By Kumar David –
Mr Sirisens’s Manifesto caused consternation and disappointment among those who trusted his pledge to rescind the hated autocratic executive presidency and replace it with a democratic parliamentary system. What he now offers is “an essentially Executive” presidency wrapped in a honeyed sentence about an alliance with “Parliament through Cabinet”; what’s new in that! If Mr Sirisena does not amend his position, as far as hope of ending authoritarian autocratic structures goes, this election will degenerate into farce. Jettisoning hopelessly failed Mr Rajapkse for untested Mr Sirisena, under a similar constitutional system, may do a little good but only for a few months.
There are two points of view in the Opposition. The minority, like me, hold that the central task is to dismantle authoritarianism, the structural framework without which abuses and corruption could not have gone to such extremes. We would of course welcome the defeat of Mr Rajpakse as an additional bonus. On the other side are the empiricists, the superficial majority, who see all evil in the subjective failings of the Rajapakse clan and regime, and seek to replace these with other persons. They are not opposed to abolishing the presidential system, but personalities are more important for them. Superficial, born to be chagrined every six years, they will weep the same lament again soon. In the last 10 days I have had sharp differences with friends on the Left who wring their hand and wail “Shhh! Kumar don’t make a fuss; don’t upset the applecart; don’t criticise Mr Sirisena’s capitulation to the JHU”. Shallow men with no strategic perspective; I will talk about strategy at the end.
The damaging contradiction
The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was the basis on which millions backed Mr Sirisena as a Common Candidate. Notice the explicit pledge to “abolish” and the explicit reference to a “Parliamentary system”. There is no ambiguity unless Mr Sirisena’s handlers attempt the dodge of hanging on the word “present” to imply that they intended all along to replace one EP by another EP! If they try this dodge what further deceptions are we in line for down the road?
The present executive presidential system will be abolished within a hundred days and replaced by a Parliamentary form accountable to the people. Under the Parliamentary system, the President will symbolize national unity and have duties and powers appropriate to the position.
Now let us look at the Manifesto which was released after nominations closed. I quote from page 14. A box highlighted in bold type on the middle of the page says the same thing.
The new Constitutional structure would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System. Under it the President would be equal with all other citizen before the law. I guarantee that in the proposed Constitutional Amendment I will not touch any Constitutional Article that could be changed only with the approval at a Referendum. I also ensure that I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country. My amendments will be only those that facilitate the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.
[Some donkeys in articles and comments in Colombo Telegraph said: “The translation is defective; Kumar should go see Mr Sirisena or Ranil and seek clarification”. Oh really! If the translation is crappy whose job is it, mine or the candidates, to fix it? Which, by the way, is the original, English or Sinhala?]
The system will be “essentially Executive”, we are told. It will be “allied to Parliament through the Cabinet” we are told; what a cryptic choice of words! Allied but not answerable! Is the current president not similarly “allied”? If the government loses a vote of confidence the President carries on unchecked – the donkey of a Prime Minister gets kicked out. The President is insulated; “essentially” an Executive demigod. And what will be the powers of the Prime Minister? What the separation of powers between Cabinet/Government and President/State Power? This formulation is a ploy to hoodwink people and retain the Executive Presidential system with no more than cosmetic retouches. When it comes to drafting and enacting these words make room for anything.
I have a question. Why all this mumbo-jumbo if Mr Sirisena actually dislikes the Executive system and prefers a parliamentary system? Why did he not, or even now why does he not do it straight from the shoulder with no waffling and hedging? Many, this writer included, have supported Mr Sirisena’s candidature in numerous interventions. We said let us put up “even a broomstick” to win, abolish the Executive Presidential system and then he/she can go home. Never did we say put forward a broomstick to carry on with a redecorated Executive Presidency.
Mr Sirisena has reneged; he has betrayed. I am asking for absolutely nothing more than what he himself promised and led people to believe he would do. I repeat this a hundred times! Even now those who trusted him will be satisfied if he returns to the unambiguous promise he made. Why not a simple ‘abolish EP’ correction Mr Sirisena? It’s that simple, that’s all it will take to renew public confidence in your sincerity. Is it because of the JHU that you changed? I can see no other reason.
A JHU hijacked Manifesto
What Mr Sirisena offers reeks of JHU ideology. Observe that the objective is to ensure in every future act “stability, security and sovereignty”, not democratisation or power to the people. Superficially it seems innocuous, but this rhetoric is well known JHU-speak for saying devolution to Tamil areas, reduction of military interference in civilian affairs, and giving the NPC breathing space, are all out of the question. Democratisation is the elephant missing in this terminology.
The JHU seems to have taken over from Ranil-UNP and the CBK-Cluster as Mr Sirisena’s principal handler. Many Tamils and Muslims may still vote for him but that is not because they have the tiniest confidence in his new JHU inspired creed. It is because everyone is fed up with corruption and abuses of the incumbent, and the minorities remember what they suffered under Messrs Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Tamils will not switch sides and vote for Mr Rajapakse but there will be a large number of abstentions. The poor TNA is in a trap; it wants to back Mr Sirisena but cannot find a single reason (from a Tamil perspective) within the Manifesto why it should tell Tamils to overlook the JHU inspired formula. It can only say: ‘To reduce corruption and abuse in general, and to avenge past wrongs, reject the incumbent’. With an “essentially Executive” system, how long will those advantages last?
If Mr Sirisena wishes to avoid shooting himself in the foot with minority voters he would be wise to drop JHU inspired formulations under which: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country. Amendments will be only to facilitate the stability, security and sovereignty of the country”. He makes it impossible to devolve power to Tamil areas because who will chose what “facilitates stability, security and sovereignty”? Unless you are visiting from the planet Mars you know that this is crap for dressing up chauvinism. For Ceylon Tamils this constitutional proposal is a step back from even the present where there are no formally stated obstacles to devolution.
Opinion polls show Mr Sirisena does not have a majority among Sinhala-Buddhists but may win if minority support is massive. But he and his arrogant JHU handlers take Tamils and Muslims for granted without giving anything back. This is the reason why the Tamil version of the Manifesto is delayed or deferred; what do they have to say to these communities – nothing! The leaders of these communities will be making a big mistake if they allow the handlers to get away with their hubris. Tamil and Muslim leaders must demand changes in the Manifesto (of course they will be ignored) irrespective of what voting advice they may eventually give their communities.
What to do now?
This is the most serious question, especially for those of us who are keen to see the incumbent regime defeated. Before we bow our heads like pussy cats and put up with any old s**t that a putative NDF government may shove at us, let us first say “What you have done is wrong, change it! Affirm that you will abolish the executive presidency!” It is being backboneless, and not standing up and demanding accountability that allowed the current regime to run havoc without a mummer of protest. If the public, and especially those of us who support change, behave like docile pussy cats and yes-men, why should a new regime not ride rough shod over the people again? I don’t want to use names but many on the same side of the barricades as I am, will recognize that these barbs are aimed at them.
This brings me to the key strategy to adopt. The people of Lanka must stand on their feet and mobilize independently of either of these candidates. Yes, in the end we may vote for Mr Sirisena, but I recall an incident when Lenin moved a Central Committee resolution somewhat like this: “The Party calls on the people to vote for scoundrel-X against scoundrel-Y, for such and such reasons”. I do not advocate we apply such colourful language to our protagonist, but I am sure you get my point.
Some democratic and left comrades and the JVP have taken the right stand; they have remained independent but on the inside-track of a swelling mass movement. The angry masses are on a ‘Vote down Rajapakse’ swell; this is the inside-track from which the movement can go further and forward. Defeating Mr Rajapakse is not for the purpose of fostering illusions about others, it is a step in strengthening a confident and independent mass movement which will hold any government to account and exert influence when needed.
Last week I called on the JVP and the left to form an Alliance on the inside-track of common front mobilisation but which will still retain its independence. It is only those who are committed to, and work hard within the inside-track, that people will listen to. Only they will have the credibility to win people’s confidence. Conditions for this Alliance have suddenly improved; if Mr Sirisena wins, more opportunities will open up. Even if Mr Rajapakse wins, he is now a frightened and weakened autocrat and openings for mass activity will be favourable. Either way the Alliance has to be formed now before the elections, otherwise the next regime, whichever one, will run out of control.