10 December, 2019

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Worst Fears & Best Expectations 

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

For the second time in five years Sri Lankans have peacefully chosen a new President for a new five-year term and witnessed a smooth and constitutional transfer of power. The clear verdict of the electorate, which would appear to have surprised all sides, has nonetheless been accepted by everyone who contested the election and their supporters with civility and even good sportsmanship. At the same time, the glaring electoral fissure along geo-ethnic (fault) lines (with seven provinces and 16 districts voting overwhelmingly for the winning candidate, and two provinces and five districts along with a solitary (sixth) district right in the island’s centre voting overwhelmingly for the runner up) – has led to a range of interpretations and varying expectations. As for the new President, he has a new political beginning for an old soldier. Not just any beginning, but as the Head of State, Head of Government and Cabinet, and Commander in Chief, in the country of his birth. A big job even if it is in a small island.   

It is also worth noting that as a matter of constitutional housekeeping business, last week’s presidential election and assumption of office are also the first time that the two events have occurred on their constitutionally due dates. Until now the timing of every presidential election and the assumption of office, starting with the very first one in 1982, has been manipulated for political and electoral advantages by incumbent presidents. One would hope, the new President will not do anything to change this new practice at the end of his elected term, regardless of whether he chooses to run for a second term or not. To his credit, he appears to be abiding by the Constitution in not appointing himself to any ministerial portfolio, not even the Ministry of Defence, notwithstanding his post-election assertion that he was elected to be and will be the Minister of Defence. 

There was some titillation among detractors of the 19th Amendment who were hoping to see a constitutional standoff between the newly elected President and the incumbent Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom the new President could not have dismissed without creating a new November crisis. Politically, there was not going to be any standoff because it is all good blood between Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas. In all of Sri Lanka, bad blood is only between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, and the two cohabitants turned antagonists are either gone or on their way out. Mr. Wickremesinghe, who might have hummed and hawed about leaving his post if Sajith Premadasa had won, was all gallant and gamely in giving way to the new President and his old friend. He is now keen to resume his favourite cabinet position: Leader of the Opposition. 

The President and Parliament

Those who scoffed and cried constitutional foul at the twin inauguration of a newly elected President and his cohabitant Prime Minister in January 2015, must now be feeling satisfied with the smooth transition from the tired half-yahapalanaya government to by no means fresh SLPP-caretaker government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as third-time Prime Minister. Therein is the beauty of the parliamentary system. One can be a Prime Minister for endless terms, and there is no harm in being so because one is constantly accountable to one’s cabinet (in Britain a long line of Tory PMs from Churchill to Thatcher got turfed out by cabinet revolt), parliamentary group, and to parliament itself. That is not the case with an elected President. 

That said, the transitional experiences of 2015 and 2019 have created a healthy precedent and convention by which a sitting parliamentary majority would fade away if an opposition candidate wins the presidential election. It may not quite work so smoothly, or not at all, if it is the other way around – that is if an opposition party wins the parliamentary election defeating the government of the sitting president. Then, of course, the ‘presidentialists’ will say that the new parliament must work with the incumbent president. Their illogical argument is that a President is elected by all the people (technically even by 50.1%), while MPs are returned from smaller constituencies. As historical precedents go, President DB Wijetunga stepped aside when Chandrika Kumaratunga first won the parliamentary election in 1994. But Kumaratunga stayed put as President in 2001, when Ranil Wickremesinghe won the parliamentary election, and three years later went on to sack his government and dissolve parliament.

It is the removal of the arbitrary presidential power of dissolution by the 19th Amendment that has provoked criticisms that somehow that removal is undemocratic and a recipe for instability. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election, the critics suggested that the 19th Amendment was preventing the new President from dissolving parliament and furthering the will of the people that had just elected him. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle and the practice of the separation of powers. It is worse than misunderstanding, because what is involved is the refusal to understand that to have the executive exercising the power of dissolution over parliament is totally incompatible with the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature as coequal branches of government. 

What the 19th Amendment did was to rid the 1978 Constitution of this particular contradiction, which was the right thing to do. The shortcoming of the 19th Amendment is not what it did but what it failed to do. One solution would be to have the presidential and the parliamentary elections at the same time, if only to make the absurdity of having two elected entities at the summit of the state more glaringly obvious. A different solution could be to have what Dr. NM Perera called a “non-dissolution” legislature, which cannot be touched between elections which are held at prescribed intervals. No one can dissolve the legislature between elections, not even the legislature itself. This is the system that obtains in the United States and it is fundamental to the so called separation of powers. Imagine even the greater chaos that the US would be in if Donald Trump could dissolve the American Congress in the name of democracy. 

Even in a wholly parliamentary system such as the United Kingdom, the mother of all parliamentary systems, the new law of fixed-term parliament is working well. The Prime Minister cannot have the Queen dissolve parliament whenever he wants it dissolved, as it used to be. Parliament must resolve by two-thirds majority to dissolve itself prematurely. It has done so twice in the less than three years, more frequently than when the Prime Minister had the power to effect dissolution at the time of his choosing. On December 12, the country will have its first pre-Christmas election. The electorate is not amused, and no one knows which way it will hang the next parliament to punish its MPs who cannot make a collective decision on Brexit.    

The new President

Fortunately for Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, going by his first indications during his first week, seems to be steering away from his detractors’ worst fears, which are also the best hopes of some of his more extreme supporters. There were fears as well as expectations that as President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will govern not merely despite of but even in defiance of the 19th Amendment. That is not turning out to be the case, at least so far. The appointment of the new cabinet of (old) ministers without himself assuming any portfolio is the first positive sign to take note of, even as one hopes for more of the same. There were fears as well as expectations that soon after his victory, President Rajapaksa will sack Prime Minister Wickremesinghe by Gazette Extraordinaire and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. That would have been a defiant revisiting of the failed constitutional coup of last year. And that too has not turned out to be the case. 

The new caretaker cabinet is remarkable for its small size, though not necessarily for its talent. The Prime Minister’s portfolio includes all the commanding heights of cabinet power. It is an interesting new brotherly dynamic that might inadvertently restore the parliament to its co-equal status with the president, as it should be even under the Jayewardene constitution. The sterner tests are yet to come. But there are plenty of early opportunities for the new President to send out positive signals. Nothing will be more positive for the economy and clean government, than to leave the Central Bank severely alone, as it currently is after almost a decade of malfeasance under two unworthy governors.     

The pundits’ preoccupation now is about the dissolution of parliament. Whether dissolution should wait till 1st March 1920, when it can be constitutionally dissolved, or it should be done this year by mustering the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament that is required for premature dissolution. Interestingly, it is not the President or the SLPP that is calling for an early election, as they did this time last year. It is Ranil Wickremesinghe’s faction of the UNP that is now calling for an early election after wasting a god send opportunity to go for an early election soon after defeating the Sirisena coup last year. 

Now there is said to be a brewing internal war in the UNP with the Sajith Premadasa faction objecting to an early dissolution, if only for the altruistic purpose of letting first term parliamentarians complete a full term to secure their full pensions. What befell the SLFP after Sirisena won the presidency might befall the UNP after Sajith Premadasa lost the presidential election. UNP sponsored candidates may come and go, but Ranil Wickremesinghe will go on forever as leader of the UNP. Not quite like Tennyson’s brook, more like a Colombo canal. 

The bigger elephant in the room is the ethnic question. In a straightforward comparison of the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections, Sajith Premadasa could not really make up for losing the SLFP and the JVP contributions to Sirisena’s winning vote tally in 2019. Perhaps he could not make up the loss, because of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s standing among the Sinhala Buddhist voters. His standing rose after 2015 owing to a variety of factors. If 2015 was a muted backlash against postwar Rajapaksa triumphalism, 2019 is a louder backlash against Mangala Samaraweera’s human rights triumphalism. Add to that, the cultivated craving for a strongman ruler that infected quite a cross-section of the electorate, ranging from old UNPers to old Leftists and all the open economy upstarts in between. Then came the Easter blast and the deal was sealed with ecclesiastical blessings. The geo-ethnic bifurcation of the electorate cannot be understated. Nor should it be over interpreted. The electorate is ephemeral, the country is not. Life must go on differently between elections. How will it go under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? That is an open question, which, for now, is better left to be answered in practice, rather than in anticipation.         

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  • 5
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    Sensible and readable as usual.

    • 7
      1

      The Brown Shirts of Sri Lanka, Bodu Bala Sena decision to dissolve once Gotabaya became President that their role as guardians of Sinhala
      Buddhist chauvinism is no longer necessary. The message it sends loudly clearly and disturbingly is that the Sri Lankan government is now in the hands of a fellow Sinhala Buddhist fascist.

    • 4
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      Yes, but he has not addressed the issues as to why so called sinhala buddhists became that obsequeous to Rajaakshes as diehard voters.
      .
      I think from the begining on, Rajakashes misled the nation, through Rajaakshe biased TV channels (Hiru TV and Derana TV).
      .
      To my surprise even if the headlines of the two mentioned TV channels totally abused the mindset of the gullible, easy targets, there had been no whatsoever reaction from the MEDIA Departments.
      Can any public MEDIA TV channels, stay remaining even if they and their blant lies or ambigous public statements abuse the very same audience.
      Moreover, soem TELEDRAMAs are telecasted by these two, with the racial and superstious contents (SIDU Teledram in Derana) and they also allow abusive indian drama series to telecast in their channels only considering their commercial gains.
      :
      Where on earth, could any TV channels be that powerful in a country where the leaders or representatives are elected by democtraic means ?.
      .
      Last but not least, the RELICS saga at Kelaniya temple was the most abusive in that set, but Prof. INCUMBENT PRIEST was also made a fool to explain the world that the relics story was a real one.
      But any one who studies the incident, is instantly clear, how could THAT RELICS be passed from an alien to the boy (whose whereabouts are known to be a freak in Face BOOK community) ?.
      Why Derana TV deliberately telecasted the kind of misleading report is connected with making the vulnerable even more stupid and send the message across that even aliens would join the gullible average to say, ” that a new leader, GOTLER would be the saviour , be back as the leader”:
      How unethical the media has been ? WHY NOT SRILANKENS REACT against them ?

    • 0
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      Please listen to the video, Dr SHASHI explains it nicely how our southasians in general rule … calling it democracy.
      :
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qceJM4wxIoIhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qceJM4wxIoI

      that is how they srilankens too have to learn why this time, they voted for PATTA PAL horu again.

  • 2
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    Rajan Philips,
    The bigger elephant in the room is the ethnic question.

    Can you please tell us ‘What is this big elephant that you call ethnic question?

    Also the Native Sinhalayo like to know ‘What is it that the Sinhalayo are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala?’

    This so called ethnic question is what Sinhalayo call ‘Higannage Thuwalaya’ (Begger’s wound) of Malabar Wellala elite politicians.

    • 3
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      Even if anyone would see it that, but ULTRA RACISTS of MAHINDA PALA aka Eagle eyes would not deny to even have an ethnic issue in this country.
      :
      All is clear that the barbarians returned to power are real high criminals but you guys would never see them as criminals for your blindness.
      :
      Mahindapala, the name of god, be clean before your last breath. You are now in early or mid 80ties if I may count it correctly, but I am no doubt, you will be sent to AVICHI MAHA NARAKADIYO for all the racial activities you have mediated deliberately.
      :
      My wish is , you the kind of SINHALAYAS SHOULD never be born back in our home coutnry.. but let rotten in the hell

  • 0
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    19A doesn’t address some fundamental aspects of potential contradictions between an elected presidency and an elected legislature. Both institutions represent the will of the people/electorate. If the legislature is elected from an opposing political dispensation than that of the presidency, then the presidency most likely would become lame duck because he/she will be unable to carry out his/her programme. On the other hand the legislature will loose it’s political legitimacy when it occurs the other way around like today in SL. In the US they have tried to address these issues with having a congress, a senate and the presidency with mid term elections to accommodate electoral swings. Yet US would have faced a crisis if both the senate and the congress were to be dominated by the democrats and Trump refusing to sign bills passed by them into law. accordingly in SL in most instances we could expect the legislature to NOT have it’s full term.

  • 4
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    This question is nothing new. In the old days, they used to cite the case of top posts in the civil service occupied by Tamils. Where is the discrimination experienced by the Tamils when the acting Chief Justice is a Tamil (Justice C, Nagaligam). The DIG is a Tamil (Rudra Rajasingham) Under Prime Minister/President Ranasinghe Premadasa there was a huge cry against three lingams (R. Paskaralingam, E. Annalingam and Amirthalingam) alleging the public service was dominated by Tamils. Entry to University is overwhelmingly Tamil, especially medicine and engineering faculties disproportionate to their numbers. That prompted Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike government to introduce standardization. Under standardization, a Tamil student has to score higher marks than his counterpart. Today, the majority of students in the Science and Medical faculty of the Jaffna University are Sinhalese. In fact, the Sinhalese are occupying 95% of the jobs in the public service. This is one reason that the public service has gone to the dogs! Two top public servants I.H.K. Mahanama, the president’s chief of staff, and P. Dissanayake, the head of the State Timber Corporation (STC) were arrested by the CIABOC while accepting Rs.2 million out of Rs.20 million. They had asked for a bribe of Rs 540 million ($3.43 million) from an Indian investor. Mahesh Senanayake before retirement bragged that Sri Lankan armed forces consist of 99% Sinhala Buddhists! There is not a single Tamil diplomat in the foreign service. The list is endless.

    By the way, can anyone find a cure for Eagle Eye’s Vellala caste phobia? Is this phobia due to his low birth and breeding?

    • 5
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      Dear Thanga, Reference your last para on a cure for Eagle Squint Eye, Psychiatry will help but since we cannot expect cooperation from this patient for it to work, I am afraid we will have to just ignore his rantings.

      • 2
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        The insight of all psychiatric patients is low. They always think that there is nothing wrong with them. There is a practice to restrain them to give treatment by applying the mental health act. But treatment will be effective only when a patient has a brain. In the case of Edwin Rodrigo AKA Eagle Eye, his cranium contains cow dung.

    • 2
      4

      Thanga,
      “Under standardization, a Tamil student has to score higher marks than his counterpart.”

      Not only Tamils, even Sinhala students in Colombo had to score higher marks than students from remote areas. Tamils in Yapanaya had to score higher marks than Tamils in Tirikunamale, Madakalapuwa or Kanda Udarata. As a result more Tamils from outside Yapanaya managed to enter university. Wellala Demalu in Yapanaya lost their dominant position as a result of standardization which is highlighted as discrimination against Tamils by Sinhalayo. Face the truth!

      At the time of independence, Demalu in Medical College, Engineering Faculty and Science Faculty were more than 65%.
      60% of Grade 1 schools were in Yapanaya.

      • 1
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        Eekel guy stop distorting the truth. When media-wise standardization was practiced from 1970 to 1976, Tamil students at Royal College had to get more marks than Sinhala students at Royal College, though both had same facilities for education. It is only after 1977 when JR changed it to district wise standardization that Sinhala and Tamil students in Colombo had to get the same score. However the cut off for Jaffna was higher than for Colombo though facilities were better in Colombo than Jaffna. during my time when admission was on merit, more students entered from Colombo than Jaffna, showing that better facilities were in Colombo. Most of Jaffna students used to take their third shy studying at Aquinas or Pembroke in Colombo. The sad part is that when the war was on and Tamil students did not have electricity, food or exercise books and living in fear of being killed, the cut off point was not lowered. This is why we are accusing the government of racial discrimination. Again your figures of Tamils in Medical and engineering faculties before discrimination set in is wrong. In Medicine it was Sinhalese 50%. Tamils 45% and others 5%. In engineering and science faculties, the figure quoted by you is correct. Only government school built by British in Sri Lanka is Royal College in Colombo and none in Jaffna. All the leading schools in Jaffna were constructed by missionaries. After independence instead of raising the standard of Sinhala students, government resorted to the easier practice of bringing Tamil students down. Even the take over of Christian schools were done by an act of jealousy to satisfy Buddhist racists.

  • 1
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    President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s moves so far are exactly what his predators thought he will do. 
    Director CID Sharmie Abeysekera to Galle, as Assistant to DIG Galle. He is the official investigation high profile cases during the previous administration, Example, like the murder of Lasantha, Wasim Thajudeen, the 11 Tamil youths abducted and murdered during 2006/2007. Is this a sign of probity or sign authoritarianism raising its head once again? Tamils in Yatiyantota have been attacked by SLPP goons according to the Police.
    President Gotabaya has given back police powers to the Army which used those powers to harass and intimidate people from the North. They behaved like petty kings lording over their subjects.
    Name boards in Tamil also are vanishing.
    Douglas Devananda is a prime suspect in the killing of Thiyagarajah Maheswaran (January 01, 2008), 6 employees of the Uthayan newspapers, two ITAK supporters at Naranthanai in 2010 is back as Minister.
    Devananda is a proclaimed offender in India and fugitive from justice and wanted on charges of murder. attempted murder, rioting, unlawful assembly and kidnapping.
    He is also the prime suspect in the murder of Nimalarajan  (BBC correspondent, two  ITAK supporters killed in Naranthanai in 2010, Atputhan, editor  (EPDP) killed in Colombo. Six employees killed working for Jaffna Uthayan. He is currently occupying Sridhar Theatre free of rent for the last 23 years not paying even a cent as rent. 
    Pl. visit URL http://tamildiplomat.com/nimalarajan-atputhan-maheswary-murdered-epdp-former-member-epdp/ to read more horrendous killings by EPDP as revealed by a former EPDP member  S.Ponnaiah on August 30, 2016!
    Douglas Devananda is illegally occupying a house and property in Jaffna town without paying any rent for the last 25 years!
    He is only an SSC educated person who began his career as a militant engaged in abduction for ransom and robberies.

  • 4
    2

    The 19A should be removed. It has given rise to many misinterpretations and confusions. This is one reason that made whole yahapalanaya a disaster!

    • 2
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      If anything, 19A should be augmented to ensure that sovereignty is with the parliament, no ifs or buts. Ranil or for that matter and those who campaigned for change in 2015 pseudo democrats and who put in half baked solution to a rotten constitution, the result of which is there for all to see. Even reverting to back to the pre 1972 Soulbury constitution would be a good start, for the country did have some semblance of law and order of a democracy and the country did prosper without much trouble and strife we have witnessed since its abolition and the replacement of it with successive constitutions at the expense of democracy.

  • 3
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    It looks like Mahinda Rajapakse got all the important ministries including finance, defence, economy, Buddha sasana, provincial governments etc. It means almost 90% of the wealth is now shared between Mahinda & Gota. The rule of law means the rule of Mahinda & Gota and judiciary means decision of Gota & Mahinda. Of course, they will pretend as good boys until the general election and after that they will send white vans (legal) to take one by one.

    • 1
      0

      As if the chicken kotuwa is caught by fox. Anyways, thanks to stupid majority in the country, they can abuse the office again and make the very same people even more poor. His term from 2010 -2015 the manner he ruled this country, is now in the people s memories. That is why I believe, sinhala buddhist banner wearers to that manner are born fools. Their principal food should be punnakku for their 3 meals.

  • 0
    0

    Other than populists sentiments and slogans have , these leaders a depth of character ?

  • 1
    0

    now unp has to do? in last election 101 lacks of sinhala votes and 31 lacks of minority votes were casted, from this 101 lacks of votes 62 lacks of sinhalese votes are block votes of slfp of mahinda , 24 lacks are block votes of unp , 4 lacks of votes are block votes of JVP and 11 lacks are floating votes with 2 lack of fresh voters who were registered on 2017. Minority of 31 lacks owned by TNA ,Muslim congress, Rishard ,Digambaram, mano,thondaman,douglus and small portion of unp own minorities and slfp owned minorities. from this 31 lacks closer to 28 lacks were voted to sajith wht my point is when we are considering the block vote base of the parties slfp of mahinda has 61 lacks and unp has only 24 lacks. this is showing when comparing a huge party like slfp unp is a very small party . This is the reality, this destiny was started for unp on 1994. what the unfortunate scenario is unp people are unable to tolerate this bitter truth. less educated unp supporter we can accept be cause they love their party ,they do not like to say that unp is a small party, but the educated people who are writing articles in CT as well trying to hide this bitter truth to satisfy their own mind. there was one educated gentleman who wrote a article after 2018 election after 1.6 million defet for unp ,he is satisfying his mind stating there is 13% unp boy cotters in srilanka who didnot vote. where is that unp boy cotters in this presidential election while their lovable candidate sajith is contesting , another gentleman very recently before the elections is saying there is a survey shows sajith can win gampaha ,kalutara ,matale ,

  • 0
    0

    what is a target group unp have to target? floating poor people normaly 90% of sinhala upper middle class and middle class are die heart supporters of slfp of mahinda, this community looking mahindas slfp as great achievers ,that is true, the slfp of mahinda are the architects of this huge business economy and the business capitalisum in srilanka , they took a only a small economy of 10 billion usd in 2005 and converted this in to 80 billion business economy in 2015 ,they converted the per capital in to 4000 usd in 2015 from 960 usd in 2005. so in economic and business management slfpers are master brains and the architects and creators of business capitalisum and clear open economy in srilanka During the rule of UNP between 1977-1994 the srilankan economy is only 10 billion usd, per capital is less than 500 USD ,can this poor 10 billion economy be an open economy or capitalist economy and they took this economy again in 2015 which was architected by slfp and brought the country’s GDP closer to afganistan which was top on the table during mahinas slfp period , so normally the unp government under people like Jr, premadasa ,lalith or gamini considered as utter idiots in economic managements comparing with great economic management master brains the slfpers according to their performance If unp government comes business will collapse , very hard to find food, entire life stle of middle class will collapse if slfp government comes great life stye for middle class , great cash flows , slfpers are top level business friendly governments so middle class & upper middle class never vote for a party like unp . So Unp has to target floating poor community and farmers because unp may utter idiots in economic management but done a great service for agriculture.

  • 2
    0

    All good stuff Mr Philips. Just a couple of comments:

    Apropos your ‘A big job even if it is in a small island’. To put things in context, our ‘little island’ has a teeming population that exceeds every US state except California and Texas. (We just about exceed the populations of Texas and New York State.)

    The second point is Gotabaya’s announcement that he will be “President for ALL the people”. Where have heard that one before? Of course he will be! Let us wait for his deeds before we draw further conclusion.

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