4 February, 2023

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Post-Budget Politics & Presidential Options

By Rajan Philips

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.  

Electoral Options

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.          

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Latest comments

  • 4
    5

    The “President’s ambidexterity”.
    .
    Come, come, Rajan Philips. Fortune placed Ranil in a favourable position. Thereafter he has shown himself devoid of all decency and principles.
    .
    Most commenters seem to wish him well. I’m indifferent. The analyses is passable. But this isn’t what we say about this. We want elections, and we want those elections ASAP.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela

    • 0
      0

      Analysis (singular), of course, not analyses (plural); sorry.
      .
      VishramikaGambadaIngirisiIskoleMhaththaya.

  • 4
    2

    … ‘The President might be sincere and honest in his reconciliation intentions’.
    I have said that any assumption should be based on past record / evidence.
    Let me tell you. No president has been sincere or honest about reconciliation.
    Is TNA hopeful. It cannot be.
    LTTE played every card except for the only card that would have mattered, – Foreign participation. TNA is no different. It has never diligently, in earnest, strived for foreign involvement.

    • 6
      2

      Let there be no mistaking.
      I am not suggesting foreign involvement; I am recommending guarantee of upholding any understanding reached, internally.
      .
      Let me make my stance further clear. Promote Aragalaya.

  • 8
    1

    Ranil’s reconciliation should start with
    a PUBLIC APOLOGIES to the affected Tamil Speaking Citizens of SL.
    Next
    1) Reduction of Defence staff in the North & East of the country. All their business & agricultural activities privatised. Private Citizens properties should be returned asap.
    2) Release the Tamils held under PTA.
    3) Facilitate direct investment by the DIASPORA in the North and East
    4) stop the selective use of Law against Tamils or Singhalese

    • 3
      0

      Yes, Naman, you have my vote on that.

      Maybe implement some way of retiring Defence elements who have engaged successfully in business/agriculture, & allowing them to be civilian partners in the projects they have run — along with the original owners of the relevant lands, etc.

      Maybe the state can continue (for a limited, stated period), to receive a part of whatever (according to Ranil) income presently accrues to it.

      That is if, as R says, public coffers really are being topped up by security forces’ investment in these areas.

      I wish we could know just how many are still being incarcerated under the PTA. By name & for what “crime”. Just how many are still in prison because of their political beliefs.

      While, on the other hand, there are crooks & rogues, & thieves & murderers who are happily enjoying the fruits of their crimes (crimes, not in pursuit of any understandable, shared goals), as well as power over the rest of us, walking this land, flying our skies, not even content with their huge gains, but in search of even more.

      Cant they at least RETIRE from ruining the lives of the rest of us!

    • 1
      0

      Naman

      “2) Release the Tamils held under PTA.”

      Why limit it to Tamils, why not Muslims and (unknown number of) Sinhalese

      “3) Facilitate direct investment by the DIASPORA in the North and East”

      Why not rest of the country?
      Anyone who invests in this island first looks for protection of his/her investment. From past experience we have seen Saffron led mobs destroying private businesses while police and armed forces merrily watching the destruction.

      One way or another Basil’s Mafia (including his clan) starts forcing all such investors to relinquish their ownership of businesses to its nominated beneficiaries.

      “4) stop the selective use of Law against Tamils or Singhalese”

      On the contrary whatever the state does it does not rely on law.
      I received whatsapp message which shows a bunch of uniformed thugs (goons of the army and STF) assaulting UNARMED Tamil youth in Manipay on Monday late evening.

      We saw another uniformed thug grabbing a police woman’s throat/neck while on duty. Off duty what would he do, only SJ and Nimal know.]

  • 4
    1

    The president should IMMEDIATELY settle the ceylonese tamils problems to PULL OUT from the ABYSS that the sinhala land is resulting from denial of equal rights and brutalisation and murder, rape etc atrocities on the ceylonese tamils by the mainly “peaceful religion” buddhist majority . The latest news is that sinhala land has a lot of Ghislane Maxwells involved in training sinhala females for the export as cleaners to the ME on how to ensure the happiness of their Harvey Weinstein ilk masters by giving “MASSAGES”.. However, I am sure that there are a lot of sinhalas including politicians who consider that this depravity of sinhala land females is a small price to pay for ensuring sinhala “dominance” of ceylonese tamils in sinhala land. THERE IS NO SUCH DOMINANCE OUTSIDE SINHALA LAND, as seen by Samanta Ratnam Victoria Australian Greens Party leader – another example of ceylonese tamils numerous achievements in the international sphere

  • 0
    1

    P.E.[SM]
    The Elections held in SL are NOT after correct informations provided by the different political parties to the voters. Most voters can be bought over by the provision of stollen money by the politicians. Monks play part by warning the Singhalese that muslims and Tamils are there to affect the Sinhala WELL BEING & DOMINANCE. The November 2019 Presidential Elections were held after a well planned MASSACRE.
    We need elections where uncivilised /uneducated/ corrupted /drug dealers/murderers/ rapists are PREVENTED from taking part in Parliamentary ELECTIONS. Ranil W is again out to FOOL the TNA in order to win the next Presidential election in 2024.
    It is time for those who want REAL CHANGE in the way country is ruled is to form a new political party comprising of ALL Sri Lankans.

    • 1
      0

      Thanks, Naman,
      .
      So the new political party will idealistically propagate an approach that will stress inclusiveness, and reach out to ALL Lankans.
      .
      However, starting from scratch, it will be a long haul for the Party to get known to all except the handful who launch the party.
      .
      I make many comments, but they may be read only by ten members of the public. The balance 22 million will know nothing.
      .
      In practice, it’ll be difficult to exclude “unsuitable person” from voting. From contesting an election, yes, perhaps. Ultimately, it depends on people not voting for them.
      .
      You advocate withdrawing the franchise even from the “uneducated” who have done no wrong. The danger then is that only an elite will feel at home in this new Party.
      .
      However unrealistic your speculation it is healthy that you have such a wonderful outlook.
      .
      Panini Edirisinhe

  • 1
    0

    Most of us want that the problems of the people should be resolved but we are divided in our opinion on what are the people problems and how it should be resolved. For example, most of agree that corruption should be fully eliminated. 99 % of people may agree on that statement as it is. when it comes to an election, there is no barrier for people to find out whether the candidate is corrupted or not and even people do not bother even if that candidate usually got bribe from number of people. This is the culture of this country and it is impossible to solve the problems.

  • 1
    1

    Tamil political parties and Tamil people should not be exited about the President Ranils announcement regarding that he will find a political solution before Feb 2023. I won’t say that it is impossible but it not very simple and it not defined.So far none of us are aware what is he meant by political solution.It could be anything. It could be removal of 13th amendment, or .it could be separate state or it could be devolution of power at grama sevaka level devolution or provincial level devolution. It could be within a unitary state or federal state.
    Further it should be passed through two third majority in parliament and a referendam in the country where Tamils agreement is not necessary at all either in parliament or referendam.It is impossibe to do within three months.

  • 1
    0

    Naman

    “2) Release the Tamils held under PTA.”

    Why limit it to Tamils, why not Muslims and (unknown number of) Sinhalese

    “3) Facilitate direct investment by the DIASPORA in the North and East”

    Why not rest of the country?
    Anyone who invests in this island first looks for protection of his/her investment. From past experience we have seen Saffron led mobs destroying private businesses while police and armed forces merrily watching the destruction.

    One way or another Basil’s Mafia (including his clan) starts forcing all such investors to relinquish their ownership of businesses to its nominated beneficiaries.

    “4) stop the selective use of Law against Tamils or Singhalese”

    On the contrary whatever the state does it does not rely on law.
    I received whatsapp message which shows a bunch of uniformed thugs (goons of the army and STF) assaulting UNARMED Tamil youth in Manipay on Monday late evening.

    We saw another uniformed thug grabbing a police woman’s throat/neck while on duty. Off duty what would he do, only SJ and Nimal know.

    Before all your demands/conditions/requests please find out what Kamala and Surgeon General and his fellow patriotic defenders want from the state.

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