Mirror Wall – By Kassapa 2024 December 04
The year that just dawned, 2024, is being declared an election year. It has to be, because the Constitution mandates that a presidential election has to be held by October this year, the 18th of that month the latest but now, a different question is being asked: will a general election precede the presidential election?
The theory underlying this question is simple: it is based on the premise that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will go to any lengths to sustain himself in power, even for a little while longer.
That was also why a suggestion to amend the Constitution was floated some time ago. Individuals loyal to Wickremesinghe were sounding out the idea. The ‘aragalaya’ and general public sentiment favoured abolishing the Executive Presidency, they said. So, why not do it now by changing the Constitution and introducing a Prime Minister-led Westminster style of government? The catch was that, in all the time it took to do this, Wickremesinghe would remain President, overseeing the transition with the possibility that he could revert to becoming Prime Minister thereafter.
How could the opposition disagree with such a noble objective when, for years, it has been calling for the abolition for the Executive Presidency, Wickremesinghe loyalists asked. Nevertheless, they did, calling Wickremesinghe’s bluff, noting that it was yet another ruse for him to stay in power for two more years.
That plan died a natural death, not because its authors did not want to proceed but because it would require a two-thirds majority of Parliament to amend the Constitution. The collective opposition wouldn’t agree, unless a general election was guaranteed at the same time. Therefore, the strategy couldn’t get off the ground.
Now, a different proposition is doing the rounds: should Wickremesinghe call for a general election first? Constitutionally, he is empowered to do so. The only trust he would be violating would be the pledge he gave parliamentarians of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) when he campaigned for their vote to become President but then, there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests.
The thinking in United National Party (UNP) circles is that although Wickremesinghe has been President for one and a half years, little has been done to revitalise the moribund party. That is partly because the policies Wickremesinghe has pursued- heaping financial burdens on the masses while protecting the corrupt in government and suppressing dissent with draconian measures- have not endeared neither him nor his party to voters. In such a scenario, there is no way he could win a presidential election. Attempting to piggy-back on the SLPP, even if that party allowed it, would be the kiss of death: the SLPP is poison to a majority of voters right now. So, why hold a presidential election where defeat is almost certain?
Therefore, a general election could be the next best option for Wickremesinghe. By virtue of being Executive President, he can control the entire state machinery to the advantage of his party- and he wouldn’t be the first President to do so. That way, he can ensure that, even if the UNP does not return as an overall winner at the election, it would still return a decent number of seats -as opposed to the solitary seat it holds in the current parliament- and the party will still be able to fight for its political future.
Besides, whichever party wins the election, that party will have to function with Wickremesinghe as President until October this year, when the presidential election will be held. Given the current uncertain political landscape, a general election held under the Proportional Representation system of voting is likely to result in a Parliament where no political party will have a significant-or even simple- majority.
This would also allow Wickremesinghe, as Executive President the opportunity to engage in doing a deal with like-minded parliamentarians elected to the new Parliament to form a coalition government, even though such a government may not reflect the mandate of the people.
Wickremesinghe, after all was a ringside spectator to a similar scenario in 1994 when then President D.B. Wijetunge- a ‘stand in’ President like Wickremesinghe is now- conducted a general election before a presidential poll. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance emerged as the single largest party at the election but could not muster a simple majority.
At the time, Gamini Dissanayake who had superseded Wickremesinghe as Wijetunge’s able lieutenant wanted to cobble together a coalition government, so the UNP could remain in power. Then, it was Wickremesinghe who rubbished the idea and left Temple Trees which he was inhabiting in the role of Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the then democratic Wickremesinghe has metamorphosed into a completely different political animal today.
If general elections are held first, even when a presidential election follows in October, the newly elected President will be saddled with a divided Parliament for almost the next two and a half years- because the Constitution precludes an elected Parliament from being dissolved by the President for the first two and half years of its term.
Given the disastrous socio-political circumstances Sri Lanka finds itself in now, this would be a debacle. A scenario where the new President – who is unlikely to be Wickremesinghe- is grappling with an unco-operative Parliament where political parties will not be focusing on resurrecting the country but capturing power will be the order of the day. That will be the worst possible political outcome for Sri Lanka in the current context.
However, such considerations hold little value for Wickremesinghe whose primary instinct is political survival. Recent history has shown that he would go to any lengths to ensure that he lives politically to fight another day. The best example of this was when he tried every trick in the book to postpone local government elections which were scheduled for March 09, last year. That he blatantly subverted democracy in the process mattered little to him. With such a track record, one cannot for a moment assume that Wickremesinghe will adhere to political norms and call a poll when it is due. This is what the nation- and opposition political parties- should be vigilant about.