Ehaaa. Mehaa. Presidential Manouevres in Sri Lanka

Rajan Philips, in The Island, 13 October 2018 where the title reads “Checkmate Politics II: Diminishing Options for MS, MR and RW

There is no presidential checkmate after all as many of us were alerted to last week. President Sirisena is in no position to checkmate anyone. No surprise there. He has burnt his boats with the UNP, and even Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot rally everyone in the JO to support a new political arrangement with the old defector. It is now reported that Maithripala Sirisena first approached the UNP to canvass for a second term as President with UNP support, and only after being rebuffed by the UNP that he sought an alliance with the Rajapaksas. It is also known that there were quite a few meetings between Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa, which would only confirm that the former President has been quite serious about pursuing a deal with the current incumbent. And obviously because a second term Sirisena presidency is the only way to secure a path for the now underage Namal Rajapaksa to become president in 2024. That the former President could not get others on board for this scheme shows how tenuous and tentative are the loyalties within the Joint Opposition. Be that as it may.

There have been two versions of reporting on the UNP’s rebuffing of Sirisena’s overtures. One is that the UNP insisted that Sirisena could not be the same common opposition candidate again, as he was in 2014-15, but only come into an alliance as a subordinate to the UNP. That was unacceptable to Sirisena. The second version is that the UNP offered to keep Sirisena as president after 2020 but under a 20th Amendment scenario – with the current executive presidency ‘abolished’ and the new president elected by parliament and not directly in a national election. But President Sirisena, or his advisers, did not agree to the second alternative either. Whoever is advising the President is not doing a very good job, for the 20th Amendment route would have been the best, indeed the only option for Maithripala Sirisena to remain as ‘president’ after 2020.

Presidential dilemmas

That the UNP is still toying with the idea of ‘abolishing’ the presidency is not out of any principled commitment to getting rid of the executive presidency. It only shows the UNP’s anxieties over the uncertainties of a presidential election and the chances of Ranil Wickremesinghe winning it for once, and against all odds. Therein is the catch-22 for all the presidential contenders – from the Rajapaksas to Ranil Wickremesinghe to Maithripala Sirisena. None of them is bold enough to be the first to support the 20th Amendment to abolish the elected presidency. Nor is any one of them certain at all about winning the next presidential election.

For the Rajapaksas and the UNP, executive presidency causes an additional headache – the headache of finding a winning candidate. The problem for the Rajapaksas is that there are too many of them, uncles and son(s), to pick from. And many in the JO are enamoured by the candidacy of only Mahinda Rajapaksa who is barred from contesting by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. On the other hand, many in the UNP may not at all be enamoured by the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe, but they are all barred from saying anything about it under the Constitution of the United National Party. Plain commonsense should dictate that both for Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe the ideal way out would have been to support the JVP’s 20th Amendment and get rid of having an elected president. But taking that route may now prove too late for both of them.

The JVP’s Bill for amending the constitution is not clinically dead yet, but is on the Order Paper which may prove to be its death bed. Giving that Bill legislative legs will require the joint support of all three of the current principal political contenders – President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Rajapaksa. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court has ruled that the 20th Amendment will require both a two-thirds majority in parliament and a referendum thereafter. Neither is achievable without the three leaders coming together to marshal their numbers in parliament and mobilize support at the referendum. It is not impossible to envisage such a united effort for thoroughly selfish reasons, but it is rather improbable that the three men will individually and collectively show the level of enlightenment that is required. That is their dilemma.

Post 19A, the current President cannot dissolve parliament until after August 1919, regardless of what happens to the November budget. There is no provision in the Constitution that permits the formation of a ‘caretaker’ government after a budget defeat in parliament. A budget defeat will only lead to the dissolution of the cabinet and not of parliament. What is more, just as it happened during the No Confidence Motion scheming, the talk of defeating the November budget has united the UNP MPs and no one is going to defect from the UNP to vote against the budget. The UNP is still the single largest contingent in parliament and has the best chance of mobilizing a parliamentary majority on any vote. Even the SLFP ministers are more likely to vote for the budget than against it. So the plan to defeat the UNP on its budget is more than likely a non-starter.

In the upshot, there is no other way out for President Sirisena if he wants to remain in politics, let alone as President of some kind, than working to secure the passage of the 20th Amendment through parliament and in a referendum. The onus is on President Sirisena to canvas the support of Mahinda Rajapaksa to support the enactment of the 20th Amendment. The JO and the SLPP are internally divided on 20A, but it is quite possible that on a free vote, the more left-oriented and progressive elements of the SLPP and the Joint Opposition may support the 20th Amendment. 20A will also have the blessings of all the Rajapaksas, with the possible exception of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who is not in parliament anyway. For its part, the UNP must come out of the closet and openly support 20A and test the waters for a two-thirds majority in parliament. The three leaders supporting a ‘yes’ vote for the 20th Amendment will be an unprecedented national consensus in Sri Lanka’s constitutional history. But it is still a stretch too far.

It’s not about the economy

The 20th Amendment is also not about the economy. It is about fulfilling a promise to the people that all three contenders made in January 2015. Mahinda Rajapaksa had made the same promise twice before – in 2005 and 2010. Yet, a new referendum is needed under the sloppy terminology of the constitution. Looking at it positively, the referendum will provide the opportunity for the three leaders to support the same promise (to abolish the elected presidency) without opposing one another. They will have plenty of time and mud to throw around in a parliamentary election after a successful 20th Amendment referendum. The one difference, if this still farfetched plan were to work out, is that Maithripala Sirisena could by then be a new President elected by parliament but staying above the electoral fray as any Head of State should.

In the current circumstances, President Sirisena apparently played the economy card with Mahinda Rajapaksa: that they should get back together to save the national economy from going to ruin under Ranil Wickremesinghe. Political memories are not that short, for Sirisena had made the identical complaint and plea about Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe four years ago. There is now a huge debate in the news media as to when Sri Lanka’s economy was worse: at the end of 2014 after ten years of Rajapaksa rule, or now after four years of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government? The debate is silly and personal on one side, and responsible and professional on the other. The good reader will know who is on which side. And in whose hands the Sri Lankan economy is better left with.

This week’s market turbulence is another cause for concern about the near term uncertainties in the global economy. In what is being called the new global divergence, the US economy is steaming ahead of Europe and Japan, creating many consequential issues including the currency turmoil in emerging economies. The consensus is that the divergence is untenable but the question is about the direction in which the next equilibrium will be reached. The better direction for the global economy is for the other advanced economies to move up and catch up with the US. The worse option is for the US to slide back with others in a different equilibrium. There is not much even Alan Greenspan can do in Sri Lanka today even though a certain economic charlatan thinks he is Lanka’s Greenspan.

There is no quick turnaround for the national economy, except consistently smart and quick-response management to minimize the blows from exogenous factors, while equally consistently laying the foundation for a strong product economy. Political leadership on both sides has irresponsibly failed in avoiding the waste of forex reserves for importing luxury vehicles for parliamentarians and bureaucrats for quick sale and huge returns in the domestic market. The new political leadership that was promised in 2015 has been delivered only in betrayal and not any achievements. There is no alternative to picking up the pieces from where they were left in January 2015. The historic irony is that the country needs the same three failed men to do one last thing right before exitin

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