By Kassapa 

Last week, the corridors of power were buzzing with yet another constitutional conspiracy theory. That was after a hitherto lesser-known individual by the name of C.D. Lenawa submitted a Fundamental Rights (FR) application to the Supreme Court asking for the presidential election to be halted until a determination was made as to whether the term of office of the President was five years or six years.

It went without saying that incumbent stand-in President Ranil Wickremesinghe was the prime suspect. To be fair, there is no direct evidence linking Lenawa to Wickremesinghe but the latter’s reputation precedes him: in the past months his acolytes have been actively trying to cultivate public opinion in favour of granting Wickremesinghe an extension of his term of office.

First we had Wickremesinghe’s ever loyal and faithful servant Vajira Abeywardena saying that he should be allowed to run uncontested. That wasn’t taken too seriously because, after all, it was Abeywardena who said it and he has this habit of fawning over his Supreme Leader.

Then came the infamous Range Bandara declaration. That was taken very seriously. Here was the General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP), no less, stating that a referendum should be called to extend Wickremesinghe’s time at the top. The reaction to that was a furious rejection.

Against such a background, when Lenawa’s FR application emerged, almost everyone believed, rightly or wrongly, that this was Wickremesinghe’s handiwork. There was feeble attempts to link Lenawa to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) as he had been on the 2020 National List of a party named the ‘National Development Front’ led by Rohan Pallewatte who has since aligned himself with the SJB but even that theory did not gain much currency.

For starters, it is difficult to imagine that an ‘entrepreneur’ will one day wake up suddenly to the fact that there was a discrepancy between two clauses of the Constitution and initiate legal action to resolve this in the highest court in the country, spending his own time and money in the process.

The adverse publicity generated by Lenawa’s application hurt so Wickremesinghe so badly that he was compelled to publicly deny any association with it. He took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement. Lenawa had not consulted the President or his legal representatives before filing this application, the President’s Media Division said.  

Nevertheless, this is an issue that had already been dealt with. When Maithripala Sirisena was President, towards the end of his Presidency he sought an opinion from the Supreme Court regarding the same question: was his tenure five years or six? In his case, he had some justification to do so: when Sirisena was elected to office, the 18th Amendment was in force and he was elected for a period of six years.

What Sirisena was asking was whether the 19th Amendment enacted under his watch which reduced the term of office to five years applied to him as well. The Supreme Court decided in the affirmative and Sirisena had to leave office after five years.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected under the 19th amendment, obviously for a period of five years. Ranil Wickremesinghe, unelected but standing in for the remainder of that five-year term can constitutionally serve “only for the unexpired period” leftover by the President vacating office. It therefore does not take a President’s Counsel to deduce that a period that should be less than five years cannot amount to six years!

Even with a case that was so weak in law, there were murmurs that this was another constitutional conspiracy in the making. Many saw a link between Lenawa’s FR application and Wickremesinghe’s blatant attempt to extend the term of retiring Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam which too failed.

In the end, it was much ado about nothing. Deliberating for only a few hours, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the application without granting leave to proceed. Thus ended yet another saga that involved constitutional conundrums and conspiracy theories.

The bitter truth that underlies this hectic search for legislative loopholes is the fact that both the UNP and its partner in government, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) are well aware of the ground realities in Sri Lankan politics today: neither party can win. If the SLPP has the slightest chance of victory, it will put forward Namal Rajapaksa, not consider Dhammika Perera. If the UNP believed Wickremesinghe can win, Range Bandara wouldn’t be talking of referenda.

The two parties in the contest with a real prospect of winning are the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake or the SJB and Sajith Premadasa. If Wickremesinghe manages to poach a dozen or so MPs from the SJB after the elections are officially announced, that will sound the death knell for the SJB and make the JJB’s task that much easier.

Wickremesinghe, his UNP, the Rajapaksas and their SLPP therefore find themselves in a tight corner. Their apprehension is understandable because the victor at the election could well be the JJB. If there was certainty that the SJB would emerge victorious, their anxiety wouldn’t be as much. Now, it could become not only a battle for political survival but also a battle to stay out of prison for many SLPP stalwarts.

What then are the options left to Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas? Firstly, they will have to forget their differences and work together. Basil Rajapaksa may tell Wickremesinghe publicly, ‘we don’t owe you, we don’t fear you’ but he must know that, if anyone else other than Wickremesinghe ascended the Presidency in July 2022- be it Premadasa, Dissanayake or Sarath Fonseka- the fate of the Rajapaksas could be very different today.

There is one last throw of the dice left. It is a move suggested by Basil Rajapaksa but one which has been ignored by Wickremesinghe so far: dissolving Parliament before the presidential election. This will distinctly disadvantage the JJB and if they fail to secure adequate seats in such an election, that could have a flow on effect on the presidential election as well.

Will Wickremesinghe paly this last card? The next few weeks will tell.       


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