The country continues to be in the throes of an unprecedented crisis with the executive and legislative branches of government clashing fiercely and the judiciary being tasked with deciding which one has acted in violation of the Constitution. There seems to be no end in sight to the intractable problem, which is both political and constitutional; it is also not without legal and ethical dimensions. The signs are that legal remedies won’t prove efficacious enough to help resolve the present conflict, which shows signs of spinning out of control.
The executive and the legislature are encroaching on each other’s rights as never before, making a mockery of the doctrine of the separation of power, the be-all and end-all of a functional democracy.
On Tuesday, Parliament had a stormy session upon being reconvened after prorogation. Thankfully, there was no violence but the manner in which proceedings were conducted after being adjourned without the mace in the receptacle was in contravention of parliamentary traditions. Amidst the din in
the House, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who opted for a voice vote, declared that a no-confidence motion against the newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had been passed. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse in time to come.
All stakeholders are trying to find quick fixes without addressing the root causes of the crisis. They go on the offensive. It looks as if they thought attack was the best form of defence.
Origin of the present crisis
This unfortunate turn of events is attributable to a chronic lack of maturity on the part of the political leaders on both sides of the divide. In advance democracies, the executive and the legislature have learnt to co-exist despite their differences. The situation in the US is a case in point.
Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are among the leaders who lost control of the Congress at midterm elections, but neither the House nor the executive ever sought to undermine each other to the extent of plunging the US into utter chaos. There are, of course, disputes between the executive and the legislature in that country as well, but they never develop to the extent of crippling the government.
Not that US politicians are angels, but they are aware that the politically conscious public would not suffer them gladly should they try to settle scores with their rivals by throwing the legislature into turmoil. President Donald Trump is also in a similar predicament today with Democrats having wrested control of the Congress. The Republicans currently control only the Senate. But this fact has gone mostly unnoticed internationally as checks and balances and robust systems in place prevent politicians from acting according to their whims and fancies unlike their counterparts in the developing countries.
The 2015 regime change would not have been possible but for a clash between the Rajapaksas and Maithripala Sirisena, who was a senior minister in the UPFA government. Sirisena voted with his feet to challenge the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential race and succeeded in his endeavour.
Last month’s change of government was also due to a clash between President Sirisena and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
When cobras and mongooses cooperate
National governments do not work in countries like Sri Lanka, where politicians do not believe in unity or tolerate dissent; they only cobble together grand coalitions for political expediency. When they are faced with the prospect of losing power they act like cobras and mongooses, caught up in swirling floods, clinging on to pieces of wood without fighting. When the conditions which force them to unite cease to exist, they resume their old battles and go for each other’s jugular. The UNP and the SLFP acted likewise from 2015 to Oct., 2018.
Not everyone took the so-called national unity government’s solemn vow to remain united seriously, much less expected it to complete its full term, given the fact that its leaders are poles apart ideologically and driven by greed for power rather than any love for the country. What brought them together was their fear of the Rajapaksas, whom they wanted to hold at bay at any cost. When the President overcame that fear following a rapprochement between the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), he kissed Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hand which he failed to cut off and ditched the UNP-led coalition. Another political marriage of convenience was born.
It was patently clear that the unity of the yahapalana government would not survive a fiercely fought election with the campaigns of the SLFP and the UNP being led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe themselves respectively. The two leaders avoided a head-on clash by postponing the local government (LG) and provincial council (PC) elections as a result.
The LG polls, which they had to hold after running out of lame excuses, had a devastating impact on the fragile unity of the yahapalana administration; President Sirisena tore into PM Wickremesinghe and went so far as to accuse the latter of having ruined the economy. Lesser minions of the UNP returned fire. The fate of the government was sealed the day the LG polls results were announced on Feb. 11. The yahapalana government was a dead man walking thereafter.
The Rajapaksas in a hurry
The yahapana government was a shaky edifice standing on a foundation of sand. It was being shored up with numerous props and its collapse was only matter of time. It was popularty was on the wane. Surprisingly, it lasted longer than expected. The cost of living was soaring and there was chaos in every sphere of activity. The last LG polls result showed that the UNP-led administration was heading for disaster. Why did the Rajapaksas hasten to join forces with President Sirisena, who has an axe to grind with Wickremesinghe, to bring down the government, which was ruining things for itself big time?
The UNP wing of the yahapalana government was maniacally focused on targeting the Rajapaksas probably because it could not think of any other way of averting electoral defeats. The 19th Amendment contains specially designed provisions to prevent Mahinda from seeking another term, Gotabaya and Basil from contesting elections as dual citizens and Namal from contesting a presidential election before he turns 35. The Rajapaksa, however, made a comeback.
It is said that the speedy High Court trials against the members of the Rajapaksa family and those near and dear to them prompted them to recapture power without further delay. Tenable as this argument may sound, there were other factors such as President Sirisena’s fear of a conspiracy to destroy him either politically or physically. In fact, an alleged plot to kill him was one of the main reasons the President gave for sacking the UNP-led government and dissolving Parliament. The UNP was biding its time until it got an opportunity to ditch the SLFP-led UPFA and form a government of its own. Such a situation would have rendered the President even more vulnerable; he would have lost his bargaining power. He sought to preempt the UNP’s move, and the Rajapaksas joined forces with him.
If the Rajapaksas had acted within the confines of the law while in power previously, they would not have had to worry about the special courts, which are hearing cases against them and their kith and kin so expeditiously that one is reminded of the adage that ‘justice hurried is justice buried’. If their hands had been clean, the would have been able to wait patiently, letting the UNP and President Sirisena settle their scores and ruin their chances of winning future elections further, until the time was opportune to bring down the government.
Politicians are born risk takers sans scruples. They salivate at the prospect of being able to savour power and take blind plunges in a bid to achieve their goals. They think only after leaping. After all, that is why they are called politicians and not statespersons. So long as the country has to put up with such leaders, it will continue to drift from crisis to crisis. At this rate, it will be able to achieve progress when hell freezes over.