by Rajan Philips
“What an anomalous position! The Prime Minister and other Ministers are collectively responsible to Parliament except one member of that Cabinet, the chief whose policy the whole Cabinet is carrying out. The Prime Minister and the other Ministers can be pilloried and thrown out for no fault of theirs, but the fountain-head of the faults and deficiencies in question will escape scot-free immunized by the Constitution itself.”
– N.M. Perera, 1979. Critical Analysis of the New (1978) Constitution
Today is April Fools’ Day. For Christians, it is also Easter Sunday. Skeptical wags will relish the coincidence, which occurs only three or four times a century. Here at home, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may have been wishing the Joint Opposition’s No Confidence Motion (NCM) to be nothing more than an April Fools’ prank, or, failing that, in the week of the risen lord he (PM) too could rise from the near-death ordeal that he has been going through over two months and as many moons. Alas, there is no April Fools for PM. The NCM is no prank or pickle. The man is in a real predicament. Nor can Easter save him. The Christian message of Easter is that – one who sacrifices one’s life for one’s faith will live on even when dead. In politics and in public life, if you sacrifice your honesty for ill-gotten gains, you are spiritually dead even if temporally alive.
The Prime Minister already stands injured and insulted, by his co-executive’s Gazette Extraordinary. With the stroke of the presidential pen, Maithripala Sirisena has gutted the PM’s portfolio, removing the Central Bank and all matters economic and financial from the PM and relocating them in the Finance Ministry. That is where they have always been since the government of Prime Minister DS Senanayke and his Finance Minister JR Jayewardene. That is where they must always be. The younger forces in the UNP must reflect hard and realize that how positively differently the yahapalanaya government could have unfolded if Ranil Wickremesinghe did not commit the cardinal blunder of usurping the Central Bank and handing it over to his baby-boy governor and his wheeler-dealing UNP cabal.
1956 was the last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day. In Sri Lankan politics, that was a particularly bad year for the UNP and one that may seem to fit chronological extrapolation by a frequent political commentator to reach 2018 from 1953, 1956, 1964 and 1970. Never mind, predictions based on chronological extrapolation are no less flawed than astrological prognoses in electoral politics. The Prime Minister’s predicament is all post-2015 and nothing pre-1977. Leaping over decades to imagine linkages, and creating narratives spiced with familial connections, is self-serving political commentary. However, it is possible to see a continuous curve in the way Ranil Wickremesinghe has been conducting politics throughout his political career starting from 1977. However, blaming his parents for his political failings is as pathetic as praising one’s parents to sell one’s political wares.
Yet, it cannot be said that the Prime Minister is not without an escape door, morally and politically. Morally, the opportunity for redemption is the fundamental condition of transformative justice, just as it is the essence of Christian teaching based on the New Testament. ‘Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’, on the other hand, is Old Testament thunder. Politically, Ranil Wickremesinghe will still have life in the UNP either as a beleaguered PM (if he wins the vote), or as an elder statesman of consequence (if he loses). It is the President who will have nowhere to run if the PM wins, and will become the sole scapegoat for blame against the government, if he loses. Either way, the President would have got his well- deserved comeuppance.
The comeuppance could even turn poetic if the JVP’s notice to introduce a new (20th) constitutional amendment to rid of the executive presidency, which may now seem to be an objectively April Fools’ prank, receives wheels of traction from what is now a seemingly farfetched prognosis of a Mahinda-Ranil collaboration to end the executive presidency and permanently punish Sirisena for betraying them both. In The Island yesterday, Lucian Rajakarunanayake outlined the latter possibility shedding rays of refractive light on what might be the current talk of the town’s chattering classes. I will add my own speculative musings at the end of the article.
The politics and the consequences of No Confidence
The No Confidence Motion now before Parliament formally targets Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, but implicates everyone in parliament except, perhaps, the JVP. Those who governed before 2015, have no clean hands to complain of corruption in the court of equity, or to file a No Confidence Motion in the nation’s parliament. The Joint Opposition revealed its soiled hands when it baulked on the JVP’s call to expand the NCM to retroactively express no confidence in those who presided over government corruption before 2015. Post-2015, the UNP membership went along with the corruption of its own leadership and the cover up of its predecessors. The SLFP ministers are the scum of the earth, twice born two timers adept at making a potent mix of sleaze and incompetence. Together, the UNP, the SLFP and the JO make up about 90% of the 225-strong parliament. Which one of them has the moral arm to cast the first stone at any one of them?
Of the rest, the 13 members of the TNA are in their unique corner, almost literally like the ‘boy on the burning deck’ and insistently refusing to see no evil, touch no evil and hear no evil around them. The hard questions facing them are how long can they go on defending the Prime Minister? And what chance does a constitutional rapprochement, canvassed by Ranil Wickremesinghe, have of achieving lasting credibility in the south. Regardless of credibility, the Prime Minister’s style of political management has not only derailed but has effectively botched the constitutional project. The TNA’s Tamil critics will ask what has Ranil Wickremesinghe has accomplished despite his handsome promises to Tamils and other minorities, to merit the TNA’s support in the April 4 – vote of confidence.
The drama in the south has a different script. To their credit, the TNA leader R. Sampanthan and his colleagues have been persistently trying to secure even the minimum blessing of Mahinda Rajapaksa for constitutional reform. But, unfortunately, there has been no reciprocal overture from the former President. Despite his panache for personal cordiality towards Tamil political and social leaders, the former President has been niggardly in demonstrating willingness to accommodate their politics. Among Ranil’s opponents, like parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero, the TNA is coming under pressure to vote against the Prime Minster in keeping with the TNA’s status as the ‘official’ Opposition. The more hardened of the southern critics are warning that the TNA’s support for the Prime Minister could turn out to be the political kiss of death for the UNP. On other hand, Ranil’s supporters will see a vote against the PM as betrayal by the TNA, no different from Sirisena’s betrayal.
It is widely known that it was Mr. Sampanthan who ultimately convinced and persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to accept the common candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena in 2014 November. After three years, the TNA leader is facing a mess of dilemmas in having to take sides in the separation struggle of the government’s two co-executives. In the matter of choosing, the TNA is damned if it leans one way and damned if it leans the other way. Its least damning option may be to abstain on the vote while hoping that Ranil will survive.
The 20th Amendment: Need not go down as an April Fools’ prank
Ironically, but for totally different reasons, Mahinda Rajapaksa may also prefer to abstain on the vote, while hoping for Ranil’s survival. He has already made it clear that he is not in favour of the NCM approach. His ostensible reason is that the exercise will only provide UNP the opportunity to strengthen itself. That of course remains to be seen. He has since added a rider that the NCM could succeed if it gets the support of President Srisena. That is a nice setup for the President to take responsibility if the NCM succeeds, and blame if it fails.
Apparently, even Dinesh Gunawardena has not been too happy with the stampede politics of his colleagues behind the NCM initiative. His fear is more rational but less likely, and it is the fear that Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP may call Sirisena’s bluff, jettison Sirisena’s government, and move to the opposition. That will project Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP into opposition mode, and give them the platform to jointly and severally attack Sirisena, the SLFP and the SLPP for the next years. But this is unlikely to materialize because attacking as a form of defending is not in Ranil’s political DNA.
He is the master tactician of political survival operating below the radar, rather than taking his fight to the opponents openly and publicly.
The Prime Minister will be more at home conniving with J0 to get rid of the executive presidency – to teach Sirisena the lesson of his life, and for Mahinda to make most of his debarment from running for President again by becoming an executive Prime Minister without a President. Lucien Rajakarunanyake’s elaboration of the current table talk in Colombo may seem farfetched now, but is not totally beyond the realm of possibility. All the ingredients are there on both sides (Ranil and Mahinda) to thicken this plot and let it brew to its final fruition. And the plot will work whether or not Ranil Wickremasinghe survives the vote this week, or succumbs to it.
He also has a third alternative – the one feared by Dinesh Gunawardena, for Ranil to resign, abandon Sirisena’s government and start blasting the President from the opposition. For utmost effectiveness, Ranil Wickremesinghe must do the severance, if he were to do it at all, before April 4 and not after. Otherwise, a defeat next week will leave the Prime Minister irreparably wounded and a victory will leave him at best a permanently limping Prime Minister and Party leader.
The speculative Ranil-Mahinda connivance will not be without its drawbacks. Its first and the principal casualty will be the legal initiatives against government corruption, pre and post 2015. The next in line will be the much labored constitutional reform proposals. The fact of the matter is that even in the current circumstances the two initiatives are seriously stalled, even if not totally abandoned. The huge benefit is the real potential for ending the executive presidency, which has fallen off the political radar and the JVP’s 20th Amendment proposal will not create much political traction on its own. A Ranil-Mahinda connivance, on the other hand, will make all the difference, that would be objectively positive, even if the subjective intentions may well to be just cynical opportunism. And there will be better chances for more changes without the executive presidency than under it as of now.
I will close with a brief clarification on the quote from Dr. NM Perera that I have inserted at the start of this article. The anomaly that Dr. Perera railed against in 1979, and the President’s arbitrary powers to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve parliament at whim have somewhat been mitigated by the 19th Amendment. The latter has removed the President’s powers to remove a Prime Minister and to dissolve parliament except after four and half years after its first convening. Yet, there still is confusion over no confidence motion and the insulation of the President from its consequences. It is not a coincidence that the last No Confidence Motion was in 1976, moved by the LSSP (then out of the United Front) against Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike over alleged violations of the Land Reform implementation process. Until then, No Confidence Motions were the opposition’s stock in trade in the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics, even though they were never successful.
In 1976, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who drafted the No Confidence Motion, took the matter to the people with a public lecture in which he placed the land reform transgression in the historical context of an ethical decay in the country’s political and social life, and one that seemed to have assumed a high degree of impunity soon after independence. The decay seems to have gotten worse over the last ten years than any time before. And the No Confidence Motion next week is a kneejerk reaction and not a considered response to the ethical lapses and corrupt practices of successive governments.
No one knows what the No Confidence Motion can or will do in Sri Lanka’s hybridized presidential-parliamentary system. Even those who are championing it now are not clear what its consequences will be. It is more than likely that Maithripala Sirisena will be the biggest loser in this adventure – that may leave him, minus his Prime Minister, minus his Party, and in less than two years minus his presidency. The boon of it all may well be the ending of the executive presidency, if it could happen at all through the unlikely agency of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. If it were to happen, politics will become a different business. The overhaul of the system would also facilitate the shedding of the old and the inspiring of new arrivals to politics. Everything sounds too good to be true. For now, we are stuck with farce of a No Confidence Motions and the possibility of a meaningless stalemate.