By Rajan Philips –
In passing the Second Reading of the Budget with 121 MPs voting for and 37 against, parliament reverted to nearly the same division (134-82) it showed when it elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as President on July 20. The President now seems to be well positioned to assemble different majorities in parliament for different purposes. The majorities for his election and now his budget are based mainly on the support of SLPP MPs acting in solidarity with the Rajapaksa family. The same pattern was seen for the vote on the Emergency Resolution (120-63) and the passage of the Petroleum Products Amendment Bill (77-17), two votes which were marked by disappointingly large absentees (41 and 130) – mostly from the Opposition.
On the other hand, there was rousing support for the passage of the 21st Amendment – 179 for, only one against, and the rest being overseas or no shows. The division on 21A involved the punishing isolation of the Rajapaksas, especially Basil Rajapaksa whose apparent efforts to call the shots from the US were spurned by his own MPs including some family members. Basil returned on Sunday (Nov. 20th) and may have had a hand in securing the majority on Monday.
So, the President with only one MP belonging to his Party (UNP) in parliament, would appear to have gotten into a groove in creating different majority vote blocks for different legislative initiatives. That is the way a legislature is supposed to work in a presidential system – through principled compromises, as well as trading in favours, between legislators. It has taken 45 years for this to come to pass, but more by circumstances and opportunism than by conviction or persuasion. How long can the President keep this going?
PTA and Reconciliation
The President’s ambidexterity is on full display. He is coming on both sides of the law and order fence and can have enough MPs to support any of his opposing positions. He has declared in parliament during the current Committee stage debate on the budget, that “he would not allow another Aragalaya and that he would use security forces to prevent such a move.” He has been quoted as saying – “I will declare even emergency and call in security forces to thwart any such move.” He seems to be confident that he can rely on Basil Rajapaksa to get a majority in parliament for cracking down on protesters.
At the same time, he is executively dissociating himself from the actions of the Defence Ministry officials under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The President is reported to have refused to sign on new Detention Orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), even though he did not stop previous orders being signed by the Defence Secretary, a retired Army Major. The PTA was adopted in 1979 as a “temporary” measure has survived through many government changes and promises to repeal it.
As Prime Minister in 2015, now President Wickremesinghe was committed to repealing it but nothing happened. The official position now is that the government has placed a “de facto moratorium on arrests being made under the PTA.” With convenient exceptions for deeming protesters terrorists and arresting them under PTA. Aragalaya protesters have been so arrested and the President seems to be on both sides of the fence. He is running with the Human Rights hare and hunting with the National security hound.
Under pressure from both local rights groups and inter agencies, the government is reportedly drafting a new counter-terrorism law to replace the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). And the President might be able to assemble a different majority in parliament, similar to the one that passed the 21st Amendment. He could also get the Foreign Minister to drop the IMF scare in parliament as he did for 21A – that there would be no IMF help if PTA is either not repealed or drastically defanged.
More than dealing with PTA, the President is looking for a bigger fish to fry, one that was also left unaccomplished during the yahapalana government. That is the ever elusive project of national reconciliation. He seems to have all the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties on board for this initiative, of course with varying shades of interest, commitment and engagement.
The President has proposed yet another All Party Conference and managed to prise out a public affirmation from Sajith Premadasa that he and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) will not only participate in the All Party Conference (APC), but “ will (also) lead from the front and finalise a solution to the ethnic problem by the time Sri Lanka celebrates its 75th Independence Day” through a system of power devolution based on the 13th Amendment. Twenty five years (2048) to around the economy, two and half months to accomplish national unity.
If the President is able to maintain the current trend of voting permutations in parliament, he should have no difficulty in getting a parliamentary majority for a legislative approval if one is required for whatever reconciliation package that the President might be having in mind. It is too early to anticipate how the new reconciliation initiative will unfold, except to say that the dubious devise of an All Party Conference is always fraught with uncertainties, if not unwelcome developments. The first of them after July 1983 was convened in January 1984, but as it turned out it was not for the purpose of finding a solution but for avoiding one. Hopefully, the intentions behind the newest initiative now are not devious as they were then.
The President might be sincere and honest in his reconciliation intentions. His electoral intentions are a different story. But that is the stuff of politics. As I wrote last week, the President seems to be testing the waters through inspired rumours that a presidential election (which could not be before November 16, 2023) might be held before the next parliamentary election (which could be as early as April 2023, or as late as August or September 2025).
What he could also do is to call for the two elections to be held concurrently any time after November 16, 2023. That would throw the cat among the opposition pigeons, and Mr. Wickremesinghe will have more than a fair chance of becoming an elected President, finally fulfilling his 45 year old ambition. There will be the small rub about abolishing the presidency, but Mr. Wickremesinghe can stand tall and handsomely promise that as elected President he would preside over the amendment to the constitution to end the system of having an elected President. “After me, no deluge,” he could deadpan. The matter itself could be put to the people as a referendum question as they go to vote to elect simultaneously a new President and a new Parliament.
All of this seems too fanciful to be likely, but not at all impossible. There is one political caveat to all this, and that is the President would be well advised not to use the goodwill circumstances he is enjoying now to try to resurrect the UNP as an electoral force. And worse would be to strike an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas in a local government or parliamentary elections. A presidential election would be a different battlefield where all manner of alliances has become common.
Any or all of the above political possibilities happening or not happening will of course depend on how the country’s economy turns and, along with it, how people’s economic circumstances change. The fundamentals of the economy are not going to improve any time soon. The government’s, really the President’s, challenge is to keep them from worsening and to keep the people’s living conditions from further deteriorating. All bets are off if essential supplies are not maintained, prices are not contained or subsidized, and scarcities and lineups return. Such deteriorations will take away the President’s options and flexibilities that I am speculating here.
Far from having the luxury of not holding parliamentary elections before November 2023, he could be forced to hold them as soon as possible after March 2023. If frustrated and angered, the people will find ways of forcing his hand to dissolve parliament without giving him the excuse to draw out the army or declare emergency. On the other hand, if the economy starts ticking as he seems convinced as a result of his new budget, he will have the luxury of playing his cards the way he wants, but it will likely succeed only if he aligns his game with advancing the public good and not for restoring the electoral fortunes of the UNP.