The ceremonial opening of the fourth session of the eight Parliament went well, on Friday. It was a simple yet dignified event. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the statement of government policy, which received wide publicity in the media. He covered a number of key areas in his address to the House, but what political analysts found interesting was his focus on safeguarding national security, strengthening the executive presidency, introducing electoral reforms and changing the existing political culture. He also lamented the deterioration of the parliamentary standards, which he said had to be raised urgently. When he said that, Speaker Karu Jayasuirya wore a sphinxlike look.
What one gathered from the new President’s first policy statement was that he and his team had burnt a lot of midnight oil. Perhaps, it was what his think-tank, Viyathmaga, had worked on for over four years. It sounded good, and the President may have had the people believe that he was serious about adhering to that policy framework in running his government. The proof of the pudding, however, is said to be in the eating.
Attack on 19th Amendment
President Rajapaksa made no bones about his aversion to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. His consternation is understandable; he cannot hold ministerial positions though he is the Head of the government and the Cabinet.
The yahapalana government introduced the 19th amendment, in 2015, to reduce the President’s powers and strengthen the Prime Minister’s position in Parliament. It was tailor-made for the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Some interim provisions were incorporated into it to enable President Sirisena to hold some ministerial portfolios. Now, the incumbent President is debarred from having ministries under him. The Constitution says only MPs can be appointed ministers. Ironically, Sirisena has retired as President and Wickremesinghe has ceased to be the PM.
Expert opinion is divided on the curtailment of the presidential powers. Some constitutional experts argue that the President can hold ministerial posts. But President Rajapaksa has chosen to play it safe without taking over a ministry, though he said in his inauguration speech, in Anuradhapura, last November, that he was speaking as the Commander-in-chief and the Minister of Defence. Somebody must have explained the constitutional position to him afterwards and advised him to act with restraint.
So, abolishing the 19th Amendment is high on the government’s agenda. But it will be politically disadvantageous for the President to discard it lock, stock and barrel as it contains some salutary features, which need to be retained.
On Friday, Sajith Premadasa was anointed as the Opposition Leader. It was a dream come true for him. Reeling from his defeat at the presidential election, he now has something to flaunt. His is a very prestigious position.
Not many thought UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would let Premadasa get that post, but he had to give in for fear of an intra-party rebellion. The Sajith group now has something to hold on to.
Wickremesinghe knows that in politics like in chess there occur situations where some sacrifices have to be made to gain strategic advantage. Now that Premadasa has got the Opposition Leader’s post, he will find it difficult to turn down the party’s request for leading its general election campaign as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. He says he will not do so unless he is given the party leadership. His position is that the party did not throw its full weight behind him in the presidential race because he was not its leader, and he does not want to make the same mistake again.
Wickremesinghe is not likely to give up the party leadership. The UNP Working Committee (WC) is packed with his supporters. He, therefore, must be feeling safe, but he is not out of danger. If the party’s rank and file rise against him, the WC won’t be able to protect him.
Sajiths sounds like Gota
Sajith seems to have chalked up the mistakes he made, during the presidential election campaign, to experience. One of them was to discount the people’s concern about national security. The UNP did not make an effort to be seen to be doing enough to ensure national security after the Easter Sunday terror attacks while the SLPP made it one of the main planks of its election platform.
The UNP, in a manner of speaking, put all its electoral eggs in the Gamperaliya basket. It thought its accelerated rural development programme, coupled with soft loans without collateral for entrepreneurs and other such measures would help it regain lost ground on the political front. Its focus was also on constitutional reforms, devolution of power, etc., that were not of immediate concern to most people, as evident from the presidential election results.
Addressing a UNP meeting in Baddegama, on Saturday (04 Dec), Premadasa declared that his No. 1 priority would be national security and that he would do his utmost to safeguard it. He sounded just like Gotabaya! He also said he would protect the Sinhala Buddhists while looking after other ethnic communities. He sounded like Mahinda Rajapaksa! He is obviously trying to make the UNP attractive to the majority community, which overwhelmingly backed Gotabaya in the presidential race and is expected to support the SLPP at the upcoming parliamentary election.
Sajith’s battle plan
Premadasa has apparently read the political situation accurately. He received the overwhelming support of the Tamil and Muslim communities at the presidential election, especially in the North and the East. The situation will be different at a general election because those minority votes will go to the TNA and the SLMC. The UNP will get the backing of the Tamils and the Muslims only in the areas where the TNA and the SLMC won’t contest. If the SLMC and the UNP coalesce to contest the parliamentary polls, then the Muslims will vote for that alliance, and the Tamils in areas outside the North and the East will vote for the UNP as they have done traditionally. Therefore, Premadasa’s vow to defend the Sinhala Buddhists won’t lead to a decrease in the votes of the Tamils and the Muslims for the UNP.
Premadasa’s battle plan is clear. While offering to champion the Sinhala-Buddhist cause and ensure national security, he will confront the government on other issues such as its failure to bring down the cost of living and other unfulfilled election promises. The longer the caretaker government lasts, the heavier the anti-incumbency factor will weigh on it. This is what happened to the UNP-led interim government, in 2015. The UNF scored a stunning victory against the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, many thought, would win, and dislodged the UPFA government, which had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but it failed to secure an absolute majority in the House at the August 2015 general election.
The TNA has already offered to help the UNP form a government after the next general election. It is planning to do what it did in Oct. 2018, when the then President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda attempted an abortive power grab. It sided with the UNP, enabling the latter to muster a working majority and continue to be in power when the UPFA had pulled out of the UNF coalition. It currently has 16 seats and will be able to retain them at the next general election. So, the UNP will have to obtain only 97 seats in the 225-member Parliament to be able to form a government. However, that is arithmetic and politically, the TNA’s support for the UNP is likely to prove counterproductive in that it may provide a rallying point for the voters who made Gotabaya’s victory possible at the presidential election.
Cabraal out for Ranil’s scalp
Former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, on Friday, launched his latest book, ‘The Great Bond Scam Cover-up’, which is a critique of the report issued by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the bond scams in 2017.
Making a presentation based on his book, at the Ramada, Cabraal said that, as the Senior Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, he would go all out to ensure that legal action is instituted against the masterminds of the bond scams. Whether the government would go to such an extent to ruin the UNP’s chances of winning the next presidential election, one cannot say, but the possibility of it resorting to such action in case of its popularity ratings dropping cannot be ruled out.
Cabraal’s book puts forth some interesting arguments,and pose several pertinent questions. A large number of copies of it were sold at the launch itself, on Friday. There will be a good market for it as the people have evinced a keen interests in the bond scams and investigations into them. Among those named in the book is former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, Cabraal, says must take full responsibility for the bond scams.
Cabraal used an interesting analogy to drive home his point that the Bond Commission had spared the bond scammers after duping the public into believing that it would go flat out to bring the culprits to justice. He said he had had a Pomeranian, which used to chase squirrels, which it spared, after cornering them. He said the Bond Commission had acted likewise in handling the bond scammers.
The caretaker government has demonstrated that it won’t baulk at anything to consolidate its powers. Three UNP MPs have already been arrested, the latest being Ranjan Ramanayake, whose official residence was searched by the police after obtaining a search warrant, on Saturday January 4. Champika Ranawaka and Rajitha Senaratne have been bailed out. Speculation is rife that some more UNP MPs may be arrested.
The UNP is up in arms against the arrests. It must be regretting having given up power in Parliament following its defeat at the presidential election. The Rajapaksa government also resigned, in 2015, but the UPFA had no way of topping the interim government as some of its MPs joined that administration at the instance of President Sirisena, who owed his election to the UNP. But the present caretaker government is at the mercy of the UNP and the TNA. The UNP leadership may come under pressure from the party MPs to take on the government in view of the arrests and other hostile actions against them.
The government may argue that the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the acting IGP were appointed under the previous government and the members of the National Police Commission have not been changed and, therefore, the arrests being made on court orders or the AG’s instructions are not politically motivated.
But, unless the government has secured the backing of some UNP MPs on the sly to muster a working majority, it will be vulnerable, given the consternation of the UNP MPs. MP Ranawaka even refused to greet President Rajapaksa in Parliament on Friday. There must be many others like him and what the UNP’s reaction will be remains to be seen.