Can people’s opposition unseat president ?

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Students of Khemadasa Foundation

Chants of slogans demanding the incumbent President and his family relations to step down are being echoed from all corners of the island on a daily basis. The spate of public protests gained momentum following the public uprising on March 31, near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence in Mirihana. At present both the young and the old, irrespective of religion, caste or differences, continue to take to the streets demanding rulers to end corruption and return money stolen from the people. But whether a President can step down just because the majority of the citizenry opposes his regime remains a question. Even if he steps down who would have a solution for the prevailing crisis remains doubtful.

The need for a democratic transfer of power

 “The demands of the people are clear and people want power to be transferred from the Rajapaksas,” opined Attorney-at-Law and former Chairperson of the Public Representation Committee on Constitutional Reforms Lal Wijenayake. “Therefore it is up to them to see that it is fulfilled. The Government has failed to provide the basic needs to the people and there’s high level corruption. People want to see changes in both these aspects. Therefore they should give up power in a peaceful manner. If the President and the Prime Minister resigns, then the Speaker becomes president and in a month’s time the Parliament has to elect a new President. It’s becoming difficult to contain the uprising of the people and the Government will continue to use suppressive measures and there could be losses of lives and damage to property. The President says he assumed duties because people asked him to, but now that the people are asking him to step down he should be ready to leave as well. It is clear that we cannot come out of the present crisis with the same set of rulers,” said Wijenayake. 

He further said that up to now people’s protests have mostly been very peaceful and violence is minimal. “If the rulers don’t leave after the ordinary law of the country is used the Opposition from people would be even stronger. It’s difficult to see them surrendering and this is not a good sign. However, going in for an election is not practical under the present situation and as a result an interim arrangement should be made,” he said. 


“It is clear that we cannot come out of the present crisis with the same set of rulers”

One of the demands of the people is that all 225 elected representatives should be sent home, but in Wijenayake’s opinion it is an unrealistic demand. “This mostly shows the anger of the people. They are angry with the entire political establishment. This gives a new opportunity for people to reflect on what has gone wrong in the country. We have been ignoring the obvious; that the country was plunging into a precipice, both economically, socially and even politically. This has awakened the people to take a new path. The Rajapaksas portrayed themselves as a superior class. In fact this situation is a lesson to all politicians,” he added. 

When asked if any of the parties has a solution to the prevailing crisis, Wijenayake responded in the negative. “I don’t think any one party has a solution. The best would be to allow Parliament to take interim measures until the situation improves. That way they can negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and seek assistance from other countries and ensure that they provide the basic essentials to the people. Thereafter they can hold an election and see who people want to be elected to power,” he added. 

Time is a deciding factor

Another question that resonates among people is ‘WHO’. Who will be the next suitable leader? Who is it who has a sound knowledge about every aspect of governance? Who would make a suitable leader to negotiate with the international community to obtain funds? Can people elect a leader among themselves? And so on. 

“Time is a deciding factor,” observes Former Governor of the North Eastern Province and diplomat Lionel Fernando. “If there’s rain for a longer period of time one cannot reap a fruitful harvest. Therefore a leader should be chosen as soon as possible. They should take unwavering decisions. An organisation without a leader has no direction. This leader should be genuine in his intentions. Certain political parties want to plant someone in this position, but that shouldn’t be allowed,” said Fernando. 


“Who would make a suitable leader to negotiate with the international community to obtain funds?”

He further said that if a leader is to be chosen from among the public he or she should be a recognised and reputed character. “He or she should be genuine. We know we cannot find someone like Anagarika Dharmapala, but this person has to be someone who respects inclusiveness and ensures that there’s unity among all religions, races and castes. We cannot allow another leader to create further divisions among communities,” he added. 

Fernando also advised protesters to focus their protests on the cause. “They need to understand the gravity of the situation at hand. There are chances of these protests changing focus. Therefore it’s crucial that an interim leader is chosen as soon as possible,” said Fernando. 

The Constitutional perspective 

Article 38 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka sheds light on the vacation of office by the President. The possibilities are as follows; 

  • Upon his death,
  • If he resigns his office by a writing under his hand addressed to the Speaker
  • If he ceases to be a citizen of Sri Lanka,
  • If the person elected as President willfully fails to assume office within 31 days (2 weeks) from the date of commencement of his term of office, 
  • If he’s removed from office by way of a member issuing a letter to the Speaker giving notice of a resolution alleging that the President is mentally or physically unfit and is permanently incapable of discharging functions of his office 
  • If he’s removed from office by way of any member of Parliament issuing a letter giving notice of a resolution alleging that the President has been guilty of intentional violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, misconduct or corruption involving the abuse of powers of his office or any offense under any law including moral turpitude,
  • If the Supreme Court in the exercise of its powers under Article 130 (a) determines that his election as President was void, and does not determine that any other person was duly elected as President.

“There’s no problem with regards to the transfer of power as there’s no threat to the establishment called the Presidency,” opined former civil servant and diplomat Austin Fernando. “The public can demand salaries, scholarships, foreign travel and so on. 

They have the right to protest. But just because someone asks him to go he cannot simply go. The Office of the President can be vacated in many ways as mentioned in Article 38 of the Constitution,” explained Fernando. 

He further said that the terminology of the ‘caretaker’ government is also wrong. “A caretaker government is formed when Parliament has been dissolved and they wait for an election. But there’s nothing of that sort right now. The Opposition parties have turned down requests to form an interim government. 

But they demanded to make certain amendments and get back to the 19th Amendment. If they go to the cabinet they have to hold a portfolio given by the President,” he said. 
“Right now, nobody wants to carry this baggage and there’s no solution since they are very adamant. Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed that the Chief Justice should become the President. 

That way you’re making the Chief Justice a political animal. Constitutionally you can’t ask another person to hold an election. It should be done by the Election Commission and these are mentioned in the Presidential Election Act. But of course, these laws can be changed given the situation,” he added.


One of the demands of the people is that all 225 elected representatives should be sent home


Blending art with the people’s voices


On Wednesday, students of the Khemadasa Foundation performed at a people’s protest held at Independence Square, singing ‘Mathi Amathiwaru’; a song inspired by German theatre practitioner, playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht’s poem on the ‘Hitler’s Cabinet of Ministers’. The music was composed by Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa and this song in fact portrays the difficulty of governing. 

“With the struggle people are having I too wanted to contribute as a musician and become a voice. That’s something we should do whenever there’s a problem in the country. We have to be a voice to the people and support them in their struggle. The first song is originally a poem by Bertolt Brecht translated by Vijitha Gunaratne. It tells the whole political satire and how deep it is. As you can see now, people have so much. We thought that power comes from top to bottom, but at the moment the power is where we think it should be; with the people. That’s what the people have been talking about and it is a great moment. We will continue singing wherever it is necessary,” said Khemadasa. 

“One of the first things we need is change. The family has stolen and gone to the other extent of stealing in an artful manner. People have looked the other way when that happened. But it has come to a point where people are suffering. People are in queues and suffering on a daily basis and this is not being felt by 225 plus their families. They are not the ones facing hardships. The President must go and we need to see a temporary administration thereafter. There should be a temporary President who would take office for a six months to one year period and then we can look at having elections. These events cannot happen overnight, but we need to see change taking place and it is happening. The more resolute the politicians have become, the more resolute people are becoming and that’s the best part of it,” said Cooke.
“It’s fair for people to ask for positive change. I’ve always spoken on behalf of animals and people. It’s always linked. I’m just here to support people, to stand together, to be united with everyone and it’s time to bring about a big change. It’s good to see so many people out on the streets. It’s tough for people to live a decent life every day. It’s not fair that people have to endure all the suffering. As people we have also been divided in different ways, as different communities and opinions. I think we need to stop that and change as Sri Lankan citizens. We need to be supportive of each other. If everyone has one focus of having a united country with a good future for the people, animals and protecting the environment, that’s when the biggest change will come for Sri Lanka,” said Gunawardena. 

“When we talk to people one of the biggest discussions is whether to migrate or stay back. This is because the country has plunged into a chaotic situation and the future is uncertain. But we still have hope. As youth leaders we still have hope as it is our country. We need to step up as youth and when we unite that will create a synergetic effect. I hope that these protests will have an impact on the government. Youth and volunteer movements have a say in this because we train youth, improving skills etc. We talk, brainstorm, discuss about solutions. Therefore youth leaders have so much ideas and potential in them. If responsible parties could listen to the youth changes could be implemented.”

Pix by Kithsiri De Mel

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