Political Pugilism: Feints And Uppercuts
Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe went overseas the other day, leaving a mega political issue unresolved at home. Their attitude to the serious problems the country is faced with can be considered cavalier. Their political differences which have spilled over into Parliament have rendered the Cabinet inoperative.
The President has refused to summon Cabinet meetings in protest against the parliamentary select committee (PSC) on Easter attacks. His call for suspending the PSC on the grounds that the summoning of top military and police officers before it will have an adverse impact on the country’s national security has gone unheeded. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has, obviously at the instance of the PM, decided to continue with the PSC much to the consternation of President Sirisena, whose reaction has been to suspend Cabinet meetings.
President Sirisena’s desperation to have the PSC suspended is understandable. He is getting badly exposed for having ignored the warnings of terror attacks ahead of the Easter carnage. The recent testimonies of former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and IGP Pujith Jayasundera, before the PSC, are tantamount to damning indictments of the President in that they show that he had been forewarned of the terror strikes, but he took no action to prevent them. However, this should not mean that only the President had been informed of the warnings at issue. The security contingents of the Prime Minister, ministers and the Opposition Leader had been warned of the terrorist threats. These politicians cannot claim that they had been kept in the dark.
The President is under pressure to reverse his decision and summon Cabinet meetings. Minister Champika Ranawaka has told the media that he considers the presidential action illegal. Other ministers must be of the same opinion. Pressure is bound to mount on the President within the next few days to make the Cabinet operative, and whether he will give in remains to be seen. Even if the Cabinet issue is sorted out it can resurface in the future, worsening political instability, which will affect the economy and national security adversely.
There has been a call for both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to resign so that an interim government under Speaker Karu Jayasuriya could be appointed to conduct a general election. This has come from a group of concerned citizens called Friday Forum, promoting good governance. The general consensus is that the present government cannot go on with the President and the Prime Minister pulling in different directions. The suspension of Cabinet meetings has rendered the country ungovernable and it is only natural that concerned citizens are demanding the resignation of the government.
Presidential contest worth the trouble?
With the next presidential election only six months away, according to Chairman of the National Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya, the question being asked in political circles is whether contesting a presidential election is worth the trouble for a person who seeks real power, given the extensive curtailment of executive powers of the President by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Respected constitutional expert Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama has raised this question in a recent newspaper article and examined it clinically. Resting his argument basically on Article 43 of the Constitution, Dr. Jayawickrama’s has reached the following conclusion:
“If, in full and complete knowledge of the purely ceremonial nature of the office of the next President, some still wish to seek election, one must assume that their interest lies not in introducing and implementing some grand reform measures and welfare programmes (which the next President will not be able to do), but in satisfying some element of self-conceit or self-admiration. If that be the driving force, why should billions of rupees be squandered, and the personal security of thousands of citizens put at risk, by conducting an island-wide election for the office of President? As very sensibly proposed by the JVP in the Bill for the 20th Amendment, and as is the practice in many other democratic countries including our neighbour India, does it not make sense to elect a nationally-respected person of knowledge, experience and integrity to the non-political high office of President of the Republic either through Parliament or by a democratically constituted Electoral College?”
Prof. G. H. Peiris, another seasoned political analyst, has challenged Dr. Jayawickrama’s argument. Viewing Articles 41-43 of the Constitutional in a different light, he argues that Dr. Jayawickrama has overstated his case.
If the executive presidency has been curtailed to such an extent that the Prime Minister is now more powerful than the president as Dr. Jayawickrama argues, then the 19th Amendment, which has changed the basic character of the Constitution, and why the judiciary which reviewed it as a Bill did not hold that it required people’s approval at a referendum, needs to be answered.
Presidency and reality
The aforesaid two experts have raised very valid points in their arguments which are equally compelling. However, in case of a party leader, say Ranil Wickremesinghe or Maithripala Sirisena, entering the presidential fray and securing the presidency, whether he will be weak or strong as the head of state depends on his party’s performance at the next parliamentary election. If his party secures a working majority in Parliament, he will be powerful with the Prime Minister he appoints having to play second fiddle. (Even if the UNP fields someone other than Wickremesinghe as the party’s presidential candidate, he will become the party leader in case of his victory, and the PM will be under his thumb in the event of the UNP winning the next parliamentary election.) If a common candidate who is not a party leader, secures the presidency with the help of a coalition, he or she will be weak in case of the main constituent of that collective producing the next PM, as was the case, in January 2015, before President Sirisena wrested control of the SLFP; he also will be in the same predicament in case his rivals capture power in Parliament. A similar fate will befall the next President elected on the ticket of either the UNP or the SLFP/UPFA or the SLPP if his party fails to gain control of Parliament. The situation under President Chandrika Kumaratunga from 2001 to 2004 may serve as an example. If the SLPP produces the next President, he will have to contend with being placed lower than the PM in the pecking order if that party forms a government because former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, upon whom the SLPP is dependent to win elections, will secure premiership.
Thus, we believe it is too early to say for sure whether the next president will be weak or strong.
Race has begun
The presidential race has already begun for all practical purposes though the main parties therein have not officially announced their candidates yet. It is widely speculated that the UNP will field its leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLFP/UPFA President Maithripala Sirisena and the SLPP former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But all of them have hurdles to clear and whether they will be able to do so remains to be seen.
SLFP General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera has gone on record as saying that until April 21, President Sirisena’s popularity ratings had been on the rise due to his successful war on drugs, etc. but the Easter Sunday blasts had taken a heavy toll on them. He is spot on. Sirisena was relying heavily on his anti-narcotic campaign to shore up his image in time for the next presidential election, but the terror strikes on his watch as the Minister of Defence and Law and Order dashed his hopes. He is now sending mixed signals as for his re-election bid. He has, true to form, sought to muddy the water. After a recent Cabinet meeting, he told some UNP ministers that he would not back the SLPP at the presidential election but was willing to throw in his lot with the UNP if a young candidate was fielded; he gave the impression that he would not contest and back any UNP candidate other than PM Wickremesinghe, who is far from young. This conversation was leaked to the media by the JVP among others!
The problem of being Sirisena
President Sirisena possesses an elusive mind, which is well-nigh impossible to read. Why did he offer to support a young UNP candidate? There are several possibilities. His problem is not the UNP but Ranil. He has a good rapport with UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, who is playing his cards extremely well. Support for Sajith is growing in the UNP and some of Ranil’s trusted lieutenants are reported to have sided with him. The UNP will cease to be hostile to Sirisena if Sajith takes control of it. Sirisena may have tried to promote Sajith by offering to support anyone other than Ranil.
Sirisena won the presidency in 2015 with the help of the UNP, the minority parties and a section of the SLFP. The only way the UNP can think of winning the next presidential election is to retain this combination, of which the SLFP is an integral part, besides attracting more votes. If the UNP is to secure some SLFP votes it will have to ditch Ranil. There is, however, no guarantee that Sirisena will back the UNP even if it gets rid of Ranil.
Another plausible explanation may be that Sirisena is trying to give the SLPP a scare by offering to back the UNP so as to get himself nominated as the presidential candidate of a possible SLFP-UPFA-SLPP combine. The SLPP will have its work cut out if Sirisena seeks a second term or supports the UNP in that there will be a split in the SLFP vote bank, a sizeable chunk of which it has seized. Losing part of the SLFP vote is something the SLPP can least afford in a closely contested presidential election. It is possible that Sirisena has sought to boost his bargaining power by indicating his willingness to back the UNP.
The UNP is all out to destroy President Sirisena politically in retaliation for the bond probe commission which ruined its chances of winning elections. It is trying to achieve this end through the PSC probing the Easter carnage. He may have sought to prevent the UNP from taking him on by offering his support for it.
PM Wickremesinghe’s problems are manifold. The UNP has not recovered from its crushing defeat at the last local government elections in February last year. It has failed to do anything impressive on the political and economic fronts to regain lost ground. Wickremesinghe has lost two presidential elections (in 1999 and 2005) and run away from another two (in 2010 and 2015). The UNP now has to decide whether to repackage him and remarket him or look for a new face as its presidential candidate. Overcoming external issues is the least of Ranil’s problems; he is faced with the prospect of another rebellion within the party. Some ministers such as Ajith P. Perera are openly campaigning for fielding Sajith as the UNP’s presidential candidate.
The situation is sure to take a turn for the worse for Ranil within the next few weeks with pressure mounting on the party to look for an alternative to him. He controls the UNP Working Committee, which he has packed with his loyalists. He may therefore feel safe, but he should not allow himself to be lulled into a false sense of safety because the WC support is no defence against a rebellion within the party.
Interestingly, even the SLMC, which is solidly behind the UNP, is for a new UNP leader. SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem has gone on record as saying that his party expects a younger presidential candidate from the UNP. This is certainly bad news for Ranil, who is not getting any younger. But he is blessed with political acumen, if not cunning, and cannot be written off so easily. He has survived several attempts to throw him overboard.
Gotabaya has to renounce his US citizenship in time for nominations if he is to contest the next presidential election. The process of the renunciation of US citizenship looks simple in that a US citizen only has appear in person before a US consular or diplomatic officer or in a foreign country at a US embassy or consulate and sign an oath of renunciation. But the US is no respecter of the rule book and is ready to go to any extent to further its interests. Concerned about the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, it, too, has a stake in the presidential race here.
The Rajapaksa government got branded as a pro-Chinese administration and whether the US will take kindly to Gotabaya entering the presidential fray is in doubt unless there has been a rapprochement between the two sides unbeknownst to the Sri Lankan public. Law suits have been filed against Gotabaya in the US over his alleged involvement in some offences committed here, and they are viewed as attempts to prevent him from renouncing his US citizenship.
Gotabaya is confident that he can give up his US citizenship anytime, but nobody knows what’s up Uncle Sam’s sleeve.
Significance of Modi’s visit
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brief visit to Colombo on his way back home from the Maldives, last Sunday, may not have been aimed at strengthening the bonds between the Indo-Sri Lanka relations contrary to New Delhi’s claims. It came close on the heels of the controversial Colombo Port East Terminal deal the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has struck with India and Japan.
The agreement at issue has drawn heavy flak from the Opposition and the JVP has threatened to go all out to scuttle it. India is the JVP’s ideological hobby horse. In the late 1980s, it plunged the country into a bloodbath by taking up arms against the Indo-Lanka accord (1987), which paved the way for the provincial council system. Its trade union arm is strong and capable of wreaking havoc in the Colombo Port and elsewhere in protest against the East Terminal deal.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives are of crucial importance to India, which is concerned about China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean. The East Terminal pact has been India’s answer to the Chinese investment in the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port. India is determined to remain actively engaged in the Colombo Port and also in strategically important Trincomalee. It has the US and Japan on its side.
Modi may have sought to impress on Colombo that he was serious about the deal through his brief visit.
Internal problems of the UNP became clear during PM Modi’s visit. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe edged out Minister Sajith Premadasa, appointed by President Sirisena as the minister-in-attendance. Wickremesinghe rushed to the airport and travelled with the Indian PM to Colombo. He also accompanied the visiting leader to the airport. Minister Lakshman Kirielle has claimed Wickremesinghe did so to have talks with PM Modi while travelling so as to help the Indian leader spend some time with the Opposition Leader and the TNA bigwigs. But what Wickremesinghe did was to overshadow Sajith and deny him the privilege of receiving PM Modi and boosting his image.
If PM Modi had got anything serious to discuss with PM Wickremesinghe apart from the Colombo Port he would have stayed a few more hours in Colombo instead of having talks in a fast moving limousine.
India’s missed Opportunity?
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa insists that his government had decided to entrust China with the task of constructing the Hambantota Port as India had not evinced an interest in the project. It may be that India did not consider it a feasible venture, but awakened to the security challenges the acquisition by China of that vital facility could pose to its maritime security. Strangely, this claim by Rajapaksa does not get highlighted in media discussions on the Hambantota Port deal. The active role some external powers hostile to China played in the campaign to oust the Rajapaksa government, in 2015, was due to the involvement of China in the building of the Hambantota Port among other things. Ironically, the yahapalana government they backed, leased out the port to China!
Rajapaksa’s aforesaid claim has gone unchallenged. India has not either confirmed or denied it. If it had been false, India would definitely have countered it. Is it that India, the US and its allies have no one to blame but themselves as for the Chinese presence at Hambantota?
JVP’s protest campaign
The JVP is in an unenviable position. It is having a hard time, trying to convince the public that it is not supportive of the government. The Joint Opposition (JO) never misses an opportunity to lump the UNP and the JVP together and tar them with the same brush.
The active role the JVP played in helping the UNP-led government bounce back following President Sirisena’s attempt to capture power in Parliament last year was seen as a pro-UNP move. The no-faith motion the JVP submitted to the Speaker against the government while the JO was targeting the then Minister Rishad Bathiudeen through a separate motion of no confidence against him in a bid to secure the support of some dissident UNP MPs as well, has also come to be viewed as throwing a lifeline to the government; all UNP MPs would have had to sink their differences and defend the government as one if the JVP’s no-confidence motion had been taken up.
The resignations of the Muslim Ministers including Bathiudeen have rendered both no-faith motions irrelevant, but the JVP has had to repair its image which has suffered damage due to its rapport with the UNP.
The JVP, on Wednesday, launched what it called an anti-government protest campaign aimed at ousting the UNP-led administration. It held a demonstration opposite the Fort Railway station with the participation of a large crowd.
The main reason for the JVP’s protest campaign must have been its humiliating defeat at the Education Employees’ Co-operative Society election last week. The SLPP won 191 out of 360 seats to score a comfortable win. The SLPP alleges that the UNP backed the JVP in the election, but the JVP has dismissed that claim as mere mudslinging. However, the SLPP’s victory is a worrisome proposition for the JVP and the UNP.