By Rajan Philips –
To abolish or not to abolish the executive presidency? That is Sri Lanka’s politically existential question. And who will be the non-Rajapaksa presidential candidate at the next election? That is the UNP’s existentially political question. The country is schizophrenic over abolishing the executive presidency. In the last election, abolishment was the single issue that galvanized the candidacy and ensured the victory of Maithripala Sirisena. After the great Sirisena betrayal, the presidency may not be an issue or a question at the next presidential election. But it will invariably become a haunting issue after the next election. The schizophrenia will continue and whoever who wins the election will have to deal with it. The UNP will have to deal with it even as it struggles to decide on its next presidential candidate. Will the abolishment question be a factor in picking one among the three contenders for the UNP candidacy, even though it is still a long shot from winning the presidency? What comeuppance for the Party that created the presidency? Spare a thought for the country that is now schizophrenic because of it.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa may fancy that he has no abolishment baggage to carry as a presidential candidate. Obviously, he is not going to commit himself to abolishing the executive presidency, because his politics is all about presidential power. Without it there will be no business for him in politics. That’s a litmus test for you to determine the eligibility of a political aspirant. But it will be interesting to see if Mr. Rajapaksa would commit himself to preserving the presidential system and to put the abolishment question to rest once and for all. If he were to do that, he will be the first presidential candidate in 25 years to defend the presidency and to commit to protecting it. That it should come from the SLFP side of the national political divide is symptomatic of the positional upheavals across party lines caused by the presidential system.
In fairness to Mr. Rajapaksa, we should not burden him with too many questions and too much expose the inherent contradictions in his candidacy even before he has been officially designated as the Rajapaksa candidate for the election. All Sri Lankans can wish him god speed to get well soon in Singapore. But only a handful can help him with whatever legal difficulties he is facing at home and abroad. To add to his anxieties, his older brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is mysteriously reluctant to formally announce his younger brother’s candidacy, even while publicly acknowledging that he (MR) has been given the power by the Joint Opposition to nominate their next presidential candidate. For those in the JO familiar with Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’, this must come across as a form of democratic personalism! Others might see it as a case of the SLFP getting infected by the presidential virus created by the UNP’s JR Jayewardene.
But as political gains and losses go, the presidential tables are turned, and have been turned over the last 25 years, against the UNP. In another unwitting outcome of the presidential system, the pre-1994 UNP and SLFP political formations have no meaning anymore. Everyone blames Ranil Wickremesinghe for the electoral rut the UNP has got into, because Mr. Wickremesinghe is a convenient whipping post for his detractors. Even the usually misfiring Maithripala Sirisena never misses a hit on Ranil Wickremesinghe. But the real source of the misfortunes of the UNP is not Ranil but the presidential system, and it is the model of the presidential system that has enabled Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain as the permanent leader of the UNP for as long as he has. Looked at it another way, while the UNP has gone off the rails after losing presidential power, the SLFP has all but disappeared after winning and keeping presidential power for 25 years – almost ten years longer than the UNP.
Picking the UNP candidate
I wasn’t planning on a long canter, for a short article, before getting to weigh the relative chances of the three contenders for the UNP candidacy. Blame it on the executive presidential system. It disrupts even political polemics. As the three contenders go, the candidacy is not, by any means, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s to lose. I think the UNPers are being polite and are expecting their leader to gracefully exist and avoid an embarrassing showdown. The voices that used to rush to his defence and to proclaim his candidacy have gone silent. In a rather rueful admission of his own isolation, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has lamented that all his born again UNP Ministers, save for Lakshman Kiriella (an ex-SLFPer), are going behind his back to make deals with the President. Even some of the Muslim ministers, who staged a dramatic mass resignation in consultation with the Prime Minister, went back to the President without telling the PM.
On the other hand, another ex-SLFP UNPer and a hitherto consistent Ranil-faithful, Managala Samaraweera, seems to be signaling that Sajith Premadasa is the man of the moment to carry the presidential torch for the future. This is more than interesting, because when it comes to scouting for presidential candidates, Mangala Samaraweera has a perfect track record in picking out the right candidate. He is a political weathercock and can turn on the slightest tailwind behind a potential candidate. In 2005, Mangala Samaraweera read the writing on the wall for the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and became an early sponsor for the candidacy for Mahinda Rajapaksa, and successfully packed off President Kumaratunga one year sooner than she was planning on leaving.
Samaraweera did not last long in the Rajapaksa presidential camp and he showed political courage, even principle, in leaving the Rajapaksas for the UNP-opposition when everyone around Ranil Wickremesinghe was moving the other way, and apparently with Ranil’s blessings to keep their finances solvent. Once in the opposition, Mangala became a close confidant and a more resourceful ally of the UNP leader. He played a key role in the 2010 presidential election and the ultimately disastrous candidacy of Sarath Fonseka. In 2014-2015, Samaraweera was the mastermind who coordinated the resignation, the candidacy and the eventual victory of Maithripala Sirisena. Sometime last year there were suggestions that Chandrika Kumaratunga was promoting the presidential candidacy of Mangala Samaraweera.
I am not suggesting that Mangala Samaraweera’s support is all that Sajith Premadasa needs to become the UNP candidate, let alone win the presidential election. Only, his signals are indicative of the mood within the UNP – to look past Ranil Wickremesinghe and towards Sajith Premadasa. Unquestionably, it is far from a done deal for Mr. Premadasa and he will have formidable opponents within the UNP especially given his studied intimacy towards President Sirisena whom most UNPers simply love to loathe. Interestingly and tellingly, the pushback against Premadasa is not manifesting even as rearguard support for Wickremesinghe but as an alternative possibility in the candidacy of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
Speaker Jayasuriya has earlier expressed his willingness to be a UNP presidential candidate only if there was unanimous support within the Party and only for the sole purpose of getting rid of the executive presidency. He said he was fed with the presidency after his experience with Sirisena and he was ready to fulfill Sobitha Thero’s mission in politics that Sirisena has betrayed. But the latest plea for unanimous support on his behalf by the All Ceylon National Bhikshu Forum (ACNBF), makes no mention of any commitment to abolishing the executive presidency.
It is still early days to say who is going to be the UNP candidate. In the event Sajith Premadasa turns out to be the one, political observers may want to look back at the ceremony last week in Matara to felicitate Mangala Samaraweera’s thirty years in politics on his home ground with only local admirers. The occasion brought together the triumvirate of Samaraweera, Sajith Premadasa and the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan. There was no Samantha Power this time, and it was Mr. Sampanthan who delivered the keynote address. In the current context, the triumvirate appearance is more than a mere coincidence. It was well known in political circles in 2014 that it was Mr. Sampanthan’s plea that persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to support Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate. We do not know who is pleading for whom this time around, but every political gathering in the coming months will be watched with interest by political speculators.
There was another ceremony in Colombo last week to felicitate DEW Gunasekara’s 60 years in politics, twice as many as Mangala Samaraweera and always in the same political party. The veteran Communist leader chose the occasion to warn that the country is “in such a deep political crisis that the forthcoming 2019 presidential election wouldn’t restore stability.” He did not have any advice for the current President or his successor, but “warned of dire consequences unless political parties represented in parliament took remedial measures urgently.” Therein is the rub. And that will be the country’s schizophrenia even after the current perahera of the UNP and Rajapaksa presidential candidates is brought to an end at the next presidential election.