By Rasika Jayakody –
The appointment of the new Chief Justice Nalin Perera, a career judge who has served in the judiciary for over 30 years, provides a snapshot of the dynamics within Sri Lanka’s major political powers.
It offers a glimpse into President Maithripala Sirisena’s thought process, amid vigorous calls by his allies to form a Caretaker Government, replacing the current Prime Minister with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The 64-year-old new Chief Justice has maintained a relatively low profile thus far. Before sending his name to the Constitutional Council, President Sirisena , considered with several other high-profile names, including those of Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya and Eva Wanasundara, the senior-most judge in the current Supreme Court.
In fact, two separate groups were strongly backing both Jayasuriya and Wanasundara, for two completely different reasons. The UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was in favour of Attorney General Jayasuriya as the latter was a politically “safer option” in comparison to other candidates in the fray. Jayasuriya, a smooth and meticulous operator, walked a tightrope when he questioned the Prime Minister after he made his “voluntary statement” before the Bond Commission in November, last year. In choosing to back Jayasuriya for the post of the 46th Chief Justice, the UNP was signalling its unflinching confidence in the man.
Jayasuriya, however, did not earn the support of the UNP at the expense of President Sirisena’s goodwill. His loyalty to Sirisena was manifest in the AG’s submission to the Supreme Court, when the President sought opinion on whether, in terms of provisions of the Constitution, he had an impediment to continuing in the office of President for a period of 6 years from 9th January 2015.
Much to the surprise of many good governance activists, Jayasuriya presented asubmission to the Supreme Court that said the incumbent President was elected by the people for a term of 6 years, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which reduced the term to five years, was operative after he was elected. As later proven by the Supreme Court’s opinion on the matter, Jayasuriya’s submissions sharply contravened the provisions of the 19th Amendment, and it was all too evident that the Attorney General was pandering to the President’s political whims.
Given this history and strong support-base on both sides, many initially believed that Jayasuriya would be the hot favourite for the spot under Sirisena.
Then emerged Eva Wanasundara, who is largely supported by a section of the SLFP, the SLPP and the Rajapaksa family. As Wanasundara’s name surfaced at a time when the President was cosying up to the Rajapaksa family, speculation was rife that she stood a strong chance of becoming the country’s second female Chief Justice.
Wanasundara, in an interview with the ‘Deshaya’ newspaper in July 2014, publicly admitted that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of her closest friends during her ‘Law College Days’.
“I was suddenly called up to Temple Trees by President Rajapaksa. He just asked me to drop by at Temple Trees on my way home after work. I was surprised at this gesture but went to meet the President nevertheless. Upon greeting me, the President said he was going to appoint me a Supreme Court judge and asked if I had any concerns. I was shocked by the sudden announcement. At the same time, I felt so happy as I always wanted to become a judge and suddenly, the person in front me was offering exactly what I wanted,” she also said during the interview.
Further explaining the degree of her close friendship with Rajapaksa, Wanaasundara said, “One day, one of my colleagues had shown a picture of me to another friend saying he had an affair with me. Mahinda, a close friend of mine then, had seen this incident. He promptly conveyed this to me as he was concerned that it could bring me a ‘bad reputation” (Extracted from the Colombo Telegraph story on October 07, 2018)
Wanasundara has been dogged by severe criticism from government supporters for soft-pedalling cases involving high-profile members of the former first family – especially former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. She is also one of the four Supreme Court judges who stepped down from hearing the FR petition filed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeking a stay order preventing his arrest.
Sirisena, interestingly, opted to leave both names out and handpick Perera who is the sixth in terms of seniority in the Supreme Court’s 10-judge bench. However, the President presented a strong justification in favour of Perera saying he had been in the judiciary for more than 30 years and had risen through the service to the top – unlike others who parachuted into the bench from the Attorney General’s Department. Perera was the first career judge to be the made the Chief Justice after Parinda Ranasinghe, who became Chief Justice in 1988 under President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
It is understandable that the President would be inclined to treat the candidate preferred by the UNP with a modicum of suspicion in the current circumstances. At the same time, his decision to bypass Wanasundara makes it clear that despite attempts at forming new alliances, there is still a deep sense of distrust between the President and the Rajapaksa group.
It also indicates that the process of forming an alliance between the two groups is a seemingly insurmountable task. Even if they manage to enter into a common framework of some sort, the two parties will view each other with scepticism and deep-rooted mistrust, causing problems for themselves at multiple levels.
In essence, this means the country will be caught up in the current political gridlock for at least as long as until the next Presidential election. This triangular contest among Sirisena, the UNP and the Rajapaksa group will result in heightened drama, escalating policy instability and intensifying bitterness in the political sphere, leaving the government machinery inert.
*The writer is the former Editor of Daily News and the former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org