By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The dismissal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on Friday, October 26 by President Maithripala Sirisena or the ‘Constitutional coup’ as referred by some is another instance of the derogation of democracy in the history of independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
The first such instance was in 1975 when the then United Front government, voted into office in 1970 for five years extended its term by an additional 2 years. The UF draftees of the first Republican Constitution had specified a five-year term for the government from May 22, 1972, the date of promulgation of the new constitution. It was then followed by extending the tenure of parliament by a further six years by President JR Jayewardene in 1983 by way of a referendum. His justification was theneed for more time to complete work on the programs he had begun. In reality, he desired to maintain the United National Party’s 4/5 majority in parliament. Since then, there have been many instances such as the passage of the 13thAmendment under gunpoint, adoption of the 17thAmendment and removal of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by a vote in parliament. Wickremesinghe’s dismissal was the latest. Most were carried out by democratic process, were democratic in letter but not in spirit.
From the beginning of January 2015, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe unity government was a doomed project. It was formed for one purpose, the ouster of the Rajapaksa administration. Once it was achieved, it was the end of the road.
As President Sirisena stated in his address, they (he and Wickremesinghe) were culturally, ideologically and politically mismatched for consensual governance. Sirisena, a son of the soil from a farming family, educated at Topawewa Maha Vidyalaya and Rajakeeya Maha Vidyalaya in Polonnaruwa, more at home speaking in the vernacular attired in national garb and of a conservative political orientation. Wickremesinghe is the son of an upper-class local press baron and political kingmaker, educated at the elite Royal College, more at home speaking in English attired in western garb and a political liberal, except in party matters when he turns into a total autocrat with little tolerance for dissent.
The former Prime Minister’s conduct since January 9, 2015, leaves little doubt, he expected President Sirisena, hitherto a political nobody and essentially a backroom boy suddenly propelled to the presidency out of political necessity, to be malleable and easy to manage. Sirisena’s pledge on being sworn in as President of not having plans for a second term may have further encouraged Wickremasinghe.
The current political impasse may be viewed from two standpoints.
The dismissal of Wickremesinghe from the post of Prime Minister, taken in isolation amounts to a dictatorial and undemocratic act on the part of President Sirisena. Critics argue of the dismissal contravening some provisions of the 19thAmendment. Whether the action violates the Constitution is best argued in the Supreme Court. But it is indeed against the spirit of the 19thAmendment.
However, the dismissal taken in the backdrop of developments from the beginning of the unity government is another matter and must be essentially viewed differently. Rather than list out such instances, a few examples would suffice. Elections are the hallmark of democracy. Wickremesinghe, his supporters and defenders screaming of anti-democratic acts actively prevented Local Government (LG) elections for three years. Similarly, elections for several Provincial Councils (PC) were indefinitely postponed with no dates set even now due to delimitation issues.
Nevertheless, he did manage to have several controversial bills passed in Parliament as required in the UNHRC Resolution which he and Mangala Samaraweera co-sponsored. On that basis, his inability to have the Delimitation Report approved in parliament leaves many bewildered. Has he never heard of ‘where there is a will, there is a way?’
At this juncture, it is pertinent to question reasons for objections by the international community and their Ambassadors/High Commissioners in Colombo for Wickremesinghe’s dismissal and Rajapaksa’s appointment as Prime Minister. Why was there not even a squeak from these champions of democracy when a Prime Minister commanding 140 MPs in parliament was replaced by a Prime Minister with a mere 60 MPs in January 2015? Why did they not take up with President Sirisena and former Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, the issue of long-delayed LG and PC elections? When it suited them, they remained silent despite the fact, non-functional PCs negated their own Geneva Resolution 30/1 which called for devolution of power. Similarly, they did not object when democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was overthrown by the military.
Wickremesinghe has a track record of unsuitability for consensual governance. The first such instance was his ceasefire agreement with Norway and LTTE in February 2002 totally ignoring the President, Service Commanders and the country’s Attorney General. His attempt to prevent President Sirisena from visiting the Central Bank in the wake of the bond scam was another. So was the recent fracas during a cabinet meeting when the Head of State stated his preference for Sri Lanka managing the East Terminal and Wickremesinghe’s response of his having already promised the terminal to India. He simply does not accept the fact such arbitrary and unilateral decision making is not an option in both Presidential and Prime Ministerial systems of government. His is the modus operandi of a dictator.
It may also be argued the current impasse is partly a manifestation of the electoral defeat suffered by the unity government in the February LG elections. No doubt, it was not a Presidential or Parliamentary election. Nevertheless, the result clearly reflected the public mood and the extent to which, the unity government had exhausted its political capital. The bond scam related No Confidence Motion (NCM) which followed, during which the loyalty of some of his own party men was in doubt, though not successful was yet another indication.
Wickremesinghe’s decision not to challenge his dismissal in the Supreme Court and insistence in resolving the issue in Parliament makes one wonder if he considers his chances with Judges less favorable than with MPs in parliament. Similarly, discussing the subject with western foreign envoys confirms his long-standing status as a ‘Poodle of the West.’
The net outcome is that tables have turned, and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is back in office, albeit as Prime Minister.
It is abundantly clear, the concept of a unity government has failed and is not a viable option for Sri Lanka, considering its type of politics and politicians.
Once parliament is convened, and NCM is held, Wickremesinghe may or may not be restored to his former position. Regardless of the outcome, a unity government is no longer an option. Even if the spirit of democracy is revived. A dysfunctional government is the last thing this nation needs.
The present makeup of the parliament is based on parliamentary elections held in August 2015. Much water has flown under the bridge since and it no longer accurately reflects the will of the people which they clearly expressed in the LG elections in February.
The need of the hour is for fresh parliamentary elections. This time around, let no defeated candidates enter parliament through the National List.
It is also clear, both main parties desperately require a change of leadership. It is time for septuagenarians, octogenarians (not forgetting the geriatrics) to step down or made to step down and it is best started with the Grand Old Party which has had no change in leadership since 1994 despite its many electoral losses.
There is no doubt, the UNP is desperately in need of a major overhaul. A younger leader with new blood and fresh perspective, preferably in his/her 40s or 50s is urgently needed to see both the party and country through the coming turbulent times.
It is time to dump Ranil, revive the party and save the country.