Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
If just a quarter of the time reserved by the United National Front (UNF) for juggling with the 19th Amendment by mediocrities of the day professing to be constitutional experts, cosseting Colombo’s privileged inner circles and crooning over applause by the ‘international community’ had been spent in reaching out to Sri Lanka’s rural and provincial constituenciesto rebuild a shattered deficit of trust, it may not have had to face the constitutional (and perhaps) existential crisis that erupted this Friday.
Precipitating Sri Lanka into chaos
And this country, along with its utterly aghast populace may have been spared the humiliation if not ridicule that the spectacle of two Prime Ministers, both insisting that they are legitimately invoking that title, invited across the world. Doubtless that extra-constitutional gamble on Friday with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as a new Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared to all and sundry that he was still the Prime Minister, was both audacious and completely conscienceless.
And let us be clear. Taking responsibility for precipitating the country into chaos must assuredly rest with the President. With twin strokes of the oath-taking and proroguing Parliament thereafter,with the obvious inference that this was to prevent the UNF demonstrating its numbers on the floor of the House, he has effectively destroyed even the good that he did in 2015, in voluntarily reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency.
The legal and constitutional questions that have arisen will be brought before the Supreme Court by either party to this unseemly imbroglio. It is the Court that will finally decide the issue. That said however, the insistence by a onetime professor of law turned ardent Rajapaksa supporter that the withdrawal of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from the unity Government resulted in the Cabinet ‘ceasing to exist’ with, ipso facto, the Prime Minister also ‘ceasing to exist’ as it were, seems to turn the provisions of the 19th Amendment metaphorically on its head.
A legally incoherent argument
This argument is of course, legally incoherent in its most basic sense. Article 46 on which heavy reliance is put for this less than ingenious interpretation, is limited in its scope to restricting the numbers of Cabinet Ministers that are possible in normal contexts, as opposed to Cabinets formed by a National Government. The question then arises as to what possible rationale can be put forward for invoking that Article to justify the cessation of a Cabinet of Ministers upon one constituent of a National Government leaving it.
Indeed, Article 48 stipulates that a Cabinet of Ministers may be dissolved only in three narrow instances; namely if the Prime Minister ceases to hold office by death, resignation or otherwise, if Parliament rejects the Statement of Government Policy or the Budget or if Parliament passes a vote of no-confidence in the Government. Meanwhile the good professor’s attempt to use the Interpretation Act to buttress his reasoning is astoundingly faulty in that, as any first-year law student is aware, it is the constitutional provision that prevails against a statute.
Regardless, the issue here is not constitutional punditry, in respect of which the enraged UNF will no doubt have enough resources to draw from, skills notwithstanding. Rather, it relates to a greater issue pertaining to paths wrongly taken, cynically disregarding the promises made in 2015. These are the unfortunate harvests that are now being reaped, even as we cannot but recall the fact that as much as there are now, two Prime Ministers, there was in January 2015, two Chief Justices of the country, with one being sent home by executive fiat through a letter of the President while a UNP backed Bar clapped and cheered. There is an uncanny albeit unkind parallel here with the Prime Minister being summarily dispensed with by the President through a letter once again.
A hard but necessary truth
So it is of little use to rail and rant against the President’s betrayal, as some UNP Ministers did on Friday. These are bedtime stories good only for the naïve. Politics is an art of the betrayal. No political leader among those alive today can, akin to Pontius Pilate’s infamy, wash their hands and pretend wide-eyed innocence of this singular sin.
But it must also be said in that same breath that blame cannot be shifted away from the UNF and its most responsible element, the United National Party (UNP) for bringing about what would have seemed quite impossible just a few years ago. That is the hard but necessary truth that we face today. If a wiser and more strategic course had been taken, all the trickery and treachery encountered would not have worked, simply on a political assessment.In the final reckoning, it is political realities that plays a great part in the taking of risks.
And Friday’s calamities were born out of the manifestly great blindness of the UNF Government which it did nothing to correct even when the warning signals were flashing dangerously red. Nothing made that plainer than the heedlessness with which the results of the local government elections earlier this year were treated, despite the people indicating that it had enough of muddled, inchoate and corruption riddled conduct by Government Ministers. The revamping of the party was only in theory while the very same mistakes were made with gay abandon.
Inglorious dimming of what 2015 promised
In fact, the heedlessness was so remarkable that it boggled the proverbial imagination. For example, quite unmindful of the fact that people were finding it harder to scrape daily necessities together, the famous fuel formula that had a ripple effect in raising prices of food items was unveiled by responsible UNF Ministers a few weeks agowith silly grins stretched across their faces.
It seemed close to a farcical play on the scornful remarks, ‘if they don’t have bread let them eat cake’, popularly (but perchance not correctly) attributed to the French Queen Marie Antoinetteguillotined by furious peasants of the French Revolution. Even with the full intent of being as charitable as possible, this depicts a willful combination of arrogance and sheer cluelessness as to the popular mood that is quite startling.
In any event, irrespective of whichever way the political pendulum turns, the unfolding constitutional crisis is likely to be fought out on Colombo’s streets.On Friday night, pro-Rajapaksa ruffians forced their way into state media stations and took over their functioning. Miserable times of uncertainty and chaoswill have a devastating impact on an already highly unstable economy.
It is an inglorious dimming of the bright rays of democratic change in 2015. That is our tragedy.