By Rajan Philips –
A political wisecrack attributed to President Johnson suggests that the first skill in politics is to be able to count – count the votes in the legislature, that is. Lyndon Johnson was a past master working up narrow legislative majorities in the US Congress and the Senate both before and after becoming US President. He knew the importance of counting. President Rajapaksa, an otherwise astute and even cunning politician, has come up short in counting votes on three occasions in parliament over the last twelve months.
First, it was the No Confidence motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in April 2018. The motion was defeated by a sizeable 46-vote majority. Second, it was the October-November crisis when President Sirisena administered made Mahinda Rajapaksa PM, even before sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mr. Rajapaksa, despite trying everything using state power and non-state resources, could not show majority support in parliament as required by convention and the Constitution.
The third occasion was the vote on the 2019 budget that was passed a fortnight ago. Mahinda Rajapaksa was openly confident that his opposition group was going to defeat the government and force a parliamentary election. He was again off the mark by a hefty 43 votes. Mr. Rajapaksa could justifiably blame President Sirisena and everyone’s sidekick SB Dissanayake for overpromising and underdelivering in the game of numbers. Yet, to come up short in counting on three occasions says something of Mr. Rajapaksa’s urgency to get back in office, and of his anxiety about being out of power while the legal lassos keep getting closer to those close to him. The budget vote in which the government prevailed quite easily despite predictions to contrary, has been credited to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s manipulative skills.
The Prime Minister was reportedly nervous on the day of the No Confidence motion last year as he was not quite sure which way the vote would go. After the vote he looked humbled and was manifestly grateful to all the MPs who had voted for him. During the October crisis, Wickremesinghe was the fortuitous beneficiary of the wave of popular opposition to Sirisena’s overreaching presidential antics. On the budget vote, by all accounts, the Prime Minister was in his stride and was calling all the shots. He scared the hell out of Sirisena by getting UNP backbenchers to shout out that they were going to vote down the President’s Expenditure Head. Sirisena got the message and decided to direct the SLFP MPs to be absent during the vote and help the budget pass. Six SLFP MPs defied the President and voted for the budget. Another 29 were absent during the vote and that included16 SLFPers who had earlier voted for the No Confidence motion against the PM. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP were furious. They had been led up the garden path for the third time in a row.
Team Ranil vs Rajapaksa Family
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is celebrating his 70thbirthday today, and his acolytes, or Team Ranil, can pat themselves on the back for repeatedly besting a sitting President and a former President in the parliamentary game of numbers. But they are also quite capable of letting parliamentary complacency become their enemy in the elections. Manipulating the Party and the parliament, but serially losing the elections has been the political story of Team Ranil. Being Machiavellian can be useful between elections but not for winning elections. The UNP’s crushing defeat in the LG elections in February 2018 was the worst rebuke by voters of a sitting government. Despite their disagreements, the UNP government and President Sirisena have been united in putting off the provincial council election for fear of another electoral shellacking. The UNP appears to be more confident about the presidential election due this year and the parliamentary election due next year. It had the momentum and political tailwind to go for a parliamentary election soon after thwarting the Sirisena-Rajapaksa constitutional coup, but Team Ranil chose to play like starting a new inning instead of launching a run chase to an early election.
Opinions vary as to whether the UNP counts its chances to be better in the parliamentary election or the presidential election. Even if the UNP might have a preferred sequence, it has no control over the timing of either of them. That is left to President Sirisena and he is not bending over backwards to do any favours to Ranil Wickremesinghe. The presidential election coming first will likely create another internal haggling over who should be the UNP candidate. Mr. Wickremesinghe would rather not see another presidential election in Sri Lanka, but if it is not unavoidable it would be difficult for Ranil (and his Team) to forego the candidacy to Sajith Premadasa or Karu Jayasuriya. It is known that the two aspirants, or their teams, are putting up promotional posters outside Colombo. Sajith Premadasa’s candidacy is virtually dead in the water because of his two-timing with Sirisena. Karu Jayasuriya, on the other hand, has the credibility to take on the mantle of Sobitha Thero and run on a single plank, vowing to finally bring to an end the executive presidency.
The Rajapaksas have their own problems and aspirations. But they have managed to sink their problems and rally behind the presidential aspirations of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Fifteen years ago, Mr. Rajapaksa could not have imagined that he would be where he is today. From the obscurity of California, he has sprung into the limelight in Sri Lanka, and is going to be the torch bearer for the Rajapaksa family and their SLPP party. It is an irony that the Rajapaksas have let go of the SLFP acronym, especially its pejorative expansion: the Sri Lankan Family Party. For, the Rajapaksas are Sri Lanka’s quintessentially family-made political party. The Bandaranaikes and the Senanayakes used their traditional society status to succeed in politics, while the Rajapaksas have used political power for all round status enhancement right at the top of the national level. But for the astrologer and the common opposition in 2015, the Rajapaksas would have ruled over Sri Lanka for years on end without a break. Now it is up to Gotabaya Rajapaksa to find out whether he can start from where his brother left.
The fact is that Mahinda Rajapaksa took quite a while before endorsing Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) as presidential candidate. Whatever might have been the internal reasons for this caution, it is fair to speculate that the younger sibling’s winnability might have been a consideration in the older brother’s mind. The former President knows only too well how another military hero ventured into politics and struggled like a fish out of water in an earlier presidential election. The transition is never easy especially if GR’s opponent knows a thing or two more about politics and elections. Not only Mahinda Rajapaksa did take a long time to endorse GR, it was only he who could make that decision. Everyone else in the SLPP and the JO including GR patiently and deferentially waited for the former President to make his decision. And the candidate could only be a Rajapaksa and no one else. Which other political family in Sri Lanka could have wielded such power over the nomination of a presidential candidate?
The issues that could dominate the campaign will depend on who the UNP candidate is going to be. If Karu Jayasuriya were to run as a single-issue candidate to abolish the executive presidency, it would make it that much difficult for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to project himself as Sri Lanka’s greatest candidate ever, as his Colombian entourage would want everyone to believe, for the office of the executive presidency. The election will turn into a straightforward referendum on the presidency. Indeed, Mr. Jayasuriya could preemptively call it a referendum to meet the amending requirements of the constitution.
It will be a different contest if Rajapaksa were to run against Ranil Wickremesinghe. The issues of national alienation and reconciliation will likely surface as contentious issues. All hell will break loose if the campaign were to coincide with the September UNHRC sessions in Geneva. How will the two candidates present themselves? Will Gotabhaya Rajapaksa present himself as the new conciliator to make sure he collects the critical minimum minority vote, and leave it to others in the SLPP to stir the communal pot and badmouth Ranil as the biggest betrayer of Sri Lanka in modern times? Will Ranil Wickremesinghe make a spirited defence of his government’s position in Geneva the way Mangala Samaraweera has been doing it? Or will he play safe to protect his critical minimum vote in the south while hoping to maximize his support in the north? Economic issues will of course play a factor, but they are unlikely to cause a break either way. On corruption, it will be a contest about pot and the kettle – which one is blacker? It will likely be a hotchpotch election that will vary district by district without much of a national trend or sweep as it was in 2015.
Sirisena as spoiler
Where will Maithripala Sirisena be in all of this? He has literally burnt his boats on both sides and has no hope of being anyone’s candidate except of himself. Even the remaining SLFPers might prefer to stay home rather than being seen with Sirisena as the SLFP presidential candidate. The only trump card that he has left to play is the spoiler trump card called the Twentieth Amendment. It might be too late for that trump to succeed but the incumbent President has no other choice but to play it. Otherwise, he will slide into irrelevance even before the presidential election is called. As I have written earlier, the JVP’s Twentieth Amendment has become a convenient meeting point for political selfishness on the part of Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
For Sirisena, it opens the possibility to have another term as President but without executive powers. For Ranil Wickremesinghe, it will eliminate another presidential election and leave him safe in his position as Prime Minister both within and outside the UNP. At one point, even Mahinda Rajapaksa was interested in the 20thAmendment as it best suits his political circumstances: he cannot for president a third time, and he doesn’t have to let Gotabhaya run even for the first time. Now it might be too late for Mahinda Rajapaksa to abandon his brother and support 20A abolishing the presidency.
But it is not too late for the JVP to take one more kick at the can. The breakdown of the budget vote indicates that a two-thirds majority is achievable in parliament to pass the 20thAmendment. There were 119 votes in support of the budget, 76 including the six JVP MPs opposed the budget, and 29 SLFPers were absent. If all the 119 MPs (including the TNA), six JVPers and the 29 SLFPers were to support the 20thAmendment they will have a total of 154 votes, exceeding the two-thirds majority. In such a scenario, the Joint Opposition, at least the so called progressives among them, will be put to the test. Almost everyone of them, for forty years, have been promising to abolish the executive presidency. And, when for the first time an amendment to achieve that purpose comes before parliament, on which side of history will they rise on their hindlegs? That will be question before Mahinda Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakara and Dinesh Gunawardena to answer to history. We must not assume that they will not support the Twentieth Amendment.
There is another consideration. A successful passage of 20A will trigger an almost immediate general election, which could also double us as the referendum on the amendment. The Joint Opposition will have to figure out which direction the political winds are going to blow. Would they like to be seen as campaigning to form a government only to make Gotabaya Rajapaksa Sri Lanka’s President in another three months? Or would they neutralize the referendum debate by supporting the amendment and campaigning against the UNP government? In fairness, Mr. Gotabaya’s apparent application for renouncing his US citizenship is hopefully not too far in the process to be irreversible. These are interesting times, at least for now.
Yesterday, there were news reports that JVP leaders met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe one more time to ask about the UNP’s position on 20A. In typical Ranil-speak, the PM answered that at its last convention the UNP decided to abolish the executive presidency, and that the Party’s position remains the same. That is not an answer to the question JVP asked. The question was and is: what is the UNP going to do in parliament about the JVP’s amendment? Perhaps, the JVP may never get a direct answer, certainly not in public, from the Prime Minister until it asks President Sirisena to make his move, and play his last trump card. Some of us can hardly wait. It would be worth the wait even if it comes to nothing in the end.