By Rajan Philips –
If the Sri Lankan version of political triangulation involving Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena pre-occupied the country for the last three months of 2018, its continuation and multiple manifestations will likely consume almost all of 2019. The tail end of 2018 was a period of heightened manoeuvres with mixed results. The key battle lines have already started to emerge and 2019 will see them intensify even as other battle lines involving the three contenders will open up throughout the year.
Electoral battle lines will obviously involve the most efforts and attract the most attention. But there will be a concerted watch on the shaping of legal battle lines on the crime and corruption front. In a first ever low for Sri Lankan foreign-service, the country’s former Ambassador to the US for six years from 2009 to 2015, Jaliya Wickremasuria, who is also a first cousin of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been indicted in an American court over multiple charges including fraud and money laundering. The court case in America is bound to have repercussions in legal and political circles in Colombo.
Even though his constitutional misadventure blew up in his face, President Sirisena has succeeded in forging a new political relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa. There are three significant aspects to this new relationship. The first is the nature of the power relationship between the two men – for the first time in their long political association Sirisena is in a position of power vis-a-vis Mahinda Rajapaksa. Having boxed himself into a presidential corner where he has no political future or personal insurance standing on his own, Sirisena has opted to earn the goodwill of the Rajapaksas while engineering the political destruction of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was hoping to piggyback on the electoral popularity of Mahinda Rajapaksa and abandon what he thought was the sinking ship of Ranil Wickremesinghe. But the opposites happened. Rajapaksa has had his popularity significantly dented, and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political ship did not sink but is sailing again.
Mahinda: Man for all positions
The second aspect of the new MS-MR relationship is that Mahinda Rajapaksa is not going to break away from Sirisena even though the latter may prove to be more of an electoral liability than an asset in the new (2019) year of elections. Sirisena is the only medium that will keep Mahinda Rajapaksa as close to presidential powers as it can be possible in the current circumstances. This is all the more important considering the multiple legal jeopardies that the Rajapaksas are likely to face in 2019 not only in Sri Lanka, but also by extension from the Wickremasuriya litigation in the US. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena have protected the Rajapaksas as much as they could for the last four years, but come 2019 Ranil’s hands are going to be tied as he will have to demonstrate to his electoral base that he is serious about litigating against corruption. In other words, Sirisena is the only option for the Rajapaksas for having a powerful insider in the establishment, as powerful as one can get, to help fend off legal troubles.
There is another reason for the Rajapaksas to keep the MS-MR tie going, and that is to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLFP membership in tact in order to be the Leader of the Opposition in parliament. Funnily enough, Mahinda Rajapaksa is having a dual-membership (in the SLFP and the SLPP) problem like his brothers having a dual citizenship (Sri Lankan and American) problem for eligibility to political office. While the constitution does not preclude an MP belonging to two political parties, the question is why should it always be a Rajapaksa and not any other UPFA/SLFP MP making a claim to be the Leader of the Opposition.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is Sri Lanka’s man for all political positions – MP, Minister, Prime Minister, President, an unwarranted return-Prime Minister, and now Leader of the Opposition. His status as a former President, a sitting MP and now Leader of the Opposition raises many issues for the compensation and perks that are provided by the state to its political class – especially former presidents. Will he have two houses to live in Colombo and two offices to work from – one as former President and the other as Leader of the Opposition?
A related question that I would like to raise is why should former Presidents (with all due respect to Chandrika Kumaratunga) be given a house in Colombo, or anywhere, as a retirement benefit? Which other retired politician, public servant, or even private company executive is granted this luxury? Former presidents are entitled to a pension commensurate with their presidential salary, a generous allowance in keeping with their level of public activities, and their security detail which should be severely scaled down now unless the country wants to permanently pretend that the LTTE will one day return (in the case of President Sirisena, what developed as Rajapaksa paranoia has now become a RAW paranoia). Anything more and everything else should be paid out of their own resources. Be that as it may.
There have been a few complimentary commentaries that the TNA leader R. Sampathan has been quite a Spartan in the use of his official entitlements as Leader of the Opposition. To his credit, even Maithripala Sirisena started off as a Spartan President but has since discredited himself in the use and abuse of his powers and entitlements – directly by himself and indirectly by his children and family. The question is which example Mahinda Rajapaksa will follow, or, what example he will set for future office holders like his children in the use and abuse of perks and entitlements. He has already broken with the example of Sampanthan in the Constitutional Council and sided with Sirisena in pushing for candidates of dubious merit for Supreme Court appointments.
President Sirisena has started an unnecessary tug-of-war with the Constitutional Council over nominations to the Supreme Court, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is using his position in the Council as Leader of the Opposition to support the President’s favoured candidates against the majority of Council members. It is obvious, that Sirisena and Rajapaksa are trying to ‘pack the Court’ with their preferred candidates, who according to knowledgeable observers do not deserve to be on the court based on their merits and qualifications. This is their (MS-MR) political response to the new assertiveness and independence of the judiciary from the apex to the original courts. For now, the judiciary is safe given the current composition of the Constitutional Council, but it will be a different story if the Rajapaksas were to return to power after a general election.
Ranil’s challenges and opportunities
That brings me to the third aspect of the new MS-MR relationship, which is also a new challenge to Ranil Wickremesinghe. It will be extremely difficult, almost impossible, for RW to retry his old trick of politically two-timing both Sirisena and Rajapaksa. It is not only a pity but also a tragedy that for three years Ranil Wickremesinghe did not try to use his dual relationship with Sirisena and Rajapaksa to produce positive results for the country – in terms of constitutional reforms and the strengthening of its institutions. Instead RW has been playing the cynical two-timing game for electoral advantage, but his tricks backfired spectacularly in the Local Government elections, in February, and he almost lost his official pants eight months later in October.
There is a school of thought among politically concerned citizens that reform measures could and should have been pursued even if it meant striking a deal with Mahinda Rajapaksa – such as offering clemency from legal jeopardy in return for supporting positive governance reforms. Admittedly, such a deal, or compact, would be indefensible morally and in theory. But the criminally tragic reality is that for four years RW and MS have been offering protection to the Rajapksas, in one form or another, without getting anything in return for the country. Between them, they have created an opportunity for the Rajapaksas to come back to power as if January 2015 never happened.
What is more, Sirisena is now on a determined mission to rake Ranil Wickremesinghe over the (Central Bank) bond scam and use that as a pretext to protect Rajapaksa from his legal jeopardies. President Sirisena may have been thinking that he could get away with exposing only Ranil Wickremesinghe’s misdoings while protecting the Rajapaksas from theirs, but it is not going to be easy for him to selectively target only Ranil Wickremesinghe while the American court case against Jaliya Wickremesuria starts exposing names and connections within the Rajapaksa familial and political circles. And Sirisena will have his own baggage to account for if and when crime and corruption become a public issue during the many (provincial, presidential and parliamentary) election campaigns in 2019 and 2020.
Many who support Ranil Wickremesinghe in the present context do so not because of his political record, attributes or qualifications, but in spite of them. And they do so because January 2015 meant something for the country and what the people achieved by their vote in that election should not be allowed to wither away before all possibilities for protecting and building on that achievement are thoroughly exhausted. That sentiment became the defining tweet of the political protest movement that Maithripala Sirisena insanely provoked: we are here for democracy, not for Ranil! That was also the meaning of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling: the affirmation of constitutional democracy as opposed to unlimited government by a single individual elected for a handful of years. All of this is at the peril of being lost if the gains of January 2015 were to be electorally reversed.
Colvin R de Silva guided the transition of Sri Lanka from a monarchy to a republic – as he colourfully described it, “not merely despite the Queen, but in defiance of the Queen!” And the Supreme Court has now slammed two Attorney Generals – thirty five years apart, for pathetically suggesting that in the Republic of Sri Lanka its President can pretend to be a monarch! Even the Queen of England doesn’t pretend to be in possession of powers over parliament. But there are monarchists in Sri Lanka who would like to have a presidential king who would allow them to do anything they want and get away with it.
And it so happens, that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the only person representatively standing between Sri Lanka continuing as a parliamentary democracy or turning into a presidential monarchy. That Mr. Wickremesinghe is the only person standing between democracy and monarchy does not mean that he will necessarily win the looming electoral contests. The conventional fear about RW is that given his history of pulling defeats from the jaws of victory, that history may repeat itself in the numerous – provincial, presidential and parliamentary – elections that will take place throughout 2019 and 2020. The conventional fear has become a little too real for too many people after seeing the way the Prime Minister is handling his new lease in government and his new cabinet of ministers.