By Rajan Philips –
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith may have been elaborating the obvious when he said, in the course of his sermon at the re-consecration of St. Anthony’s Church at Kochichikade, that the people are confused and that “they are doubtful whether the country will come out of the prevailing uncertain situation … (and) whether our political leadership is capable of taking this country out of the mess it is in.” As a description of the country’s current state of mind, the Cardinal’s words are unexceptionable. Even Mangala Samaraweera will not be able to take exception to these words or use them as cause to complain to the Pope in Vatican about his Cardinal in Sri Lanka. Taking a cue from the Cardinal, and viewing the recent situation in its historical context, it is more than fair to say that the present situation is uniquely unprecedented.
It is unprecedented not only because the people have no faith in the current political leadership but also because the entire political leadership is totally clueless about doing anything to take the country “out of the mess it is in.” And the cluelessness is not limited to the current President, the Prime Minister and their respective hangers on in what now passes for government, but it pervades the Joint Opposition, so called, and its fellow travelers – some of whom border on the political in spite of being ecclesiastical. This disturbing combination of the people’s lack of faith in the political leadership, on the one hand, and the collective cluelessness that characterizes the entire political leadership, on the other, has never been experienced in Sri Lankan before.
There are several layers to this toxic combination of the collapse of public confidence in political leaders and their collective cluelessness. Easter bombings and their aftermaths have brought out all the political skeletons hidden in official cupboards. The skeletons spare no one and span everyone from the previous government to the present one, including sections of the police who are alleged to have protected Muslim extremists against the complaints of Muslim moderates and non-political Muslim citizens.
The skeleton list starts with the President, and based on the public allegations so far, he deserves to be put through at least an impeachment hearing. But no one in parliament is thinking about impeachment because no one there is concerned at all about the damage that Maithripala Sirisena is doing to the country’s political and constitutional system. In totally different circumstances in the US, Donald Trump has turned the threat of impeachment against him into a defensive weapon to protect him. Sirisena faces no threat of impeachment, but as his first and only term as President draws to its inevitable end, he is turning what he promised would be the last term for the executive presidency in Sri Lanka into nothing other than a spectacle of executive nincompoopery.
The 19th Amendment (apparently) clipped the wings of presidential powers, but it certainly has not reduced the incumbent’s capacity for presidential silliness. On the other hand, while the 19th Amendment (supposedly) increased the powers of the Prime Minister, its intended first beneficiary, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has shown no evidence of using those powers to any worthwhile end. Between the two men, the government has no record of achievement to talk about. The presidential and the prime ministerial sides of the same government, through their respective presidential commissions/trials and parliamentary committees, are exposing each other’s corruption and incompetence. If transparency is the unintended benefit of a divided government, its comical side was in full display during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit last Sunday.
It is getting worse. Sirisena refuses to convene cabinet meetings, Wickremesinghe works through a private cabal, and both men co-ordinate their hugely unnecessary travel plans to be out of the country at the same time. Neither man deserves to be in politics and power for anymore time, and for the first time in Sri Lanka’s political history, the head of state and the two heads of government are being called upon to resign from office by those who have no interest in running for office. The call for resignations of the PM and the President is also the call for a caretaker government to step in and figure out a way out of the current mess before plunging the country into national elections. This too is quite unprecedented.
Equally unprecedented is the lack of enthusiasm for the Joint Opposition as a curative successor to a failing and falling government. People haven’t forgotten that those now in the Joint Opposition were the same folks who were in government until they were interrupted by the bad dream of yahapalanaya. Naturally there is no enthusiasm in seeing the same folks return to power as if nothing happened in January 2015. The dream of yahapalanaya may have been betrayed, but the material sources for that dream have not disappeared. Sri Lanka used to be different.
When things were different
For all its shortcomings, Sri Lanka has been quite a vigorous practitioner, and even a beneficiary, of the system of electoral democracy. In simple terms, electoral democracy enables the political system to periodically reproduce itself, and in turn to rejuvenate the governance system. The parliamentary system provided the framework for electoral democracy. Starting literally from scratch, the country hobbled together a party system that provided the contenders who vied for power and alternated between government and opposition at every election over thirty (1947-1977) years.
What was remarkable about these elections, in contrast to the current situation, was that each election generated great enthusiasm and hopes for change, even though the hopes, more often than not, ended in frustration. The governing party vigorously defended its record while the opposition passionately promised much more than it could possibly deliver. The whole electorate was awash in spirited debate and discussion at every level. Politics was stirring stuff and it gave meaning to people’s lives.
While it is not an exaggeration to say that the slide began after 1977, today’s grim reality is also that about one half of the country’s present population were not born in 1977 and only the oldest 15% of the present population would have voted in the last of the old-style parliamentary elections in 1977. The present parliament itself accurately mirrors this predicament. If I am not mistaken, only Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Mahinda Rajapaksa had been elected as MPs before 1977. All the other MPs were elected in 1977 or after, and could rightly be described as the political children of the executive presidency. And it shows.
Even after 1977, there have been moments of genuine political enthusiasm – in the parliamentary election of 1994 that marked the end of the UNP regime after 17 long years, and to a lesser extent in the presidential election of 2015 that saved the country from falling under permanent rule by the Rajapaksa family. Public enthusiasm came to the fore again in October last year in response to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa constitutional coup. Yet, in all the years after 1977, there was no general loss of faith in the political leadership as it is being sensed now, in 2019.
The call for a caretaker government, rather than an immediate election, is in itself a measure of the current lack of public confidence in political leadership and the failure of leadership to inspire enthusiasm in the political process. The opportunity for a caretaker government first arose in December last year after the Supreme Court ruled against the purported dissolution of parliament by the President. Ranil Wickremesinghe should have immediately gone for a general election after instituting a neutral caretaker government. He had his best chances to win an election with the political wind fully in his sails. He blew it by opting instead to continue governing through cabinet mucking (not making).
Ironically, even the institution of a caretaker government has to be done by the same political actors in whom people have no faith. Such a task is not impossible in a parliament where MPs are known to cut across party line often for unwelcome purposes. The difference now is to identify a group of MPs who will come together for a positive purpose like forming a caretaker government. The JVP seems to have forgotten that it started the 20th Amendment many moons ago. Reviving it now, perhaps along the lines suggested by Nihal Jayawickrama, could also be the starting point to win support for a caretaker government.