President Sirisena once again stole his own political thunder last week with a headlines grabbing outburst while appearing uninvited at a commemoration event to mark the 76th birth anniversary of the late Sobitha Thera. The outburst and the news reports of it are remarkable for not what the President said at the meeting, but for what he failed to say. He gravely omitted to mention the SINGLE ISSUE for which Sobitha Thera launched a movement and even sacrificed his life, namely, the abolition of the executive presidency. Instead, the President used the occasion for pouring vitriolic sarcasm on the Prime Minister and grandstanding that the late Thera “never asked the common candidate to loot the Central Bank” as one daily reported.
The outburst was also full of outright lies – about the 100-day Programme, dissolving parliament etc., which have since been publicly repudiated for what they are by Lal Wijeynayake, well known Lawyer and LSSPer, and the UNP’s Kabir Hashim. Mr. Sirisena took credit for swearing in, in his first act as President in January 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister even though the UNP had only 47 MPs in parliament. What the President did not say is the fact that the SLFP/UPFA who had a near two-thirds majority did not challenge Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lack of majority in parliament to be Prime Minister, because the SLFP MPs accepted the meaning of the defeat of President Rajapaksa to be a defeat of the whole SLFP/UPFA government. The tragic-comic yahapalanaya story is that after three years in office, it was President Sirisena who unsuccessfully tried to get the SLFPers (split between the government and opposition) to vote against his own Prime Minister in a motion of no confidence in parliament.
The President flung another boomeranging bombshell at the commemoration event. He contended that anyone who is interested in knowing the truth about the investigation into what is now officially acknowledged as the murder of (Rugger Player) Wasim Thajudeen, should only ask the late Thajudeen’s family members or the Lawyers looking after their interests. Why so? If the President has knowledge of interference in police work and if he knows that the police are being prevented from exposing the suspects and filing charges against them, shouldn’t he put an end to these interferences and allow the police to complete their work. Is there someone else more powerful than the President who can overrule the President and stop the police and prosecutors from completing their investigation and prosecuting the accused in court? Hasn’t the family of Thajudeen been traumatized enough through the wild-goose-chase of an investigation, and shouldn’t they be at the least spared of public references from political platforms?
As for the SINGLE ISSUE that the President singularly omitted mentioning at the commemoration, where does the President stand after three years in office and less than two years remaining? So far the President has ignored the JVP’s 20th Amendment initiative to transform the executive presidential form of government into the old parliamentary-cabinet form of government. However, his two proxies, the SLFP in government and SLFP in the opposition, have indicated their dislike for the JVP’s initiative. Neither of the two SLFPs was with him (Sirisena) when he was riding the common candidate horse to victory in the 2015 presidential race. But the JVP was with him all the way punching well above its electoral weight to expose and discredit the Rajapaksa decadence. The civil society organizations, which were mentored by Sobitha Thera and which played a significant role in the election of Miathripala Sirisena as President, have all come out in support of the JVP’s 20th Amendment initiative.
Hence the question: on whose side is the President? Is he with those who got him elected to transform the executive presidency, or with the SLFPers who opposed his election and want to preserve the presidency? The truth of the matter is that if the President decides to support the 20th Amendment, which he must if he is sincere about honouring the legacy of Sobitha Thera, the SLFPers on either side of the parliamentary aisle will follow suit and support it themselves.
Where do the Prime Minister and the Rajapaksas stand?
We have not heard anything from the Prime Minister either on the 20th Amendment. But that has not stopped his detractors and the critics of the JVP’s initiative from alleging that Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the JVP as a proxy to advance his own constitutional agenda. I don’t think there is any truth in this, but by his on-again off-again approach to the constitutional file, like perhaps to every other file, the Prime Minister has been sending too many mixed signals.
The government’s initiative on comprehensive constitutional changes is now dead in the water because of (a) lackadaisical government leadership so far; and (b) it would be virtually impossible to mobilize parliamentary consensus on a major comprehensive reform given the toxic divisions within the government and in the parliament. Even Lal Wijeynayake who spearheaded the public consultation process on constitutional reform, has conceded that it would be impossible to carry forward the government’s constitutional reform project and is now supporting the JVP’s limited proposals.
There is no assurance that the 20th Amendment will secure the required two-thirds majority in parliament. It certainly will not get the necessary votes without the joint support of both the Prime Minister and the President. The JVP is fully aware of this and may have hoped that the two leaders will wholeheartedly support their initiative. The UNP, at least its leader, would appear to be in two minds – whether to remove the elected presidency or to run in the next presidential election. No one can fathom what is on the President’s mind. As I have said earlier, Maithripala Sirisena could position himself to become the first unelected President and Head of State after the 20th Amendment, by using his current office to facilitate the passage of the amendment. If the President were to declare his support for the JVP’s initiative, the Prime Minister will have no option but extend his support as well.
The Joint Opposition and the SLPP would appear to be in multiple minds as well on the JVP’s initiative. First, Bandula Gunawardena let it be known that the JO/SLPP might support the 20th Amendment to transform the presidency if it also provided for the immediate dissolution of parliament and new parliamentary elections thereafter. Then Mr. Gunawardena was directed to take back his first statement. More recently, Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa have indicated that the Joint Opposition was not supportive of the JVP’s 20th Amendment because the next presidential election is the only election that the present government cannot postpone, unlike the provincial and even the parliamentary elections which are or could be mired in the transition between the proportional and mixed systems of election.
This is a curious argument, because on the one hand the JO seems to be letting the government off the hook on the timing of the provincial council elections. On the other hand, there is no question of postponing the parliamentary elections because there is no legislation in place to change the proportional system for parliamentary elections. In fact, that is one of the criticisms of the JVP’s initiative – that its 20th Amendment proposal does not address electoral reform. The real reason for the JO being caught in multiple minds on the 20th Amendment could be that there are too many Rajapaksas vying to be the next presidential candidate for the SLPP and the Joint Opposition.
In the order of seniority, the names of Chamal, Gotabhaya and Basil have all been bandied for good measure. But news reports yesterday quoted SLPP’s figurehead Chairman GL Peiris as saying that the SLPP was still in the process of identifying a candidate. “This whole issue has become a reactionary manoeuvre. There is still over a year before the next Presidential election, giving us ample time to decide on our candidate,” Peiris reportedly said.
That certainly puts paid to the Viyath Maga vision of a smooth path to having Gotabhaya Rajapaksa nominated as candidate and elected as the next President, to usher in the new era of what might be called GR-economics in Sri Lanka – a queer hybrid of the Trump leadership model from America and the socialist market economy from China.
GL Peiris did not leave any doubt as to where the authority for deciding the SLPP candidate for the presidential election rests: “When the time is right, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will inform us of who our Presidential candidate should be. Thus far, we have not considered anyone.” The SLPP is also toying with the possibility of a landslide parliamentary victory, a constitutional amendment to rescind the presidential term limits restored by the 19th Amendment, and Mahinda Rajapaksa contesting and winning a new presidential election to become President for a third time and more. The UNP has no headache of having to select from too many contenders, because Ranil Wickremesinghe has kept the field clear for him and him alone. Also, because he has no political siblings to contend with as do the Rajapaksas.
If you get my drift, what does all of the above mean for the country, other than a never ending circus? The JVP’s 20th Amendment presents a logical and rational way out of this vicious circus. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Miathripala Sirsisena could do much good to the country and to their own legacies by endorsing the 20th Amendment and facilitating its passage. They could, but the chances are they won’t. Not unless the organizations that worked with Sobitha Thera reactivate themselves, and persuade the three leaders, one at a time for domino effect, to come together once and for all to transform the executive presidency which each one of them promised to abolish every time they went to the electorate. This might be dismissed as utopian thinking, but the alternative is to make dystopia inevitable.