Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa made an interesting statement this week. A victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election will be considered as a mandate for a general election soon after, he told a gathering at the official launch of brother Gotabaya’s manifesto.
These comments, coming on the first anniversary of the infamous failed constitutional coup last year, are thought provoking. Coming from a politician who was twice elected as President of the country, they cannot be dismissed lightly.
That is because Mahinda Rajapaksa is all but contesting the presidential election in name: following Gotabaya like a shadow, addressing all his campaign meetings and even answering questions for him. Even if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is elected President, it will be Mahinda Rajapaksa who will be deciding political strategy.
Just so everyone’s memories are refreshed, we need to remind ourselves of this time last year. The country was in turmoil. On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena had “sacked” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Rajapaksa took his oaths and a new Cabinet was sworn in but Wickremesinghe refused to budge from Temple Trees.
Rajapaksa had to demonstrate a majority in Parliament to continue as Prime Minister. He tried to do so several times but failed as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya put up a robust defence in upholding the best parliamentary traditions, braving physical threats and verbal insults amidst the ugliest scenes ever enacted in our legislature. In desperation, President Sirisena “dissolved” Parliament.
That was challenged in courts. A full bench of the Supreme Court unanimously deemed that the dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional and that by doing so, the President had violated the Constitution. The status quo was restored and Wickremesinghe was reinstated. Rajapaksa had to eat humble pie after 52 days of “being in power”.
At the core of all this was a provision in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which states that the “President shall not dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members”.
The gist of it is that the current Parliament, which first met on September 1, 2015 cannot be dissolved until March 1, 2020. President Sirisena tried to do so once and was found fault with for that by the highest court in the land.
So, what exactly is Mahinda Rajapaksa talking about when he says that a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be a “mandate” for an early general election?
Constitutionally, it is clear that Parliament cannot be dissolved until March 2020, unless of course, Parliament resolves with a two-thirds majority to dissolve itself, a highly unlikely scenario because sitting parliamentarians in this country do not wish to let go of their privileges that easily.
That reminds us of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional crisis last year. That was when Rajapaksa had been appointed “Prime Minister” and was strutting around in his new found glory, trying to prove to the country that he had the support of his Parliament.
He offered ministerial portfolios to some who were gullible enough to accept them. Among them were individuals like Wasantha Senanayake who decamped from the government, forsaking principles and decades of political heritage for the measly reward of a short-lived Cabinet portfolio.
Then there was the leaked audio tape which went viral on social media where S.B. Dissanayake, in his singularly seductive soprano voice asks United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Range Bandara, “Range, oya enne nedda?” (“Range, aren’t you coming?)
There was speculation that parliamentarians were being auctioned to the highest bidder and that money, in millions of rupees, was changing hands.
It wasn’t just idle speculation too. No less a person than President Sirisena himself later publicly admitted in an interview that the ‘coup’ did not succeed only because the price of parliamentarians rose to about 500 million rupees each! By the President’s own admission, if the price of parliamentarians didn’t escalate, Rajapaksa could still be Prime Minister today!
That was the sordid state to which politics in this country descended to during the 52-day government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, around this time last year as he tried every trick in the book to hang on to his ill-gotten office. That was just one year ago but Sri Lankans have notoriously short memories.
The Rajapaksa bandwagon is on the move again. Therefore, when Mahinda Rajapaksa now says that a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a ‘mandate’ for an early general election, it cannot be dismissed as spur of the moment campaign rhetoric. We need to take that claim seriously. Clearly, the Rajapaksas believe that victory at this election is now a done deal, barring the official declaration of results – as they did in 2015. Therefore, they are planning ahead.
Nevertheless, a general election is out of the question under the Constitution. Given Mahinda Rajapaksa’s impatience to sit in that Prime Ministerial chair – which we saw in abundance in October last year – what Rajapaksa could possibly be aiming at is to wrest control of Parliament by securing a majority there, instead of waiting three and a half months to get there the ‘proper’ way – and then trying to form a government of his own.
For this, they would be trying the tried and tested method of bribery in the form of Cabinet portfolios and other perks and privileges and aim these at UNP backbenchers, hoping that at least some of the UNPers would rise to the bait.
Just as much as old politicians don’t just fade away from Sri Lankan politics, old habits die hard in them. It appears that, despite the humiliation he suffered at the end of the constitutional crisis last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa has not learnt the lessons of history. And, hasn’t it been said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?