By Rajan Philips –
If nothing else, the phenomenon of Trumpism in America has created a rather morbid global curiosity about American politics. Sri Lankans, whether they are in Sri Lanka or America, are no exception. And ‘dual citizens’, both current and former, are likely to be doubly curious. All of this is reflected in the current coverage of American politics and news stories in the Sri Lankan media, including the Sunday Island. The latest news story and commentary are about the beating President Biden’s Democratic Party took at a few of America’s off-year elections last week. In the wake of that beating, Newsweek’s Bill Powell has speculated that “Democrats are staring at the possibility of a failed presidency” for Joe Biden. President Biden himself seems to be quite open about it.
He has reportedly said, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens.” “What happens” – refers to Democrats’ ability, or lack of it, to pass major legislations before next year’s mid-term Congressional and Senate elections. Two massive pieces of legislation, one for physical infrastructure (with a price tag of $1.0 trillion) and another for social welfare measures (at $1.75 trillion slashed from $3.5 trillion), have been stuck in Congress for months mostly due to disagreement among Democrats – between the progressive and the moderate wings of the Party. A pox on both your wings, the voters in jurisdictions where elections were held seem to have told Democrats. Republicans, still carrying the cross of Trump, ended up winning.
The delay in passing the much-touted legislations is believed to have been a major factor in the Democratic candidate’s defeat in the Governor’s election in the State of Virginia and other down ballot positions. Biden won Virginia in the presidential election last year by a 10-point margin. The defeat in Virginia and poor showings in other off-year elections do not portend well for Democrats in next year’s mid-term Congressional elections. Democrats have a slender majority of 10 seats in the House and the parties are evenly split in the Senate. After last week’s elections, Republicans are widely predicted to retake control of the House and the Senate in 2022. That would leave President Biden a virtual lame duck president and potentially leaving office after a single term. Hence, the premonition of a failed presidency.
Sri Lanka’s Complications
What has all of this got to do with Sri Lanka? And its President, who is no longer a US citizen? When can one talk about a failed state? And when about a failed presidency, or government? The ‘failed state’ diagnosis was once part of political commentary, and even Sri Lanka was at times diagnosed as being, if not one already, at least enroute to becoming one. Failed state talk has since faded away. Failing governments are more commonly experienced than failed states. Governments fail and are felled at elections by the vote of the people. The process is clear-cut in a parliamentary system. Not quite in a presidential system like the US, and it gets more complicated in Sri Lanka’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system.
For instance, in a parliamentary system, the legislature (which also encompasses the cabinet executive) can express ‘no confidence’ in a government and precipitate a general election prematurely, and the people will have the opportunity to elect a new or different government. In the US, there is no provision to express ‘no confidence’ in a president and force him to face the people in an election. The only provision for expelling a president is the impeachment process and that too is not for political failures but for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” . And the process is designed as a legal procedure conducted by elected legislators.
The two arms of the Congress are elected periodically for fixed terms with no provision for election or change in between. Members of the Congress cannot be Ministers, and are not part of the executive, or Administration. Failures between elections are attributed to the Administration and the blame falls on the elected President and he/she will go out of office at the next election, and into history as a failed president. The system works, as it has worked over two centuries.
The system is also sustained, apart from the separation of powers and the checks and balances in Washington, by the distribution of powers among the States and other jurisdictions. It was their independence from Washington that thwarted Donald Trump’s very serious efforts to steal the election in 2020. At the same time, the Trump presidency exposed the vulnerability of the system (or any system, for that matter) to abuse, stress and even collapse, when a president chooses to bend the system to his/her will and not abide by the system as he/she must. And Trump was seen as an aberration, a costly exception that proved the rule.
The optimistic belief that accompanied Joe Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat was that Americans are so disgusted with Trump’s nasty antics that they would warmly welcome the new President steeped in government experience and widely support his restorative presidency. Last Tuesday’s elections and Biden’s plummeting popularity in opinion polls have exploded that post-election optimism and belief. Be that as it may.
In Sri Lanka’s hybrid system, the President, similar to the American system, enjoys political immunity and is removable between elections only by impeachment for violating the constitution, treason, bribery, or misconduct. But unlike his US counterpart, the Sri Lankan President can monkey with the timing of elections, not only presidential elections, but also parliamentary elections. This is an enormous power for the president of a globally powerless country that even the president of the world’s most powerful country does not have.
There are other peculiarities, but mentioning one is enough. Sri Lanka’s parliament can express no confidence in the government, but not much will flow from it unlike in a normal parliamentary system. Only the cabinet of ministers (all of whom are MPs) “shall stand dissolved,” but not the President even though he is the head of the cabinet. And the President can reconstitute a new cabinet if he so chooses and not dissolve parliament. A far cry from what an American President is not allowed to do.
The American system provides for flexibility through fixed terms and rapid turnovers – the House Members are elected every two years; Senators have longer six-year terms, but the Senate is also replenished by electing a third of the Senators every two years; and the President is of course elected every four years but for no more than two terms. For a President to succeed, he/she needs to have majority support in both the House and the Senate. It is the possibility that Democrats might lose their slender majorities in next year’s mid-term elections that is fueling speculations about a failed Biden presidency. At the same time, it is equally possible that President Biden could salvage his presidency and restore it to its inaugural promises if Democrats are smart enough to do better in the elections next year. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s situation is very different. His is already a failed presidency.
A Failed Presidency
In addition to the constitutional powers over Parliament that a Sri Lankan President has, the current President also has a solid majority of MPs in parliament. A majority that was enough to pass the 20th Amendment, and is expected to hold long enough to even pass a whole new constitution. In spite of all these presidential powers and parliamentary majority, the current presidency stands beleaguered unlike any other presidency or government ever before in Sri Lanka. As I argued in this column a few weeks ago, the country is in the throes of a paradox of constitutional stability in the midst of all encompassing crises. It is the current hybrid system that provides the shell of stability to a presidency and a government that have totally failed.
To be fair by all the critics of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not one of them wanted him to fail when he was elected President in November 2019. Everyone wanted him to succeed, because the country could not afford another failed presidency after the single term of Maithripala Sirisena and the second half of the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a different story in the US. Even after Trump, or because they are beholden to him, Republicans utterly want Biden to fail even if it would wreck the country. When Barak Obama won his first election in 2008, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnel vowed to limit Obama to a single term. In contrast, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the non-traditional politician who self-confessedly made a study of Trump, became President with universal goodwill. Now the goodwill and the vistas of prosperity and splendour have all withered away.
Yet, it is not the Opposition that is trying to bring down the President or the government in Sri Lanka. And while the government cannot bring itself down in a constitutional sense, it has politically erupted over its own energy deal with the US company, New Fortress Energy. A midweek headline in The Island is quite revealing: “Govt erupts over US energy deal, crisis threatens SLPP’s near two-thirds majority.” Eight prominent members of the SLPP parliamentary group, including three Ministers, staged a public protest meeting against the deal, after “the top government leadership” comprising Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena reportedly “failed to convince the dissident members” to avoid going public with their protest.
The SLPP’s crisis is apparently a crisis of numbers, and it is solely self-inflicted. The SLPP’s parliamentary group has 145 MPs. Although SLPP members account for 117 of them, their preponderance in normal times becomes meaningless when the two-thirds majority of 150 MPs gets calculated. Even though the dissidents who assembled at Solis Hall in protest are numerically pathetic in normal times, they get weightier when the craving is for a two-thirds majority. And for whatever reason the SLPP and the President believe that they cannot govern without a two-thirds majority. They have had it for over a year. Where is the government to show for the two-thirds majority?
President Biden doesn’t need a two-third’s majority in either house. He is never going to get one. All he needs is a simple majority of one in both chambers to become a historic president – surpassing both Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society presidencies. A not implausible criticism is that President Biden got carried away by the flight of history and went too big too soon with his infrastructure and social spending initiatives. On the other hand, the common take about Democrats’ infighting (between the progressives and the moderates) overlooks the fact that Democrats in Congress (House and Senate) have never been more united!
The bolder initiatives of every Democratic President after Johnson (Carter, Clinton and Obama) were stymied by their own party legislators more than by Republicans. Biden’s problem is just two holdout Senators of his own Party who are wielding their veto over his agenda in deference to corporate interests in their respective states. In one sense, he is farther ahead in the political field than Carter, Clinton or Obama ever was. But after Trump the game rules and goal posts have all changed. And that is President Biden’s metaphorical challenge. Comparatively, it is only a political sneeze in America. In Sri Lanka, it is political pneumonia, successful Covid vaccination notwithstanding.