By Rajan Philips –
Uditha Devapriya provides an interesting political take “On arresting Ranjan Ramanyake…” in Friday’s Daily Mirror. It is a refreshing commentary on the arrest of the actor-politician and the politician-actor and his allegedly recorded revelations involving highly placed police and judicial officers. Refreshing, that is, in contrast to all the highfalutin legal commentaries that are doing the rounds. One only needs to say LOL – laugh out loud, in social media vocabulary. In the arrest and in its aftermath, “politics has become theatre and theatre has become politics,” to use Devapriya’s quote of a dramatic one liner. Caught in the mix is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s New Administration and whatever positive message that the President is trying to send out to the people. Ironically, the President’s message before and after the November 2019 election, is kind of a promise to do a One Shot act in real politics.
As President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is different from every one of his predecessors by every political criterion. He compares in age with that of JR Jayewardene when the latter became President in 1977/78. Otherwise, his military background, American sojourn, his role as defence secretary, and non-involvement in party politics make him a unique occupant of the executive office. He is the beneficiary of fortuitous charisma that was massively boosted by the yahapalanaya debacle.
His unusual path to power has created positive expectations that he will exercise his power, unlike his predecessors, to get things done in a professional manner, without corruption and favouritism, to benefit the people more immediately than ultimately. The same unusual path has also created negative fears that his exercise of power could be more authoritarian than democratic. In addition, the same unusual path combined with his age and the term limits of power, make President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a ‘legacy president’ as opposed to a ‘career president’ or politician.
That is to say, Gotabaya Rajapaksa likely has no political ambition, direct or parental, beyond his presidency. He is, therefore, unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena. He is also different from Ranil Wickremesinghe who is being forced to bow out of politics after a lifetime of frustrated presidential ambition. He is different, as well, from Sajith Premadasa who is still young and may want to take another kick at the can.
Must-do and Must-avoid Priorities
Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election at the first shot, and for all intents and purposes he literally has a One Shot presidency, whether or not it involves one term or two, to leave behind a positive legacy. What would be that legacy? I am not a crystal ball prognosticator, but it is possible to speculate on what that legacy could be – based on the country’s priorities and which among them the new President is best suited to successfully deliver.
The country has several priorities, but the President and his Administration must wisely choose a short list of them that they could successfully deliver within the not unlimited, or term-limited, time they have in office. They should equally avoid embarking on projects that will only drag the government into a quagmire and eventually leave the President’s legacy as unfinished business at best. I will place hard infrastructure projects in the first doable group of priorities, and anything to do with constitutional reform in the must-avoid second group.
In my humble view, attempting a broad constitutional reform will prove to be a worthless misadventure for the new administration and will only stymie the otherwise worthy efforts that the President might launch to leave behind a positive legacy in infrastructure building. The only constitution reform that is now needed are electoral reforms. They are already identified in the initiative completed by Dinesh Gunawardena during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. They were deliberately not acted upon then. And they were characteristically neglected by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration. There is no reason why they cannot be legislated now, in the current parliament, with the required two-thirds majority for the constitutional amendment that would be necessary.
The 19th Amendment was enacted and adopted under similar parliamentary circumstances in 2015. If the (majority) opposition parties are not willing to support the current (minority) government on electoral reform, the government can then go to the people lambasting the opposition parties over electoral reforms. A constitutional change that is achieved through government-opposition consensus in parliament is far more preferable to one that is voted in by a tyrannical, two-thirds majority government. The spirit of the two-thirds majority requirement presupposes the support of at least some of the opposition parties. A constitutional change brought about by the government acting alone vitiates that spirit. Put another way, a two-thirds majority including opposition parties will be representative of about 60 to 70%, or more, of the national population. On the other hand, a two-thirds majority involving the government alone may not be representative of more than 55% of the people.
The bone of contention in electoral reforms is of course the cut-off point under proportional representation. It is necessary to remind here that the high (12.5%) district-wise cut off point in the 1978 Constitution was harshly criticized by Dr. NM Perera as targeting the two main Left Parties which were then unrepresented in parliament. The lowering of the cut-off point by the 15th Amendment was not a response to NM’s criticisms, but an act of political expediency to divide the minority ethnic vote. A lower cut off point is obviously more democratic and a high cut off point defeats the very purpose of having proportional representation in place of first-past-the-post system. A low cut off point benefits not only parties of ethnic minorities, but also small political parties in the south.
As the now arrested-and-released Champika Ranawaka has reportedly said, a low cut off point will only drive small radical parties in the south out of the political process and into the forests. It is also hypocritical to miss the elephant in the room that all Sri Lankan political parties, big and small, are ethnocentric parties. It is a stretch, if not hypocritical, to suggest that any of the two, now three, main political parties are national political parties. This is not to say that the three parties are necessarily anti-minority in everything they do, but to acknowledge the point that ethnicity is an organizing principle of Sri Lankan politics. There is no point hiding it, and the task is to learn to live with it in peace and with goodwill. Neither attribute can be obtained in a sudden flash, but both can be built over time with patience and persistence at the political level.
National reconciliation, if it is still an objective – even after Mangala Samaraweera’s grandiloquent devaluation of it, is never a dead end-state, but a constant work in progress. Accommodating a low cut-off point in electoral arithmetic is a necessary attribute of that work. It can be achieved by discussion and consensus. It should not be rejected haughtily in the name of a lopsided sense of nationalism.
Vistas and Distractions
“Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” – the New Administration’s Viyathmaga motto brings to mind another phrase from a different political era in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The old phrase – “grand ambitions and sweeping vistas”, is a characteristically felicitous phrase that recurs in Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy of Leon Trotsky’s life. The phrase typified the era of Trotskyism which never wholly took off either in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. It did make a splash, however, and more so in Sri Lanka where the Trotskyist LSSP’s political splash was very much larger than its limited electoral successes.
In contrast, the current vistas for prosperity and splendour now being projected in Sri Lanka are electorally well validated. Fifty days into the New Administration, there is acknowledgment that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s initial steps are generally in keeping with his promised vistas and the more optimistic expectations of his presidency. At the same time, there is all round amusement about the distractions that are being provided by others within the administration and in the broader Rajapaksa entourage. Almost all of the distractions are at the expense of the now disgraced and disparaged yahapalanya administration, and deservedly so.
However, the political point about these distractions is not quite clear because they are simply crowding out whatever positive message the new President is trying to send out. More importantly, the continuing derisions of the yahapalanaya government are not going to hurt its partners in inaction anymore than they are already hurt now. Nor are the ongoing revelations going to cause any more disarray in the UNP than there already is. The real worrisome consequence of these distractions is the toll that they are taking on the institutions of judiciary and other law enforcement agencies.
It would seem that these distractions are intended for the very purpose of disparaging those institutions. To cheer them on, on the one hand, and to express concerns about the state of the judiciary, on the other, not to mention calling on the Chief Justice to rescue the judiciary from whatever rut it has fallen into, is no worse than shedding crocodile tears. The judiciary is in no better or worse state now than it has ever been in the last 42 years. If at all, during the last five years, the judges were not stoned in their homes, assaulted in front of schools, ridiculed in parliament and by parliamentary committees, did not have their Chief Justice removed by impeachment. No judicial ruling was questioned or discarded during the last five years. If the real purpose of the current distractions is to revisit any of the old judicial rulings, that would be to take the country to a past that it does not have to. Nor will it in any way advance the legacy goals of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Another distraction that is equally not clear is resurrecting the controversy over the singing of the national anthem in Tamil along with the more official version in Sinhalese. Singing the anthem in Tamil does not require a constitutional amendment. If one is deemed required, that could be considered as a positive reform measure to the 1978 Constitution! None of this is necessary and that only reinforces my earlier point that all of this is only detracting from the more positive initiatives of the new President and his administration. There have been quite a few of them, some of which are to be expected and some others deserve to be commended.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s smart-casual approach without ceremonial pretensions is to be expected of anyone who has spent time in an immigrant society like North America. His much publicized ‘presidential raids’ to shake up bureaucratic dens have been tried before and by themselves they are not to change how the government works. Governments need to work necessarily slowly to make sure that all questions are raised and answered, and all requirements are identified and satisfied. If someone wants speed in government, they must start the process early, instead of starting late and running through all the red lights.
That said, where the new President is winning kudos is in the appointments that he has been making to government institutions, Banks, Boards and Corporations – from the Central Bank to the Jaffna Provincial Council, and a host of them in between. All of them are good early starts and time will tell how the new appointees are given the space and autonomy they require to carry out their professional work. I alluded earlier to building the country’s hard infrastructure components as a potential legacy for the new President. One can write at some length on this on a later date and after seeing how things unfold in the next few months.
Suffice it to say here that in addition to hard infrastructure, a comprehensive development of the non-plantation agricultural sector could be another legacy opportunity. Both the development of hard infrastructure and that of the agricultural sector lend themselves to involving provincial administrations in meaningful ways within the framework of the 13th Amendment. The potential for articulating the two levels of government is well illustrated in the inaugural remarks of the new Governor of the North Central Province, Tissa Vitarana, who is also a prominent Trotskyite of his generation. I do not quite agree with Dr. Vitarana’s political dialectic, but there is no question about his competence and capabilities as a medical scientist and as a professional.
And even if half of what the Dr. Vitarana has listed in his remarks in Anuradhapura can be achieved at the provincial level under the new President, that will be quite an achievement and will have to be acknowledged as such even by skeptical scribes like yours truly. The prospects are pleasing, but the question is whether the new administration will be able to contain the proliferation of One Shot distractions for the sake of One Shot politics and a legacy presidency.