By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There was a struggle against the model of 19A first presented by Ranil Wickremesinghe, but there was no struggle against 19A as such—by which I mean the idea that the executive presidency required downward readjustment. The UNP-CBK-TNA-JVP Quartet had envisaged decapitation of the Executive presidency while the masses, the SLFP-UPFA and JHU envisaged trimming; downward revision. Thus, there was no struggle against 19A; there was a struggle over 19A; its scale and scope.
The struggle against Ranil-CBK’s 19A model was waged in several stages by several forces:
- The civil society petitioners and lawyers who moved the Supreme Court and thereby succeeded in neutralizing the worst of the original draft;
- Champika Ranawaka and Rajiva Wijesinha who fought the battle against Ranil’s subterfuge and kept the reform on the right track;
- The UPFA whose fight-back forestalled an SLFP sellout and pulled the SLFP from CBK’s para-UNP stance onto the traditional anti-Ranil, anti-UNP track.
The UPFA’s game-plan was never to wreck the 19th amendment, because its own members had been decades-long opponents of the Jayewardene presidency and also because it harbors hopes of a Rajapaksa return as Prime Minister. Thus, wrecking 19A was sharply contrary to both its ideological sentiments as well as its project. However, the UPFA was determined to prevent a CBK-driven SLFP surrender to Ranil’s model of 19A and his surreptitious maneuvers to bring it to fruition. The SLFP-UPFA’s decades-long opposition to Ranil’s rightwing UNP brand was reactivated by his own arrogant political behavior and discourse, in the parliamentary chamber and backstage, during the entire 19A process.
In the battle for the soul of the SLFP, both Ranil and CBK lost, while the two tendencies of the mainline opposition, owing loyalty to Maithri and Mahinda respectively, overlapped, converged and prevailed. Thus, instead of a smooth and automatic passage for the version of 19A which the UNP sought, with CBK-TNA-JVP support, the outcome was a negotiated 19A which retained and protected the core of the executive presidential system. Ranil-CBK’s original 19A model sought to dismantle the “Gaullist System in Asia” as Prof AJ Wilson termed the Jayewardene Constitution, replacing it with a restoration of the Westminster model. Ironically yet fortunately, what the 19A as finally passed by Parliament did, was to hit the delete button on the imprudent Rajapaksa attempt to stretch that system with 18A, while reshaping the ’78 Constitution in such a manner that it is a far more faithful version of the Gaullist Presidential-Parliamentary Fifth Republic than it was before!
The PM indicated that he regarded 19A as a less than satisfactory compromise and entirely as an interim measure, which will last only until he wins a parliamentary election and converts the Parliament into a Constituent assembly which will fashion an entirely new Constitution, transferring executive power to the Cabinet and the PM. The PM’s perspective was presaged by a hard hitting speech by Deputy Minister Eran Wickremaratne.
The PM’s remarks proved that the 19th amendment as passed by the legislature was a retreat from the program that he was committed to and that he would resume the process upon winning the upcoming parliamentary election.
It also proved that in terms of the realities of power, the main political danger to President Sirisena comes, not so much from ex-President Rajapaksa whose supporters, by all accounts, strove to protect the executive presidency, but precisely from Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who reiterated his commitment to abolish it and transfer executive powers to the Prime Ministership.
Mahinda Rajapaksa does not seem to be making a bid for any real estate the President has. Or if he did, his supporters haven’t shown it. There is almost no pathway to achieve such an objective. It is out of his reach. If at all, he will be making a bid for a prime ministership, which, thanks to his supporters in the UPFA, has much less power than it would have, had Ranil’s model of 19A gone through as CBK and “civil society” advocated.
In sharp contradistinction to Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe wants a real transfer of executive power, which would turn President Sirisena into a lame duck. Indeed, had the Supreme Court not struck down several provisions, Champika and Rajiva not sniped away and the Opposition pushback stymied the rest, President Sirisena would already be a lame duck—not thanks to Rajapaksa and his loyalists, but to Wickremesinghe’s draft of 19A.
The commentators who depict 19A as a thwarting of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return to the Presidency obviously endow him with quite extraordinary physical capacities, because he would be 75 years old at the time of the next presidential election! The simple fact of age always ruled him out as a presidential challenger in 2020. Even in the exceedingly unlikely event that he was fit enough for a grueling campaign he wouldn’t want to lose to Sajith Premadasa.
Does it make sense that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters would try to demolish an amendment to shift power to the Prime Minister, when they hope that Rajapaksa will be the next PM and would perceive it to be very much in their interest to have an empowered Prime Ministership?
The only sense that can be made of the UPFA’s resistance is that their collective commitment to a strong state and their consequent opposition to a dismantling of the Executive Presidency as envisaged in the original model of 19A which the Ranil-CBK combo was pushing, was somewhat greater than their loyalty to the vision of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, and indeed their option for Mahinda stemmed precisely from their statist-populist ideology. (I say ‘statist’ rather than nationalist because Vasudeva’s conspicuous contribution in the struggle over 19A must be understood.)
The enhanced role of the Prime Ministership in post-19A politics means that the issue of the Prime ministerial candidacy assumes a salience that it would otherwise have not possessed. Who will be the Opposition’s alternative to Ranil Wickremesinghe? If the SLFP is not to succumb to the dark repressive age it plunged into in the 1980s, it would have to opt for Mahinda Rajapaksa. If the majority Sinhala nation is not to be plunged into the same situation it was under Ranil’s CFA (and CBK’s Sudu Nelum-Package-PTOMS years); if it is not to wind up in the same situation as in the pre-1956 period or worse, the colonial centuries; it would have to raise Mahindra Rajapksa to the prime ministership. The Sinhalese have to press the re-set button on the emerging socio-political, economic and external configuration. The increasingly marginalized majority has to re-balance the equation. That is what a Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Ministership is about. It is not about a Rajapaksa presidency, that of Mahinda or any other family member.
Had the Ranil-CBK attempt succeed and if it were to succeed after a UNP victory at the upcoming parliamentary election, there would be no chance of Sajith Premadasa ever leading this country and resuming the grand developmentalist project of his father, who was utterly committed to the Presidential system as unparalleled agency of pro-people initiatives. The retention of the core of the executive presidency in the “19A Lite” that actually made it into law retains the possibility of yet another patriotic-populist President who can protect and uplift the nation.
If time stopped, President Sirisena would go down in history as a decent, moderate reformer. But time doesn’t stop and history’s verdict on President Sirisena will be determined by the success or failure of the radical reform project announced by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in his parliamentary speech on the occasion of the passage of 19A.
I was in Moscow, together with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Vijaya Kumaratunga, in the summer of 1985, attending the World Festival of Youth and Students. Mikhail Gorbachev was regarded as a hero, almost an angel or saint. A mere five years later he was considered a villain or at best, a pathetic figure. The role of a modernizing reformist leader in history depends on where his reforms take his state and nation and leave it. Is it stronger or weaker vis-a-vis its rivals and challengers? A leader is finally judged not by his intentions but by the outcome of his actions: whether his state and nation are strengthened or weakened in terms of power; whether the unity of the state is strengthened or weakened. That is how Mahinda Rajapaksa his predecessors and his successors will be judged. That is why Mao and Deng, Stalin and Putin are heroes in the eyes of their nations, while Khrushchev and Gorbachev are not.
President Sirisena’s role in history will be judged positively if he stops the 19A process from going further as the Ranilist UNP explicitly envisages; whether he resists intrusive Western calls for war crimes accountability and protects national sovereignty; whether he resists the CBK surge towards a federal Constitution which, given the proximity of Tamil Nadu and resultant ideological osmosis, will tilt the balance on the island against the Sinhala community. President Sirisena cannot do any of these with a post-election Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Ministership. Indeed he will be unable to protect his own Presidency from being turned merely titular by the threatened second wave of Constitution-making by a victorious UNP administration.
In order to protect his power base, Maithripala Sirisena has to reconstitute it with a broad anti-UNP government, which means the SLFP-UPFA simply has to win the election. He will need to play the Mahinda Rajapaksa card. His role in history will be judged by whether he re-balances the equation for the nation, by standing with rather than against the ’56 type backlash that is building – with or without the SLFP; within or outside it–to have Mahinda as our PM.