Colombo Telegraph

Cloak & Dagger Democracy In Sri Lanka

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale

Democracy is a system of government in which people choose their rulers by voting for them in elections. A democracy is a country in which the people choose their government by voting for it – Collins Dictionary

In historical European martial arts, the term cloak and dagger can be taken literally, referring to wielding a dagger in one hand and a cloak in the other. The purpose of the cloak was to obscure the presence or movement of the dagger, to provide minor protection from slashes, to restrict the movement of the opponent’s weapon, and to provide a distraction. Fighting this way was not necessarily seen as a first choice of weapons, but may have become a necessity in situations of self-defence if one were not carrying a sword, with the cloak being a common garment of the times that could be pressed into use as a defensive aid. The imagery of these two items became associated with the archetypal spy or assassin: the cloak, worn to hide one’s identity or remain hidden from view, and the dagger, a concealable and silent weapon.

Sri Lankan political theatre has taken the form of a cloak and dagger martial art drama in the last few years judging from the many episodes that have been witnessed. 

One could say the drama began after the now infamous hopper meal enjoyed by the then General Secretary of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena with the then President of the SLFP and the country Mahinda Rajapaksa and the announcement the next day that the former was pitching himself against the latter at the 2015 January Presidential election. In this case we may say that a bouquet of flowers rather than a cloak was used to shield the dagger that was to come out the next day!  

Elections were held, won and lost. It is no secret that large sums of money were contributed to the elections by Western governments that were keen to see the political demise of the former President. 

The next act in the drama was the formation of a National government after the 2015 Parliamentary election. The UPFA led by the SLFP fought the UNF led by the UNP, with cloaks and daggers, and then threw the daggers away after the election and entered into a political marriage although the voters had not been asked for their opinion about that marriage. President Sirisena was at the centre of that controversial act. 

The marriage obviously seemed to have been a rocky union from the outset as subsequent events have shown, and it looks like it had been a constant cloak and dagger show. The cloak was thrown away on the 26th of October 2018, and the dagger dug into the leader of the UNP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Once again, Maithripala Sirisena was at the centre of this controversial political act.

The drama continues and President Sirisena has dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections on the 6th of January 2019. On the face of it, leaving aside controversies surrounding the constitutionality of the President’s actions through this drama, from a democratic point of view, provided there is acceptance that democracy is about people’s will and how they express that, the decision to let the people decide on the current impasse and which party should form a government and which leader should be the Prime Minister, seems logical and correct decision. 

This move has however placed many in a quandary. Questions being asked ae, is seeking the peoples view on a political impasse undemocratic? Is it constitutional? What is of greater importance in a democracy? The people’s will or the constitution? No doubt there will be much written, discussed and debated on this. The UNP has intimated they are challenging this decision of the President. Question is, are they challenging democracy or the constitutionality of the expression of democracy? When the President dismissed the Prime Minister, the UNP and some others contended that it was undemocratic, although the unconstitutionality of the action was kept mute, reportedly as it was understood to be constitutional. The UNP or for that matter no one else, sought an opinion from the only body that is able to give the legal interpretation of the constitutionality or otherwise of the President’s action, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court.  

So, are we practicing democracy and are we a democracy? If we claim we are, however unpalatable it may be to some, and whatever our views are of the personalities involved, the arbitrators of the current impasse should be the people of the country 

As many of the news items and articles appearing on Colombo Telegraph, and opinions expressed by readers of Colombo Telegraph seem to be personality centric, it is perhaps opportune to look at the main actors that have featured in this drama since that fateful hopper night in December 2014, or was it November?

Maithripala Sirisena, a man from a very humble background who rose, controversially, to become the President of the country. If ever there was a bouquet and dagger show, he stole the thunder stabbing his President in the manner he did. All for the good of the country he said. He won the election, by some 400,000 votes, but he demonstrated he had the people’s will behind him. 

His second act in entering into a deal with his party’s arch political enemy, the UNP, did not have the peoples will behind him. All for the good of the country he said. He then rides a rocky road with his partner, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and for reasons such as being the manager of the weakening economy (GDP down to 3.7% from 7% in January 2015, stock market at its lowest for some 5 years, foreign debt increase of 80% since 2015 according to the Central Bank, basic food price increases, rupee depreciation), selling of national assets to foreigners, entering into free trade agreements with Singapore and India that are yet to be tabled in Parliament, not taking the political lead to bring the former Central Bank Governor to book for his role in the Bond scam said to be the biggest swindle in Sri Lanka’s recent history. The President also alleged that Prime Minister Wickremasinghe had not taken adequate and urgent measures to investigate the plot to kill him and the former Defence Secretary Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa.   

Ranil Wickremasinghe, epitomises the saying that everything comes to those who wait.  Leader of the UNP since the killing of Gamini Dissanayake by the LTTE on the 24th October 1994 and leader of the Opposition since 1994 except when he was selected as the Prime Minister of the country on four occasions. He has been instrumental in running the UNP for some 24 years, and the country altogether for 7 years as Prime Minister. People will judge whether he is the leader we should continue to have again on the 6th of January next year, assuming he will be leading the UNP at that election. Mr Wickremesinghe comes with his own baggage and perhaps some skeletons in his cupboard. His alleged role in the infamous Batalanda massacre in the 1980s, and his possible complicity as a senior cabinet minister in the then JR Jayewardene government in the 1983 pogrom against Tamils. 

If all these are unfounded allegations, the criticism of his economic management since January 2015 appears valid if one were to go by the country’s key economic indicators. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the third actor, but perhaps the key actor who seems to be the one who riles and rallies the other two and the rest of the country. Many allegations against him, none yet proven, haunt him although he has mastered the art of making political virtues out of such allegations. The local government elections held in February this year demonstrated that he is the most popular political leader in the country and the political front he led, The SLPP won around 46% of the vote during that election. The SLFP led by President Sirisena managed around 4% of the vote. Although he has been out of office since January 2015, the wealth he is supposed to have amassed through ill-gotten gains is yet to be found. The white vans or any evidence about anyone who was subjected to alleged torture or blackmail during his time in office are yet to be found. To the best of the writer’s knowledge, as yet, no cases have been filed against him for any misdemeanours he allegedly committed, although it is mentioned that investigations are ongoing.  He is a great believer that there no permanent friends or enemies in politics, and his re union with President Sirisena proves that.

The SLFP and the SLPP will have to work out how they will contest the next general election on the 6th of January 2019. It basically means how the President and the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will work out a strategy for the election.

The UNP will have to decide whether to continue with Mr Wickremesinghe or with another, perhaps a younger leader who is closer to the grassroots and who could take the party and the country to the next decade and beyond. The UNP has given the impression they have been in a time warp and many loyalists may desire a change to the leadership.

Whichever party and whichever individual wins, the desire of the people will be the continuance of democracy, and an economic resurgence that will strengthen democracy.

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