By Rajan Philips –
President Wickremesinghe is finally, and not surprisingly, making it look official, that he will be a candidate at the next presidential election. Every prospect would seem to lean in his favour, but even the best laid presidential plans could still go awry. The more important question is what would be left of the country after Ranil Wickremesinghe finally fulfills his grand desire to be, and gets to be, an elected president. Going euphoric about Ranil’s clever maneuvering, everyone is forgetting the first casualty of his latest maneuvers. And that is the unceremonious abandonment of his once grand commitment to abolish the executive presidency. None has been so grand on that commitment as Ranil Wickremesinghe. The betrayal is equally massive in proportion.
It gets worse. While abandoning abolishment with his opportunistic left hand (that he no longer needs), Ranil Wickremesinghe is aggrandizing presidential powers with his authentic right hand that is now out of the pocket. He is surpassing JR Jayewardene in laws and gazettes and cabinet decisions. JR ran a cabinet with the resignation letters of his Ministers as MPs in his two pockets. Ranil has a cabinet whose ministers depend on Ranil to continue the lifestyle that they have gotten used to at the people’s expense and on national debt. The cabinet in its wisdom has declared Galle Face out of bounds for virtually everything other than your constitutional walk and religious activities.
And the President, after declaring several state services, especially health and transport, emergency services, is now declaring war on teachers. Go mark the A’Level exams, or you will be prosecuted, and your property will be confiscated. A draconian threat in the name of protecting the education of children. The teachers are in a pickle because the President’s position may find support among the people most of whom are parents. Yet, it is a bit rich coming from a man who was part of the government (after 1977) that gutted the country’s educational system by giving licenses to mushrooming private schools. Still, that is no reason for teachers to hold students as hostages.
The President is reaping the benefit of a national fatigue over protests. And the protesting trade unions are not able to link their sectarian demands to the broader problems of the people. Many unions, especially those in the energy sector, have lost their credibility as workers or professionals, and have earned a reputation for corruption and entrenchment. They are incapable of formulating economic demands in political terms. That used to be the case before 1977 and before the abortive general strike of 1980. In many ways, the country has drifted to a similar moment of contest and consequence, not choice, as in 1980. The parameters of the contest are very different, and so will be the consequences. The paramount question is who will prevail.
After 1977 and after 1980, despite JRJ’s enormous power there was a counterpoint to the government. The opposition parties were divided and in disarray, but they did provide an alternative terrain for political mobilization. The funny thing now is that even though Ranil Wickremesinghe may not win a popularity contest, he is now poised to be more viable as a presidential candidate than he has ever been. Come to think of it, you cannot think of an equally viable opposing candidate to run against Ranil Wickremesinghe in the next presidential election. Sajith Premadasa has neither the fire in his belly to inspire his followers, nor the candle under his posterior to be an effective nuisance to Ranil Wickremesinghe. The general supposition is that he would strike a deal to be Ranil’s PM. Not quite like father like son, but enough to make a deal.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only other real contender, and now he has more than mere name recognition. But he could be the victim of his sudden rise in popularity, a case of peaking prematurely with no time for consolidation. If the local government elections had been held in March or April as previously scheduled, the NPP would have had the opportunity to prove its mettle and consolidate its success. It could have built on that success for the parliamentary election and then for the presidential election. Not anymore. The NPP is the only party left that still has the abolishing of the presidency on its platform. Even that may not have any traction now.
Now with the LG elections indefinitely postponed, and the presidential maneuvering to advance the next presidential election, the NPP too is in a kind of political pickle. Many NPPers think that the LG elections were deliberately stalled to prevent the NPP from establishing itself as an independent electoral force. There is some truth to this, but what is unfortunate is that the NPP did not prepare itself for this stalemate situation in which it is losing all the momentum while President is making all the advances.
The fly in the constitutional ointment for the President is the timing of the next presidential election. The clear constitutional position is that as an unelected successor to an elected President, Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to serve out the full term of his predecessor. Therefore, he cannot exercise the power of an elected President to call for an early election during his first term. But nothing is so black and white in the political space of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Planted news stories are heralding a presidential election early next year. Rumours are being floated that there is legal opinion supporting the President to interpret the constitution self-servingly and call an early election. So, the Supreme Court will be called upon again to provide its ruling in support of an early presidential election. And that after summarily disregarding the same Court’s recent directive to provide resources for the LG election to go ahead as announced.
The proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill is one area where the President is being exposed in all his contradictions. The bill is under attack, and for very good reasons, by everyone who supported him and his Yahapalana initiative. But he has new acolytes to do his bidding, and one of them, his Minister of Justice, is going around saying that the current bill was drafted quite a while ago and it is not at all intended as a response to last year’s Aragalaya. Really? Then why not send it back to the drafting table?
The President is also playing his reconciliation trump card quite brilliantly to divide and weaken the opposition to the Terrorism Bill. It requires some effort of moral contortion to simultaneously pursue the enactment of the currently proposed Terrorism Bill, on the one hand, and the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review past violations of human rights, on the other. Even the UNHRC in Geneva will be in a real pickle, picking between the two initiatives that the government is pursuing at the same time. But welcome to the world of contortions of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
He has already pulled off a a masterstroke on the petroleum front. He has created a veritable new Quad for bringing petroleum products to Sri Lanka, by lining up India, China, Australia and America for supplying and distributing petroleum products in Sri Lanka. There are many uknowns and many problems with the new arrangement. But what it has done masterfully is to find a way to downsize and diminish the Petroleum Corporation without the dreaded remedy of privatization and neutralizing labour protests against it. Just as the President is isolating and weakening everyone who might disagree with him.
In the old days, the LSSP used to mock Felix Dias Bandaranaike, in characteristic Trotskyite jargon, as JR Jayewardene’s epigone. The truth, and the irony of it, is that Felix Dias was a political goner by the time JRJ came around to stage his swan song. JR Jayewardene did not leave room for any epigone. He outlived every one of his original contemporaries and had an extended last word even as he dutifully honoured the last journeys of his fallen friends and foes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a circumstantial late addition and JRJ unchivalrously took her out of the political contest. Seeing all this in perspective the question now is whether Ranil Wickremesinghe is having his swan song and his last word the way JRJ had it 45 years ago? Is he now JRJ’s real epigone? The truth is, Ranil is being cleverer than Felix, and he is more than an epigone to JR.