Now that the new government has been in place for a few weeks, and also does not face the speculated political/constitutional challenges from the erstwhile President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s camp, the time has begun ticking for them to meet their self-set 100-day deadline for progressing on the promised constitutional reforms. The clock would stop on 23 April, again their own deadline for calling fresh parliamentary polls, a full year ahead of schedule.
From the voter’s perspective, the 100-day reforms project is not about the letter of the promises, but the spirit thereof. It’s not just about abolishing or weakening the Executive Presidency, or restoring the two-term upper-limit for the office. It’s not even about restoring the 17-A Constitutional Councils and Independent Commissions for making high-level appointments, which had been lost to the Executive Presidency through former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s self-serving 18-A. Instead, it’s all about the spirit of the poll promises made by the present-day President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The twin-leadership and their cohabitation government are voter-blessed as never before in post-Independence Sri Lankan history to make their promised reforms work than any time.
The Sirisena-Ranil combine is one up on the short-lived cohabitation arrangement of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) and Prime Minister Ranil, between 2001-2004, who had fought elections from opposite camps, and hence were sworn to prove the other person wrong, both inside and outside Parliament. Sadly, they did not belie expectations of the kind. This also means that this national government, if the present arrangement could be called so, has only those 100 days to prove the sincerity of their collective purpose to the nation and the world at large, after which they have vowed to fight the parliamentary polls against each other and rightly so, for purely pragmatic political reasons and ambitions sticking to their coat-tails for long.
The apprehensions come from other reasons, too. It’s unclear, for instance, as to what the Opposition SLFP, once led by Presidents CBK and Rajapaksa, and now by President Sirisena stands for or where in the post-poll scheme of things. By not challenging the new leadership politically after losing the elections, Rajapaksa might have bought time for self to readjust to the realities of the times. He also bought time for the SLFP, whose parliamentarians could have been expected to defect/return to the ruling camp, as has been the wont all along, when it comes to Sri Lanka’s eternally-agile and even more mobile parliamentarians, and more so their ministerial better-offs.
This, as also some of the more recent utterances of the SLFP Leader of the Opposition, Nimal Siripala de Silva have indicated that the party would contest the parliamentary polls on its own steam and in the company of whoever remained from the Rajapaksa UPFA – possibly adding a few, if the likes of the JVP were to have second thoughts after leadership-change. Yet, within the party, President Sirisena has the governmental power, CBK the pedigree, and Rajapaksa, the votes.
Among them, Rajapaksa (alone) can make or mar the SLFP’s chances parliamentary polls, particularly if Prime Minister Ranil’s United National Party (UNP) is not able to retain the non-SLFP allies from the presidential polls. In other words, the SLFP-UPFA would need his votes, not him, if the anticipated friend-turned-foe were not to target them both, dating back to his presidential years. Where they should stop, when and how would remain a mystery even for the UNP strategists, as it’s unknown where the voter-antipathy towards the Rajapaksas would stop and when their sympathy could surface/resurface. For now, the double-quick re-integration of the SLFP, in whatever form and to whatever extent possible, has halted the free flow of UPFA chief ministers to the present ruling side, as had begun happening already. So has it stopped the inevitable crossover of MPs from the have-not’s to the side of the haves. Reiterating the existing and the promised position, President Sirisena has been able to retain most of the provincial Governors who had been appointed by predecessor and one-time party chief, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This medley can produce possibilities that could once again divert the nation’s time, energies and inclination(s) away from their current political commitments for a constitutional reform. They could then blame one another for the nation’s fate. The voter can then blame himself and retire into a shell until a successor generation comes up and about, and tell the political leaderships where to draw the line. But this historic opportunity might have been lost, and lost for good.
Over-simplification or what?
Be it the curtailment of presidential powers at the constitutional level, or restoration of the Westminster form of parliamentary democracy, or a hybrid of the two (which the existing system already was supposed to be), and electoral reforms, the Sirisena promises are a set of constitutional amendments. So is the pre-poll promise of a new audit authority, a right to information law and a host of other changes on the politico-administrative measures. These are good only as far as the departure from the Rajapaksa past goes. The real departure has to happen in the mind-change of the nation’s political class and conceptual changes to the political behaviour of their parties and leaderships. There is no promise or hope that it’s set to happen.
Be it JRJ’s Second Republican Constitution, or MR’s 18-A, they were personality-centric, not principles-based. The promised constitutional changes, barring possibly the electoral scheme that too only up to a point are also personality centric in that they have JRJ and/or MR, or at times even CBK and the slain Ranasinghe Premadasa in mind. It’s good to learn from the mistakes of the past, but in doing so, the proposed reforms should not end up with either President Sirisena or PM Ranil, or both, in mind. That can lead to disastrous consequences, if only over time, and as had happened with earlier experiments of the kind.
It’s thus that there is an urgent need to withdraw from the President, the power to dissolve Parliament at will just because going by the calendar one year had elapsed since the conclusion of the previous polls. It can be expected to be done. A debate should be encouraged, both within Parliament and outside, about the wisdom of retaining the Ministry of Defence portfolio with the office of the President.
It’s not about the unitary character of the Sri Lankan State. Even otherwise, the President would continue to be the Supreme Commander. It has had more to do with the kind of rumours that acquired the status of speculation and from there to prediction, possibility and probability in that order of an imminent military coup to aid and assist President Rajapaksa (they had done their rounds with and for earlier Presidents too) should he face insurmountable political and electoral challenges.
Needless to point out, the 200.000-strong armed forces have to be taken into confidence, particularly in the light of the decades of war-time experience, should be taken into confidence. By retaining the Defence portfolio with the President would also mean removing the ministry/department from the constant purview/preview of the Cabinet of Ministers under the Prime Minister and thus Parliament, representing the people and their interests.
No electoral reforms would be worth the while or be successful unless it can check against defection. Successive governments and leaderships in Sri Lanka have taken pride in not going anywhere near an anti-defection law. In the absence of one, the nation’s polity, politics and political administration have all become predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It’s not about parties and groups crossing over en masse, but about individuals being wooed by the pleasures and perks of office that should be a cause for concern but none cares.
Including electoral reforms in the rushed 100-day programme could flag more problems than solutions, even otherwise. There is a need for the nation to decide if the non-Executive President under the proposed scheme should be directly elected when the executive Prime Minister would not be so elected. It creates a politico-constitutional dichotomy and duality, which needs to be avoided if cohabitation of the present kind were to continue after the promised parliamentary elections, whenever held, or after future elections.
The larger issue of minority representation and minority protection that the JRJ scheme promised has been proved beyond doubt in the present presidential polls. Yet, the constitutional protection of the kind is only skin-deep. Under the existing scheme, short of dissolving Parliament any time after the end of the first year after polls, the Executive President’s inherent powers are curtailed by a Prime Minister with a majority in the House.
The CBK-Ranil cohabitation did not work precisely for the same reason and over the very same issues and initiatives pertaining to resolving the national problem that the LTTE-centric ethnic issue, war and violence was. The abolition of aspects of 18-A should be welcome. Yet, the new rulers should also take a closer look at the reintroduction of 17-A provisions through a new 19-A. After all, 17-A was in operation for full 10 years after being enacted in 2001, but many of its provisions could not be implemented because of lack of political will and consensus among the parties and/or their leaderships. To re-introduce a scheme that had not worked, and for good political reasons, just to spite 18-A and its author, is not on.
There is also the larger question of creating authorities without accountability which the 17-A commissions and councils were. And the Executive authority, whether President, Prime Minister or Cabinet, would have only responsibility (to Parliament and people) on the conduct and performance of those chosen for high-level jobs in the government without authority to make those appointments.
Self-preservation and more
Self-promotion and self-preservation has been the hallmark of the political class anywhere. It has not been any different in Sri Lanka. Having the same person to head the party and government and in a modern democracy creates both political compulsions and personal opportunities that none in the past has been able to overcome. At times, it also trivialises of the high constitutional office of the Head of State which should never have been encouraged in the first place. Any constitutional reform pertaining to the Executive authority of the government and also the electoral system would not work, unless the authority of the political leadership of individual parties and groups is removed from that of the constitutional leadership of the government.
The nation and its leaderships not having taken the cue in best practices of electoral democracy, the law should now prescribe where to draw the line, and how to enforce it, too. It’s not only about self-preservation of the political class, which has its limits and limitations, and more could be fixed and enforced through parliamentary legislation of one kind or the other. Outside of this charmed circle is the other, the self-serving class, to which a government is good only as long as they have a role and respect in it. In this era of social media and infectious advent of the international community at every turn, they have their say and have themselves heard, too.
There are specialised jobs for specialised tasks. The reverse is also true. Specific circumstances also demand specific cure, but that should not give any person or a class of persons the right to expect and responsibility to contempt. This has been among the bane of past governments and leaderships over the decades.
The choice of Dr Jayantha Danapala to interact with the UNHRC under the changed circumstances is a case in point. Whether the likes of him should be made a Presidential or Prime Ministerial Advisor automatically, or should be designated Special Envoy to handle a special situation with a special set of people should be debated within the Government, and outside, too, if needed.
There are also other areas of lasting credibility where the previous regime erred, and erred very badly. President Sirisena’s election, as if by cue or a magic-wand, changed much of that overnight and without anyone asking for anything, or anyone having to prove anything. Yet, post-poll rumours (thankfully forgotten since), like then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and/or ex-LTTE arms-procurer KP leaving the country surreptitiously, and with graphic details, could only leave bad taste in the voter’s mouth . It could encourage the return of the bad taste, whose quickly-fading memories they have been spitting out.
Self and the collective self
Prime Minister Ranil W is often credited with the idea that political parties cannot change governments through street-protests until the people are ready to do so in elections. Between them, the presidential polls of 2010 and 2015 have proved it for them. And unlike Arab Spring and Orange Revolution elsewhere, there were no street-protests or violence of any kind before the silent majority in Sri Lanka changed their leader and through a very, very democratic and equally peaceful process.
When the Rajapaksa leadership was pushing through 18-A, TNA’s Sampanthan said that they were not worried about removing the two-term upper-limit for the presidency, as the voters would still have to choose the incumbent. He was speaking mainly for the Tamil community. But the Sri Lankan voter as a whole has proved Sampanthan right.
They have shown that the silent minority outside of the vociferous, self-serving, polarised majority, divided in turn among various political hues, still call the final electoral shots. Ethnicity is not an issue to them. Possibly, not even the economy. Probity in public life matters to them most, and their message, until then confined to the urban centres is fast spreading to capture the imagination of the rural middle class, as well.
A very loose interpretation would show that between 2010 (Sarath Fonseka) and 2015 (Sirisena), the common Opposition candidate had garnered over 11 per cent of the total vote-share, to make it to the victory-stand. Between the two elections, President Rajapaksa lost over 10 per cent vote-share. The figure, again loosely, tallies with the 10 per cent new-generation voters that have made it to the electoral list this time round.
This generation carries the social media messages not only among themselves but also take them back home, to their family voters in deep-set villages. Thanks to early migration in the name of war and violence, the Diaspora Tamils, and hence their brethren back home took to the internet early on. But in post-war Sri Lanka, the rest have not lagged behind. This generation is not wedded to ism’s, but only to their laptops and hand-phone messengers not even to the TV and not certainly street-rallies.
They are always looking for change a change for the better for the self, and by extension, the collective self, too. It’s a trade-off. If the political class does not give what they want, they also do not give them the votes. There is no second-chance from them. Like their job-hunting, they are not tired of experimenting with new ideas and hopes, wedded in turn to their inspiration, aspiration and the preservation and progress of the self.
In the reverse, there is no second-guessing their mood. They do not discuss politics in street-corner tea boutiques, they do not read newspapers or watch television news bulletins, and have no patience for Talk-show guests, whose vile they dislike the most. That is your pen-picture of the new-generation voter the world-wide. Yet, unlike their earlier generations (particularly of the middle and upper-middle class), they very dutifully seem to be casting their vote on polling day and do it ever so very quietly.
They expect the rulers of the day to read their social media postings, and amend their ways. And they have no qualms sending out whom they think have outlived their political utility for themselves and their nation. And it’s not just in Sri Lanka. It’s not just for Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa. Instead, it will remain an eternal message for the existing and future rulers, until yet another generation takes over from them, with their own messages and messengers!
(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)