17 September, 2019

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Presidential Candidate Like No Other 

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Soon after the 1982 referendum, the Centre for Society and Religion  conducted a series of lectures on the referendum experience and published them as a symposium entitled: Referendum’82: Eclipse of Parliamentary Democracy in Sri Lanka. The contributors included the SLFP’s Felix Dias Bandaranaike and the LSSP’s Hector Abhayavardhana. Mr. Bandaranaike’s thesis was that “the main objective of the present government (i.e. the then government of President Jayewardene) has been the setting up of a straight dictatorship.” Hector Abhayavardhana entitled his contribution: ‘A Dictatorship that has not clicked.’ These were early warnings of dictatorship from two individuals who could not have been more separated in their political locations. The context for the warnings was in the title of the publication, Eclipse of Parliamentary Democracy, given by the Centre’s founder Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, the Oblate Catholic Priest of a different generation. Fr. Tissa did not talk politics from the pulpit, but came down from the pulpit to talk truth to power.   

The thesis for the present time is that these two tendencies – i.e. the tendency towards setting up a dictatorship and the counter tendency for frustrating it – have become embedded in our political dynamic. The selection of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) not only confirms the prevalence of the two tendencies, but also illustrates their new manifestations in the political circumstances of today – 37 years after the first warnings about presidential dictatorship emerged in Sri Lanka. As well, what was called ‘eclipse of parliamentary democracy’ at that time, has turned out to be a rather severe erosion of parliamentary democracy.

I am not at all suggesting that Mr. Rajapaksa is carrying a plan in his pocket to turn Sri Lanka into a dictatorship. If he is carrying anything at all, it would be his career resume and the testimonial from his former military supervisor, Cyril Ranatunga, that he (Gotabaya) as a soldier always acted beyond the call of duty. He could also be carrying multiple versions of proof that he has in fact renounced his American citizenship. Many of his critics, on the other hand, seem to suggest that the former Defence Secretary may have fallen short of the minimum requirements as an American citizen obtaining dual Sri Lankan citizenship in the first place, and for renouncing one of them now to become president of the other. 

What we know for sure is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is carrying the baggage from the government of his brother and the Fifth President of the Republic, Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is the authoritarian legacy of the Fifth President that is now pigeonholing the fifth child of the Rajapaksa first family to be the target of warnings against dictatorship. That these warnings come from Mangala Samaraweera and Ranil Wickremesinghe is a new manifestation of old tendencies. In 1982, it was the UNP government of President Jayewardene that was accused of fomenting a dictatorship. Now, the political descendants of President Jayewardene have become the accusers of allegedly wannabe dictators. The descendants of those who raised the alarm then are now raising the banner for the newest political entrant from the Rajapaksa clan.

A unique candidate

By any measure, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a unique political candidate, and I am not saying this as an endorsement of his political endowments. In fact, he is the least politically endowed candidate in Sri Lanka’s reasonably long (rather too long) presidential history. His acceptance speech was full of personal credentials without any political context, or constitutional thinking. There were repeated references to ‘discipline’, but nary a mention of ‘parliament’. There was constant emphasis on his ability to get the job done, but no idea of what the ‘presidential’ job is really all about. There was a glossing reference to past mistakes, but not even a superficial calibration of what those mistakes were and how they paralyzed the institutional pillars of government – the judiciary, the treasury and the administration. 

To briefly get back to 1982, the 1978 Constitution had already seen five amendments in four years. Every one of them, as Felix Dias Bandaranaike pointed out then, sought to “amend the Constitution in particular aspect or area only, namely, the franchise and the electoral process.” The monkeying with the franchise and the electoral process that began then, has not abated since. To Hector Abhayavardhana, “a potent reason for the failure of presidential dictatorship” was its “negative character and lack of correspondence with the needs of the moment … the objective situation in the country.” A similar stalling of the dictatorial tendency was seen most recently in the failed attempt to win a third term in office by the Fifth President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

Hector Abhayavardhana foresaw another development occurring under the twin mechanisms of executive presidency and proportional representation: the tendency to push “the two principal political parties to enter into a governmental coalition” as the “only way to ensure a stable government.” Ranil Wickremesinghe became the chief exponent of this tendency and even gave his “National Government” brainchild a constitutional status. In its most vulgar form, the device of a National Government became a ruse for creating more ministries to induce MPs to stay with the government. In its current version, the rumour is about the possibility of a national government having Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. This would apparently avoid the embarrassment of having Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Prime Minister, dictating terms to President Gotabaya in terms of the 19th Amendment. The waggish question is whether Ranil Wickremesinghe is prepared to play second fiddle to Gotabaya Rajapaksa after breaking the first violin in his tussle with Maithripala Sirisena?  

There are also swirling news stories that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is secretly helping Gotabaya Rajapaksa to navigate the citizenship traps that were supposedly inserted in the 19th Amendment stop the Gotabaya candidacy. No one knows the truth or falsity of any of this, but in the absence of credible denials it is the Prime Minister’s reputation that is now in tatters. The other potential casualty is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for even if the stories are unverified, the fact that they are in relentless circulation only suggests that the underlying premises – the legal difficulties and citizenship questions, are well stocked among political watchers and they will keep them alive in the social media and by word of mouth even if government bigwigs try to cover them up and the mainstream media will not overplay them. That these issues loom large over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy, and potentially over his presidency, is also indicative of the lack of political insulation around him. 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the first serious presidential candidate in Sri Lanka without any parliamentary or politico-organizational experience. I am not harping on this to assess his winnability. There is enough time to beat that horse to death. In fairness, Mr. Rajapaksa and his core supporters may sincerely believe that his non-political background and outsider status would become his winning formula. That indeed was the lesson that Mr. Rajapaksa was publicly trying to learn from the triumph of Donald Trump in America. But Trump created his own trajectory and charted his own path to the presidency. Mr. Rajapaksa’s candidacy is anything but. Rather than calling the shots in SLPP, as Trump did in the Republican Party (and is doing now ever so loudly and obnoxiously), Gotabaya Rajapaksa was made to wait patiently for his family elders and schemers to make up their minds. 

The fact that the Rajapaksas are even in a position not only to contest but potentially win the presidency that they lost in 2015, is really not because of anything they did after 2015. Never mind that it is in spite of everything they did before 2015. It is wholly because of everything that Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena did or failed to do over the last four plus years. It is the betrayal of the yahapalanaya promises that has made the return of the Rajapaksas possible and the presidential candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa a reality. It is insulting to hear Prime Minister Wickremesinghe now publicly teasing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to apologize for the emblematic political killings and kidnappings that went on before 2015. If at all, Mr. Wickremesinghe owes the country an explanation as to how the crimes before 2015 were investigated after 2015. And the Prime Minister is only adding injury to insult if there is even a modicum of truth in the news stories about a secret understanding between him and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

As presidential histories go, President Jayewardene was pre-occupied with setting up a system of power that was insulated from the vicissitudes of electoral politics. From everything that is known about JRJ, it is fair to say that his pre-occupation arose not from any objective needs but from his idiosyncratic urges. President Premadasa was pre-occupied with fighting internal battles within his Party and had no time to add much to the house that JRJ had started building. President Kumaratunga, the most inspirational of all presidential candidates, however, established the precedent for making the promise to abolish the executive presidency and then breaking it. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Fifth President, was perhaps the only one who came close to succeeding in the setting up of a “straight dictatorship” that Felix Dias Bandaranaike warned about in 1982. 

The emergence of ‘yahapalanaya’ in 2015, was the most vigorous manifestation of the counter tendency against dictatorship. That tendency will remain regardless of who becomes the next President. How it will play out in the upcoming election is somewhat unclear. Whoever gets to be the candidate of the UNP-led alliance cannot assume that the alliance will have the same support it had in January 2015. What will be the next UNP candidate’s position on the future of executive presidency? Gotabaya Rajapaksa is perhaps the first presidential candidate after 1994 who might claim to be against abolishing or significantly altering the executive presidential system. What is his position on the 19th Amendment? Even if the Rajapaksas were to return to power, they will find that the political landscape has changed since they were sent to pasture in 2015. 

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Latest comments

  • 3
    5

    No president will be like him. He will not get support of US and India. so, he will never win… US will never give him a letter of US citizenship cancellation: His name is popping up now for the time beings. But it is Malinda wife who will contest election. PL preis is too old.. no other one could do it. Namal is too young.. Now, they are in trouble.. All this is good for Sajith.

    • 8
      2

      Ranil – “Namal is too young.” This bugger is a GCE (OL) failed synthetic “lowyer” and Mongol son of the former unlawful King Medamulana Meeharaka Percy Mahendra Rajafucksha. His profile indicates he ATTENDED St. Thomas’ College, City University London and Sri Lanka Law College. Everyone knows how this guy came out with flying colours from the Law College during his father’s reign of terror. Stud Namal is scheduled to get married next month, instead of aspiring to be the future President of Sorry Lanka, he should think of premature retirement with all the ill-gotten wealth the Rajafucksha’s have acquired.

  • 11
    1

    Ranil

    “He will not get support of US”.

    Don’t be too sure. Uncle Sam is ONLY interested in getting what he wants from even the Devil. And Uncle Sam knows very well how to manipulate and dictate to those who matter in less affluent countries like Sri Lanka. Whether Uncle Sam likes Gota or not, as long as Gota will do their Bidding – there is Nothing to indicate otherwise – Uncle Sam will fully back Gota.

    And surely Gota and the Pakses KNOW that all too well and there is nothing to stop them from doing whatever it takes to grab Power.

    • 2
      2

      Gota will give away Trinco to USA to deploy US troops. Another Okinawa. Perfect punishment for Muttur and Sampur people who voted lowest in history for Mahinda in 2015 and possibly even lower for Gota. Minorities are the enemies of Rajafucksas, not USA or Israel. They are in bed with USA and Israel while getting their dogs to bark against them. Not a bad deal for SL. They will also fight against Muslims (calling them “ISIS”) another sweet thing for USA, Israel and Modi. It is revenge time for Rajafucksas.

  • 0
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    Rajan,
    This a good attempt to present a balanced view on how past presidents viewed their position. Let me start with one particular point that caught my eye. You are saying that JRJ’s preoccupation for surrounding himself with power arose not from objective reasons but for his personal idiosyncratic urges. I think that you are wrong on this point and that error has led you to reach fatally erroneous conclusion that 19 A has made such a temptation immaterial.

    On the contrary, I believe that the endless strike threats along with rising LITTE terrorism has created general perception among the public for the need for an strongman at the helm. 1978 constitution and the following series of rapid amendments were meant to reinforce this reality. Even though the political power of the left led by LSSP/CP has been has been nearly shattered by 1978, their trade unions along with the rising JVP still posed considerable threat to JRJ’s market oriented economic policies.

    Even though the situation at present is not as bad as then, I believe that the openness generated by 19 A has created somewhat similar sentiment among the public for a need of stronger Gvt. The Easter Bombing incident gave an instant promotion for such a need. As a matter of fact, on the very next day after the bombing, the SLPP candidate declared that he is coming for the rescue.

    Also, the current SLPP leader (ex Prez) has already declared his willingness to change the constitution. How he would try & get it done without a 2/3 majority is a different matter; what matters is their intention to reverse 19 A back to 18 A. Therefore, considering their intention; the taste for power; and having close ties with the military establishment, it is doubtful whether the feeling for democracy created by 19 A will act as an impediment to go for a military style rule if GoRa could win!

  • 3
    1

    Rajan,

    Is it the single issue? Democracy vs dictatorship? History to repeat.

    The betrayed issues of 2015 had become irrelevant

    • 1
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      Sri-Krish,
      Yes, I’m concerned about some of the disappointments even though I wouldn’t call them betrayals but, that is not a good reason to go back to Ra..kse family or to follow JVP Marxist who are wearing liberal clothes.

  • 1
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    Rajan Philips
    6 Comments
    Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Presidential Candidate Like No Other

    Rajan Philips , we are down to a Hobson choice of one family providing an Executive Presidential candidate, ‘others’ like UNP, SLFP one and the ‘other others’ like JVP one more, apart from thrill seekers who like to see their name in a ballot paper.
    .
    Not many of us remember that Basil came up with the SLPP slogan ‘Reconciliation will result in Separation’. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not contributed to the growth of SLPP. He is illiterate in political diplomacy/exigencies
    Mahinda/Gota need media attention and Rajan Philips’ title provides that.

  • 1
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    Those working behind the scenes in the Presidential bid of Gotabaya have advised him not answer questions from the media.
    For instance if he is asked what is his position on the 19th Amendment, he may very well say it would not be applicable to him!!!

  • 0
    0

    ” In fact, he is the least politically endowed candidate in Sri Lanka’s reasonably long (rather too long) presidential history. “

    LTTE assassinated most of the politically endowed (Harvard, Oxford, etc) candidates. They left Joker Ranil alone, as he was ready to give them their Eelam in 2006. As PM, Joker did nothing to enhance Maithree’s regime. A failure on all fronts: economic, political, military, etc. If you are the Opposition, this is the best time to exploit. The UNP is too incapacitated to get rid of this virus, so it will never expand its support base beyond Colombo 7. Even Joker knows this, at this point he has stopped running for elections and is cutting deals with the other side to retain his position. Any normal political party would call this treason, but the UNP lost its backbone a long time ago.

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