by N. Sathiya Moorthy
- Those proposing a second term for Sirisena are possibly floating a trial-balloon of their own
- By taking the constitutional route the present government has cleverly side-stepped one-on-one negotiations with the Tamil leadership
- Today, the government of the day has not said anything about what the constitutional package and provisions are
At a Colombo news conference recently, former SLFP President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga claimed that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s planned proposals for a new Constitution were based on the famed ‘Chandrika Package’ of 2000. Incumbent President, Maithripala Sirisena, also heading the SLFP, has chosen not to react personally as yet – as has been his practise – but Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne, has deflected CBK’s claim by referring to the failure of the 2000 Package, instead.
By far, the ‘CBK Package’ has been among the best for the Tamils, offered by an incumbent President/government. But it depends on which Package one is talking about. Like most other things, especially on the ethnic discourse in the country, there were two, just not one, when it came to the CBK Package(s).
The Tamils’ support, even if of the non-political, non-LTTE variety, was for the first and forgotten package of 1995, the year that CBK became President. But she herself has now referred only to the 2000 Package, which came full five years afterward, which was rejected outright by the leading Tamil political players of the time.
Worse still, the LTTE had by then turned the Tamils against the government all over again. There was considerable help for the same from the government side too. The CBK leadership was seemingly convinced by then that the LTTE had no interest whatsoever to conclude any peace agreement of any kind. The LTTE had convinced the Tamils, in turn, that the CBK regime was by far the ‘worse’ of all governments in the country, in terms of ‘draconian measures’ unleashed against their people. The truth still lies somewhere in-between.
Incomparable and more
The situation prevailing then and now are not comparable, to begin with. To begin with, Chandrika had won a landslide presidential poll victory in 1995. She had just become Prime Minister under a UNP President. She had returned to the parent SLFP fold not very long ago, and had not become wholly integrated into the party, or entirely acceptable to the cadre yet.
The presidential poll provided the occasion and opportunity, to prove her following not only among the majority Sinhala community but also among the ‘alienated’ Tamils, who were still under the LTTE’s thumb. CBK’s 64 per cent vote-share then was as never before and never after. Even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not register such a poll percentage in the post-war presidential poll of 2010. He polled 57.48 per cent vote-share, up from his scraping 50-plus per cent in the maiden victory of 2005.
Today, neither President Sirisena, nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe can claim / hope such a voter-support, jointly or separately. Less said about the former the better. The second possibility can produce worse results. Rajapaksa, now in the Opposition for all practical purposes, lost the presidential polls and later the prime minister’s job, after polling 47 per cent or less, in the successive elections of January and August 2015.
Under 19-A to the Constitution, passed by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, Rajapaksa is barred from contesting a third term, after the latter had upturned the 1977 Second Republican Constitution, through his 18-A. There is no clear evidence if Mahinda R now retains the vote-share, considering that between 2015 and now, younger voters too would have joined the fold. Worse still, it’s highly doubtful if he could at all ‘transfer’ all the votes that he had got to another candidate, even if of his 100 per cent choice.
Second-term for MS?
It’s in this context, too, that the more recent pronouncements from followers that Sirisena should get a second term. It had begun as a solitary voice a couple of months ago, to be followed now by two other ministers, one of them a provincial chief minister. A Joint Opposition (JO) leader identified with Rajapaksa has joined issue, saying that Sirisena cannot win, and should not be fielded.
All this media arguments, if could be called so, comes amidst fading memories of Sirisena’s pre-election vow not to run for a second term. If the President holds the same view now, he should have opened up. If he was reconsidering the same, the nation needs to know that as well, though there is enough time, technically-speaking.
As always, he remains mum. And as with other issues, when he opens his mouth, and rather after everyone else had said his piece, it would have the finality. In this case, his word would be final, and would have to be final. After all, others are talking about him, and not themselves or any other. He might consider / re-consider views, both from the past and at present, on a future date, when alone his decision would be required and would matter.
Those proposing a second term for Sirisena are possibly floating a trial-balloon of their own, or as His Master’s Voice(s). Whatever the aim, the effect of the same would also be to gauge the mood of the SLFP parliamentary party, as it stands officially, or those MPs now in the Sirisena camp. More importantly and immediately, it’s possibly aimed at telling the Sirisena MPs that the boss is still around, and could be around in the future, too (to take care of their interests?) so as not to be tempted by Rajapaksa’s ‘topple-threat’.
The non-SLFP, non-UNP partners in the government are maintaining a stoic silence, on all issues of governance – be it ‘war-crime probe’, Colombo Port City and/or Hambantota land for China, or even the various provisions of the proposed Constitution. They have no time, word or inclination to get caught in a future situation, when alone the presidential candidate of their choice would become relevant, if at all.
For all the positives attending on the Chandrika Package-I, the fact remained that like all other peace proposals, it was not on which the Sri Lankan people, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim included, voted. They voted in CBK because they needed change as never before.
The established parties had discredited them no end (possibly as much, and even more than what the present generation has been witnessing). Neither of the ‘Big Two’ had any other candidate worth the name. Chandrika’s name struck a chord. Yet, unlike all other presidential polls barring the post-war 2010 elections, it was possibly the one ‘positive vote’ ever in the country after the early years of Independence, if at all.
But years down the line, CBK had lost her popularity, not just among the Tamils but also among the Sinhala majority. It’s still doubtful if she would have won a second term had it not been for the LTTE’s folly of targeting her during the run-off to her re-election. They had committed the same mistake in neighbouring India, in 1991, killing Rajiv Gandhi – but refused to learn, even after being caught in the act. In a way, thus, the 1999 elections was a referendum on Chandrika’s first package, but voters voted on LTTE terrorism.
The problem continues to date, as the present government came on an even more complex mandate that gave hopes to the Tamils but without committing anyone to anything on ethnic solution or constitutional reforms. Already, multifarious issues are on the table. Unless they go through a referendum as dictated under the Constitution, there is no way they can – and should – link any voter acceptance or rejection of them to the ethnic issue and/or other aspects of constitutional reforms.
Between the two, the Chandrika Packages provides a set of proposals that could be contextualised and taken forward in negotiations. More importantly, in the present-day context, the Chandrika Package I & II gives a taste of the food. Even if it remained unchanged, it needs to be tested on the ground before being piloted in Parliament.
By taking the constitutional route the present government has cleverly side-stepped one-on-one negotiations with the Tamil leadership (say, the TNA). The latter is not protesting as it had done through the war years and even afterwards. It can cut both ways, as the TNA continues to reserve its opposition and objections until after the proposals are tabled in Parliament.
The TNA does not have a mind of its own, and acts/reacts as per Diaspora disenchantment, not necessarily diktats. The Diaspora, like the LTTE, speaks only after the government side of the day had crossed the Rubicon. Neither seems to have changed their pattern, either. The government thus might get caught, napping… as in the past.
There were serious issues with the Chandrika Package(s). As Minister Rajitha has pointed out, it provided for a ‘Union of Regions’. Both the present-day UNP and SLFP leaderships oppose it, viz the existing ‘unitary State’ structure. Neither noticed the greatest flaw in the proposal, as it talked about ‘Regions’ whereas politically and constitutionally, Sri Lanka comprises ‘Provinces’. The anomaly could have serious consequences, even if were to be adopted/adapted without change.
The Tamils also want the North and the East merged/re-merged. The Rajapaksa government has undone what was promised under 13-A after the Supreme Court ruled thus in 2006. The court had also added an unbinding clause by seriously discussing how the LTTE had not surrendered weapons, as had been provided in the Provincial Councils Act. The Act itself was a product of 13-A, both vintage 1987.
Leaving aside the Sinhala reservations, by making ‘geographical contiguity’ as the principle for creating a re-crafted unified North-East, the Chandrika Package became acceptable to the Tamils. But the Tamils still would not accept the ‘referendum’ clause, written into 13-A first, and complicated by the Package. The five-year trial period ahead of the referendum would have created more problems than solving any.
While holding negotiations with the Rajapaksa government post-war, the TNA was talking consistently about the five earlier documents as reference material. Once again, they have not talked to the government or about the government proposals, if any, for the rest of Sri Lanka to know and prepare itself.
It can be argued that the latter possibility could scuttle constitutional negotiations even before the start, but then any ‘surprise’ elements could provoke ‘shocking’ reactions from both sides. Even the mighty LTTE with its psychological war both on the Sri Lankan State and the Tamil people, could not escape the wrath, whenever it tried to negotiate with the government in their own political circumstances – and ended up having to go back on the early signals emanating from their side.
The CBK bid(s) failed not because of the ethnic package, which was still negotiable (at least technically), within and outside Parliament, with the political Opposition and the LTTE. It had become difficult already in 2000, but CBK’s attempts to ‘sneak in’ a provision to extend her term by a constitutional surreptitiousness killed two birds with a single stone.
CBK’s very sincerity came under a cloud afterward. The Rajapaksa bid failed also because of the timing of 18-A. The TNA graciously backed the constitutional move lest it should upset the political negotiations, but the Tamil public mood was set against anything Rajapaksa already. The Norwegian-aided Ranil efforts failed owing to over-secrecy, that too in a nation that leaks like a bottomless sieve.
Today, the government of the day has not said anything about what the constitutional package and provisions are. It will be damned, if it does. It will be damned if it does not. If someone went by precedents of the kind, President Sirisena may not give his views on the draft to his UNP and SLFP colleagues in the government beforehand. He would wait for public opinion (which is a euphemism in context to the elite opinion, one way or the other). That again comes with consequences, which could be worse than the problems that the new Constitution is supposed to have set to address.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)