Battle Lines Drawn, Big Guns Primed
Promises are said to be like babies—easy to make but hard to deliver. This adage may explain the government’s predicament as regards the constitution-making process, which it has had to accelerate, at the behest of the TNA. It is also under pressure to let the TNA have a say in the development drive to be launched in the North and the East, according to media reports. The TNA is making the most of the UNF administration’s dependence on it for survival.
The government is on a respirator. If the TNA pulls the plug on its deal with the UNP or, more precisely, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it will come crashing down for want of a working majority in Parliament. Hence it has to strive to make good on its promises to the TNA.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe insists that what he presented to the Constitutional Assembly, the other day, in his capacity as its Chairman, was only a report prepared by a panel of experts. Many an eyebrow has been raised by the fact that the authors of the document have not been mentioned.
The SLPP and other critics of the document at issue are of the view that it is a draft Constitution in all but name, and the government is only testing the water. In politics, perceptions do matter as much as reality. The public does go by perceptions in making decisions. The Maha Sangha has already registered their protest against the ‘draft Constitution’.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the last presidential election not because any of the allegations of corruption against him, his family and hangers-on had been proved by that time; the people voted against him because the Rajapaksa government was perceived to be corrupt. The incumbent regime has its work cut out to convince the public that no draft Constitution is in existence.
Opposition Leader on ‘draft constitution’
One of the first few things former President Rajapaksa did after assuming duties as the Opposition Leader in his office, recently, was to issue a detailed response to the expert panel report Prime Minister Wickremesinghe tabled before the Constitutional Assembly last week. The main arguments in the Opposition Leader’s response, denouncing what is described as an attempt by the government to create a federal state are as follows:
- If Parliament is to enact a law on a matter on the provincial councils list without the express agreement of each and every provincial council, that law would have to be passed with a two-thirds majority by Parliament and also approved at a referendum. Even a law on a provincial council subject passed in this manner can be vitiated by a statute passed by a provincial council with a simple majority (Clause 132 in the draft constitution).
- The legislative power of Parliament is to be further weakened by giving the proposed constitutional court the power to review laws that have been passed by Parliament (Clauses 182-c and 185).
- Even though the draft constitution refers to a provincial council list, a concurrent list and a reserved list, it has not been stated anywhere whether these lists are the same as those in the present Constitution or not.
- The federalist tilt in the proposed draft becomes obvious when the Governor – the main representative of the central government in the provinces – is placed under the chief minister.
- The police force will be broken up into a national police force and nine separate provincial police forces, each with its own Police Commission.
- The provincial councils are to have authority over all other state land within their borders. If the central government requires state land in a province for any purpose, they may address a request to the provincial administration and if the latter does not comply, the dispute will be referred for arbitration to a three member tribunal.
- Under the proposed new constitution the declaration of a state of emergency by the central government is to be made subject to judicial review by the constitutional court.
- The special oath against separatism in the present Seventh Schedule introduced by the 6thAmendment of 1983 is not to be seen in the draft constitution.
Govt. caught in a nutcracker
It is being argued, in some quarters, that the government would not have been in this unenviable position, struggling to meet the TNA’s demands if it had been able to engineer a few more crossovers from the UPFA to muster a working majority in the House. President Maithripala Sirisena has succeeded in denying the UNP the pleasure of springing more crossovers from his camp, by refusing to appoint the UPFA defectors as ministers. So, anyone who decamps from the UPFA will have to settle for anything other than ministerial posts.
The anti-incumbency factor has set in, and the UPFA MPs who are desirous of retaining their seats, at the next general election, are wary of defecting, at this juncture, and run the risk of being defeated, for without ministerial posts they have no way of extending patronage to electors in return for votes. Voters do not expect patronage from Opposition MPs.
The UNP is in a dilemma. It is in control of Parliament, but it is not strong outside, as evident from its fear of elections following its crushing defeat at the last local government elections. Even if the government manages to muster a majority in the House without the TNA’s help, its main problem will remain. It will be able to go slow on the constitution-making process and avoid unnecessary trouble, but in so doing it will antagonise the TNA, whose backing it has to enlist at the next presidential election to make up for the loss of votes outside the North and the East. So, the UNP will have to keep humouring the TNA.
Sri Lanka’s constitutional reforms have got so internationalized that there is no way the government can back out. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will remain in the good books of the powerful foreign governments that solidly stood behind him following the Oct. 26 constitutional coup and helped him turn the tables on the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine, only so long as he is seen to be serious about introducing a new Constitution.
One may recall that the same foreign powers, perhaps with the exception of India, forced the UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) to carry out the Sisyphean task of negotiating a settlement with the LTTE, which was violating a fragile ceasefire to its heart’s content. The US-led Co-chairs of the peace process tied the implementation of an aid pledge to the tune of USD 4.5 billon to the progress to be made with the LTTE. The other Co-chairs were Norway, the EU and Japan; they had the blessings of India.
The government is, well and truly, caught in a nutcracker with pressure mounting on it both locally and internationally to introduce a new Constitution, with a greater degree of devolution. One of the main campaign promises of the yahapalana camp led by the UNP was to promulgate a new Constitution, and it has to honour that pledge despite the risk of an electoral backlash.
President gets even with rivals
There is no love lost between the government and President Sirisena and the former is doing its damnedest to have some UPFA crossovers and former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka appointed ministers. That is the way it can induce some more defections from the UPFA. The President remains intransigent. Fonseka got under the President’s skin by inveighing against him. Curiously, so did Mangala Samaraweera, who went so far as to use a canine metaphor to describe the President, in the aftermath of the sacking of the UNF government last October. But he escaped the wrath of the President.
Some political commentators opine that the presidential action, at issue, is justiciable and the aggrieved parties stand a better chance of receiving legal redress if they go to courts. However, they point out that in event of the President losing a legal battle and having to appoint them ministers against his will, nothing prevents him from sacking them immediately after swearing them in. A careful reading of the Constitution shows that the aforesaid argument is not without merit though it remains to be seen how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, especially Articles 43 and 44, governing the appointment of Cabinet and other ministers.
The fact that the President is empowered to sack ministers immediately after appointing them is said to be the reason why the aggrieved government MPs baulk at going to courts. Another reason for their reluctance may be that the government does not want to provoke the President further lest he should resort to more hostile action against his opponents such as the appointment of a presidential commission of inquiry to probe malpractices in state institutions from Jan. 2015 to Dec. 2018.
GR throws his hat into the ring
Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after months of dilly-dallying, has recently announced his desire to run for President. He started eyeing the presidency much earlier; the Viyathmaga and Eliya campaigns were aimed at promoting him as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. Why has he made his desire known so early? There are several key SLPP politicians who aspire to the presidency and are toying with the idea of coming forward as presidential candidates, and Gotabaya may have thought of beating others to it.
It was no secret that the Gotabaya camp of the SLPP was not well disposed toward the formation of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government, last October, for that arrangement stood the President, who is trying to secure a second term, in good stead. The Gotabaya loyalists were in seventh heaven when the forcibly formed government came up against a brick wall and Sirisena fell flat on his face. They thought that with the collapse of that short-lived government, their hero’s chances of contesting the presidential polls would improve.
There is no guarantee that Gotabaya can get nominated to contest the presidential polls, unanimously. Not all SLPP big guns are enamoured with the idea of fielding him. Some of them are promoting his elder brother Chamal as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. On the other hand, there are some hurdles that Gotabaya will have to clear before being able to enter the presidential fray. He is said to be still an American citizen and if so, first of all, he will have to relinquish his US citizenship. Usually, the process of renunciation is simple, but speculation is rife in political circles that the US may not let Rajapaksa relinquish his US citizenship easily so that he will not be able to contest the presidential election.
The US citizenships is, in a way, the least of Gotabaya’s problems. A case is being heard against him before the Permanent High Court, Colombo. He and six others were indicted on Monday. The charges, pressed against him under the Offences against Public Property Act, are of very serious nature. The main charge is the misappropriation of state funds to the tune of Rs. 34 million for the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa memorial in Weeraketiya. Trials are to be conducted, on a daily basis.
Sirisena fights on
President Sirisena has proved that he is made of sterner stuff. The UNP may have thought it would be able to walk all over him after frustrating his attempt to dissolve Parliament and forcing him to reappoint a UNP-led government. But he has not given up the fight. He is on the offensive, unlike in the past, and put the UNP on the defensive.
Sirisena knows that it is plain political hara-kiri to contest the next presidential election as the candidate of the SLFP and or the UPFA without the backing of the SLPP. His problem is Gotabaya. Besides, a section of the SLFP is rebelling against him for having closed ranks with the SLPP. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is all out to take over the SLFP or, at least, part of it in a bid to field a common presidential candidate with the help of the UNP. One may recall that she threw her weight behind Wickremesinghe in the presidential fray, in 2005, as she wanted Rajapaksa defeated in the race. The sole purpose of her being seems to be to prevent the Rajapaksas from making a comeback at the national level and get rid of Sirisena. She remains a force to be reckoned with.
President Sirisena has made enough and more enemies and one may not approve of his way of politicking, but it needs to be granted that he is doing remarkably well for a lame-duck President. He may have been left with egg on his face following his abortive bid to dissolve Parliament after sacking the UNP government, but he has managed to consolidate his power vis-à-vis a hostile Cabinet. He is doing everything in his power to impress the public; his war on narcotics is sure to go down well with the people. There has been a howl of protest from the supposedly enlightened sections of society against his move to hang drug dealers, who are already on death row, but such action is likely to be welcomed by those who fear for the future of their children owing to the proliferation of narcotics. He has also launched an election-oriented rural development project and is busy wooing the people in the northern and eastern provinces.
However, there is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his path. That is to get the SLPP to support his candidature at the next presidential election. With so much at stake, he will not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to remain in power.