By Rajan Philips –
The Island editorial on Thursday wondered whether the current debate in parliament is on Budget (2023) or Buddhism. What is beyond wondering is that there is no mention of the country’s economy in the ongoing committee stage debate after the very comfortable passage of the vote on the Second Reading of the 2023 Budget. The President is adding fiery spices to the debate by his frequent participation in the debate and dropping baits all around for his detractors to pick up and run wild. Ranil Wickremesinghe has opened a new track in Sri Lankan politics as a ‘parliamentary president.’
Sajith Premadasa is showing himself to be a glutton for argument along with his penchant for wide ranging quotations all the way from Keynesian equations to Buddhist Suttas. Even Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who made an impressively substantial speech on the country’s economic woes and corruption curses at a recent public meeting in Badulla, has been reticent on these matters in parliament. He too waded into the holy waters of Suttas in parliament, according to The Island.
Buddhism may have been the only enlightened distraction in the budget deliberations, and one that allowed Buddhist MPs to put their religiosity on public display. There were plenty of other distractions that reduced politics to its sordid worst and provoked MPs into acrimonious arguments. For all his calm equanimity, the President seems to be getting hot under his collar every time someone reminds him that he owes his presidency to Aragalaya. He denies and contends that he owes it to the constitution. Really?
From Crisis to Putting Down
Is it the constitution that required Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign and Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Prime Minister? Is it the constitution that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Acting President, before fleeing and then resigning? Resignations and appointments were all consistent with the constitution, but they were not required or caused by the constitution. The last time someone made a silly non-constitutional argument like this was when Wimal Weerawansa crowed that “it is our constitutional duty” to impeach Shirani Bandaranaike. Ranil Wickremesinghe knows better even though he took a cynical and lighthearted approach to the impeachment of a Chief Justice. Now he is talking constitution.
After he became ‘crisis Prime Minister’ to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was reported that one of the conditions, if not the only one, insisted on by Ranil Wickremesinghe was that the government should take no action against Aragalaya protesters. From crisis Prime Minister, Mr. Wickremesinghe has graduated into a putdown President. Put down protesters on the streets and put down Sajith Premadasa in parliament. The President ignored interventions by others, notably by JVP/NPP’s Harini Amarasuriya who persisted in questioning the President how he could deny that he became Prime Minister and President only because of the protesters. Instead, he picked on Premadasa, a vulnerable target and taunted him with the letter that Premadasa had written to Gotabaya Rajapaksa expressing his willingness to become Prime Minister subject to certain conditions, one of which was that parliamentary elections should be called at the earliest possible opportunity. After the President finished, his attack dogs went after Premadasa in parliament.
The point in all this is why should the President get so defensive whenever he is not incorrectly reminded that he is where he is today because of Aragalaya? Why cannot he generously acknowledge the antecedents of his ascent to the highest office in the land, while at the same time cautioning that the country cannot afford endless protests in the economic situation that it has been shoved into? As well, why is it that he has not to-date tried to open a dialogue with protest delegations either directly or indirectly through accredited emissaries? That would go a long way in affirming his bona fides as a liberal democrat and an inclusive political leader than all the kite flying about starting a youth parliament or creating quotas for youth representation in parliament.
The even bigger point is that the President doesn’t have to stoop to anything low from the political high road that he can comfortably keep riding in the current circumstances. He could keep his focus and that of the country on the economy and on critical political initiatives which would generate more consensus than controversy among the people. That way he could build on the general goodwill that he is currently enjoying and the political capital that has come his way as a result of the fall of capital in the economy.
Goodwill and capital are ephemeral acquisitions in politics, and more so for a person like Ranil Wickremesinghe, who by most accounts is respected for his intelligence but otherwise unpopular as a politician. So too was his kinsman and mentor JR Jayewardene, but there is a difference. JRJ was also feared, but not Ranil Wickremesinghe whom everyone feels free to take a potshot at. RW has louder detractors than he has loud supporters, and they are already vigorously at work to undermine him after sitting on their hands while the Rajapaksas took the country to the cleaners. That he is now in bed with their beloved Rajapaksas makes no difference to their political bile.
Alternative-truth narratives are slowly emerging. Aragalaya was neither homegrown nor spontaneous. It was all the work of foreign money – precious dollars! Gotabaya Rajapaksa would still be in power if only he had gone to the IMF in December 2019. (Before or after slashing income taxes? Just asking). Organic fertilizer fiasco was not the President’s fault, but the result of faulty advice. (What about his judgement? Like the one that freed Duminda Silva from jail). The most creative of them all is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had his hands tied from controlling Aragalaya by the United States of America. (What happened to patriotism?). And Ambassador Julie Chung’s statement was enough to restrain the army and the police from containing the violent backlashes on May 9 afternoon in retaliation to the morning attacks on the Galle Face protesters by Rajapaksa goons let loose from Temple Tress. Who inspired Temple Trees, Beijing? Does anything originate in Sri Lanka without a foreign hand? So much for sovereignty.
No one has connected the imaginary dots to directly accuse Ranil Wickremesinghe that he is part of a grand US or Western plan that got rid of the Rajapaksas and installed him in power. Making a statement during the budget debate, Mahinda Rajapaksa drew half of the conspiracy circle, alluding to forces who created the crisis and organized the economic collapse. Yes, Sri Lanka’s economic collapse is a wholly “man-made and voluntary economic crisis,” as Prof. Mick Moore of the University of Sussex has described it. But the men who made it are members of the Rajapaksa family and their corteges. Not any other forces, internal or external.
I said Mahinda Rajapaksa drew only half a circle, because he could not start the other half without crashing into Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Rajapaksas are in no position to implicate Ranil Wickremesinghe in any conspiracy. If at all, Ranil-Rajapaksa might be a conspiracy. As President, Ranil Wickremesinghe has done what Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not do. He let loose the army and the police on protesters to clear public spaces, and he drew criticism from the West including the US Ambassador in Colombo. He rebuffed them, and for that he earned the praise of that venerable patriot Gunadasa Amarasekara. Lesser patriots may yet take a different route and implicate Ranil Wickremesinghe in one or another conspiracy theory against Sri Lanka.
That is the paradox of being Ranil Wickremesinghe in Sri Lankan politics. Now more so, than ever before. He benefits from a general sense in the country (some might say only in Colombo), that he is better than everyone else in parliament to lead Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. At the same time, he has an implacable body of detractors who are dead set against him as an untrustworthy 21st century version of Sri Lanka’s 20th century Yankee Dick. JRJ. Who else? Unlike JR, RW has cultivated an image as a liberal democrat, minority friendly, and human rights defender. For that reason, the nationalists suspect him and make his relationship with the army appear to be more tenuous than what it really might be. His placating the army and berating the protesters is not going to overly please his detractors, or save him from becoming a victim of their new counter-aragalaya, alternative-truth narratives.
Politics and politics
There is politics in the country and there is politics in parliament. The twain has never been so far apart. The linkages between the two have never been so sparse as they are now. Parliament failed miserably when it failed to channel the momentum created by Aragalaya out on the streets into the institutional structures on the arena of the state. The President who is a beneficiary of the protests is also an electee of parliament and not elected by the people. That in itself is not a problem and it is also constitutional. The problem arises when the President asserts only his constitutionality and ignores the equally vital need for political credibility. And it arises when the President tries to yank the country towards what he thinks is best for the people instead of yanking himself to align with what the people indicate they most need at the moment. The political parties in parliament are as ineffective now as they were during the protests. The opposition parties are all relying on an early election whereas the SLPPers in government would prefer to complete their full term before facing the people or running away from them.
As I wrote last week, the President is sitting pretty and that assessment holds more on account of the political dynamic in parliament than the more diverse political currents in the country. The opposition calls for early elections are also intended to gamble on the political uncertainties in the country rather than bide their time till elections are called as they come due. With the President saying that he is not going to prematurely dissolve parliament for an early election, there would be pressure on him not to delay the local government elections which are due next year.
Here again the President is unnecessarily complicating matters for himself and for the management of the economy by not forthrightly committing his support for the local elections to go ahead at the lawful discretion of the Election Commission. Ideally, and as the Head of State, President Wickremesinghe should stay neutral and not involve himself in the local elections in any way. That would keep him above the fray and on the high road no matter who wins or loses the elections. On the other hand, he would immeasurably hurt his credibility as a ‘crisis President’ if he were to lead the UNP campaign in the election or form a desperate alliance with even more desperate Basi Rajapaksa.
Last week, I got carried away by election speculations and alluded to the possibility that the President might opt to have early presidential and parliamentary elections together any time after November 16, 2023. I was going by news reports that an early presidential election might be called using the constitutional provision to call such an election four years after the last presidential election. I was immediately corrected by an email from Rohan Edrisinha, academic and constitutional scholar, that the current President cannot call an early presidential election because under the Third Amendment, which created the provision for early presidential elections, a person becoming President by virtue of being elected by parliament to fill a presidential vacancy, is not entitled to use that provision.
In other words, President Wickremesinghe cannot call a presidential election before the end of the five year term for which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019. On the other hand, if Mr. Wickremesinghe were to decide to be a candidate in the presidential election after two years from now, he could still dissolve parliament and call for the two elections to be held concurrently. I wrote last week that November 2023 would be an eternity in politics. November 2024 would be an even longer eternity. And there is still a week left, itself a long time in politics, for more budget debate before the Third Reading on December 8.
Hopefully, the remainder of the debate will involve serious economics instead of political acrimony. Hopefully, as well, someone like Anura Kumara Dissanayake will force the new parliamentary President to update parliament, and the country, on the status of IMF assistance, debt restructuring, food supplies, fuel procurement, electricity tariffs, and the President’s assessment of the extent of corruption in his government and what he proposes to do about it. All of which have been glaringly left out of the budget.