the President resigns or not the Parliament cannot play its proper role without restoring its powers through a 21A.

The features of ‘SJB’s’ 21A are as follows:

1.The President is elected by Parliament for a term of five years.

2. The President is the head of the State as well as the head of the armed forces, but no longer the head of the Government or the Cabinet.

3.The President appoints as Prime Minister the member of Parliament who has the confidence of the Parliament. The President has no discretion in that appointment.

4.The Prime Minister is the head of the Government as well as the Cabinet.

5. The Cabinet is limited to 25. The number of other ministers is also limited to 25.

6.The President shall act on the advice of the Prime Minister in the appointment and dismissal of the Ministers and assigning subjects and functions to them.

7.The Prime Minister vacated office on death, resignation, on ceasing to be a Member of Parliament, on losing a vote of confidence or on a defeat on the budget in Parliament

8.The Parliament is also elected every five years.

9.The MPs who cross over may not accept ministerial positions for the duration of that Parliament.

10.The Constitutional Council shall be re-established with all the powers conferred by the 19th Amendment. It is chaired by the Speaker and consists of nine members, who include the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, one representative from all other parties and five non-members of Parliament.

11.The Ports City Commission and the Right to Information Commission and the Governor of the Central Bank are among the institutions and persons who shall be appointed on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council.

12.A National Security Council is to be established as a constitutional body.

13.In addition, a Council of State shall be established as another constitutional body to advise the Government, comprising eight Members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister as the Chair, the Leader of the Opposition and the Ministers of Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs, and a panel of 12 experts.

Although some of these proposals need to be discussed further, this 20A contains what is widely regarded as essentials for restoring the power of the Parliament. Further, constitutional jurists including Jayampathy Wickramaratne point out that such an amendment that would turn the executive presidency into a nominal presidency is possible with only a two-thirds majority in Parliament, i.e., without the need for a referendum. 

Is Mahinda’s 20th a stalling tactic?

 The Cabinet Paper presented by President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution at the Cabinet meeting held on 25 April looked positive but ended with the following weak decision.

•Appointment of a Cabinet sub-Committee for guiding the legal drafters as necessary for the preparation of a fundamental draft Bill with immediate effect to introduce the 21st constitutional reform that entrusts more powers to the Parliament by further strengthening the democracy based on the effective particulars that appeared in both the 19th and 20th constitutional amendments.

•Entrusting the power to the Prime Minister to furnish a resolution to the Parliament proposing to appoint a Parliamentary Select committee for the preparation of a draft bill with a unanimity by considering the draft bill so formulated as above and the constitutional reforms resolutions already been submitted in the Parliament.

When these same people were able to remove a Chief Justice in record time when they wanted, we have a reasonable doubt as to whether the Cabinet delegated the tasks to a Cabinet Sub-Committee and the Parliamentary Select Committee without specifying a fast timeline to stall the process as needed. 

New interim Cabinet through negotiations?

 The all-party meeting scheduled for 29 April for an interim government, the latest trump card of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is another tool that every party must use, even though some feel that the President must resign before discussions about an interim government. That forum indeed can be used to negotiate a timetable for enacting the 20th Amendment, resignation of the President allowing election of a new President by Parliament, and appointing of a new PM and Cabinet with relief and recovery programs as its mandate. 

Interim Government through a no-confidence motion?

 As Sumanthiran cautioned, a move to table a no-confidence motion (NCM) must be preceded by a clear idea of who and what would follow. That would entail an understanding of the form and function of the interim government to be formed, its mandate, and the best among the present MPs minus the Rajapaksa family to carry out that mandate. Therefore, any attempt to collect signatures for a NCM by the office of the leader of the Opposition should have a roadmap attached to it. 

Other methods

 Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama argues that Parliament may pass a no-confidence motion on the President for failure of his duties under Article 42 – The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security – and force the hand of the President to resign.

Another idea that is put forward is to change the standing orders of the Parliament such that a motion to amend the Constitution can be tabled by a private member without the usual long delay. 

Tools plenty but leadership is missing

 The Rajapaksas are experts in gaining power and staying in power. The role of the Opposition at this point is to represent the people who are suffering because of the Rajapaksa regime and its policies. As the Rajapaksas expertly play their trump cards to stay in power, people deserve an Opposition which works day and night to represent their interests. There is more than one way to protect the public’s interests and aspirations at this point but first and foremost we need a true leader of the Opposition. 


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