20 October, 2017

The January Election: Defection Detractions And Constitutional Red Herrings

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Our political system is broken in a fundamental sense as a result of the dismantling of the time honoured procedures for periodically changing governments and for providing people with real alternative choices of government. Government changes and choices of government that are fundamental to democracy have been turned into a farce in Sri Lanka thanks to the operation of the executive presidential system, even if not necessarily due to the system itself. The farce has become the routine after 2010. There cannot be much disagreement about these contentions except among those who are either ignorant or are lying.

No one can attribute purity of purpose or honest intentions to the prematurely called presidential election for an illegitimately constitutional third term in office. The intended purpose of the January election has nothing to do with giving people genuine choices for changing government, but everything to do with going through the motions of an election while making sure there will be no change in government. Making sure meant causing disarray in the opposition, sponsoring proxy candidates to sabotage the search for a common candidate, and then state-rolling over a divided opposition to secure the coveted third term prize for family and country. That was the government plan.

MaitreMaithripala Sirisena’s defection and his becoming the Common Candidate of the Opposition is an unexpected and serious challenge to the government implementing its plan for continuous re-elections according to its original script. Objectively, the people will have a real election to vote and two winnable alternatives to choose from. That was not the case before Friday, 21 November 2014. Unsurprisingly, after the initial opposition euphoria, the government has been vigorously trying to regain lost ground. The government made it a point to show off its two-thirds support in parliament on the final budget vote last Monday, and made mockery of the 30 to 60 defections boasted by the Common Candidate sponsors.

I am not sure if anyone in the Opposition actually said that all the defections will take place before the budget vote. New defections from the government are more likely to occur, if at all, in daily or weekly trickles before the election rather than in one ‘flood swoop’ to bring down the government in parliament. On the other hand, there were predictions of counter-defections from the opposition to the government, but there has been none so far. And no one broke ranks from the opposition to vote with the government on the budget. That must mean something, that there is some sense in parliament that the political wind in the country is not necessarily blowing the government way. As well, there is the national wind, and there are also the local winds.

Blowing in the wind

Long before Bob Dylan composed his lyric reminding his friend that the answer is “blowin’ in the wind”, Aristotle is said to have scientifically opined that female or male conception is determined by the direction of the wind blowing outside, during parental love making. Two thousand years later Bertrand Russell poked fun that Mrs. Aristotle must have been looking at the weather cock before going to bed with her philosopher husband. That is what the Sri Lankan government parliamentarians will be doing for the entire month of December and the first week in the New Year, watching which way the political wind is blowing in their parts of the country before deciding whether to stay with the devil they know or go with the devil that defected. Or, they can always play safe until the voting is over and make a mad rush from Mahinda to Maithri, through the President’s famous salon doors, if Maithri were to win the election. As I wrote last week, it is still early days to make predictions. But we can see what is blowing in the wind, or, to change metaphors, what is cooking in the political kitchen.

The opposition seems to have got its directional compass right, but there seems to be plenty of confusion over which, or whose, road map to follow. There have been statements, retractions and restatements, by the Common Candidate himself and by practically everyone else in his camp, about abolishing the executive presidency in 100 days; keeping the executive presidency but removing its dictatorial powers; creating an executive prime minister (whatever that means); restoring the old cabinet form of government with the prime minister as the first among equals; making Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and calling him ‘Sir’, like calling Chandrika Kumaratunga, ‘Madam’; and so on. An agreed upon road map and a Memorandum of Understanding (the new parchment of market economy politics) between the key opposition parties and groups are expected to be unveiled tomorrow under a roof, government willing, somewhere in Colombo. Otherwise, it is expected to be literally a road show. We will see.

The Rajapaksa loyalists outside parliament have pounced with glee on the Opposition’s confusions and contradictions, and even more gleefully on the two very public sponsors of the Common Candidate: Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. However much the Rajapaksa loyalists may try to rewrite the terms of reference for the January election, the election ought to be and will be about the record of President Rajapaksa after his second term election in 2010, and not about what Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe did or did not do when they were President and Prime Minister, respectively, 10 years ago.

The arguments for voting against the Common Candidate are often qualified by the admission that the Rajapaksa government is not faultless, but on balance an assertive and performing Mahinda Rajapaksa is far more preferable to a docile and politically indebted Maithripala Sirisena. This is a strange argument coming from those who have always attributed the faults of the government not at all to the President, but exclusively to his insatiable family and his entourage of bad advisers. And they don’t even make a demand of the President that for the good of the government and the country the presidency must be ‘secularized’ from family bandying and that the President’s bad advisers must be publicly sent packing. The future insurance, according to this argument, against the government’s systemic follies is to find a way to ‘contain’ the Rajapaksa presidency; or, as the Central Committee of the Communist Party in its dialectical wisdom opined: support the President’s re-election for a third term, and continue the fight for good government from within the UPFA for another 99 years, if not the end of time.

Perhaps the strangest argument against the Common Candidate is the constitutional argument. The commitment to abolishing the executive presidency and the promise to do so within a hundred days after the election seems to have disturbed the constitutional hackles of a few commentators. Political memories are not only short, but are also convenient. The current constitution began as a violation of every constitutional norm and convention known to Sri Lanka and has had its own terms consistently and thoroughly subverted and violated throughout its life. The principal victims have been democratic government and law and order in society. The opposition’s common candidacy is an opportunity for the country to breakout of this constitutional logjam, and to suggest that the opposition’s position is constitutionally questionable is self-serving hypocrisy.

In any event, there is nothing sacrosanct about the executive presidency in the constitution, in that there is no requirement of a referendum for its abolition or a serious dilution of its powers. A two-thirds majority vote in parliament is all that is required. In his highhanded wisdom, JR Jayewardene prescribed the referendum requirement only for extending the single term of presidency beyond six years, but not for its abolition. Whether the opposition forces and the common candidate will be able to win the election and deliver on what they are promising remains to be seen. But we know what will be delivered by the current government if elected to a third presidential term. Political commentary at least at this early stage should not be about wagering who will win and arguing for the winning side; instead, it should be about making the right argument regardless of who will win.

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