By Malinda Seneviratne –
Constitutions are not always made with good intention. Even when the intention is good the unexpected trumps the word. They are supposed to be documents of the ‘forever’ kind, but if one thing is certain it is the fact that the sum total of human knowledge is but a speck of dust compared to the universe of human ignorance. And so we have amendments, some pushed through to further narrow political and personal objectives and some to correct flaws showed up by unexpected developments.
Those who authored the 19th Amendment were quite rightly seeking to reverse the anti-democratic 18th Amendment. They reintroduced term-limits, which was good. They restored and added to the 17th Amendment, i.e. the establishment of the Constitutional Council and independent commissions.
They erred/subtracted when they wrote in the composition of the Constitutional Council. They were narrow and self-seeking when they used the notion of a ‘National Government’ to get around the election promise of downsizing the cabinet. And they didn’t anticipate the February 10th result, just as J.R. Jayewardene didn’t anticipate Sarath N Silva’s determination to enable crossovers or the sway that someone like Mahinda Rajapaksa could have in obtaining a two-thirds majority regardless of the outcome of a parliamentary election.
So what have we got now? In a word, confusion. We have a parliamentary composition that is at odds with the sentiments of the people. Throw in what was always an iffy union between two parties that are so alike but have been at each other’s throats for more than half a century and a pact that started coming apart even before the local government election, and it’s a bloody mess.
The unity-pact, so-called, expired on the 31st of December 2017. As such there is no formal agreement that gives credence to the notion of a ‘national government’ which, by the way, has been ill-defined in the 19th Amendment. One might argue that the Cabinet has lost legitimacy.
It is against all this that the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) mull their respective political futures. The UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe claims that he has constitutional legitimacy. He has avoided speaking about the cabinet and in particular its size. Given the now openly admitted rift, his task would be to secure support from SLFPers not inclined to go along in a possible but uneasy and even dangerous alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). He can probably count on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) not to side with his political opponents should there be a vote in Parliament.
The leader of the SLFP, President Sirisena, indicating that he’s broken off the engagement with Wickremesinghe, has deployed loyalists to woo UNPers disenchanted with Wickremesinghe. Naturally, Sirisena has the harder task. Around 25 MPs would have to defect, provided of course that only around 7 or 8 would go over to the UNP and that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will back him.
His party ended a distant third behind the UNP and the SLPP. His political fortunes are on the wane, to put it politely. To the extent that the local government election was also a contest about who owns the SLFP (it’s parliamentary group, members and supporters), it is clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the clear winner. The 1.5 million votes that the SLFP/UPFA received (just over 13% of the total votes cast) are more likely to gravitate to the SLPP rather than the UNP.
Sirisena, then, is not in a position to demand. He could, however, keep things in limbo, hoping that it would feed discontent within the UNP, leading to Wickremesinghe being ousted. A long shot, though.
The SLPP is in a very strong position, in contrast. It is reported that the party’s de-facto leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also a ‘Senior Advisor’ of the SLFP, has indicated that the SLPP would support the SLFP if it manages to cobble together a working majority. The SLPP, it is reported, will not seek cabinet portfolios in such an eventuality. In effect the SLPP would hold the SLFP/UPFA as well as President Sirisena hostage, politically. In any case, the SLPP can step back and enjoy the bitter fight between the SLFP and the UNP for control of the government and indeed for political relevance at least in the short term.
Whoever ends up in control will have to reduce the size of the cabinet to 30. Therefore loyalty would have to be purchased through means other than offering a portfolio. Few if any are in this for ideological reasons. Politically, there’s nothing attractive that either party can offer anyone from the other side. Since there is no provision for the dissolution of Parliament apart from the death, resignation and the rejection by Parliament of the government’s policy statement or budget, things may very well trudge along in this muddled manner until March 2019.
While some UNPers have claimed that the election loss was because the party wasn’t allowed to implement its policies, rank incompetence and a blind-eye or complicity in monumental corruption cannot be ruled out as factors. Going solo is unlikely to change public perception regarding the party, especially since an embittered President can and probably will move on prosecuting those responsible for the Central Bank bond scam. An SLFP/UPFA government would find it even tougher given terribly reduced circumstances.
All things considered a dissolution of Parliament would be best at this point. Theoretically it is possible to obtain the two-thirds majority required to pass through enabling legislation. The immediate beneficiary would of course be the SLPP since it owns the political momentum following the unexpected and unprecedented victory at the local government elections. This could dissuade both the SLFP and UNP from considering such a course of action.
The alternatives, however, could be worse. The more muddled and confused things are, and that’s what is reasonable to expect considering the track-record of the ‘Yahapalana’ government and the peculiar circumstances it finds itself in, the longer dissolution takes the worse would be the result. Rajapaksa and the SLPP can afford to wait, for they alone can continue to work at the grassroots mobilizing support for the cause of getting rid of a UNP-SLFP regime that doesn’t seem to know if it’s coming or going.
Those who are blind to the recent and all-time track-records of the UNP and what’s left of the SLFP might shudder at the thought of Rajapaksa returning to power. The truth is there is little to choose between the UNP, SLFP and SLPP when it comes to corruption, power-abuse, thuggery and murder, unless of course one deliberately blocks out massive chunks of post-independence history.
The argument for constitutional amendment (of the 19th) to enable dissolution stands not on such things but the simple fact of legitimate representation or rather the lack thereof. This Parliament, as the results of the local government election demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt, is illegitimate. It does not reflect the popular sentiments of the people. Its continuation amounts to a travesty of justice and a deference to everything that rebels against the spirit of democracy.
The silence of the so-called progressives in certain NGO circles, ‘informed academics,’ political commentators and other activists on all this is deafening.
Dissolution. That’s what needs to be agitated for. If nothing else, it would involve correcting a constitutional error in the 19th Amendment.