By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There are two reform proposals on the agenda, both of which are likely to be rejected and rightly so. The two proposals are the JVP’s 20th amendment and the government’s draft constitution. There are many reasons that rejection is likely. One is timing. The mass mood is for change, but not of Constitutional reform. The mood is one of regime change; of rejection of the government. The one thing that the people are sure of is that an exit ramp is coming up next year—that of the Presidential election. There is absolutely no appetite for risking that exit by tinkering with the Constitution, which might open the window to a postponement of national elections. If the executive presidency is abolished, the next election will be the parliamentary election of 2020 and not the presidential election of 2019. There is no way the masses will welcome such a deferral. There is also no way that any Opposition party will be able to be seen to accede to such a postponement of the day of reckoning with this government.
The second factor that is related to mass mood and mistiming of initiatives, is that both proposals, the 20th amendment and the draft Constitution, entail a weakening of the state and the center of power. The proposals if implemented will go beyond the multi-polarity that has set in due to the 19th amendment. The mass mood is for the restoration of order through a strong state and leadership. No Opposition party which hopes to win the next national election can be seen to support a further weakening of the State.
Not even the justifiable desire to see Mahinda Rajapaksa return to lead the country—a sentiment I share in no small measure– will enable an Opposition party to collaborate with a reform proposal that weakens the state. Sinhala society already sees a win-win solution in which Mahinda is a powerful, highly popular and respected Prime Minister, while the System remains undiluted. That win-win solution is one of MR as PM and any one of his nominees as the presidential candidate (with Gotabhaya a favorite in many, but not all circles).
It is the acme of stupidity to present the Opposition with a choice of the 20th amendment or the new Constitution, in the hope that factional rivalry will force it to choose. On the contrary, all the opposition has to do is to stay put, while the government’s unpopularity does the rest. Thus the boot is on the other foot. It is the UNP and the liberals who have to choose.
For those liberals in particular and the UNP in general, whose very worst case scenario is Gotabaya as President, there is a choice on the table; and only one: revise the 19th amendment now, so as to allow Mahinda to run for President, or face Gotabhaya next year.
The Establishment also has a second choice to make: run Sajith Premadasa as UNP candidate, adopt a Premadasist platform, and make it a race, reducing the time lag for bounce-back as a strong opposition, or run with Ranil, and keep the party out of reach of the country’s top national leadership post for another quarter century, making it a half century in all.
Frankly, from my point of view, the only real debate that is happening now is one that is taking place slightly beneath the surface, in the ranks of the Opposition. And that is with regard to the possibility of changing the parliamentary balance before the presidential election and moving Mahinda to center–stage (which is my overwhelming personal preference) or, if it fails, the best choice of candidate. What the Government says, thinks or does is of less importance because this is a government that is doomed to defeat.
Within the Government it is President Sirisena who still has options and he has cannily exercised them by permitting the SLFP’s Sixteen rebels to move into Opposition and open a second front against the UNP. The ranks of the opposition have now broadened and this gives both Mahinda and Maithri more options than Ranil has with his belated Constitutional moves by proxy.
The UNP has to face the facts. The SLFP has been in office and more strikingly, has held the highest office for quarter century. The SLFP has produced three presidents: Chandrika, Mahinda, and Maithri. The UNP has yielded none since Premadasa was elected in late 1988 and took office in early January 1993. Why then should the SLFP abolish the system? Even though the official SLFP is down to 14% of the vote, the Pohottuwa, which has 40% is the SLFP in disguise or rather, in its normal Populist guise and its breakaway mode. Taken together the Pohottuwa (JO+SLPP) and the SLFP can win any election, notwithstanding the minority vote. The resounding approval that Dr. Sarath Amunugama, a stalwart of the status-quoist SLFP faction, accorded Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy peroration simply goes to show that even the SLFP Right will support his candidacy. It is quite possible that if Sajith is not the UNP candidate, many UNP rebels may do so too.
Analytical argumentation apart, the latest news gives us all the reasons why the 20th amendment and the new constitution should not be entertained and why we need a strong state and leadership—though I would prefer progressive “Sri Lankan Model of Development” (Godfrey Gunatilleke) to an attempt to imitate a Chinese or any other model, especially when we do not have a market of a billion people and we do have competitive multiparty elections!
Anyway, back to the newspapers. In any other country, including in South Asia, the clear photographs of staffers of the Hatton National Bank in Kilinochchi commemorating May 18th with a large graphic of a lion with a sword, hovering over a fallen Tamil damsel, would have led to a massive withdrawal of money from the HNB by the citizenry. If I had money in that bank, I would have pulled it out. There should have been demonstrations outside the head office! In the Sri Lanka I grew up in, the HNB would have been promptly nationalized, preceded by newspaper editorials and parliamentary speeches calling for such a step!
Worse still, is the recent speech given by Chief Minister Wigneswaran in which he spotlights the weakness of the Sinhala leadership and argues that the Tamils must fight like Muhammad li, punching while the rival is tired.
C V Wigneswaran while addressing Tamil People’s Council (TPC) meeting for youth in the Jaffna library auditorium on Saturday May 26th, said the following:
“Tamils have our rights according to international law. As the earliest people of this country, we have the right to claim self-rule over our area we live in…We have forgotten that we have rights as ancient people according to UN charter.
We have now a weakness that has spread among our youth. After our arms were silenced, a defeatist mentality has set in. We have hopelessness of who is going to deliver our expectations. We have to change all this and instill confidence in our people. You should know the behavior boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. He avoided the punches of his opponents and made them tired. When his opponents were tired, Mohammed Ali punched them profusely. Our moves should be like that of Mohammed Ali.
Sinhala political leadership which is denying our rights is getting weakened. They are facing political issues, economic problems, debt and intense international pressure. Sinhala political leadership is asking for more time to fulfil the promises given to the international community. This action has lowered the image of the Sri Lankan government in the eyes of the international community.
At such a time, Tamils should be united and tell the world our suffering which has happened in the past and present. Sinhala leadership should give us self-rule. We should have firm confidence that for its own reasons, the Sinhala political leadership should concede our self-rule at some point of time.”
This text appeared in the pro-Wigneswaran website Pathivu entitled ‘We Should Follow the Moves of Muhammad Ali’ and in the Sunday Thinakkural (May 27th, 2018) under the heading ‘Sinhala Political Leadership Is Getting Weakened’.
This dangerous thinking does not come from a lunatic fringe or a radical base in Tamil politics; it comes from the mainstream, and the top; from the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. In the face of this challenge, we need a strong state, a strong center and a strong leadership which crucially includes Mahinda Rajapaksa and may well include Maithripala Sirisena. If the challenge from the North becomes even more strident, the automatic result will be a pan-Sinhala recourse to the Gotabaya option.