“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
– HP Hartley (The Go-Between)
The Iliad begins when the Trojan War is in its ninth murderous and exhausting year. In between trying to breach the famed walls of Troy, the Greeks raid nearby settlements for booty, material and human. Chryseis was taken captive in such a raid. Her father, a priest of the god Apollo, arrives in the Greek camp, “carrying gifts beyond count,” in exchange for his daughter. The bargain is a good one, and the Greeks are willing. Only one man opposes it, Agamemnon, who ‘owns’ the enslaved Chryseis. Agamemnon is the commander-in-chief of the Greek host, their topmost leader. Against his obdurate will, his blind desires, his unenlightened self-interest, the wishes of the entire Greek army amount to nothing. They can have their say, but the way will always be his.
Agamemnon refuses to ransom Chryseis in the most insulting terms, believing himself to be above human retribution. But the affronted father has a higher authority to appeal to – the gods, specifically Apollo. Apollo sends a plague, striking down both animals and men. As ‘corpse fires’ burn, Calchas, the blind seer, reveals the reason for the plague. Achilles, backed by the entire host, demands that Agamemnon release Chryseis. This time they prevail against their commander-in-chief, because they have a god on their side.
Looking back from a democratic age, Agamemnon’s destructive and self-destructive conduct can be read as a morality tale on the dangers of absolutism. He places his personal needs above the interests of the Greek cause, and endangers the common enterprise by his tyrannical conduct. Yet no mortal can stop him, because this is a time constitutions are unknown, and the ruler’s will is the law. To obtain even a modicum of earthly justice, the victims need gods.
In modern democracies, especially those ascribing to the principle of separation of powers, when elected leaders (presidents or prime ministers) ride roughshod over constitutions to amass more power, the judiciary is expected to intervene. Theirs is the role once reserved for gods – that of the ultimate arbiter, the final guarantor of earthly justice.
That was the role Lankan judiciary was cast in last month, when President Maithripala Sirisena plunged the country into an unnecessary crisis in furtherance of his political ambitions. Obsessed by the personal and the petty, Mr. Sirisena tried to set himself up as an absolutist ruler, claiming for himself powers the Lankan executive presidency never had, even in the time of that great power-concentrator, JR Jayewardene. If Mr. Sirisena had his undisputed way, Lankan democracy would have been vitiated to the point of non-existence.
Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the judiciary took a firm and united stance against the idea of an absolutist authority. As the Supreme Court judgement pointed out, “…this court has time and time again stressed that our law does not permit vesting unfettered discretion upon any public authority whether it be the president or any officer of the state.”i The drama the president created ended by achieving the opposite of what was intended. It re-emphasised the limitations of presidential powers, and by doing so strengthened democracy.
When Maithripala Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister via a backroom deal, and dissolved the parliament to enable a stage-managed election, he was betraying the hopes of those who made him president four years ago. The coalition which fielded Mr. Sirisena and worked for his victory was a disparate one, with different and even conflicting interests and agendas. But it had two unifying (and interrelated) objectives – defeating Rajapaksa rule and restoring democracy. Abolishing the executive presidency, or at least reducing its powers, was generally accepted as an essential component of democratic restoration.
This was a point of view Mr. Sirisena fully subscribed to once-upon-a-time, as was evident in the decisive role he played in bringing about the 19th Amendment. But the presidency turned his head, and birthed in him a desire to win a second term. The man who pledged that he will be a one-term president became a leader afflicted by delusions of grandeur, “greediest for gain of all men.”ii In doing so, he turned himself into a living embodiment of the dictatorial dangers inherent in even a trammelled executive presidency.
Past is another country
HP Hartley was correct; the past is often another country, where things are done differently. Looking back at 2015 from the perch of 2019, reposing our democratic hopes in Maithripala Sirisena seems an act of preposterous stupidity.
Hindsight can distort just as it can enlighten. The presidential election of 2015 presented a stark choice – had Mahinda Rajapaksa won, Sri Lanka’s march away from democracy towards familial rule would have accelerated and intensified. There was no room for doubt on that score, not after such seminal events as the passing of the 18th Amendment (approved by a supine judiciary in twenty-four hours), and the impeachment of a chief justice (which entailed the blatant violation of judicial orders by Supreme Court and Appeals Court).
Maithripala Sirisena couldn’t have won without UNP votes, but could the UNP have defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa without him? Despite his long years in politics, Maithripala Sirisena was something of an unknown quantity. That unknown functioned as a vacuum, which the voters, collectively and individually, filled with the qualities of their choice. The introduction of a dark-horse candidate was precisely what energised the anti-Rajapaksa opposition, and persuaded many non-voters to vote. Neither Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Sajith Premadasa had what was needed to win in 2015. (Even if they or some other UNP candidate did win, there is no reason to think that the winner would have conducted himself more democratically than Maithripala Sirisena, once the presidency was his.).
The mistake was not in selecting and electing Mr. Sirisena, but in abandoning one of the key components of the 2015 mandate, the abolition of executive presidency. For that abandonment, the UNP too bears responsibility. Driven by dreams of gaining the presidency in 2020, the UNP allowed that key promise to be forgotten. Had the UNP been true to the mandate of 2015, Maithripala Sirisena would not have been in a position to plunge the country into an unnecessary crisis in 2018.
The victory of 2015 led to significant democratic gains, starting with the 19th Amendment and the restoration of judicial independence. These victories are real, and they matter. They played a pivotal role in defeating Mr. Sirisena’s power-grab in 2018. Without the 19th Amendment, the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the dissolution of the parliament would have been constitutional. Even the 19th Amendment could not have saved democracy, had the judiciary remained supine.
The judiciary not only stopped Mr. Sirisena’s anti-constitutional rampage; it also stated in the clearest possible terms that Lankan executive presidency is not a colossus dwarfing the other branches of the state, but that the three branches are coeval (separate but equal in the best sense of the phrase). As the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement stated, “…the principle enunciated by this Court is that all three organs of Government have an equal status and must be able to continue to be able to maintain effective checks and balance on each other.”
The judgement also reiterated an important point forgotten in this era of resurgent political populism. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Democracy is also about constitutions and laws. “A General Election will be valid only if it is lawfully held. Thus a General Election held consequent to a dissolution of parliament which has been done contrary to the provisions of the Constitution will not be a true exercise of the franchise of the people.”
When the Supreme Court gave its judgement on December 13, Maithripala Sirisena accepted it. The importance of that acceptance cannot be overemphasised. According to some Sinhala media reports (notably Irida Divaina), his new ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, advised him to do the opposite, ignore unfavourable verdicts and plough ahead towards an unlawful election. Had Mr. Sirisena followed that advice, the repercussions would have been devastating. He didn’t. That alone, the fact that he is still a president willing to abide by extremely unfavourable judicial rulings, renders the choices of 2015 correct, even after cataclysms of the last three months.
Mr. Sirisena’s hope of winning a second presidential term is a forlorn one, but he still seems to be incapable of facing that reality. That he will do what he can to undermine the government is clear. His attempts can be thwarted only if the government is willing to take ownership of the 2015 agenda, and implement as many of the forgotten or violated promises as possible, in the short time available.
The need for a new Lankan coalition
In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena won thanks to the unified effort of a truly Lankan coalition. By 2018, that coalition was in tatters.
The government, by its actions and inactions, antagonised most of its former allies. Many of the failures were needless. A political solution to the ethnic problem might be hard to achieve, but why the failure to build houses for the war-displaced in the North and the East? The anti-Muslim riots of Kandy might have taken the government by surprise, but why the failure to prosecute the suspects, and punish the guilty? It might not be possible to totally stop the slide of the rupee, but why be so blasé about its impact on the living costs of ordinary Lankans? Why turn a blind eye to one’s own corruption? Why fail to convict a single political killer?
Not even the drubbing it received at the LG polls could make the government face reality. It was sleepwalking into disaster, when the Sirisena-Rajapaksa cabal struck.
The prospect of the return of the Rajapaksas acted as an eye-opener. Ranil Wickremesinghe displayed unaccustomed resolution, and the UNP, by and large, rallied round. Faced with that mortal threat to democracy, the 2015 coalition recreated itself. The valiant role played by the TNA and the JVP in defence of democracy was one of the most positive outcomes of the Sirisena-induced crisis. Speeches by parliamentarians MA Sumanthiran and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for instance, became essential reading, because they explained and interpreted the ongoing crisis from a national rather than a partisan point of view.
The spontaneous rallying around by ordinary people in defence of democracy and the rule of law was another key positive development of the last several months. The mistakes, inabilities and hypocrisies of the UNP-led administration had done much to alienate the very people who voted against the Rajapaksas twice in 2015. The anti-Rajapaksa, pro-democracy camp was so demoralised, scattered, inactive, its very existence was in doubt. That changed when the anti-constitutional coup happened, and the stakes facing the country became clear. Ordinary people did what they could to stand against the growing anti-democratic tide, be it taking part in demonstrations or signing a petition. That societal engagement is something new in Sri Lanka, and hopefully will continue to grow, post-crisis.
Ancient Greek historian Polybius identified three forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He claimed that over time, each form degenerates into its opposite, and is replaced by the next one in unending rotation. He is right in one sense. The struggle for democracy is not forever won, or lost. Democracy advances when people see themselves not as subjects (however glorified) but as citizens.
As the events of the last three months proved, the yearning for democracy in Sri Lanka is real. The question is can the non/anti-Rajapaksa parties understand this mood, and respond to it?