Sri Lanka

Walking a tightrope

Print edition : July 24, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena (left) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) in Colombo. A file pciture. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If Sirisena and Rajapaksa join hands before the elections, it will be a dramatic event. Photo: AP

The passage of the Constitution 19th Amendment limiting the powers of the executive presidency, the dissolution of Parliament and the announcement of elections for August 17 have wide ramifications for the country’s politics and polity.

THE DISSOLUTION of the Sri Lankan Parliament, announced on the evening of June 26, and the gazette announcement on the holding of parliamentary elections on August 17 could not have come sooner.

Although the 100-Day Programme of President Maithripala Sirisena mentioned April 23 as the date of dissolution, a number of factors ensured that the present Parliament, the seventh since the adoption of the 1978 Constitution, did not wind up on that day. For, the Constitution 19th Amendment, envisaging the dilution of powers of the executive presidency and introducing other reforms, was passed with an overwhelming majority in Parliament only on April 28, and other progressive measures, including electoral reforms and the Right to Information law, were still in their formative stages.

But, with the passage of the Constitution Amendment, a watered-down version of what was proposed originally, the focus of the government started turning to immediate issues, and the urgency to address fundamental changes began to recede.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has been, right from the beginning, calling for early dissolution of Parliament in order to take advantage of the popular mood for change, which was reflected in the January 8 presidential election which brought Sirisena to power, and form a government of its own.

A day after the passage of the amendment, Eran Wickramarane, one of the most articulate leaders of the UNP and Deputy Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion, called for the “immediate dissolution” of Parliament, saying the House had “outlived its mandate” (it came into being in April 2010).

The important reason for this position is that the UNP’s strength in the 225-member Parliament is not even 50. Also, though Sirisena is technically the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), his camp has not been able to make a dent in the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP and the Sirisena faction of the SLFP, which are in power along with others, have found it increasingly difficult to ensure the smooth conduct of Parliament. Not only that. All the other constituents of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) have chosen to remain with the Rajapaksa camp.

Yet, the Sirisena camp was keen on getting Parliament’s approval for the Constitution 20th Amendment, aimed at making changes in the electoral system. The Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne, widely regarded as a close aide of the President, maintained this stand until the eve of the dissolution. The game plan of this camp was to tell people how the President was committed to the concept of good governance, which has been the guiding principle of the present regime.

In June, the atmosphere of political uncertainty got compounded, with differences between the UNP and the Sirisena camp coming to the fore on the issue of the 20th Amendment. Initially, the Cabinet cleared a scheme preferred by the UNP, under which the size of Parliament would be retained at 225, with the component of first-past-the-post (FPTP) accounting for 125 seats and proportional representation, 100 seats, evoking strong reactions from parties representing Indian Tamils and Muslims besides the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Under the existing system of proportional representation, 196 members are elected on the basis of votes polled by parties in respective electoral districts, apart from the national list of 29 members, whose election is decided by the parties’ performance at the national level.

A couple of weeks later, despite the UNP’s known position against any move to increase the number of MPs, the President got the Cabinet to overturn its earlier decision and approve the proposal for enlarging the size of Parliament to 237, before the notification was published in the gazette to obtain the views of the public.

As part of the revised scheme, the share of the FPTP was increased to 145 members while the component of proportional representation would be 92, including 55 members under the district-level proportional representation. Even this did not satisfy the parties representing the minority communities, which wanted a double-ballot system. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress general secretary M.T. Hasen Ali accused the two principal parties of seeking to suppress the representation of the minority communities. A two-day-long debate in Parliament in the last week of June on the proposed Amendment made it clear that there was little scope for consensus.

This provided enough signals to Sirisena, who felt that there was no point in delaying the inevitable. Simultaneously, in order to wrest full control over his party, the President has been following a carrot-and-stick policy for the past few months by expelling some members from the party’s central committee and replacing them with his nominees. Likewise, in the third week of May, when four Ministers, all belonging to the SLFP, quit the government, new appointments were made in no time. In recent weeks, Sirisena, who said two months ago that he was against the practice of declaring anyone the candidate for the post of Prime Minister, started harping on the theme of unity in the party and, at one of the SLFP meetings, even acknowledged the role of his predecessor. He constituted a six-member committee, comprising members who are said to be Rajapaksa loyalists, to thrash out issues between the two camps.

Although there are no clear indications as to whether Sirisena and Rajapaksa will come together before the parliamentary elections, a long-standing ally of the former President said on condition of anonymity that the two would patch up eventually. The prospects of the SLFP faring much better at the hustings would force them to come together, and post-election, the bargaining power with camps would be stronger if they contested unitedly.

If Sirisena and Rajapaksa join hands before the elections, it will certainly be a dramatic event. But, in that eventuality, the President may not be able to use effectively the card of good governance as Rajapaksa and some members of his family are facing charges of corruption. Moreover, according to Patali Champika Ranawaka, Power and Energy Minister and the leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, or the National Heritage Party, the rivalry between the two factions has spoiled the chances of the SLFP in the elections, irrespective of whether the two leaders come to an understanding or not. He feels that the middle class, which will be the deciding factor, will not vote for the party.

If one were to view the functioning of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime critically, the Constitution 19th Amendment, envisaging the dilution of the powers of the executive presidency, remaining a non-starter despite the hype generated at the time of the passage of this important piece of legislation on April 28 is the best illustration of what is to be expected. Let alone the establishment of an independent election commission, a police commission and other commissions, the creation of the Constitutional Council, which is a prerequisite for the formation of other bodies, has not taken place. The government could not get Parliament’s nod for appointing three representatives of civil society on the council. Opinion is divided among legal experts as to whether the 11-member council can function with or without these three nominees as the others will only be ex-officio members.

Finding fault with the present regime on a host of issues, including corruption in the sale of Central Bank bonds and “suspension of economic activity”, G.L. Peiris, Foreign Minister in the Rajapaksa regime, has said that “what we have today is the cauldron of confusion. Many people who were enamoured of the idea of change [at the time of the presidential election], without really examining what the phrase is all about, are today totally disenchanted.” However, seasoned observers are appreciative of the regime. Visaka Dharmadasa, chairperson of the Association of War Affected Women, said that though Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had never worked together in their long political careers and given the challenges they have to face, their eight-month-long regime had been able to deliver much of what it had promised through the 100-Day Programme. According to the political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime has opened “a great deal of democratic space” for the country and the minority communities. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said: “This government has ended the repression of the Rajapaksa regime, defined by its dynasty project, authoritarianism, corruption and culture of impunity.”

The question remains whether the “feel good” factor will get translated into votes and who (Wickremesinghe or Sirisena) will reap the maximum electoral benefits.

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