By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Is the cat out of the bag or is there an elephant in the (Opposition) room? Mahinda Pathirana is a young academic and activist known to be one of a handful of academics close to Mr. Basil Rajapaksa. His reply (‘Who is the Real Enemy?) to my article (‘May Day 2017- SLPP & SLPP: Enemies, Rivals or Allies?’) is an effective illustration of the conflicting perspectives in the Opposition camp: on the one hand, the line that his mastermind “political manipulator” urges on the Opposition, and on the other, the line of the JO parliamentary leadership.
The Mayor of Matale, Mr. Mohamed Hilmy never tires of relating the story of which he was eyewitness and participant, of my conversation with ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 10th 2015 at the official residence of his brother, speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, where I advocated a strategy for resistance and recovery, centering specifically on Dinesh Gunawardene. My endgame was a reprise of 1956 headed by the sons of DA Rajapaksa and Philip Gunawardene, perhaps using the MEP symbol. My chat with Mahinda had been facilitated by Dullas Alahapperuma who was aware that I had a political idea and project to propose in the context of the defeat.
The Feb 18th Nugegoda rally which kicked off the ‘Mahinda Movement’ was the result of dinner-discussions that a handful of us, including Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa, had at private residences, after the defeat. These discussions also involved the reliance on Dinesh as a respected center of regroupment until Mahinda was ready to step forward directly, and as the Deputy once the latter did so. I believe Mr. Basil Rajapaksa was overseas then. From January to August 2015 I spoke at grassroots meetings all over the country and one of the things I kept hearing from SLFPers was that Basil Rajapaksa was responsible for the defeat—which I didn’t agree with because I didn’t know whether it was true. I also heard at firsthand about his arrogant rejection, pre-January 2015 election, of the views and suggestions of the young, dynamic owner of a highly influential media organization—a rejection that arguably cost us that decisive election.
Going by what Mahinda Pathirana writes, there is now a clear difference in the principled political strategy skilfully adopted so far by Dinesh Gunawardene, the Parliamentary leader of the Joint Opposition, and the line urged by Mr. Basil Rajapaksa of the SLPP. Will the new “Basil line” (as reported by Mahinda Pathirana) remain, or be rectified? Will it be imposed as it is, on the SLPP? And will the SLPP line be imposed on the JO? If so, what consequence will follow?
Pathirana’s article has nine paragraphs. Each of the nine paragraphs contain and constitute an attack on Maithripala Sirisena by name, while not a single one of the nine paragraphs is devoted to an attack on or a critique of Ranil Wickremesinghe! In fact there isn’t one single, solitary sentence devoted to a critique of Ranil Wickremesinghe! A non-Sri Lankan stranger reading Mahinda Pathirana’s article would think that everything bad in this country since January 8th 2015 is done or has been done or is being done by Maithripala Sirisena and nothing specific has been done wrong by Ranil Wickremesinghe!
Pathirana interestingly reveals that “Basil’s argument for abolishing the executive presidency does not derive from his identification of political enemies, but by the conveniently forgotten question; what if that omnipotent presidency goes to a person like Ranil Wickremesinghe, much in the same way, Mr. Wickremesinghe got more than half of the powers vested in it through Mr. Sirisena? His other obvious intention might be giving Mahinda the opportunity to run for prime ministerial candidate in the 2020 elections!”
If, as Mahinda Pathirana says, Mr. Basil Rajapaksa’s “argument” is “for the abolition of the executive presidency”, what will he and the SLPP prodded by him do at a Referendum when the abolition of the EP is presented to the nation in a single package, inextricably intertwined with the quasi-federalization content? Vote YES? Vote NO? Abstain? Run a weak, token campaign for a NO vote because he really wants the abolition to go through and that can only happen if the new Constitution is voted in at the Referendum? Is that’s what’s coming and what this is all about?
Let’s get this clear: is Mahinda Pathirana saying that Basil is on the same page as the UNP and TNA, as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sumanthiran, in supporting the abolition of the executive Presidency and transferring executive powers to the PM, which at this moment, means transferring executive power to Ranil from Sirisena? On this vital issue of the power shift from the Executive Presidency to the PM, from Sirisena to Ranil, what then is the difference between the positions of Basil and Ranil?
If the Executive Presidency is abolished (which Mahinda Pathirana confirms is Basil’s view), it means that the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe as the empowered Prime Minister becomes the center of political gravity and the de facto leader of Sri Lanka. This is certainly what Ranil wants. It is what the TNA and perhaps the SLMC want. It is what the civil society NGOs, the Tamil diaspora and the West want. And it seems to be what Basil wants or is willing to settle for. Is this also the SLPP’s view? Is it or will it become the JO view?
What happens when Ranil presents the quasi-federalization bullet coated in the sugar of the abolition of the Executive Presidency, to the nation at a referendum? Does Basil and/or the SLPP advocate that we lick the sugar coating and swallow the bullet? Or do we unambiguously campaign flat-out for a NO vote, as we should?
Pathirana says that “His [Basil Rajapaksa’s] other obvious intention might be giving Mahinda the opportunity to run for prime ministerial candidate in the 2020 elections!” Well, what on earth has “Basil’s argument for the abolition of the executive presidency” to do with “giving Mahinda the opportunity to run for prime ministerial candidate in the 2020 elections!”? Who or what is preventing Mahinda from running as Prime Ministerial candidate as things stand? I am sure he will and I certainly hope to support him in so doing, just as I campaigned for him in 2005, 2010, and 2015 (at both elections). Since the Prime Ministership has no term limits, so long as he keeps running and winning he can continue to be the PM, and a PM who is more powerful than any since 1978, because the 19th amendment strengthened the post.
If Basil were all that worried about the omnipotent Presidency going to a “person like” Ranil, why didn’t he push for the abolition of the Presidency during his elder brother’s second term? Why did that administration instead strengthen the executive Presidency by abolishing term limits? What if a “person like” Ranil became President with the 18th amendment still in effect? And if Basil is for abolition at this time (as Pathirana reports), where does he think those executive powers will go but to the sitting PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe? What if a “person like” Ranil Wickremesinghe, indeed very much like Ranil Wickremesinghe—namely Mr. Wickremesinghe himself–becomes the Executive Prime Minister with no term limits?
Shouldn’t Basil and everyone else be far more worried about what will happen with vastly strengthened Provincial Councils, minus the Executive Presidency and therefore the Governor’s powers and role?
If one is to de-code Mahinda Pathirana, Basil’s line is actually one of isolating Sirisena rather than Ranil. It is no point in saying that Sirisena and Ranil are one, or two sides of the same coin, and that it is all one Government, and then saying that one supports the abolition of the Executive Presidency which in reality means shifting power from the President to the PM, meaning from Sirisena to Ranil and inter alia, from the SLFP to the UNP. Thus Basil’s position already puts him on the side of Ranil and the TNA, rather than being a position of regarding Sirisena and Ranil as one. By contrast, the line of veteran anti-UNP leaders Dinesh Gunawardene, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and their co-thinkers in the JO, is that they will not support anything that strengthens Ranil even if it weakens Sirisena. They are not willing either to club Sirisena and Ranil together and save Ranil from isolation, or to isolate Sirisena rather than Ranil.
All Sirisena’s misdeeds are irrelevant to the question of identifying the main enemy. Chiang Kai Shek betrayed the Chinese liberation struggle, turned on his Communist allies and massacred them, and even murdered Mao’s second wife. But when the Japanese invaded, it was Mao who proposed a united front with Chiang Kai Shek against them. When Chiang was captured by two warlords, it is Mao who sent Zhou en Lai to save his life and sign an agreement with the Communists to fight the Japanese—despite his earlier bloody betrayals.
Only the Presidency can be leveraged to stop, delay or dilute the present treachery such as the proposed sell-off of Trincomalee, the federalist Constitution, the full implementation of the Geneva Resolution etc. If not for Sirisena, Arjuna Mahendran would still be the Governor of the central bank and the bond scam would have been ongoing! There certainly would not have been a transparent Commission of Inquiry ongoing.
The effort may not work, but it must be tried, and it cannot be tried by seeing (a) the President and the PM as one and (b) ‘the government’ as an undifferentiated entity, a monolithic enemy—rather than an ensemble replete with contradictions and therefore a terrain of contestation.
Today, in Sri Lanka, the main enemy is that faction which is initiating and driving the worst of the policies; the most reactionary, rightwing, pro-imperialist faction of the government; the closest allies of imperialism and the Diaspora. It is the faction that is driving the implementation of the Geneva resolution and the project of the new, quasi-federalist Constitution. That faction is NOT the Sirisena faction of the SLFP. It is clearly the Ranil Wickemesinghe faction of the UNP and its main ally in the SLFP, namely Chandrika. In short it is the Ranil-Mangala-Chandrika junta. That is where the main blow has to be aimed.
Mahinda Pathirana says “I see a contradiction here. Why can’t Basil Rajapaksa and SLPP see Sirisena as the main enemy, when “the CBK and President Sirisena push the line that the main enemy is Mahinda Rajapaksa?” Obviously Mr. Pathirana hasn’t been taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. The answer to Mr. Sirisena or anyone’s wrong line is not to mirror or mimic it, but to oppose it with the correct line. For example, simply because the LTTE thought it was OK to massacre innocent civilians, the Sri Lankan military did not think likewise and engage in tit-for-tat.
Given that the JO has only 50 MPs, the bi-polar character, faction-ridden nature, and resultant unstable equilibrium of the government is far better than if it had a solid, monolithic, unipolar, Ranilist UNP character, with an Executive PM to boot.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has learned from his father, Esmond, and his distant uncle JR Jayewardene, the strategic value of a split in the center-Left and especially within the SLFP –and how best to exploit it. He would love to use the SLPP as part of a pincer move on President Sirisena so as to grab the executive power that the electorate has so far deprived him. By arguing at this time for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, Basil Rajapaksa seems willing to grant him that, and even assist him tacitly in that ghastly enterprise.