By Sarath de Alwis –
Clever people often get trapped in their own cleverness. Convinced that nobody could fool them, they begin to fool themselves.
Nobody in his right senses will believe the yarn about the UNP forming a national government with one solitary parliamentarian of the SLMC. That would make it an obscene obfuscation of a provision in the 19th amendment which is now assailed by the opposition. It would amount to a betrayal as bad and as nauseous as the one attempted on 26th October 2018.
If the purpose is to obtain the support of a dozen or more members of parliament now under the whip of the UPFA and the SLFP, let us not falsify the need or fabricate reasons. The majority thus obtained must be for a justifiable cause.
Why does the UNF need numbers? If it is to adopt the 20th amendment, abolishing the executive presidency which also requires a referendum, there is a morally justifiable reason to hold our noses and go along with it. As Trotsky famously advised in his essay – ‘Their morals and ours’ the end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.
It is time for the SLFP dissidents to choose the hound they wish to hunt with or opt for the hare they wish to run with.
They have fallen between Mahinda’s solid stool and Maithripala’s rickety stool. If Ranil wants to play musical chairs with that lot, good luck to him. Ranil’s jiggery-pokery of a national government is an insult to the thousands who thronged the streets in defense of constitutional propriety.
Hannah Arendt the celebrated political theorist wrote an allegorical critique of her mentor Martin Heidegger who became a theorist for the Nazi regime while she became a refugee in America.
In the allegory which she called Heidegger the fox, she points out the danger of becoming trapped in theoretical constructions while missing the higher purpose.
Once upon a time there was a fox who was so lacking in slyness that he not only kept getting caught in traps but couldn’t even tell the difference between a trap and a non-trap. … After he had spent his entire youth prowling around the traps of people … this fox decided to withdraw from the fox world altogether and to set about making himself a burrow. In his shocking ignorance of the difference between traps and non-traps, despite his incredibly extensive experience with traps, he hit on an idea completely new and unheard of among foxes: He built a trap as his burrow. He set himself inside it, passed it off as a normal burrow (not out of cunning, but because he had always thought others’ traps were their burrows). … Alas, no one would go into his trap, because he was sitting inside it himself. And so it occurred to our fox to decorate his trap beautifully and to hang up unequivocal signs everywhere on it that quite clearly said: “Come here, everyone; this is a trap, the most beautiful trap in the world.” From this point on … many came. Everyone except our fox could, of course, step out of it again. It was cut, literally, to his own measurement. But the fox who lived in the trap said proudly: “So many are visiting me in my trap that I have become the best of all foxes.” And there is some truth in that, too: Nobody knows the nature of traps better than one who sits in a trap his whole life long. (Arendt, Essays in Understanding)
In politics there are two types of lies. First is the lie intended to mislead. The second is the blatant lie, put forward to be recognized as a lie.
The 187-page report presented to the constituent assembly by Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe contained a draft constitution. Yet, he insisted that it was not a draft constitution but a report. That is a blatant lie intended to be recognized as a fib, falsehood and wicked fairy tale.
The former president and current leader of the opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa has now responded with a cleverly crafted response that contains mostly the other type of lie intended to mislead and screwup the debate on constitutional reforms.
Ranil’s insistence that it is a report and the draft is yet to be discussed is pure humbug. Mahinda’s counter claim that the draft constitution will destroy the unitary state is cynical posturing.
Between Ranil’s humbug and Mahinda’s cynical posturing there is ample space for a new negotiated constitutional order or at least an interim solution that abolishes the executive presidency.
By presenting a draft constitution disguised as a report that calls for more discussion and fine tuning, Ranil wanted to assure the TNA that he was committed to constitutional reforms including meaningful power devolution. That said, he does not want a serious debate on constitutional reforms or the abolition of the executive presidency when a presidential election is around the corner.
Mahinda Rajapakse in his initial cannonade identifies where he is headed and how he hopes to get there.
First, he draws the battle line. “The UNP, TNA and JVP have forfeited the trust of the people due to the manner in which they practiced dissimulation and deception in the law-making process. The way the 19th Amendment was passed with dummy provisions inserted solely to mislead the public and the Supreme Court… “
Next, he deals with the executive presidency.
“When the present rulers came into power in 2015, the only constitutional agenda they had was to abolish the executive presidency and to change the system of elections to ensure stable parliamentary governments. The draft constitution does have provisions to abolish the executive presidency, which we will not oppose.”
He then tackles electoral reforms.
“If the system of elections is to be changed so as to ensure stable governments, what should be introduced is the hybrid 70%-30% ‘first past the post/proportional representation’ system proposed by the Parliamentary Select Committee headed by Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena after years of careful study from 2002 to 2007 under both UNP and UPFA governments.”
He acknowledges the need for constitutional reforms.
Opposing the draft constitution put forward by the present government does not mean that we as the opposition are slamming the door shut on constitutional reform.
Then MR administers the Coup de grace – the knockout blow.
We acknowledge that extensive reform of the present constitution is necessary. The 19th Amendment alone has created a great deal of confusion that needs to be put right. Though we reject the separatist/federalist aspirations of some political parties, we acknowledge that local communities need to be empowered to look after their own affairs within a certain national framework.
If the TNA wants empowerment at the periphery, they should talk to the man who holds the hegemony at the center.
On 26th October 2018 our prophet decided to turn ‘pariah’. Unfolding events since then, demonstrate all too clearly that we must seriously retool our democracy to restore trust in the system.
Mahinda has conceded the need for constitutional reform. He is ready to accept electoral reforms if they are confined to the recommendations of the parliamentary select committee headed by Dinesh Gunawardena. He has declared that he will not oppose the abolition of the executive presidency. Mahinda promises to bring about these reforms after the elections under his leadership. That is a reasonable proposition from the leader of the opposition.
What does Ranil Wickremesinghe want just now? At this point in time, Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to win the next election. Constitutional reforms are not his priority. He wants to win either the next presidential election or the parliamentary elections which ever that comes first. That means that he must distance himself from the factual truth- that he is the least popular leader with most tenuous hold on his own party.
The TNA and the JVP quite correctly helped Ranil Wickremesinghe to reclaim his premiership. In theory they helped restore democracy. In practice they helped Sagala Rathnayaka to become Minster of Ports and make his brother Kavan Rathnayaka the chairman of the port’s authority.
There is something dangerously explosive about these times of total intrusive connectivity. Everybody is interested in politics while everybody is losing faith in politics.
We are determined to keep track of the activities of those in authority while we are increasingly distrustful of those who wield authority.
How much contempt and ridicule can our system endure, in this age when everybody can share their deeply felt opinions online?
The current electoral system will not produce a parliament any better than the current one. We must change the electoral system to an amalgam of first past the post and proportional representation.
The current system of political competition through party lists has reduced representative democracy to political puppetry. Is it not absolutely outlandish that voting, our only meaningful participation is reduced to a phantom performance in the silence of the polling booth?
Is the polling booth the only place where we can convert our individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and our long-term interests are best served?
Before the introduction of proportional representation there was a discernible trust in politics despite a degree of political apathy. Today under the current system all we have is total turmoil and total distrust.
The current dysfunctional cacophony in parliament offers the best opportunity and space to either abolish the executive presidency with the 20th amendment or work out a constitutional order that transcends seasonal political conveniences.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa rightly points out that we must forge a Sri Lankan nation. The current parliament is the best anvil on which existing tribal nationalisms can be beaten in to a cohesive civic nation. This parliament with its unruly composition is the best place to develop a constitution based on the consensus reflecting plural political opinion.
Politics is the art of the possible. We are familiar with this folk wisdom traced to Otto Von Bismarck who forged a German nation out of more than hundred German speaking principalities that in the 20th Century established its hegemony over the whole of Europe. But that is not what the iron chancellor said. We must pay heed to his entire piece of advice. “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.
Ranil must talk to Mahinda and arrive at what is attainable and what stands out as the next best. We can abolish the executive presidency and introduce consequential electoral reform combining first past post and proportional representation.