By Rajan Philips –
The title is a mouthful. But that is the state of Sri Lankan politics now. Nonetheless, some saw a spark, and others a specter, when in December JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told his Party convention and the country at large: “We are ready to take up the leadership of the country”. There is a swagger about the JVP now, justifiably after Mr. Dissanayake’s relentless probing in parliament, his exposé of the Fortress Energy Agreement, and the growing media interest in the JVP and its electoral front, the NPP. But their detractors are questioning if what the JVP/NPP is showing is enough to vault it from 3% and 3 seats to even 30% and 75 seats, let alone 50% and 125 seats.
That is a fair question to ask. But it should not be difficult to see, except for those who are stuck with anti-JVP beams in their eyes, that the present JVP is not the same JVP of the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike in 1971, there is no Left in Sri Lanka for the current JVP to go far or ultra-Left. And unlike during its second coming in the 1980s, there is no Right in Sri Lanka for the JVP to go far-right and chauvinistic. Now, there is only the Rajapaksa regime that it is neither Left nor Right, but downright corrupt, incompetent to the core, and civilizational when convenient. The present regime is the singular marker on the political landscape that defines the relative positions of all its detractors and contenders, including the JVP.
As for Sajith Premadasa, he has higher numbers – 42% of the vote in 2019 and 54 seats in parliament; and so, goes the argument, he and his Party have greater entitlement than the JVP to reach 50% and 125 seats. Sajith’s proponents assert his paternal name recognition and take his readiness for granted, even though the younger Premadasa has not declared his readiness the way his father did, or Anura Kumara is doing now. He has, however, while celebrating “his 55th birthday in the North”, on January 12, has “urge(d) the present government to resign,” as Sri Lanka “needs new rulers who can take the nation out of the economic crisis.” Among the “many things to be done to get of the current national tragedy”, Mr. Premadasa has added, “the most important thing is to handover the nation to an able leader.” Who would it be?
Election, which election, or Referendum?
Where does all this leave the incumbent President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa? His term in office so far can only be described as “terrible two” (years). Even though he is not shying away from his record, the President blames everyone else other than himself for the state of his presidency and the plight of the country. He told newspaper editors when he met them before Christmas that he has three more years to turn the ship, or the situation, around. Since then, he has got wiser and wants two more years added to his term to compensate for the alleged loss of two years due to Covid-19. A simple question is how have Bangladesh and Vietnam, and other comparable countries who too have had Covid-19, been able to manage their economies well? In the case of Bangladesh, it is cash-rich enough to offer Sri Lanka currency swaps to tide over its forex shortfalls.
The President is now mulling over, as headlined by The Island on Monday (January 10), a proposition put to him by an anonymous young Sri Lankan at the Dalada Maligawa, “why a referendum couldn’t be conducted to ascertain whether the electorate approved him extending his first term by two years as Covid-19 deprived him of 2020 and 2021.” The President, according to his Media Division, complimented the young citizen that “he should be appointed an advisor to the President”! But even before the President could have the referendum idea astrologically vetted by Gnanakka in Anuradhapura, his predecessor from Polonnaruwa has poured cold water on the referendum idea.
Indeed, the very next day after The Island’s main story, former President Maithripala Sirisena told the Daily Mirror that “it would be unrealistic for anyone to imagine the extension of the term of the present government by approval of people by referendum.” In his view, “the next parliamentary election would come first,” and given the country’s long history of government by alliance, the next government would be a different alliance with his SLFP playing a major role in it. All signs are the SLFP is on the way out of the Rajapaksa alliance, and it is no secret that alliance-brokers are trying hard for a Sajith-Sirisena political front. They have been together before in spirit, now they can be in person.
Now it is also different. Everything is different for that matter, and to some the Easter Sunday retribution clock is ticking on Maithripala Sirisena more than on anybody else. Mr. Sirisena would want a different government that includes him sooner than later. This present government gives him no protection. And he has zero prospect of being President again. A PM position in a new Premadasa presidency will be a good outcome, and he could do better than being a ‘name board’ PM, as the old Premadasa dig goes. But every plan has a snag. The preferred election for the Premadasa camp is not the parliamentary election but the presidential election. The brokers will have their work cut out. But they cannot quite determine which election would come first.
The JVP’s preferred election is also the parliamentary election. Sunil Watagala, the JVP Central Committee Member and Legal Advisor, told the Sunday Island (January 2) that the government has proved to be a failure and it should hold elections after dissolving parliament. That might lead to a new parliament and a different majority, but the President will remain until his term is over. That is the vicious cycle of the JRJ Constitution. For his part and for the SLPP, President Rajapaksa would have no election rather than any election. Hence his curiosity about the referendum option. If only a referendum can postpone all elections with the people exercising their sovereignty in one fell swoop. But isn’t the President on course to have a different referendum for his ne constitution? So, which election or referendum will it be? Parliamentary or presidential? A constitutional referendum or a ‘terminal’ one? Or two referenda in one and no election? Back to the 1982 future?
Crazier and Crazier
Talking about the President’s new constitution, no one knows if it is still on track or has gone off the rail. The President’s constitutional project is just like his fertilizer fiasco in thought (or lack of it) and in action. But, fortunately, there is no physical devastation in the constitutional project. To put this in perspective, the 2019 presidential election was the first election in 25 years, since the 1994 presidential election, when the presidential system or the constitution were not on the ballot. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first elected political leader without any prior familiarity with anything about the constitution, set himself up to deliver a new constitution wholesale, not just routine retail amendments. But like everything else about this government, the President’s constitutional project has turned into a spectacle. And this one in a court room.
Two prominent lawyer members of the Experts Committee that the President gazetted up to draft his new constitution, namely, Romesh de Silva and Manohara de Silva, are pitted on the opposite sides in the Yugadanavi fundamental rights case before the Supreme Court. Manohara de Silva is appearing for one of the petitioners challenging the government’s LNG contract with the American company, New Fortress Energy, while Romesh de Silva is representing one of the government respondents, the Ceylon Electricity Board. In a case that is shaking the very stability of the SLPP caucus and the Rajapaksa cabinet, not to mention the hallowed sovereignty of the country.
There is nothing wrong in two lawyers taking opposite sides in a court case. What is wrong is in the President’s appointment of lawyers from the unofficial bar to officially draft the country’s constitution. In times past, when propriety was premium, lawyers from the unofficial bar who worked on constitutional drafting or government business would take leave of absence from their private practice and accept temporary appointments in government. Not in the present regime. And stuck as he is on every front, the President is hardly in a position to present whatever draft that his committee may have prepared, let alone pursue its passage in parliament and a referendum.
While there is a great deal of esoteric chatter about constitutional changes, the people are agitated about their hardships and the very strong likelihood of their getting even harder. There is Covid-19 and the concern that the current calm might turn into another infectious storm, the way it happened in the last cycle. There is imminent food shortage and there are fears of mass starvation. Power cuts are looming and there is no crude oil to refine. There is no foreign exchange for anything and the Pied Piper of the Central Bank is fooling the entire cabinet that he can cash-swap Sri Lanka out of indebtedness without even saying IMF. The mystery of misfiring gas cylinders has become more mysterious after the same-day firing and rehiring of the Chairman of Litro Gas. Things are no longer getting curiouser and curiouser. They are only getting crazier and crazier.
Resistance and protests have already surfaced across the country and in every cross-section of society. There is no indication that the government is capable of providing any redress to the people on any matter that is hurting them. All indications are that the government is clueless about anything and everything that come before it. The expectations are that people’s frustrations will spill over into street protests and agitations. The fears are also that the government might use mass agitations as excuse for a military crackdown. On the other hand, calling on the military might be a step too far and precipitate government collapse. There could be early elections, or there might be attempts to have term extending referenda. This is the backdrop in which Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa are staking their claims to take charge of the country. They have a long way to go, even though the present government is running out of road. (To be continued).