By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“All parties should get together and try to fulfil the promises made at presidential and parliamentary elections to achieve development and prosperity.”
Ven. Thibottuwe Sri Siddhartha Sumagala Thero, Chief Prelate of the Malwatter chapter (Letter to the President and Prime Minister)[i]
Basics first: the UNP and the SLFP lost a local government election, not a Presidential election, not a Parliamentary election, not even a Provincial Council election. A local government election, by definition, decides who manages local affairs. A local government election, again by definition, cannot decide who governs the country. It can be a pointer to the coming government. It is not a reason to topple the existing government.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and his SLPP did not win a Presidential or a Parliamentary election; they won a local government election. That victory entitles them to run local councils. It does not entitle them to form a government.
If Mr. Rajapaksa wants to form a government this side of 2020, the only constitutional path is through changing the balance of the existing Parliament. The 19th Amendment freed the elected legislature from being a mere appendage of the elected executive and introduced a measure of checks and balances to an otherwise dangerously lopsided constitution. The President cannot dissolve parliament until four and a half years after the last parliamentary election. The Parliament can dissolve itself, with a two thirds vote. The President cannot dismiss the Prime Minister either, as fancy strikes him. He/she will have to dissolve the cabinet first and the cabinet cannot be dissolved unless the PM loses a no-confidence motion or the government loses a policy statement or an appropriations bill. It is there in the constitution, in plain language.[ii]
So if Mr. Rajapaksa wants an immediate dissolution of parliament or the removal of the Prime Minister, he should start collecting signatures (two-thirds for the first and a half for the second) instead of trying to destabilise the country.
Last week was arguably one of the most uncertain, chaotic times, certainly since the uncertain days of the Second JVP insurgency. The chaos didn’t stem naturally from the outcome of LG polls. It was created deliberately. It began on February 12th when Mahinda Rajapaksa and his SLPP cohorts met the media and demanded an immediate dissolution of Parliament and a snap election. That demand sent many in the UPFA and some in the UNP into a frenzy of fear and confusion. Instead of explaining the unconstitutional nature of Mr. Rajapaksa’s demand and getting on with the task of governance, the government, by rapid degrees, descended from panic to chaos. Horrified at the thought of facing an election, a group of UPFA ministers and parliamentarians came up with the idea of forming a true blue government with SLPP backing. UNP hardliners responded with an equally impossible idea of a true green government. The President gave conflicting signals, the rumour mill went into overdrive and infantilism reigned.
Whether Mr. Rajapaksa and his cohorts demanded the immediate dissolution of Parliament knowing its constitutional impossibility or whether they did so in happy ignorance is uncertain. Mr. Rajapaksa cannot be expected to read constitutions, but surely amongst the ‘legal luminaries’ who surround him, there has to be one or two who are familiar with the 19thAmendment. Therefore it is likely that the demand for immediate dissolution was made with the intent of manufacturing a crisis of governance. Create anarchy and present the Family (with the active backing of the military and the blessing of the maha sangha as the only force capable of restoring law and order – that might well have been the Rajapaksa game-plan.
It is a measure of the madness afflicting the Lankan polity that the only adult in the room currently is a Buddhist monk. Intervening at a critical moment, the Chief Priest of Malwatte Chapter advised the government not to give into panic. “The country’s ruling and economy will be risked,” he warned. “Therefore the government should fulfil what was guaranteed at the last presidential and general election.” The prelate’s message was clear: the mandate of 2015 remains because cannot be negated by a local government election; instead of running around in circles, the government should set about fulfilling that mandate.
Different Times; Different Politics
The UNP lost the local government election badly. The SLFP lost the local government election abysmally. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP were the only true winners of last week’s poll. Their victory was colossal, but they didn’t reach the 50% line. They do not have the backing of a majority of Lankans. No single party or coalition has.
Going by last week’s results, the anti-Rajapaksa electoral base is still intact. Had the UNP and the SLFP contested together or even adopted a cooperative attitude (of the contest-separately-govern-together variety), victory at the LG poll would have been theirs. Even with the two parties behaving like petulant children, their combined vote was higher than that of the SLPP. 5,093,915 Lankans voted for the two governing parties while 4,941,952 Lankans voted for the SLPP. The UNP and the SLFP together obtained 46.01% of national vote while the SLPP received 44.65%. The result was not an endorsement of the government. But it wasn’t a negation of the 2015 mandate either. It was a warning about the dangers of forgetting the 2015 mandate.
The result was also a warning that unity is the only path forward for the government. The only way Maithripala Sirisena can prevail against Mahinda Rajapaksa is with the help of the UNP. The only way the UNP can prevail against the SLPP is with the help of Maithripala Sirisena. The overarching impact of the Rajapaksa factor has turned the two sides into politico-electoral Siamese twins. Together they can win. Divided they will lose, and wither away. So will the Lankan democracy.
The lessons of 2018 cannot be understood, unless they are framed by the lessons of 2015. In January 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated not by Mr. Sirisena or by the UNP alone but by the most eclectic and singular alliance in the political history of Sri Lanka. The UPFA heavyweights who tried to bring down the government last week didn’t help Mr. Sirisena to become the president. They were on the other side, working for his defeat. The UNP carried most of that campaign on its collective shoulders. The only person to be killed in that election was a UNPer, and he was killed by Rajapaksa goons.
In the Parliamentary election of August 2015, the UNP emerged as the biggest vote-and- seat-getter not entirely on its own steam but thanks to President Sirisena’s support. He intervened in the campaign at two critical moments reiterating his firm and unwavering opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa and pledging not to make Mr. Rajapaksa the prime minister under any circumstances. The clearest possible indication that his effort worked is the electoral outcome in the Polonnaruwa district, Mr. Sirisena’s home-base. The UNP won the district easily, with 50.26% of the vote compared to the UPFA’s 43.63%.
Once that unity fractured, both parties suffered. The UNP’s national vote decreased by 13% between August 2015 and February 2018. Mr. Sirisena’s party won 13% of the vote in the local government election. The connection is obvious.
There is a new politico-electoral geographic at work in Sri Lanka. The unity of 2015 was an acknowledgement of this reality and the correct response to it. The old divisions have been superseded by a new demarcation along pro and anti Rajapaksa lines. The choice is between a familial oligarchy and a flawed democracy. The winning coalition of 2015 happened because political leaders understood this new geographic and responded to it. 2018 has brought disaster to the winners of 2015 because they forgot this reality and acted against it.
The Existential Cost of Prices
In 2013, the Chief Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter made an observation about why the Rajapaksas lost. “No proper development had trickled down to the village,” he said. “People of Hambantota had pressing needs besides a port and an airport… As a result people virtually took to the streets to unseat the last government.”[iii]
In last week’s back-to-sanity statement, the Chief Prelate reminded the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration of where it went wrong. “Work to reduce the cost of living and other problems of farmers, workers and rural middle classes,” he told the government. It was an astute observation. Of the many reasons for the government’s dismal performance, two tower above others. One is disunity. The other is living costs. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combo won two elections promising to bring down living costs. Instead they made it worse, and preached morality and democracy to a hungry electorate.
When a kilo of edible rice (some imported rice varieties are barely edible) hits 100 rupees while farmers are forced to sell their paddy to rice millers at rock-bottom prices, when punitive taxes are imposed on consumers and small businesses, when a large swathe of the country is affected by the worst drought in 40 years, when mega-infrastructure projects disrupt ordinary lives and destroy both livelihoods and environment, when jobs are scarce and hope of betterment is even more so, when justice is both delayed and denied, when highly connected crooks are protected while a child is jailed for ‘stealing’ a coconut, when crime proliferates and leaders spend their time preaching morality to a disenchanted electorate, when politicians who promised to usher in good governance wallows in its opposite, what else can one expect but disaster?
A majority of Lankans are still opposed to the Rajapaksas. But Mahinda Rajapaksa is the owner of the single largest voting-bloc. He can be defeated only if all those who oppose him come to some basic understanding. Unity of the UNP and President Sirisena’s SLFP is the first precondition of keeping the Rajapaksas away from power. The second precondition is remembering the nexus between democracy and economics. Highways, port cities and theme parks (the latest craze of Minister Champika Ranawaka who lost his Maharagama electorate by a massive margin to an independent group backed by the SLPP) do not bring in votes; pandering to Chinese interests won’t win Lankan votes. Those were the mistakes of the Rajapaksas. In the last two years the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration busied itself with repeating those mistakes. That is the path not to victory but to disaster.
One of the most intriguing outcomes of the election was a new voting pattern in parts of the North and East. At the 2015 parliamentary election, the TNA won 4.62% of the national vote. In February 2018, its national average fell to 3.07%. And for the first time in a long time, the UNP and the SLFP fared remarkably well in some of the Tamil heartlands. In many districts the SLFP and the UNP came second and third, after the TNA and ahead of other Tamil parties. Freed of the LTTE and of the Rajapaksa regime, Tamil politics is evolving. Unfortunately the Rajapaksa resurgence in the South can impede the North’s journey to democratic normalcy. At his Feb. 12th media conference, Mr. Rajapaksa held up a map of Sri Lanka with the areas won by SLPP marked in maroon, and said, “See even Eelam has been reduced.”[iv] Mr. Rajapaksa still thinks that all Tamils who oppose him as Eelamists. Since an absolute majority of Tamils do, a Rajapaksa return would mean a drastic shrinking of democratic space in the North.
So ‘The bird of time…is on the wing.’[v] Elections for six provincial councils are scheduled for this year. Amongst those are five districts severely affected by the drought. If the government loses that election, a new constitution will be impossible, opening the door to a new Rajapaksa government with Gotabhaya as president and Mahinda as PM. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will ‘sacrifice’ his American citizenship. It will be another orchestrated circus, accompanied by a great deal of fanfare: a procession to the American embassy and back, with frenzied supporters hailing their ‘saviour.’ In his speech of July 14th 2015, President Sirisena used the word monarchy (rajanduwa) twice to identify the Rajapaksa rule. If Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe don’t get their act together fast, that Rajapaksa monarchy will return. A Mahinda presidency was bad enough. Imagine the deadly dystopia of a Gotabhaya presidency!
[v] Omar Khayyam – Rubaiyat