“…questioning honestly and reflecting upon the truth of what has been lived through, what has been done.”
– Nadine Gordimer (Living in Hope and History: Notes from our Century)
The 19th Amendment was the greatest achievement of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. President Maithripala Sirisena played an active role in making it happen. He helped craft it and spearheaded it through a fractious parliament in a 12-hour marathon session. Without his committed and tireless efforts, the Amendment would not have garnered the SLFP’s support and would have failed to pass for that reason. It was the finest hour of the man, and of the new government he headed.
Had Mr. Sirisena reread the 19th Amendment, he would have recalled that the five-year presidential term applies to him as well. Had he casted his mind back to those stirring times, he would have remembered that was the way he wanted it, in 2015. He even said that his personal preference was for a four-year presidential term.
Those were the heydays of the new government, when hope was bright and good governance appeared semi-achievable. President Sirisena’s legacy seemed assured as a rare political leader who worked hard to reduce his own powers. When, three years on, the same man sought a court ruling extending his presidential term by one year, he caused grievous and needless harm to his image and his legacy.
But that incident also served a useful purpose. It revealed how far Sri Lanka has travelled since Mahinda Rajapaksa railroaded both the judiciary and the parliament into abolishing presidential term-limits and enhancing presidential powers via the 18th Amendment. In 2010 the judiciary was nothing but an appendage of an all powerful executive. Even the judges of the country’s highest court feared the wrath of the Rajapaksas. The fear was well-grounded, as the then Chief Justice discovered the first and the only time she dared to give a judgement displeasing to the Rajapaksas. Shirani Bandaranayake was hounded out of her position via an illegal and uncouth impeachment in 2013 for the crime of not giving a blanket approval to Basil Rajapaksa’s Divineguma Bill.
2018 is not 2010 or 2013; 2018 is a more democratic time when even the topmost men of the land have to abide by the law, mostly. Today the judiciary is not scared to rule against the manifest wish of a sitting president and can do so without fearing a tsunami of presidential wrath. Whatever President Sirisena’s private feelings, in public he has no option but to accept that ruling with as much good grace as possible. This is an indubitable improvement, an improvement worth preserving.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is corrupt, incompetent and clueless, but the return of Rajapaksa Rule would mean the return of a time when impunity was the norm and even a rugby referee couldn’t give a decision displeasing to rugby-playing Rajapaksa sons without risking bodily harm. Maithripala Sirisena is a weak and a brittle president, but Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would be an infinitely worse one, a dictatorial racist, a deadly cross between Benito Mussolini and Donald Trump. Ranil Wickremesinghe has turned himself into non/anti-Mr. Clean with his indefensible defence of the two Arjunas, but with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister we will have more (not less) corruption and absolutely no space even to complain about it.
The Twin Millstones: Bond Scam and Cost of Living
The UNP, rather than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Peoples Party (SLPP), is likely to come first in the upcoming local government election, but the chances of the SLPP becoming a strong second is considerable. If the SLPP does become a strong second (either in terms of the number of councils won or the total number of votes gained), if it succeeds in pushing Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP into third place, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is bound to careen into a crisis from which it may never recover. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe will be losers in such a situation. And they would have none to blame but themselves for bringing such a disaster on their parties, the country and the 6.8 million Lankans who placed their collective trust in them in January and August 2015.
If that disaster does happen, it would have been brought about primarily by the needless mishandling of two issues – rice prices and the bond scam. Reducing living costs and minimising corruption were cornerstones of the good governance undertaking. Both these promises have been broken again and again. For many a voter who opted for the swan and the elephant in 2015 in the hope of a better life and an honest government, February 10 would be payback time.
If Maithripala Sirisena acted fast and determinedly to prevent the skyrocketing of rice prices, the cost-of-living problem would not have become the political millstone it is today. Had he prioritised the welfare of ordinary Lankans over the super-profits of the rice-miller mafia (which allegedly includes his brother) his SLFP would have been vying with the UNP for the first place instead of facing the ignominy of becoming a poor third. The fault lies mainly with Mr. Sirisena. For almost three years he ignored the economic plight of a majority of Lankan people. And by failing to tackle the issue of prices in general and rice prices in particular Mr. Sirisena disappointed and alienated SLFP’s core-voters – the rural/suburban poor and middle classes.
Last week, Mr. Sirisena sprang into outraged action when Minister Mangala Samaraweera issued a gazette cancelling a silly colonial-era law banning women from buying or selling alcohol. Had he displayed one half of that speed and single-mindedness in dealing with the issue of rice and coconut prices or the drought (which has victimised two million Lankans) or the still ongoing fertiliser shortage, he would not be in the electoral plight he is today.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe handled the bond scam differently, he could have been confident of not just winning the LG polls, but also doing so massively. His laughable attempts to deny the existence of any wrongdoing, his unwillingness to remove Ravi Karunanayake from deputy leadership even after the Monarch Penthouse scandal came to light and his unconditional defence of Arjuna Mahendran had disgusted and alienated key components of the UNP’s core support base – the urban middle and upper-middle classes and the business community.
Mr. Wickremesinghe can mitigate these negatives if he backs President Sirisena’s call to institute immediate legal action against those named in the Bond Commission Report. He can also demand that Arjuna Mahendran return to Sri Lanka to face charges against him once those charges are filed. He can even apologise for a lapse of judgement on his part. All of this would go a considerable way in improving his public image and the UNP’s chances of winning handsomely on February 10. He can, but he is not likely to. The supposed appointment of a three-member committee indicates that Mr. Wickremesinghe is still counting on evasion and obfuscation to get himself and the UNP out of the bond scam morass.
So Maithripala Sirisena will not move against the rice-miller mafia and Ranil Wickremesinghe will not turn his guns against the alleged bond-scammers. Their twin failures, in conjunction, can open the Rajapaksa flood gates on February 10. If so, the LG election of 2018 will mark the beginning of the end of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
Bad and Worse
When the UN General Assembly introduced a resolution condemning Trump Administration’s decision to shift American embassy to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump threatened dire consequences to any country which votes against America. The absolute majority of the world’s countries did, including Sri Lanka.
Mr. Trump would have liked to follow up on his threat, but the US being a democracy, he has very little real capacity to act like an avenging cowboy. Some SLPP heavyweights have claimed that Sri Lanka lost America’s GSP plus facility because of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s principled decision to vote with the Palestinian people, but this is a lie. American GSP plus facility lapses automatically after a designated period and has to be renewedi. So far this renewal has been done retroactively so the 120 countries covered by it (including Sri Lanka) do not lose out. For example, GSP plus lapsed in 2013 and was renewed by the Obama Administration in 2015, retroactively.
The Americans did engage in strong arm tactics once, to compel third world countries to toe the line, but today such blackmailing is more a Chinese or a Russian thing. Sri Lanka experienced this first hand last December over its failed attempts to ban asbestos.
Asbestos, including white asbestos (chrysotile) permitted in Sri Lanka, has been designated as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisationii. The WHO is actively campaigning for a global ban on asbestos and President Sirisena’s decision to forbid the importation of asbestos from 2018 was on par with this. Sri Lanka is a major asbestos importer and Russia is the country from which we import our asbestos. Russia’s sudden ban on not just Lankan tea, but also other Lankan exports, was clearly aimed at preventing this asbestos import-ban from coming into effect. The strong-arming worked. Faced with the prospect of losing a major tea market, Colombo backed down in pretty short order. Had the Americans done something even half as execrable, there would have been howls of protests, and rightly so. But there was not even a whimper about Russian blackmailing.
The entire episode illustrates the damning incompetence of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. The government’s decision to ban the importation and use of asbestos was correct. Where it went wrong was in not anticipating Russian reaction (probably because it forgot that this is not Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet Union but Vladimir Putin’s Russian Republic). The government also failed to educate and prepare the people and the market about the ban. When Russian strong-arming happened, the government couldn’t rely even on the support of its own public because most Lankans are unaware of asbestos’ propensity to cause lung and other types of cancer – another needless failure, to be added to a list of similar failures.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has been a severe disappointment in multiple areas and in ways big and small. Today the term good governance seems more like a bad joke. The government has lost not just its moral compass but also its basic commonsense. The positives it has achieved are few in comparison to the multitude of forgotten and broken promises. But those few positives mark the difference between a country that is the private fiefdom of a single family and a country which is a flawed democracy.
To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau, politics is too dangerous an undertaking to be left to politicians, especially the kind Sri Lanka seems to be producing by the bushel. So laws and institutions are of paramount importance, because they can act as barriers to abuses, inanities and excesses politicians tend to gravitate towards. This is the lesson of the President’s failed attempt to add one more year to his presidential term and the Prime Minister’s failing attempts to protect the two Arjuns. Had the democratisation of 2015 not happened, Mr. Sirisena would have got his additional year and there would not have been a Bond Commission. And the Election Commission would not be acting with such praiseworthy independence to stymie lawbreakers of all hues and to ensure a free and fair election.
So three years on that is what Sri Lanka is: flawed and democratic. In between elections it is necessary to focus on the flawed part of the equation, because without criticism and opposition, there can be no change for the better. But in election times the focus has to be on democracy part of the equation. Even to gripe about how flawed things are without fear of white-vans, we need to keep this bumbling democracy alive.