By Rajan Philips –
In last week’s Sunday Island, Hon. Ranil Wickremasinghe, Leader of the Opposition, took centre page to make the case for what he has called the UNPs’ “constitutional formulation”. The paper generously gave him double exposure by carrying as its lead story, in addition to the centre page article, Mr. Wickremasinghe’s speech before a ‘People’s Assembly’ gathering at the JR Jayewardene Centre. He told the Assembly to “forget about toppling the government” and work on the more important task of reintroducing the 17th Amendment to the constitution. Good governance is more important than a new government is what the Hon. Leader of the Opposition is trying to tell the people. But how is Mr. Wickremasinghe planning to re-introduce the 17th Amendment and “re-establish” all the good independent commissions for public service, police, judiciary, and bribery? “Once that is achieved the rest will fall in place”, he has assured. But how is it to be achieved? By writing a letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa? By moving a new 22nd Amendment, as a Private Member’s Bill, to re-introduce 17A, and standing in queue behind the JHU’s Private Member motion for 21A?
Where are 21A and 22A coming from, you might ask. We know the amendment count is now at 18, and there is 19A that was supposed to see the light of day last Tuesday but seems to have got stuck in the amendment incubator. So what happened to 20A? I don’t know, but 21 is said to be the number assigned to the JHU’s amendment moved as a Private Member’s Bill to repeal 13A. So number 22 could be assigned to the amendment that Mr. Wickremasinghe might move to make good of his proposal to resurrect 17A. Too many double digits of amendments, you might say, and I don’t disagree. Salman Rushdie used to make fun of Indian bureaucrats for their obsession with abbreviations in bureaucratese. The Rajapaksa regime has fallen into the rut of double digitizing the constitution. Very soon government spokesmen are going to confuse amendment numbers for calendar days.
Constitution by numerology
So what is happening to 19A? That is the face saving amendment that President Rajapaksa is said to have conjured up after the brawl of a cabinet meeting on the ides (13th) of June over diluting 13A. The news of the infamous cabinet meeting was duly leaked to the outside world despite presidential pleas to the contrary. An internally well informed commentator ranked the meeting as the worst cabinet meeting since 1947. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga would have been reminded of the inside cabinet reporter during her tenure, and may have even reflected on the way karma works in politics when incumbents overstay in office. Be that, as it may.
19A was expected to be presented in parliament last Tuesday, June 18. It was to be designed to serve a lesser purpose than originally intended in the overall attempt to ‘dilute’ 13A by removing (a) the provision requiring unanimous consent by all Provinces (or two-thirds majority in parliament) for parliament to change the Provincial list of powers, and providing, instead, for a majority of provinces and a simple majority vote in parliament; and (b) the provision allowing two or more provinces to come together as an administrative unit. After facing stiff opposition from SLMC, EPDP and the old Left constituents of the UPFA, the President apparently decided to settle for an amendment (i.e. 19A) dealing with only the merger of the Provinces. The lesser amendment, the dilution of dilution, was touted as a victory for the President and an indication of the continuing unity within the UPFA alliance.
But 19A did not land in parliament as expected on Tuesday June 18. Instead, the JHU’s Athuraliye Rathana Thero introduced a Private Member’s Bill as ‘21st Amendment to the Constitution’ for an outright repeal of 13A. Not only did the venerable MP jump the gun on 19A, but he jumped two steps from 18A to 21A. Is 20 bad in numerology for Sri Lankans as 13 is for the Chinese?
Things got curiouser when the good Thero’s motion was seconded by a UNP MP, Palitha Range Bandara. So much for internal party solidarity over the leader’s (Ranil Wickremasinghe) new brand of ‘constitutional formulation’. Never mind Bandara has since been suspended, but the moral of the story is that when Ranil Wickremasinghe wants to turn left (progressive) to re-introduce 17A, a member of his party is turning extreme right to second the JHU’s 21A. Yet, there is plausible logic in Mr. Bandara’s disloyalty. Did not Ranil Wickremasinghe and his executive team host the JHU at Sri Kotha for constitutional talks? So can you really blame if Palitha Bandara thought he was only anticipating the leader’s next move?
Back to 19A. The newest rumour, not unfounded, is that the government is looking into using 19A to reduce President Rajapaksa’s (second) term in office so that he could have an early presidential election next year and make sure of a third term in office for the Rajapaksas. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s method is true to form, but how is Ranil Wickremasinghe going to deal with its inherent madness? There are a few twists and turns of irony here.
On the one hand, Ranil Wickremasinghe is asking his followers to forget about toppling the government and work towards re-introducing 17A. On the other hand, President Rajapaksa is looking to topple himself, rather topple his second term, so that he can launch a new third term sooner than currently permissible. He is apparently trying to make this possible through 19A, treating it as an urgent bill, per usual. Mahinda Rajapaksa is a past master of the art of timing elections and winning them. He knows the risks involved in waiting for two more years to run for the third term. By having it next year, he will catch his opponents unprepared and effectively prevent the emergence of a single candidate to challenge him. His election machinery is virtually state machinery and can be mobilized in no time, which is not at all the case with opposition candidates including Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremasingh are perfect foils, each contrasting the other so well that one runs the country with his brothers while the other runs the party with his friends. If one is the past master at contesting elections, the other is the past master avoiding them. Ranil Wickremasinghe cunningly avoided the 2010 presidential race and neatly set up Sarath Fonseka as the straw man for Mahinda Rajapaksa. After 2010, Mr. Wickremasinghe has artfully avoided a confrontation with President Rajapaksa or the government on every contentious issue. He went gloriously missing in action when the Rajapaksa regime rammed through parliament the Eighteenth Amendment that nullified the Seventeenth Amendment. Last December, he flew to Rome, where Nero had fiddled, when Colombo’s chattering classes were burning over the impeachment crisis, and inexplicably let go of an opportunity to take control of the political agenda. The recent attack on his car while returning from the funeral of fishermen who perished in the sea was a deplorable act of political thuggery by government goons but it also showed how isolated the UNP leader is from his own party’s base. In earlier times, there would have been such a throng of UNP supporters surrounding the leader and his motorcade that no government thug would have dared come to the street.
The question now is whether Ranil Wickremasinghe is mentally and otherwise ready to face an election next year if Mahinda Rajapaksa were to spring one on the country. Or, will he do another 2010 and sit it out, waiting for the next auspicious occasion without Mahinda Rajapaksa as incumbent candidate? And what will happen to his plan to re-introduce 17A without toppling the second-term Rajapaksa government when President Rajapaksa topples himself and starts a new third-term government? Will a third-term Rajapaksa be more amenable to bring back 17A as a legacy gift to the country?
In fairness to Ranil Wickremasinghe, the proposition to re-introduce 17A without toppling the government is more important for what it implies about constitutional change than what it says about partisan politics. What it implies is that a regime change by itself will not be enough, and may not be even necessary, to bring about a constitutional change. Instead, it poses the challenge to find a way for likeminded parliamentarians to disregard party loyalties and ally themselves for the limited and specific purpose of positively changing the constitution. In the ideal situation, the two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, and the minority political parties, the TNA and the SLMC, must come to a common understanding about constitutional changes.
But rather than achieving such an understanding, President Rajapaksa has been using every trick in the political trade, poaching UNP MPs and coopting minority and Left parties, to add to his parliamentary majority and change the constitution illiberally, improperly and undemocratically. He is trying the same approach for the proposed 19A and in his efforts to seriously weaken, if not repeal 13A. If Ranil Wickremasinghe means what he says, he should start by mobilizing in parliament to defeat the president’s efforts to weaken 13A and amend the constitution to have a snap presidential election. To do that, he should first protect his own troops from defecting to the government and promote likeminded MPs in the government alliance to defect instead and vote against repealing 13A and for the re-introducing 17A. Put another way, can Ranil Wickremasinghe outsmart Mahinda Rajapaksa in his own game: prevent the Rajapaksa regime from toppling itself, for now, and causing further mischief to the constitution?