By Jehan Perera –
The country being on the verge of imminent division due to envisaged constitutional reform was one of the main justifications of the backdoor seizure of power of October 26 by members of the hitherto opposition who are now members of the government. The threat they alleged came from the constitutional reform process. This is a process that has been continuing since the former government got elected in 2015, though it is now at a standstill due the political crisis. The key elements of this constitutional reform process, which was envisaged to culminate in a new constitution, have been to change the executive presidential system, obtain a new electoral system to replace the current one which is based on proportional representation, and to ensure a more effective devolution of power as a solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities in general and to the Tamil people in particular.
The attempt to utilize the ethnic conflict, which resulted in three decades of armed insurrection and civil war, to fan fear and hatred amongst the communities, is one of the most unfortunate and crude features of the present political debate. International Trade minister Bandula Gunawardena has exemplified this longstanding approach to national politics. He is reported to have appealed to President Maithripala Sirisena who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces to preserve national security as the country is under threat of being divided at the present time. Even though the war is over nearly ten years, and the LTTE no more exists as a military presence, he is reported to have justified Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s acceptance of the prime minister’s position under controversial circumstances as being to prevent the constitutional reform process going ahead and causing the country to disintegrate.
On the Sunday when the International Trade minister was making his extremely parochial speech in a place of religious worship, I was with students of the University of Ruhunu in the Southern Province. If the fifty students and two faculty members of the university were in any way representative of the Sri Lankan people, and its younger generation, then the present political crisis has led people to gain a keener appreciation of what is rational and internationally accepted. They were participants in a three day workshop on dealing with the country’s divided past and facing the future together. The workshop included issues of accountability and constitutional reform that could address the roots of the conflict. The fact that this discussion could take place in heartland of ancient Sinhalese nationalism speaks for the sanity and rationality of the younger generation despite the crude attempts made to generate fear and hatred of the other.
Since that fateful October 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and plunged the polity into crisis, Sri Lanka has not had a stable government. At the present time the Court of Appeal has suspended the functioning of the prime minister and his ministers and deputy ministers who have suffered two successive no-confidence motions against them in parliament and still did not wish to gracefully step down. Despite the absence of a fully fledged government, there has been a remarkable degree of stability and sobriety in society, so much so that people are beginning to say that it is better to have a government without all these ministers than to have them back as a burden to both the people and to the government treasury.
At least part of the credit for the stability that the country currently enjoys, and the spirit of freedom that continues to prevail in the form of a plethora of people’s protests and symbolic actions, needs to rest with President Sirisena who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has ensured that the security forces and police act within the law as protectors of those who protest and not as oppressors who quell those who protest against their masters. The president’s negative points in terms of his lack of political judgment and the wavering stances he takes on many issue must not detract from the light touch with which two governments under him have so far dealt with those who oppose the government. Along with his erstwhile partner as Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Sirisena was also a force for good in supporting national reconciliation initiatives that have seen land being returned by the military to the people, the Tamil version of the national anthem being sung on Independence Day and the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons.
Some of the president’s actions seem to be based on the advice that his powers as president are virtually unlimited. Despite this incorrect and undemocratic advice, he has respected the role of the military and not deployed it for purposes of civilian control. Although the judiciary not too long ago curtailed his ambition to be president for an additional year, he accepted that verdict and now in the face of the judiciary denying him the power to dissolve parliament short of four and a half years, he has said that he will respect its decisions even though he may not agree with them. He has been part of government initiatives over the past three years that have visibly strengthened the role of independent institutions, including the judiciary. On the whole therefore President Sirisena’s contribution to transforming the country in the past three years needs to be appreciated.
President Sirisena has another year to go before his term ends. As president he continues to wield tremendous power, not least because he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and minister in charge of both the military and police. He is continuing to refuse to re-appoint as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe even though the majority of parliamentarians have said that is what they want, and are going to show that majority again when parliament meets next. It appears that the president is being driven into a corner by those who support him and by those who oppose him. There is even speculation that in these circumstances the president may be impeached. If such a situation is to arise the president’s reaction with the powers at his disposal is unpredictable as has been many of his other decisions.
It is believed most widely that President Sirisena is deeply concerned about his future once his term of office as president ends in December next year. There are many who could wish to take him to task. In this context, the parameters of a possible solution that will support the principles of freedom, human rights and inter-ethnic reconciliation become clearer. The draft constitution that the International Trade minister claimed will divide the country, envisages a reformed presidency in which presidential powers are reduced and the president will be elected by parliament as in India and not by the people. Such a position could be an accommodation to President Sirisena who is unlikely to be elected again by the national electorate as a result of his unstable political behavior over the past month, which has earned him public disapproval on all sides of the political and ethnic divides.
The other elements of the political solution, formulated on win-win considerations, would be as follows. Second, for the president to reinstate Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as demanded by the parliamentary majority. Third, for the president to join with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to amend the constitution to enable the strengthening of devolution of power which is a demand of the ethnic minorities, in particular the Tamil community. Fourth, to dissolve parliament at the request of parliament itself and hold fresh general elections as demanded by the former president. Such a political solution could satisfy the main interests of the three main parties to the present conflict, while keeping in mind that the problems of the ethnic minorities need to be more fully addressed without delay after the elections.