By 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.