Colombo Telegraph

Maithripala Sirisena Holds The Trumps

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

The ‘100 days’ are done. Much of the key elements of the ‘program’ part of it remain undone. This should not worry President Maithripala Sirisena. An electorate that has been burdened by a draconian constitution for more than 36 years can wait a few months more. Indeed they have no option but to wait, at least until the next General Election. At most they have to wait for just one more year.

The question now is whether or not the promised reform will see the light of day. If the delay is only related to logistical issues then there’s little need to worry. The problem is that the entire process has been marked by political brinkmanship with both major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) showing less concern in democratization than in what the party could gain (or lose) in the process.

All this is understandable. Although there are UNPers and SLFPers in the cabinet, the decision-making power rests with the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the UNP. Although it is officially and in appearance a ‘national’ government, there are SLFPers in both what is called ‘government’ and what is called ‘opposition’, even though the man who wields almost dictatorial powers courtesy constitutional provision is also the leader of that party. In short it is a confused state of affairs, the confusion directly deriving from the fact that the chief executive has chosen to remain aloof in the day-to-day running of the country.

The flipside of this is that until such time the 19th Amendment is passed, the President can at any moment and with the greatest of ease change the political equation as per whim and fancy. All the more reason to get the 19th passed, one would think. As of now the only consolation is that President Sirisena has refused to limit the exercise the powers to less important matters. However, if the 19th is not passed due to the UNP and SLFP trying to see who will blink first, then he would have what Mahinda Rajapaksa had with a useful excuse, ‘by default’, i.e. the default of Parliament being patently uninterested in democratizing the constitution.

The irony is that only the President stands to gain if the 19th is passed and only the President (at this point) is able to persuade the two parties to ‘see reason’. He has the interesting and ‘good’ headache of being able to ensure that the process is scuttled even as he appears to be doing his very best to see it to a satisfactory close. All this, by the way, re-emphasizes how perniciously anti-people the 1978 Constitution is.

The President can take his time. The only thing that might force his hand is the ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa Factor. In the absence of parliamentary coherence with it being hard to find out who is in government and who in the opposition, and given the manifest (and deliberate?) sloth in investigating corruption charges against the previous regime, one has to wonder how close things have come to ‘too late’.

It is clearly in the UNP’s interest to go slow on investigations because it can help divide the SLFP. If the ‘due date’ elapses then action will run into problems associated with political ‘doability’. The UNP is walking on eggshells because all the negatives will fall into its account. As of now the Central Bank Governor’s issue related to bonds is driving a wedge between the UNP and its traditional base, the business community. This has obvious and serious implications for the party.

Managing that discontent while trying to divide the SLFP is no easy task, especially since the President with a few deft moves can trump the UNP and/or the Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘fan club’. He can trump the UNP also by co-opting the Mahinda factor. He has many options. Others have few or none. Again we see how pernicious the 1978 constitution is.

The problem for the country is that while all these political developments are interesting in and of themselves, they also make for serious lack of clarity, coherence and stability which naturally does not bode well for the economy. This, more than other political factors, is what constitutes a limiting factor for the President.

In this sense, we won’t or we can’t be having too much time to wait. The 19th and 20th are due to be taken up in Parliament next week. As was seen earlier this week it doesn’t take much to distract our parliamentarians. There will be costs of course, but if it is people and not individual MPs who have to pay, it won’t matter to them.

It is Maithripala Sirisena’s hour. Let us see how he plays his hand.

Back to Home page