By Rajan Philips –
“In the name of God, go!” – Oliver Cromwell, 20 April 1653, London, England
Two weeks from today, nearly 400 years ago, Oliver Cromwell sacked a corrupt British parliament (the Long Parliament) and scolded away its MPs, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go”.
Sri Lanka has no Cromwell, but it has its people. And their will be done.
The two-billion-dollar (Lanka’s current forex balance) question is who will go first, the President or the Parliament. The Parliament is ready to go for reelection but only after the President goes through his resignation.
It has been a hectic week in politics that began with “Go Gota, Go” protests at Jubilee Post, Mirihana, on Thursday 31 March. There is no sign of the President resigning any time soon, nor is there any sign of the people letting up on their insistent demand that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must leave. To-date there has not been any public sign of support for the President to continue in office. There is no mistaking the direction in which the political wind is blowing. It is more than the proverbial wind. It is a storm, an unprecedented tsunami on the political landscape. At the same time the economic crisis and the people’s hardships are not showing any sign of abating.
Speechless & Powerless
The President is yet to address the nation even though the events of this week and the continuing hardships in people’s lives warrant a national address by the President. A Head of State is not a backroom operator but the interface between the state and the citizens. Effective national communication is an essential part of an elected president’s job. In the current situation, when so much is at stake and so many people are genuinely hurting, the President is also guilty of not showing empathy besides being unacceptably unforthcoming.
All we have are reports that the President had informed political parties in the government that “he will not step down from the Presidency but will hand over the government to whoever that holds 113 seats in Parliament.” Later the President let his dummy in parliament, Johnston Fernando, the Government Whip, declare in the Assembly that “the President will absolutely not resign.” On Thursday, the President showed up in parliament and took his seat, only to be seen but not heard.
By continuing in office, the President is not only aggravating the challenges facing the country, but he is also setting himself up for a harsh exit relative to the somewhat quiet way out that he can take advantage of now. So far, the government has tried imposing a curfew, declaring a State of Emergency, and disbanding the SLPP-led government and forming a new national government. But nothing has worked. The President has all the powers but he seems unable to execute anything.
He declared a State of Emergency on Friday and revoked it on Tuesday. Easily the shortest duration of Emergency Rule in Sri Lanka. The government knew that parliament would have rejected an extension. The curfew last Sunday became a political picnic for the people. The President staged a cabinet resignation as a sop to the protesting people. Now he cannot find enough MPs to have a cabinet of more than four ministers. One of the four, Ali Sabri, who was shuffled from Justine to Finance, first resigned out of principle and his revoke his resignation apparently compelled by his patriotism. Brother Basil who flew over the ocean to become Finance Minister is nowhere to be seen or heard.
Thankfully, however, adult hands are back at the Central Bank and the Treasury after two years of Cabraal-onomics. The new Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe and Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardane have hit their strides impressively fast as they try to “catch up” after preciously lost time and mad hatter decision making. They are moving fast to start negotiations with the IMF that has been waiting for months for some sane head in the government to talk with.
The currency keeps falling and the current rate is at Rs. 326 for a US Dollar. Deposit and lending policy rates have been raised by a record 700 basis points. Amidst calls for its overhaul, the Monetary Board under the new Governor is overhauling its message and its approach. But the costs of delayed remedies are going to be high and severe with or without the IMF. The political question is whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa should continue as President to administer the bitter medicines required to cure the country’s economic ailments after twenty years of the Rajapaksa yugaya. Is he going to wait till the rupee drops to 500 per dollar?
Deadlock in Parliament
The government has lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. But the governing party, the SLPP, still has about 112/113 MPs out of the total 225. That slender and fleeting majority of SLPP MPs is the only political support the President has in the country. The near-equal divide in parliament is not a portrayal of the country that is overwhelmingly united in calling for the President’s resignation. As I said earlier, there is no one outside parliament standing up in support of the President staying in office without resigning.
The President’s efforts to form a national government have been brutally rebuffed. On Thursday, the JVP/NPP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake greeted the President’s attendance in parliament by reiterating the JVP’s position that it will not accept any proposal for an interim government unless the President resigns. The Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, has said the same thing on Tuesday. And so has every other political party in parliament. Forty two MPs have left the governing alliance. The government has a majority of one, one day, and no majority the next day. Still, the President seems to think he can go on merrily for three more years without resigning.
It is unfortunate that the Speaker of Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, reportedly ruled out the possibility of Parliament asking the President to step down. Apparently in his view “Parliament has no democratic right to ask the president to resign.” I beg to disagree. Parliament can ask for anything but the President does not have to abide by it. Yet, a resolution calling on the President to resign will carry a powerful symbolic effect. It will resonate with what the people are calling for from outside the scaffolds of the state.
To his credit, the Speaker also made a special statement in parliament to warn about an impending food crisis and “appealed to lawmakers to sink their political differences … and come together to find solutions.” The Speaker knows full well as to who is stopping lawmakers from coming together. It is the President who is refusing to resign. The role of the Speaker in the current situation is unenviable. His role is not to intercede on behalf of the President in parliament. It is to faithfully convey to the President the mood in parliament, which ought to be the mood of the people.
On the other hand, it is wrong for GL Peiris, the resigned and re-sworn Foreign Minister, to suggest, as he reportedly ‘explained’ to Colombo’s diplomatic community, that the current demonstrations are “not directly against the government, a political party or the ruling party but against the entire political establishment of the country and that the very foundation of the system was under criticism.” It is also beneath him to use isolated protest rhetoric allegedly calling “for all MPs to resign and allow academics and professionals to run the country,” and suggest that the protest demands are infeasible. They have only one demand – for the President to resign.
Minister Peiris is also reported to have “outlined the Constitutional provisions that are currently available which included the Prime Minister taking over for 60 days in the event an incumbent President resigns, after which the MPs would have to elect a suitable leader among them to lead the country for the remaining period until an election could be held.”
Perfect! But he is speaking to the wrong audience, the diplomatic community! The former academic should conduct a tutorial for the President and the Prime Minister and explain to them that there is nothing unconstitutional about the public outcry calling for the President to resign. He could also be helpful by suggesting that both the President and the Prime Minister should resign and Parliament can elect one of its MPs to be sworn in as interim President. That is all the people are asking for.
Not only Minister Peiris, but opinion makers and editorial writers are also missing the mark when they keep preaching to the people to keep peace and avoid violence. Instead, they should aim at the bullseye and call on the President to resign with honour and spare the country from prolonging the agony. In the current mood of the country, the only way the President can serve democracy is by resigning. He can do it in time for the country to celebrate New Year in high spirits even if people’s stomachs are not full and their nights are without lights. And he can do it in time for the country to mark Easter with new hope and optimism.