The uncommon problem

“You don’t want to run the risk of sclerosis in a democratic society. You want to keep
the blood running. You don’t want to get the idea that any country…is dependent on
any one person. You look at a lot of these dictators that have been deposed in the last
few years…almost all of them at one time were young and idealistic and incredibly
capable. And they really meant to do something good. They just kind of outstayed their
welcome” – Former US President Bill Clinton on why presidential term limits are
important, in an interview with CNN in September 2012
The die is cast, unofficially at least for a presidential election in January 2015.
Thursday
05th June
2014
When the poll is declared, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will create history
in Sri Lanka as the only incumbent to contest a presidential election for the third
consecutive time. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by a two-thirds
majority garnered artificially by the UPFA in September 2010, paved the way for this
third time candidacy in 2015.
In the first flush of the Rajapaksa administration war triumph, coalition allies including
the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Jathika Hela Urumaya, LSSP and the Communist
Party – all of them now straining at the leash – voted in favour of the draconian 18A,
which not only vested more powers in an already-powerful presidency, but guaranteed
President Rajapaksa the right to contest an infinite number of terms in office.
Critics have called the passing of 18A one of the darkest days in Sri Lanka’s
democratic history. Executive presidential systems, in which vast power is vested in a
single individual, carry term limits for a reason. Even in mature democracies with
strong checks on executive power, term limits are key to prevent individuals becoming
synonymous with state institutions. In imperfect state systems, when checks and
balances are weak and the propensity to abuse power is strong, unlimited executive
terms become a recipe for authoritarianism. Individuals get entrenched, democratic
institutions weaken, cults of personality get created and the political playing field stops
being level.
Without the 18th Amendment, as other analysts have pointed out, 2015 would have
been the final year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. The Sri Lanka Freedom
Party, the main constituent of the ruling alliance, would be grappling with seeking a
new candidate to field at what would have been a January 2016 election. After 11
years in office, President Rajapaksa’s legacy would have remained intact, as the
vanquisher of separatist terrorists who waged war against the State for nearly 30
years. In spite of the spectacular way in which the ruling regime appears to be
bungling the peace, the war triumph would keep President Rajapaksa alive and well in
public memory and consciousness, an indelible if somewhat controversial Sri Lankan
hero.
Opportune time
But the allure of popularity and eternal power proved too strong to resist. January
2015, President Rajapaksa’s advisors believe, would be the most propitious timing for
a fresh election. Whispers in the corridors of power indicate the date has been set for
29 January, although it appears too premature to set in stone and may well prove a
red herring.
The Rajapaksa camp believes that an end January 2015 poll would deliver the
President a fresh people’s mandate, armour with which he can face off against
whatever consequences an international investigation into the last seven years of the
war will bring in February-March next year.
The probe, mandated by the US-led resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights
Council in March this year, is set to launch this month and will complete its work by the
end of January 2015. The investigators – most of them drawn from the Office of the
High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), currently headed by High
Commissioner Navi Pillay – will travel extensively across the world to gather evidence
and witness testimony.
“One picture that is emerging clearly, four years after each of these UPFA constituents
voted to strengthen the executive presidency with the 18th Amendment, is a clarion
call from them all, expressed in different contexts and at varying volumes, for a curb
on or the abolishment of the presidential system. In this the coalition partners of the
UPFA are in step with the majority of the Opposition
Without the 18th Amendment, as other analysts have pointed out, 2015 would have
been the final year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. The Sri Lanka Freedom
Party, the main constituent of the ruling alliance, would be grappling with seeking a
new candidate to field at what would have been a January 2016 election. After 11
years in office, President Rajapaksa’s legacy would have remained intact, as the
vanquisher of separatist terrorists who waged war against the State for nearly 30
years
It is often said that as Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka’s democratic impulses are
strong and resilient; and post-independence political history has demonstrated that
often the pendulum swings towards authoritarianism – only to swing back in favour of
democratic governance. But relentless assaults on democratic systems and
institutions could one day prove fatal. Tattered and fraying at the edges, there is no
telling how much more Sri Lanka’s democracy can take before the lights go out. And
January 2015 could well prove the tipping point”
As the Daily FT exclusively revealed earlier this week, Pillay’s office will enlist the pro
bono support of two experts of international stature to lead the Sri Lanka investigation.
International name recognition and credentials are important to the OHCHR to avoid
the stigma of bias that is consistently alleged by the Sri Lankan Government against
Navi Pillay and her office. The report, due to be submitted in full at the Council next
March, is likely to have wide implications for the Rajapaksa administration, whether
the Government decides to cooperate and permit access to investigators into Sri
Lanka or not.
With regard to incumbency fatigue, the regime has also found the charm breaking,
increasing the desire to have snap polls before the oppositional forces gathering
against the Government have sufficient time to coalesce. For the first time in its
existence, the UPFA is also finding that its coalition is fraying at the seams, with
Government ministers and staunch allies publicly criticising policy and threatening to
exit unless the regime changes course.
It would concern the uppermost echelons of power it could only garner the support of
113 UPFA MPs of its 160+ to vote in favour of the controversial legislation that was
passed in Parliament last month, providing massive tax breaks to large integrated
resort projects that will also feature gambling facilities. Sixty-eight MPs abstained from
voting on the ‘casino bill’. These numbers will prove a major stumbling block in
the event the regime needs to pass crucial legislation to consolidate its power – like
the 18A.
At the party’s manifesto launch on Tuesday, JHU Parliamentary Group Leader
Athuraliye Rathana Thero openly called for the abolition of the executive presidency
and demanded that President Rajapaksa give up all of his ministerial portfolios, with
the exception of Defence. Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front is also flexing
its muscles; the SLMC and the Old Left have made no secret of their frustration with
the regime. With its refusal to address attacks against the Muslim community by
hardline groups, the regime is also systematically alienating staunch Muslim allies like
Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, a coalition member whose loyalty to the President has
hitherto never been in question.
Shifting opinion
The issues within the ruling coalition are as diverse as the motley crew itself, in terms
of potency and impact. But one picture that is emerging clearly, four years after each
of these UPFA constituents voted to strengthen the executive presidency with the 18th
Amendment, is a clarion call from them all, expressed in different contexts and at
varying volumes, for a curb on or the abolishment of the presidential system. In this
the coalition partners of the UPFA are in step with the majority of the opposition, and
not merely the political Opposition.
It was the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, whose illegal sacking
in January 2013 thoroughly exposed the regime’s disdain for constitutional democracy,
that has propelled a civil society movement for change. Loosely banded under the
leadership of Kotte Nagavihara Chief Incumbent Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero officially,
the movement has drawn broad support for advocating the abolishing of the
presidency and constitutional change. One by one, political parties from both the
Opposition and the governing ranks have joined the bandwagon.
There is a reason for this. President J.R. Jayewardene’s powerful executive
presidency was always a dangerous tool, with the potential to create and entrench
autocratic leaders. Yet it is in the hands of its fourth bearer that the absolute power
and devastating force of the presidential system has been best illustrated, buoyed by
the President’s immense political capital from the triumph over the LTTE and his astute
consolidation of familial power.
As the oppressive reach of the presidential system impacts students, trade unions,
minority communities and other vulnerable sections of the populace, the movement
against the executive presidential system in general and the incumbent administration
in particular is growing. Harnessing the discontent and broad frustration with the
present governance structure, in spite of competing ideologies and approaches, is
fast-emerging as the biggest challenge for the political Opposition.
Going forward, each faction or political party fancies itself the leader of this broad
Opposition movement. So far, the only point of consensus between all these groups is
that the regime’s success at weakening every Opposition party has given rise to a
situation in which a single party cannot take on the Rajapaksa juggernaut at a national
election.
The GOP
Since his return from a work-study sabbatical at MIT in Massachusetts, UNP Leader
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been asserting his party’s authority as the main political
Opposition. Wickremesinghe insists that the UNP must field a candidate at the
presidential election, a position held also by his main intra party rival, Sajith
Premadasa. The younger politician has expressed a willingness to become a
presidential contender in the event that the Party Leader chooses not to contest. But
he is adamant that the UNP must contest the next election, with a candidate of its own,
rather than support another Sarath Fonseka type situation.
Premadasa’s calculation is simple: the UNP will find it difficult to field a candidate that
is not the Party Leader, and a Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa election in 2015 will almost
certainly result in an Opposition defeat. Premadasa however will insist upon being the
UNP candidate’s running mate, or he will at the very least make a play once more for
the UNP Deputy Leadership.
Defeated thrice at a presidential election and already facing immense antagonism
within the UNP, the Premadasa faction calculates, Wickremesinghe will no longer be
able to continue as Party Leader, finally paving the way for him to take over the reins.
Needless to say, this could prove a fatally erroneous calculation, since history has
proven time and again that there are no guarantees to Wickremesinghe’s departure
from UNP politics, irrespective of what transpires at an election.
UNP insiders believe that if Wickremesinghe manages to strike a deal with Premadasa
on the question of candidacy, he will emerge as the UNP frontrunner to face off
against Mahinda Rajapaksa in his third round. A Wickremesinghe candidacy will draw
the support of the minorities, but it will alienate just about everyone else, including the
broader Opposition forces that increasingly see the UNP as being redundant and inept
in the movement for change. In the electoral math, the main Opposition cannot be
counted out, but in terms of public perception and rallying oppositional forces, Ranil
Wickremesinghe would prove a devastating choice.
Every other ‘common candidate’ hopeful brings their own share of problems to the
table. Each of them appears in this moment to fundamentally alienate one group or the
other.
The Ex
The 18th Amendment stands to benefit only one individual as much as it benefits
President Rajapaksa. As the only living former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga can
now potentially contest a third term in office, an option that was not open to her at the
end of her second term in 2005. Kumaratunga has consistently denied speculation
that she is contemplating a re-entry into active politics. Yet, with or without her
consent, excitement about her potential candidacy has gained steam.
In her retirement, she has proven an outspoken critic of the ruling administration and a
champion of liberal causes, most recently the issue of religious freedom. She has also
been a staunch defender of the SLFP, the party her father created, issuing messages
that resonate with party seniors who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the
control the Rajapaksa ruling elite hold within the coalition.
Chandrika’s greatest appeal is that she may be able to harness SLFP frustration and
win over liberals who have found themselves bereft of political representation in recent
years, but UNP members fear her SLFP aristocracy and bluer-than-blue credentials
will drastically alienate hardcore green supporters and eat into the crucial 20% of the
vote that the main Opposition believes it will bring to the table.
Kumaratunga’s own political history also works against her, with the JVP in particular,
which does not believe she will redeem herself in her third round in office by abolishing
the presidency. Trust will be Kumaratunga’s greatest stumbling block, because
abolishing the executive presidency will be the single-issue platform on which any
common candidate will enter the presidential race.
The monk
Sobitha Thero has become the champion of constitutional change and the de facto
leader of the broad Opposition alliance, and he has expressed willingness to become
the single-issue common candidate at the next presidential election. Yet, the question
of whether minority communities – currently besieged by saffron-robed marauders
roaming free – will be willing to cast their vote for a Buddhist monk remains a
fundamental challenge.
The JVP
As it stands, the JVP, which is making the biggest inroads in terms of an Opposition
party, appears strongly unwilling to join a broad Opposition alliance. From the
perspective of the JVP’s new charismatic Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, none of
the common candidate hopefuls appear palatable and the Marxist party is strongly
contemplating boycotting the next presidential election entirely.
The JVP’s calculation – which is not entirely without merit – is that following defeat at
the 2015 election, the UNP will be decimated as the main political Opposition, paving
the way for Dissanayake and his ‘new’ JVP to emerge as a strong contender for the
role.
Already Dissanayake’s fiery speeches and capacity to grasp and articulate
fundamental issues plaguing the polity is winning him strong support not only among
the party’s core base, but strangely even with the urban elite. Six more years in
Opposition could prove a game-changer for the JVP, if Dissanayake can keep the
current momentum going and as discontent grows with the incumbency and the
alternative, his party would stand the most to gain.
Where the logic fails
The logic fails in one respect, however. President Rajapaksa’s victory at the next
presidential election will mark an epoch in Sri Lanka’s political history. For nine years,
his reign has proved devastating for the political Opposition and all dissenting groups.
A fresh mandate will not only strengthen the President’s hand in terms of effecting
certain economic and policy reforms that some advisors are strongly advocating, it will
also push his administration into further consolidating power. This will mean the further
erosion of political space for opposing groups and perspectives and a crackdown on
any dissent that has the potential to grievously harm the ruling regime.
Already whispers abound that the regime is considering extending the life of the
present Parliament through a referendum once the presidential poll is concluded and
President Rajapaksa is reinstated for six more years. The manoeuvre, once used by
President Jayewardene, will hold the flailing UPFA coalition together, with parties
falling in line once the President is returned to power with a strong showing at the
election. The ruling administration has realised that Parliament could be its Achilles’
heel, and therefore the threat of an implosion within the coalition must be guarded
against at any cost.
The Opposition, therefore, faces its greatest existential threat at this presidential
election. It is in its own interest to ally – and quickly. Picking a presidential candidate
early has its risks, but also gives the Opposition several months to iron out differences,
draft coherent manifestos and build momentum. Six weeks once the election is
declared will prove woefully inadequate to address the task at hand, when the
competition has had nine years. Going forward, the 2015 poll could prove a breaking
point for democratic governance in Sri Lanka.
It is often said that as Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka’s democratic impulses are
strong and resilient; and post-independence political history has demonstrated that
often the pendulum swings towards authoritarianism – only to swing back in favour of
democratic governance. But relentless assaults on democratic systems and
institutions could one day prove fatal. Tattered and fraying at the edges, there is no
telling how much more Sri Lanka’s democracy can take before the lights go out. And
January 2015 may prove the tipping point.

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