An Anatomy Of The Crisis

Feigning sleep to avoid talking to each other? President Sirisena (R) was the common candidate nominated to defeat former strongman Rajapaksa (L) and usher in a period of good governance. But Sirisena and Wickremasinghe (M) were unable to iron out differences, resulting in Sirisena appointing his former rival Rajapaksa the Prime Minister.

The much-awaited Supreme Court determination on the dissolution is now known.  What we are experiencing is history in the making.

There are several schools of thought as regards the current crisis, which will not go away immediately. They do not agree on the causes of the conflict. President Maithripala Sirisena went on record, over the weekend, as saying that the Supreme Court decision would bring the crisis to an end. This, he said while others were arguing that the restoration of the status quo ante in Parliament with the UNP reinstated as the governing party was the only way out. Those who are not aligned to either of the two warring parties are convinced otherwise.

The current crisis has a multifactorial etiology, as it were, and that makes finding a solution an uphill task. If one thinks the judicial remedy alone will help resolve it once and fall all, one is being naïve.

What started off as a personality clash between President Sirisena and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has developed into a complex problem with the former refusing to appoint the latter Prime Minister, come what may. The UNP’s answer was to have a motion passed in Parliament, on Wednesday, to prove that Wickremesinghe is the choice of 117 MPs as the Prime Minister.

Looks can be deceptive

Before the 2015 presidential election, Sirisena looked malleable and ready to let go of power any time. Looks can be deceptive, and behind that façade of selflessness was a calculating politician blessed with an abundance of political acumen. The UNP-led yahapalana allies expected him to win the election, play second fiddle to Ranil and retire after completing his first term so that others could enjoy the fruits of his labour. They did not know him. When he felt that he was being reduced to a figurehead, he struck back, triggering a clash between him and PM Wickremesinghe. To claim that the absence of team chemistry in the yahapalana camp was solely due to personal animosity between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, however, is to oversimplify the issue.

Class consciousness

Sirisena and the key decision makers of the yahapalana alliance, especially former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and PM Wickremesinghe, come from different social backgrounds. What one gathers from the woeful tales the President has narrated of the inner-workings of yahapalanaya is that he felt there was an attempt to leave him out of the decision-making process.

A sense of alienation mixed with frustration set in, and Sirisena felt that he was a victim of elitism. He once famously said that had played elle as a student of Royal College, Polonnaruwa and become the President while Wickremesinghe, a product of Royal College, Colombo, had played cricket and gone on to secure premiership. Reflected in such statements is a gnawing sense of otherness which stems from class-consciousness.

Sirisena is aware that it was not out of any love for him that the UNP and its allies fielded him as their common presidential candidate in 2015. They did not expect him to win; they wanted someone to take the gamble so that they would not have to burn the fingers.

Wickremesinghe was wary of challenging incumbent President Rajapaksa in the fray as he knew another defeat would cost him the party leadership. Sirisena was used as a cat’s paw to pull political chestnuts out of the fire. The leading figures in the yahapalana camp were upset when Sirisena, after being elected, kept for his consumption most of the chestnuts he had retrieved, in a manner of speaking.

The UNP’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s father, Ranasinghe Premadasa did not belong to the elite class, just like President Sirisena. And like Sirisena, was a victim of elitism.
The UNP’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s father, Ranasinghe Premadasa did not belong to the elite class, just like President Sirisena. And like Sirisena, was a victim of elitism.

Elitism in Sri Lankan politics                      

Sirisena’s meteoric rise to the topmost position in the country was partly made possible by his social background, which engendered sympathy for him across the political spectrum. Those who engineered the 2015 regime change had done their homework properly. Sirisena was presented to the electorate as one of the ordinary people who felt disadvantaged. Their strategy was similar to that of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa in the 1988 presidential race.

The last presidential election was made out to be a battle between a powerful incumbent President who was intoxicated with power, and a sober underdog who had started life as a Grama Sevaka in Polonnaruwa. Sirisena’s humble beginnings stood him in good stead in the presidential race. But they became a liability for him later when he sought to assert himself after being ensconced in power. The elitist sections of the yahapalana camp struck back, making the President feel insecure.

Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister who did not come from a political family or an English speaking background. He clawed his way to the topmost position in the country by marketing his humble beginnings to win over the ordinary masses. But he ended up being a victim of elitism and grew paranoid towards the tail end of his presidential term. Anura Bandaranaike used to look down upon Premadasa in Parliament and had nasty things to say about his family.

Not many may have grasped the significance of a press report on a speech made by UNP National Organiser Navin Dissanayake in Nuwara Eliya last Sunday. He praised UNP Deputy Leader and MP Sajith Premadasa to high heaven as an excellent leader and offered to work with him for the betterment of the party. His speech made one cast one’s mind back to a tumultuous period in the early 1990s, when his father, the late Gamini Dissanayake and Sajith’s father, the late President Premadasa, went all out to destroy each other politically.

Premadasa openly accused Gamini of having a staggering contempt for his social background and blamed an abortive attempt to impeach him on the frustrated elitist elements within the UNP’s ranks. Gamini did not call Premadasa ‘Sir’ even after the latter had been elected President. Lalith Athulamudali did not confront President Premadasa the way Gamini did, but there was no love lost between them.

The clash between Premadasa and the UNP rebels led by Lalith and Gamini led to a debilitating split in the party in 1992 and the formation of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). Lalith was felled by an assassin in April 1993 and his loyalists blamed the Premadasa government and the following month President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE. Gamini died at the hands of an LTTE suicide bomber in 1994. The rest is history.

About three decades on, the sons of Premadasa and Dissanayake are ready to make a joint effort to revitalise the UNP! Sajith would not have been able to gain acceptance among the elites who traditionally back the UNP but for the elitist environment where he was raised and groomed for a leadership role as the son of a president.

President Sirisena finds himself in the same predicament as Premadasa, mutatis mutandis. His political enemies are now threatening to impeach him.

Ideological differences

In January 2015, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may have thought that following the forced marriage between the SLFP and the UNP, things would fall into place. Little did they realise that they were trying to achieve synergy between two sworn enemies driven by different ideologies and the SLFP’s nationalism and the UNP’s neoliberalism would not gel. Leading a horse to water is one thing but making it drink is quite another.

It is argued in some quarters that the UNP and the SLFP are Tweedledum and tweedledee, but they have stark policy differences, which manifested themselves over the yahapalana government’s divestiture programmes etc. The SLFP has embraced market economic policies but its ideology is not without vestigial remains of dirigisme, which prompted President Sirisena to oppose the yahapalana government’s privatisation projects much to the consternation of the UNP.

The SLFP and the UNP also differ on the country’s foreign policy to a considerable extent. The latter is well-disposed towards the West, but the same cannot be said of the former, which is, therefore, not in the good books of the capitalist bloc, which has thrown its weight behind the UNP in the ongoing political dispute. The SLFP is at home with the traditional enemies of the West like Russia and China.

It may not have occurred to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe that they would have their work cut out to reconcile the divergent worldviews of their parties to get their foreign policy right.

Policies of the UNP and the SLFP also diverge considerably on matters such as agriculture and local industries though these differences tend to go unnoticed.

Constitutional quandary

For the 1978 Constitution to work the President should be able to keep Parliament under his thumb through a pliant Prime Minister. The late President J. R. Jayewardene had a five-sixths majority in Parliament when the Constitution was promulgated and he retained it through a referendum in 1982. The Prime Minister who represents the same party as the President is a figurehead in all but name.

The late Premadasa, while he was the Prime Minister under JRJ, famously lamented in Parliament that his position was no better than that of a government peon.

Visionary political leaders like Dr. N. M. Perera predicted that the Constitution would plunge the country into total chaos in the event of the Prime Minister and the President being elected from two different parties. His prediction came true in 2001, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost control of Parliament, where the UNP secured a majority. (In 1994, the late President D. B. Wijetunga (UNP) avoided a confrontation between him and the newly appointed Prime Minister by letting the SLFP-led People’s Alliance, which won the general election in that year do as it pleased. His term was coming to an end.) In such a situation, the Prime Minister asserts himself/herself and the President has to work with a hostile Parliament. JRJ, however, had taken precautions; the Constitution allowed the President to dissolve Parliament one year after the formation of a government. Kumaratunga made use of this provision in 2004 to sack the UNP-led government.

The 19th Amendment sought to prevent the President from dissolving Parliament until the incumbent government has completed four and a half years in office and unless Parliament passes a resolution with a two-thirds majority calling for its dissolution. The newly introduced Articles to this effect are riddled with ambiguities and gave rise to a legal battle over the dissolution of Parliament by President Sirisena.

President Sirisena’s sacking of Prime Minister Wikcremesinghe in favour of  former President Rajapaksa has resulted in daily protests in Colombo.  Here, a protest organized by the UNP which culminated at the Independence Square.
President Sirisena’s sacking of Prime Minister Wikcremesinghe in favour of former President Rajapaksa has resulted in daily protests in Colombo. Here, a protest organized by the UNP which culminated at the Independence Square.

Political factors

The introduction of the aforesaid provision alone is proof that the UNP was distrustful of President Sirisena from the beginning. Trust is a prerequisite for cohabitation; it was conspicuous by its absence in the yahapalana government which was characterised by cloak-and-dagger politics. When mutual trust and selfless commitment to public duty are absent, it is only natural that a disparate group of ambitious politicians disintegrates. Distrust and suspicion are contagious.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe failed to bring their parties together at the grassroots level, where their supporters remained traditional enemies. The SLFP rebels also put paid to their efforts to do so. It was obvious that their ‘unity’ would not survive an electoral contest. The yahapalana government did everything in its power to avoid elections, but finally had to bow to the inevitable. The Feb. 10 local government polls, where both the UNP and the UPFA suffered a humiliating defeat marked the beginning of the end of the national unity government with Sirisena and Wickremesinghe blaming each other for the electoral disaster.

The President and the Prime Minister had since been at daggers drawn and the writing appeared on the wall that the national unity government months before its collapse.

Some political observers argue that crisis has run its course. But it is far from over in spite of the Supreme Court ruling. Given the complex nature of the crisis which has thrown the country into chaos and caused its many ills, it is doubtful whether the legal remedy will act as a panacea.

 

 

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