By Rajan Philips –
For all the betrayals by the elected beneficiaries, the electoral victories of January 2015 and August 2015 can be credited with two positive outcomes. One, there has not been a single state-implicated or state-sponsored killing in the country in the last four years and four months – the first such period in, lo and behold, 48 years. I am counting from the 1971 JVP insurrection when it all began, even though a spate of the so called ‘emblematic’ state-sponsored individual killings occurred in the last ten years. The second positive development is the editorial and journalistic liberation of the Lakehouse newspapers for the first time after their ‘nationalization’ in 1973. There was a brief slide back to the sewers during the October-November constitutional coup last year, but they are now back in the sunlight of sensible independence. They even toe a critically neutral line in the power-bickering between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. Last week’s (April 14) Sunday Observer had two news stories which are germane to the current kerfuffle over presidential candidacies and the subject of my article today.
One of the two stories was about the return (on Friday, 12 April) of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his periodical sojourn in the US, but severely soured this time by the serving of summons in two civil cases filed in California courts, one of which involves one of the more sensational of the emblematic killings in January 2009. Although welcomed by an orchestrated crowd of jubilant supporters at the Katunayake airport, Mr. Rajapaksa has suffered a rather irreparable blow to his aura of winnability as result of the California summons. Together with ongoing and potentially new court trials in Sri Lanka, the California cases make Gotabaya Rajapaksa the first person in Lanka’s presidential history to aspire to be a presidential candidate while in the throes of criminal and civil court trials not only in his natal home but also in his naturalized home.
Guilt or innocence is irrelevant, because the fact that a potential candidate is facing court trials should be of serious concern to serious people. One would think that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a serious person and it is significant that he did not go to the airport to join the crowd and welcome his beleaguered sibling returning from his second home. The former President is also walking back on what was earlier believed to be family consensus to nominate Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. To journalists who asked him when he was at an oil anointing ceremony at the Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya on Tuesday last week, whether former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who was also at the temple – was the SLPP’s presidential candidate, the former President reportedly said, “No such decision has been taken!”
It may be that Gotabaya Rajapaksa really believes that he is the man that Sri Lanka needs at this historical juncture. More likely, it might be the self-serving beliefs of his supporters about him that might have gone to Mr. Rajapaksa’s head. No one else seems to be captured by the idea that in Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has a potential president for the ages. There is no indication that Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa or any one else in the extended Rajapaksa family are captured by any such idea. If indeed, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an extraordinarily exceptional presidential candidate, there is no reason why Mahinda Rajapaksa will not be making public assertions about it.
Ranil’s Long Game
My second news story from last week’s Sunday Observer involves Mahinda Rajapaksa in an equally significant way. According to the JVP’s K.D Lalkantha, Mahinda Rajapaksa is apparently in favour of abolishing the Executive Presidency through the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, but he is “unable to support the proposal due to certain political elements around him … Rajapaksa is now trapped by these elements who are working towards taking the country to yet another Presidential election. He is a prisoner of his own political forces.” Lalkantha was even more revelatory about Ranil Wickremesinghe in that the Prime Minister is now not keen about abolishing the executive presidency because he fancies his chances in defeating Gotabaya Rajapakse in a presidential election. To quote Lalkantha, “Wickremesinghe believes contesting against Mahinda Rajapaksa in a parliamentary election would not be favourable to him after abolishing the Executive Presidency.” He is therefore reluctant to support the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and prefers to “demonise Gotabaya Rajapaksa and thereby gain the support of the minorities, human rights activists and civil society.” Many a plan of men and mice, we might add.
But Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) has his own problems securing nomination within his own Party, even though he is virtually the Party Leader for life under the UNP’s constitution. Many in the UNP would prefer Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Sri Lanka’s executive Prime Minister rather than be a presidential candidate and lose yet another election for himself and for the Party. RW is also a victim of his constitutional cleverness in the party organization. According to commentators, the UNP constitution requires the party leader to be the party’s presidential candidate. This is the obverse of what Mahinda Rajapaksa did to the SLFP constitution, changing it to require that the party candidate who is elected as the country’s President to be also the Party leader. The change got rid of Chandrika Kumaratunga, as Mahinda intended, but quite inadvertently tied up Maithripala Sirisena in all kinds of political knots when he unexpectedly defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. Sirisena is still tied up in a Party that has more knots than worthwhile members.
Put another way, what Mahinda constitutionally did to a winning political party, Ranil has been doing to his losing Party. RW managed to survive as leader of the UNP after losing the 2005 presidential election, by avoiding contest in the two subsequent presidential elections in 2010 and 2015. It is quite clear that he values being the leader of the UNP far more than becoming the President of Sri Lanka. As usual, he has been clever in his own way! Look at his former rivals and where they are now. Chandrika Kumaratunga was a two-term President, but she is a political nobody now. Mahinda Rajapaksa also finished two terms and was going for a third, but is now struggling to be a political somebody – even having to put up with the political upstart of a younger brother who had earlier been his apparently out-of-control Defence Secretary. Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is still a political contender and is constantly in contention. He is as powerful as the President and there is no one else in the country that Maithripala Sirisena envies and despises more than Ranil Wickremesinghe.
At the same time, Ranil is also very much a victim of his own cleverness. His so called long game in politics can be played only so long as it reaches some fruition before his biological clock runs out on him. This could be his last chance to lead the UNP in a presidential or parliamentary election, even though sometime during the constitutional coup he let it be known that he is preparing a new generation of his leaders to take over in the 2030s! That would rule out the likes of Sajith Premadasa ever becoming UNP leaders. In any event, Ravi Karunanayake seems to have been put up to undermine, if not destroy, the younger Premadasa’s chances of becoming UNP leader on the coattails of his father’s legacy. Sajith Premadasa has done himself no favours among UNPer’s by his mutual cosiness with Sirisena. All of this does not address the near-universal apprehensions within the UNP universe about Ranil Wickremesinghe contesting the presidential election. UNPers would rather see RW leading them in the next parliamentary election to become PM again, especially as it is now considered to be an ‘executive position’ thanks to the 19th Amendment. A ‘Ranil for PM’ (not quite the ‘NM for PM’ slogan in March 1960 that spectacularly backfired amidst the communal crossfires of that era) will also give a boost to the still alive hopes for abolishing the elected executive presidency.
But Ranil is having second thoughts. Not the sober second thoughts of maturing wisdom, but the rash second thoughts of taking one more kick at the presidential can on the assumption that Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) will not be a formidable candidate. It could be argued that GR is not in fact a formidable candidate as he has been made out to be by his self-serving supporters and fawning sections of the media owned by wealthy admirers. But that is not the point about Wickremesinghe’s politics four years after co-leading the yahapalanaya common-opposition forces and promising, with the late Sobitha Thero bearing witness, to abolish the executive presidency. The fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as reported by the JVP, is now prepared to give up on the JVP’s 20th Amendment will turnout to be the biggest political betrayal in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 42- year political life. He will not go unpunished if he were to context the next presidential election against Gotabaya or whomever, and no matter whoever wins the election.
A second reason, other than Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that might ‘constrain’ Ranil Wickremesinghe to be a presidential candidate is the question of the UNP leadership. Unlike in 2010 and 2015, there is no ‘common opposition candidate’ that the UNP could sponsor and allow Ranil to continue as the undisputed leader of the UNP. In the absence of a common external candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot allow any other UNPer to be presidential candidate without relinquishing the leadership of the UNP. He will not give up his leadership of the Party even to become a UNP PM under a UNP President. Karu Jayasuriya might oblige and agree to be a common candidate, but that would be only to abolish the presidency, which Mr. Jayasuriya has indicated is his primary political goal after living through Sirisena’s constitutional fiasco last year. All of this begs the question: why not just abolish the elected executive presidential system by supporting the JVP’s 20th Amendment.
The 20th Amendment
In his Sunday Observer interview, Lalkantha indicated that the JVP is planning to announce its final decision on the 20th Amendment by the first week of May. The JVP would either table the Amendment in Parliament for a vote, or “scrap the proposal and unmask the political personalities and individuals who promised the public to abolish the Executive Presidency in its current form.” In my view, the JVP should call for a vote in parliament and not scrap the 20th Amendment without a vote in parliament. There is no better way to unmask anybody other than through a vote in parliament. But before the vote, the JVP should do more round of canvassing support for 20A among all the Party leaders in parliament and President Sirisena. It should also enlist the support of civil society organizations to persuade the onetime yahapalanaya leaders – Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to formally and forthrightly support the passage of 20A in parliament and be faithful to the legacy of Sobitha Thero, but for whom neither man would be where he is today.
The two positive outcomes of the 2015 yahapalanaya victories – total absence of state-sponsored killings and the journalistic liberation at the Lake House papers, are strong enough reasons that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe could have used very persuasively in the next national elections, provided they were in a position to present a united front. But the two are as divided as any political leaders can be, and as a result they both have lost any moral basis to claim credit for the two positive outcomes after 2015. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s situation is even worse. He was part of the regime that was and is accused of state-sponsored killings and media suppressions. His presidential candidacy, if duly granted by Mahinda Rajapaksa, will not be by any measure extricated from the record of the former regime, but will be fully embedded in it. The court cases in Colombo and California reinforce his implications.
In sum, the two leading contenders for the presidential candidacy, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are both flawed candidates and are not fully endorsed by their respective political parties. President Sirisena has endorsed himself and is looking for a party to field him as their candidate. So, we are left with the conundrum that while every party insists on preserving the executive presidency, no party can find a suitable candidate to run in a presidential. And that is the curse for not abolishing the elected executive presidency after being repeatedly elected to do just that. Playing the short game in politics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not accountable on the abolishing of the executive presidency. But the other two, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa, are eternally answerable. And the JVP should not easily let them off the 20th Amendment hook.