By Kumar David –
In fifty-one weeks at most Sirisena will be history but it will be a long and trying fifty-one because what capers he may get up to in the interim are unforeseeable. People speak of Trump as idiosyncratic, erratic and gaga but there is method in his madness. You know what he wants though his devices are sordid. With our man no one knows what processes have taken hold of the befuddled recesses of his head nor of the dark regions of the crania of the weirdos advising him.
He blandly admits that his Gazette stipulating ministerial functions was erroneous. Why? Because he was scampering around like a headless chicken. Did anyone foresee he would fire all nine provincial governors and replace some with anti-Ranil stalwarts or pro-Sirisena pseudo intellectuals or Chandrika partisan SLFPers to persuade the latter to switch loyalties from Chandrika to him? Some new Governors have an unconcealed interest in the politics of the provinces. All his appointments are blatant misuse of the office of president. ‘We the public’ must be vigilant, throwback every excess, take him to court whenever reasonable and organise to rebuff every wrongful act. Damage control then is the first essential task of the citizenry. It does not matter if one is UNP, SLFP-PP, JVP or TNA – it is our common task in this messy period.
Though all is uncertainty there is one clear beacon since a constitutional amendment is most unlikely. There will be presidential elections by the end of this year and nominations will be called between August and October. Once that bridge is crossed Sirisena will count for zilch. His antics thereafter will be ignored by police, military, parliament and government. A duty that ‘we the public’ must commit ourselves to is to ensure that there is no hanky-panky and that all electoral processes go smoothly. A vigilant citizenry must keep the Elections Commission on its toes. This is the second big task on the plate of ‘we the public’.
Allow me to divert to partisan issues for this and the next paragraph. There is uncertainty about presidential candidates though the UNP is spoiled for choice – Ranil, Sajith and Karu. Nobody at this time, the UNP included knows who’s best. And if a constitutional amendment is on the way who would want to be a lame duck president for a few months? And no one knows how the choice of candidate is being dealt with in the Rajapaksa camp. Is there an active debate, if so who is included, or is it going to be left to Mahinda and those he chooses to consult? Drumbeaters Vitrana, Vasudeva, Weerawansa, Gamanpilla and their views are expendable trash for the Rajapaksas. Received wisdom is that Gota is still the front runner with Chamal a possible second choice; Basil is a sure loser. Someone mumbled in his sleep that the Paksa-camp may nominate Sirisena, but is the UNP going to be gifted with such an easy walkover?
It seems Gota has left it a bit late; not only must one renounce US citizenship but the State Department must accept it. This is where difficulties may arise as there have been human-rights accusations against him in Geneva and corruption cases are pending in the local courts. Will the US be constrained to monitor these to conclusion before deciding whether an enmeshed citizen can be deemed to be of no interest to the American legal system? And, of course, mischievous plaints can be filed by private parties praying the American courts to defer ratification of renunciation until these issues are resolved. I am no expert and a comment from someone who can explain whether a Gota renunciation of US citizenship could run into delays will be useful. Anything like this will be a blow to the Paksa-camp and cripple its next-to-Mahinda-himself best option. On the other hand, it is also possible that Gota has already set the wheels in motion but the Paksa-camp is keeping it under wraps so that it can string Sirisena along long and fool the pantaloon for as long as it needs to.
Back to non-partisan issues; we have never experienced a runoff presidential poll before but if the impact of two ‘spoiler’ candidates is included this is time it is possible (assuming the constitution remains unchanged). The ‘spoilers’, a JVP nominee and Vigneswaran. Imagine that they poll 7.5% each or 15% between them, leaving the principal contestants from the UNP and the Paksa-camp to battle it for 50%+1 out of the remaining 85%. It is most unlikely that there could be a 50:35split; the gap is too big, so a runoff will be needed. Even if the two (or one or three) ‘spoilers’ bag only 10%, securing a 50:40 split of the remaining vote is not easy. Under these possible complications ‘we the public’ must exercise heightened vigilance to ensure that all is done properly. This will be a third important task on our plate in during the next year.
Sirisena’s death rattle is becoming ever weirder; what is he up to and for what purpose? Delay in Gazetting subject allocation to ministries, twirling provincial governorships, setting up his own committee without whose approval ministers will not be allowed to appoint heads of institutions are some ways in which he is making himself a gadfly biting at the workings of the UNP government. (A vetting process to keep riff-raff out of corporate directorships and chairmanships is in itself a good thing but will not be properly used in today’s intensely partisan atmosphere). Maybe in collusion with the Paksa-camp the objective is to make the country ungovernable discrediting the UNP government during its few months in office.
Or better still in the Paksa-camp’s mind, would be to force the UNP, in desperation, to agree to parliamentary elections before elections to a current-style presidency. In this case dissolution will have to be forced within months. Come the latter part of the year the focus will shift to the presidency and to pushing out Sirisena. The common position that ‘we the people’ can unanimously endorse is that at a minimum a new president must be in office by January 2020 and a new parliament elected by August the same year. Let this be a minimal fourth imperative.
With what storyline is the Paksa-camp keeping the embers of hope burning in the heart of this avaricious man? Does he imagine that there is a chance in hell that the Paksas will nominate him only to lose the election by a landslide? Or does he calculate that he can hold the Paksas to ransom by threatening to take away the 10% SLFP vote from the SLPP pool? Excessive speculation will serve us no purpose because much is hidden by protagonists on all sides, everyone is lying through their teeth and unforeseen interventions and quirks are likely in the nine months to presidential nomination when Sirisena fades into perpetual obscurity.
Throwing back the challenge to democracy is what the citizenry must do for its own sake, not because of illusions about the UNP’s despicable reputation on rights issues from JR’s time with his adoring nephew Ranil in tow. A timely reminder of JR-style democracy appeared in the Island of 2 January, “Who can save Sri Lanka?” by T.M. Premawardana. It is one of the most inspiring short political articles on Sri Lanka that I have read in recent years. (Translated by Fr. J.C. Pieris, the Sinhala original may be available from firstname.lastname@example.org); but I don’t want to digress from the theme of this piece.
The huge question mark is whether presidential or parliamentary polls will come first. As the law stands the former must be all done and dusted by January 2020 while parliamentary elections can in theory be deferred till August 2020. (I am not knowledgeable enough to say anything about the long overdue provincial elections). It would be wise to hold back parliamentary elections till after this God-knows-what-to-call-him eccentric is out of the way. To elect a new parliament with a mentally healthy president in office is better for everybody, even the losing side. The UNP will see tactical advantage of not having to campaign with a hostile person in control of the state machine, but that’s not my point. I say ‘we the public’ should exert forbearance and for the common good and see the back of Sirisena before conducting parliamentary election. So far, I have enumerated five responses to the question in my title “How to handle” the next few months.
Lakshman Kiriella has got himself into the business of spewing asinine remarks. He has had an emotional eruption about not being given enough departments to manage (it has been partially rectified). The said Kiriella moans that he “cannot face his supporters” without a bagful of goodies in his basket. He sees a portfolio as a god given right; perish the thought that politicos should be servants of the people! Kurunegala UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara did a capital job in exposing the offer of a bribe of Rs 500 million but when a goodly portfolio was not offered as a santhosam he threatened to “take a tough decision”, presumably desert the UNP. These slime balls have no concept of public duty and the role of the politician as a servant of the people. Nurturing a new breed of politician is more than can be done in a few months so I leave it out of today’s list.
The outcome of the next parliamentary election you can bet is not known even to the corniest astrologer. One year ago, in February 2018, it seemed the Rajapaksa juggernaut was reaching for the stars. The Mahinda-Sirisena antics of the last few weeks has damaged Mahinda’s image, but by how much? Don’t believe anyone, either way, till it is put to the test at the election itself. However, one fundamental task will not go away and is of utmost importance for ‘we the people’; a new constitution repealing the Executive Presidency, ensuring devolution of power to the minorities and strengthening democratic rights beyond 19A’s laudable achievements is an imperative.