Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Beyond the distasteful power squabbles that presently make up the sum total of Sri Lankan politics or ‘politricks’ as cynics are wont to say, the three men at the core of the crisis undermining the nation’s constitutional text, (viz; Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe) need to realise a basic fact. Their currency of political credibility has been virtually exhausted, to a greater or lesser extent as the case may be.
It is time for all three to step aside and hand over their tasks to others in party ranks who may hopefully act with greater discretion if not common sense in the interests of the country.
Parliamentary infamy will not be forgotten
Since that fateful Friday of October 26th, each Parliamentary sitting expending millions of tax rupees exemplifies constitutional comedy of a particularly grim kind. On three consecutive days, the House resembled more a lunatics asylum with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s newly minted Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members attacking Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and defenceless police officers tasked to guard him. That was infamy which will not be easily forgotten.
As their propaganda machine worked overtime, SLPP frontmen literally snarled and howled on the ‘bias’ of the Speaker. This crude charade was to gloss over the lack of a parliamentary majority by President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the SLPP. This week, parliamentarians of both parties stalked out of the chamber declaring that they will not participate in Parliament as the United National Front, (UNF) demonstrated its majority through electronic voting.
To add to recent unwelcome attention in international media, will this also be another first for Sri Lanka? The first ‘Government’ that does not participate in its own Parliament? But there is no respite to the nonsense as calls to sanity from key religious bodies, chambers of commerce, professional associations and angry citizens have no effect on the legislative minority of the SLFP and the SLPP which functions as the ‘Cabinet.’ Meanwhile after bringing these events about, the President adroitly if not unconvincingly wrapped the cloak of a neutral umpire around him, issuing a statement on Tuesday thanking leaders of political parties for ‘holding a peaceful parliamentary session’ earlier in the week.
Constitutional questions and other flippant thoughts
But we need to refresh ourselves of the basic constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers to ask key questions. How can the President say that a voice vote in Parliament is ‘legal’ but that on such an important matter as a no-confidence motion against the ‘Government’, that a vote by name must be called? And then look on as the members of his party and the SLPP disrupt that vote by name? What is the role of the executive vs a vis Parliament? In what constitutional capacity is the President empowered to determine the proceedings of the House? Granted, these may be redundant questions given that the very Constitution was thrown at the head of the Speaker by SLPP MPs recently.
This Friday, as the President announced that he will write a book about his breaking of ties with the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, the repeated analogy was with a failed marriage. Inherent in this utterance as well as in the thousand and one spin-off rejoinders and risque political jokes caricaturing that analogy by politicians on both sides of the divide is the core inability to draw lines between the personal and the political. Let it be said clearly that ruling a country is not, on any account, similar to making or breaking marital ties. Co-habiting with political partners does not depend on approval of personal lifestyles of one or the other or prissy moralizing on the same. It is a reflection of the unhappy depths to which we have plunged that these self-evident truths must be emphasized.
This is quite apart from the fact that when the President thought it fit to point a finger at a political rival’s ‘butterfly’ tendencies on the stage along with his erstwhile enemy-now turned second spouse or reunited (better?) half depending on the way one looks at at – the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, those who sniggled in glee must remember that two fingers of that same hand may be turned back at quite a few loyalists of both the SLFP and the SLPP in respect of that very mocking accusation.
Making the same mistakes again
Put simply, the fact that political debates of great significance on the Constitution and the balance of power between the executive and the legislature should descend to farcical levels of comparing marriages, butterflies and the like is beyond regrettable. Indeed, it is ironic that such hypocritical moral absolutes are rooted in the old Judeo-Christian value system, best exemplified in the repressive ethics of the Victorian age that have long been discarded in Western societies. This indicates the extent to which political – and by extension, societal – thinking has been subverted in our colonial mindsets even as we mindlessly boast about shaking off the colonial yoke. Moreover, despite denials by SLFP spokesmen at the time, the President’s reference degraded sexual and gender minorities in a manner that directly violated our own constitutional guarantees.
All that being said, the UNP’s contribution in bringing about this crisis is in no small measure. Its outlandish style of governance was precisely the reason why the administration lost the confidence of the people in 2001-2004. But yet the very same mistakes were made in exactly that manner for the second time around in 2015, to which was added a new element of corruption as symbolised by the Central Bank bond scam and other scandals.
As has been editorially noted in this newspaper, whatever the flaws may be of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (regarding which there seems to be little doubt), the fact of the matter is that this remains our law.
That is undoubted. Even so, the UNP must recognise that the trial by anti-democratic fire that Sri Lanka’s Constitution is presently undergoing is also due to its muddled thinking on the law with particular political objectives in mind. And while the outrageous actions of the SLFP/SLPP have come as a boon to the UNP, this will be cold comfort if the party is not re-energized and stripped of its exclusivist trappings.
Celebrating the resistance
Even so, let us celebrate the resistance that has unexpectedly emerged out of the chaos. Despite sporadic incidents in the early days resulting in two deaths, there has not been spontaneous outbursts of violence across the island. The democratic line has been held by the public, as frustrated with their impossible politicians as they may be.
Appointments of particularly bad individuals to state positions have been reversed due to critical pressure and the transfer of a good officer at the Criminal Investigation Department investigating heinous crimes of the previous regime has been halted. Small victories nontheless, these are important as the nation awaits the Supreme Court to unravel this unfortunate constitutional tangle brought about by power-hungry politicians and their acolytes.