Sri Lanka is where it is, mainly because it is perennially in a state of confusion. Seventy years have elapsed since it gained Independence from the British, but it still cannot decide on a system of government suited for it. Experiments are still on with different government models and electoral systems while other nations are forging ahead, achieving as they do success in every sphere of activity. With only one and a half years to go for the next presidential election, the government and the Opposition are debating whether the executive presidency should be abolished or not. This debate is as old as the executive presidency itself!
Political instability and the attendant chaos we are witnessing are symptomatic of several crises, especially those on the political and economic fronts. The yahapalana leaders are busy papering over the cracks without grasping the nettle. They are apparently labouring under the delusion that the continuation of the so-called unity government will help tackle the crises which are fraught with the danger of plunging the country into anarchy. What they are doing is akin to using wall putty to repair widening structural cracks in a tumbledown edifice.
Luckily, the LTTE is not around. The JVP has come out of its revolutionary carapace and become as conformist as the old left. Its long stay in mainstream politics has had a mellowing effect on its ultra-radical ideology. Else, they would have made the most of the current situation to advance their agendas the way they did in the late 1980s.
The country is faced with this sorry state of affairs because politicians enjoy unbridled freedom to break or make systems according to their whims and fancies. They are free to subjugate the national interest to their personal agendas, driven by expediency. In 1978, the late J. R. Jayewardene, who captured power, too late in the day, sought self-aggrandizement through his new Constitution; he introduced the executive presidential system, which has turned out to be a political mule of sorts with features borrowed from the Westminster and presidential systems. A closer examination of what passes for the system of government here reveals inherent weaknesses in its design, the main being that it throws the country into turmoil when the Executive President and the Prime Minister happen to represent two different political parties and be at loggerheads.
Crippling power Struggle
The late Ranasinghe Premadasa, while he was the Prime Minister, under President Jayewardene, famously compared his position with that of an office peon; he said he was as powerless as the latter. That has the predicament of all Prime Ministers under overbearing Presidents. But, when the Prime Minister comes from a different party, the President who loses control over Parliament becomes a figurehead to all intents and purposes. We witnessed this situation for the first time when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, as the leader of the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA), won the 1994 parliamentary election while D. B. Wijetunga, representing the UNP, was the President. DB, however, maintained a very low profile and avoided confrontation. Kumaratunga went on to become the President about three months later.
President Vs Premier
The first full-blown crisis occurred in 2001, when the UNP captured power in Parliament and confronted the then President Kumaratunga. The President and the Prime Minister undermined each other’s authority so much so that even the country’s national security was compromised. The economy suffered heavily. President Kumaratunga cut the Gordian knot by sacking the UNP-led UNF government in 2014 and regained control over Parliament at that year’s general election. She could do so because she had the powers to dissolve Parliament at that time.
Today, we are witnessing something similar to the 2001-2004 situation. It does not look so bad because the UNP and the SLFP, in spite of being at daggers drawn, are sharing power in a joint administration and the 19th Amendment has taken away the President’s power to dissolve Parliament. While Sirisena was in seventh heaven after winning the presidential election in 2015, the UNP craftily amended the Constitution, stripping him of some of the vital executive powers so that it would be able to tell him to go to hell at a time of its choosing. He realised the extent to which his powers had been curtailed only when he, egged on by some of his ministers, following the ignominious drubbing at the Feb. 10 local government elections, sought to put the government on an even keel at the expense of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He failed in his endeavour because the PM stayed put.
The executive presidency is not a shadow of its former self. It has been stripped of powers to such an extent that some political commentators argue that it is already a titular institution in all but name and there is no need to move the proposed 20th Amendment, which seeks to abolish it.
President Sirisena is busy trying to assert himself as all lame duck Presidents do. He reshuffles the Cabinet and changes ministerial subjects arbitrarily. The recent prorogation of Parliament was also a show of strength on his part. He also issues orders and makes various pledges with the intention of impressing on the electorate that he is the President.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is asserting himself in his own way. He avoids clashes with the President as he does not want to rock the boat with less than one and a half years to go for the next presidential election, which is his target. He is using the yahapalana government as a stepping stone. Troubled by a huge intra-party conflict and the prospect of dissident UNP MPs rebelling against him, he does not want to open another front and have some more problems to contend with.
Presidential election campaigns of the three main parties, the UNP, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the SLFP have already got underway. The UNP has already announced Wickremesinghe’s candidature. The newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has at least two presidential hopefuls, both from the Rajapaksa family, and it is wary of naming its presidential candidate. It is widely thought that the SLPP will field former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, but his sibling, Basil, is also known to have presidential ambitions. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will have the final say on this matter. He has chosen to remain silent on the issue.
Gotabhaya has, true to form, taken time by the forelock. Having tested the water for a couple of months, he launched his presidential campaign, for all practical purposes, on Sunday, at Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. It was the annual general meeting of Viyathmaga, a collective of intellectuals sympathetic to the SLPP/Joint Opposition (JO). It was clear that Gotabhaya had recast his image. He projected himself as a person conversant with matters such as economics and foreign affairs. He remained focused on the economy throughout his keynote address and spoke at length on what could be global economic realities in the next decade. Subscribing to the prognosis that China will be the strongest economy in the world in about ten to twelve years, he stressed the need for Sri Lanka to position itself, taking into consideration the changing economic realities, especially the prediction that the Chinese economy would be twice the size of that of the US towards the end of the next decade. He was making a case for strengthening Sino-Lanka ties further the way his brother’s government had done much to the consternation of the western powers.
The irony of the situation may not have been lost on the discerning attendees: a man with US citizenship was speaking of China’s economic prowess in glowing terms, at a Chinese hotel, built on a land which he had made available by relocating the army headquarters.
Gota’s War and Fonseka’s Woe
Efforts to build Gotabhaya’s image as a tough, efficient guy who is fit to be the President are not of recent origin. C. A. Chandraprema’s hagiographical book, Gota’s War, on the country’s successful war against the LTTE can be considered the first attempt to project the wartime Defence Secretary as a national leader. It was launched in the heyday of the Rajapaksa regime. The Gota-for-President group of the JO/SLPP seems to have intensified its propaganda campaign, which has shown signs of reaching fruition.
Meanwhile, the rise of Gota in the Opposition as a potential presidential candidate has prompted the opponents of the Rajapaksas to consider former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as a formidable contender. They seem to think that he alone is equal to the task of facing the Rajapaksas. In fact, the UNP brought Fonseka in as a National List MP and made him a member of the Cabinet because it wanted to overcome the so-called wimp factor. A section of the civil society groups backing the yahapalana government has been calling for Fonseka to be appointed Minister of Law and Order because, it thinks, he alone is capable of restoring the rule of law and dealing with the corrupt in the Opposition. Ven. Dambara Amila Thera has been openly calling upon the government to bring the Law and Order Ministry under Fonseka.
Fonseka’s rising popularity in the government has not been to the liking of the UNP leadership. It may be recalled that what really caused Fonseka to fall from grace during the Rajapaksa government was his growing popularity which the then ruling clan did not take kindly to. The Rajapaksas’ saw a political threat in him and sought to make the public think less of him. They tried to appoint him the Secretary to the Sports Ministry, of all places, after he had retired as the army commander. The wartime Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda was appointed the Secretary to the Ministry of Highways, after his retirement!
One is reminded of the famous words of US President Harry Truman, who was troubled by the political ambitions of Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur: “The nation’s two greatest heroes seem to suffer from either ‘Potomac fever’ [desire to share State power in Washington by being appointed or elected to positions of government] or ‘brass infection’.”
Hosannas being sung for Fonseka have not been to the liking of the UNP leadership. PM Wickremesinghe is left with no alternative but to run for President next time if he is to remain the UNP leader. He has lost two presidential elections in a row and run away from two more consecutively. Unless the JVP succeeds in having its 20th Amendment passed, Wickremesinghe will have to contest the next presidential election. He does not want to allow an alternative power centre to emerge within the UNP.
Recent attempts to ruin Fonseka’s image have come as no surprise. His diatribe against President Sirisena warmed the cockles of many a heart in the UNP, which expects its leaders to get tough with the President. His philippic against Sirisena received wide publicity. A few days later reports appeared in all newspapers, claiming that Fonseka has apologised to the President for what he had said. Fonseka has denied having ever done so. He is reported to have said the UNP planted the story in a bid to make the party and the public think less of him.
President’s loss of face
It never rains but it pours. President Sirisena must be a worried man. What he is faced with is a double whammy, as it were. Close on the heels of the arrest of his Chief of Staff I. H. K. Mahanama and P. Dissanayake, whom he had appointed as the State Timber Corporation Chairman for taking a huge bribe has come bad news; Anuruddha Polgampola, the person he handpicked as Dissanayake’s successor, too, was arrested and remanded over a financial fraud. He was removed, a few days after his appointment, but the fact remains that the persons he has surrounded himself with are no better than Rajapaksas’ associates he condemned as crooks in the run-up to the last presidential election.
Polgampola, a former JVP MP, switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas when he was sacked by his party over an allegation that he had taken a person to Japan illegally. Having been one of Basil Rajapaksa’s trusted lieutenants, he joined President Sirisena before the last local government elections.
The aforesaid appointments have exposed President Sirisena as a politician whose judgment is as bad as anyone else’s. His critics can tell him to put his own house in order before pontificating to others on the virtues of good governance. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who is reeling from the presidential bond probe which made a fugitive of his bosom friend cum former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, must be laughing up his sleeve, on seeing Sirisena’s predicament.