By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Like the majority of my fellow citizens I am an undecided voter. My father Mervyn de Silva used to characterize me slightly critically, as “a Romantic”, and the romantic in me would like to vote for change. But right now, I cannot make that decision because the Realist in me raises a fundamental question: “who rules?” Or rather, who would rule, if Mr. Sirisena wins? Sadly, the answer to that question is not “Mr. Sirisena, would, of course”. That is because Mr. Sirisena has told us categorically that he would abolish the executive presidency within one hundred days. He has also told us that he would appoint Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, when he could have said instead that the Prime Ministership would be given to the UNP (the party, not the person). In addition, as Maithripala’s media conference and more tellingly his homage at the Bandaranaike Samadhi tells us, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would be a key player in the bloc that succeeds Mahinda Rajapaksa.
So the question—and it is the most basic question of politics— remains: who will rule? We know who will not rule, namely Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. Is that good enough? Is that enough to make a decision to vote for Maithripala? Not for me, and I daresay, not for the majority of our citizens. That may have been enough if the President were quite as unpopular as President Jayewardene in his last few years in office. But that is not the case with Mahinda. Furthermore, even in the case of JRJ, the voter was fastidious about whom we would replace him with—Sirima Bandaranaike or Ranasinghe Premadasa? In short, would we go back to the bad old days of ’70-’77, or forward to a socially fairer future?
If Maithripala Sirisena steps down after abolishing the presidency in a hundred days or whenever, who would lead this country and how would that person be chosen? Under the executive presidency power resides in the hands of the institution occupied by the individual who has won a majority of the votes of the citizens of this island taken as a single whole. After the abolition of the presidency that would not be the case. If executive power has been transferred to the Prime Minister, then the country would be led by someone who has not been elected by the majority of our citizens but by those of a single electoral unit, a district—which is a far more narrowly restricted base. Is that what we want? Certainly I do not.
If the choice is between the Presidency as it is, and a reformed Presidency which is less centralized and top-heavy, I would certainly opt for the reformed version. If however the choice is between the existing presidency and no executive presidency at all and an executive Prime Ministership instead, I would reluctantly take my chances with the status quo.
That is a rather abstract choice, but there is a far more concrete one to be made. If we vote in Mr. Sirisena and he is no longer the occupant of the office we voted him into because he has abolished it, and instead Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister with executive powers (as they proclaim on the UNP platform), then the closest approximation of an answer to the question ‘who will rule?’ becomes clear: the PM, to wit, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mr. Sirisena has already sought permission to address him as “Sir”. Obviously no leader of a country will address Mr. Wickremesinghe as “Sir” if he hopes to remain the leader de jure of the country. It is also obvious that Mr. Wivckremsinghe is and will be in an alliance with Ms. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, whom Mr. Sirisena calls “Madam”.
So it will no longer be Mahinda Rajapaksa, who as a President elected by our votes does not and will not call Ranil “Sir” and Chandrika “Madam”, who will rule us. Rather, after Mr. Sirisena has done his job as “an interim President” as Mano Ganeshan has accurately termed it, it is “Sir” and “Madam” who will jointly rule this country, as they so splendidly did from 1994 to 2005. Is that really the change we want? Is that the change we seek and deserve? Pardon me if I have second thoughts.
Change is needed. Iran needed a moderate nationalist in the form of Dr. Hassan Rouhani, to re-set relations with the West. He beat the nominee of the hawkish populist, Mr. Ahmadinejad. But what if Dr. Rouhani had pledged to step down in a hundred days and bring back the Shah or a member of the deposed pro-Western monarchy? Mr. Sirisena’s pledge to abolish the Presidency while making Ranil the PM, and worse still the written pledge reported in the Sunday Times to the effect that he will hand over executive powers to Ranil within 24 hours, smacks of a restorationist project to bring back the ancien regime of Chandrika-Ranil. Churchill was defeated by Attlee. What if Attlee has promised to bring back Neville Chamberlain and step down from office upon election?
Much as I would like to believe otherwise and unless I am convinced to the contrary by what Mr. Sirisena might do by or on Nomination Day, my lucid Realism overcomes my Romanticism and tells me that the real choice here is not Maithripala versus Mahinda, but precisely the following: “do we prefer Ranil and Chandrika to Mahinda (with his clan)?” I must confess that I for one am not convinced that the former combination is the more desirable. Nor do I think that the majority of voters will opt for that duo, any more than the majority of Russian voters (who are provincial and patriotic) would have opted for the return of a combination of Yeltsin plus Gorbachev, over Putin.
I am inclined under the current circumstances, to prefer the ‘containment’ of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, to his electoral overthrow. Therefore, unless the Opposition discourse, agenda and trajectory are dramatically re-set, I shall content myself with wishing Mr. Sirisena good luck, hoping he gives Mahinda a real run for his money, and simply staying home. As would appear to be the case with the JVP, my hopes for change are probably best transferred to the parliamentary election.