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What likelihood of Ranil and Mahinda conniving

to end the executive presidency?


No April Fools for PM. Can Easter help him?

"What an anomalous position! The Prime Minister and other Ministers are
collectively responsible to Parliament except one member of that Cabinet, the
chief whose policy the whole Cabinet is carrying out. The Prime Minister and the
other Ministers can be pilloried and thrown out for no fault of theirs, but the
fountain-head of the faults and deficiencies in question will escape scot-free
immunized by the Constitution itself."

- N.M. Perera, 1979. Critical Analysis of the New (1978) Constitution

by Rajan Philips-March 31, 2018, 8:13 pm

Today is April Fools’ Day. For Christians, it is also Easter Sunday. Skeptical wags
will relish the coincidence, which occurs only three or four times a century. Here
at home, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may have been wishing the Joint
Opposition’s No Confidence Motion (NCM) to be nothing more than an April
Fools’ prank, or, failing that, in the week of the risen lord he (PM) too could rise
from the near-death ordeal that he has been going through over two months and
as many moons. Alas, there is no April Fools for PM. The NCM is no prank or
pickle. The man is in a real predicament. Nor can Easter save him. The Christian
message of Easter is that - one who sacrifices one’s life for one’s faith will live on
even when dead. In politics and in public life, if you sacrifice your honesty for ill-
gotten gains, you are spiritually dead even if temporally alive.

The Prime Minister already stands injured and insulted, by his co-executive’s
Gazette Extraordinary. With the stroke of the presidential pen, Maithripala
Sirisena has gutted the PM’s portfolio, removing the Central Bank and all matters
economic and financial from the PM and relocating them in the Finance Ministry.
That is where they have always been since the government of Prime Minister DS
Senanayke and his Finance Minister JR Jayewardene. That is where they must
always be. The younger forces in the UNP must reflect hard and realize that how
positively differently the yahapalanaya government could have unfolded if Ranil
Wickremesinghe did not commit the cardinal blunder of usurping the Central
Bank and handing it over to his baby-boy governor and his wheeler-dealing UNP
cabal.

1956 was the last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day. In Sri Lankan politics, that
was a particularly bad year for the UNP and one that may seem to fit
chronological extrapolation by a frequent political commentator to reach 2018
from 1953, 1956, 1964 and 1970. Never mind, predictions based on chronological
extrapolation are no less flawed than astrological prognoses in electoral politics.
The Prime Minister’s predicament is all post-2015 and nothing pre-1977. Leaping
over decades to imagine linkages, and creating narratives spiced with familial
connections, is self-serving political commentary. However, it is possible to see a
continuous curve in the way Ranil Wickremesinghe has been conducting politics
throughout his political career starting from 1977. However, blaming his parents
for his political failings is as pathetic as praising one’s parents to sell one’s political
wares.

Yet, it cannot be said that the Prime Minister is not without an escape door,
morally and politically. Morally, the opportunity for redemption is the
fundamental condition of transformative justice, just as it is the essence of
Christian teaching based on the New Testament. ‘Eye for an eye and tooth for a
tooth’, on the other hand, is Old Testament thunder. Politically, Ranil
Wickremesinghe will still have life in the UNP either as a beleaguered PM (if he
wins the vote), or as an elder statesman of consequence (if he loses). It is the
President who will have nowhere to run if the PM wins, and will become the sole
scapegoat for blame against the government, if he loses. Either way, the
President would have got his well- deserved comeuppance.

The comeuppance could even turn poetic if the JVP’s notice to introduce a new
(20th) constitutional amendment to rid of the executive presidency, which may
now seem to be an objectively April Fools’ prank, receives wheels of traction from
what is now a seemingly farfetched prognosis of a Mahinda-Ranil collaboration to
end the executive presidency and permanently punish Sirisena for betraying them
both. In The Island yesterday, Lucian Rajakarunanayake outlined the latter
possibility shedding rays of refractive light on what might be the current talk of
the town’s chattering classes. I will add my own speculative musings at the end of
the article.

The politics and the consequences of No Confidence

The No Confidence Motion now before Parliament formally targets Prime


Minister Wickremesinghe, but implicates everyone in parliament except, perhaps,
the JVP. Those who governed before 2015, have no clean hands to complain of
corruption in the court of equity, or to file a No Confidence Motion in the nation’s
parliament. The Joint Opposition revealed its soiled hands when it baulked on the
JVP’s call to expand the NCM to retroactively express no confidence in those who
presided over government corruption before 2015. Post-2015, the UNP
membership went along with the corruption of its own leadership and the cover
up of its predecessors. The SLFP ministers are the scum of the earth, twice born
two timers adept at making a potent mix of sleaze and incompetence. Together,
the UNP, the SLFP and the JO make up about 90% of the 225-strong parliament.
Which one of them has the moral arm to cast the first stone at any one of them?

Of the rest, the 13 members of the TNA are in their unique corner, almost literally
like the ‘boy on the burning deck’ and insistently refusing to see no evil, touch no
evil and hear no evil around them. The hard questions facing them are how long
can they go on defending the Prime Minister? And what chance does a
constitutional rapprochement, canvassed by Ranil Wickremesinghe, have of
achieving lasting credibility in the south. Regardless of credibility, the Prime
Minister’s style of political management has not only derailed but has effectively
botched the constitutional project. The TNA’s Tamil critics will ask what has Ranil
Wickremesinghe has accomplished despite his handsome promises to Tamils and
other minorities, to merit the TNA’s support in the April 4 - vote of confidence.
The drama in the south has a different script. To their credit, the TNA leader R.
Sampanthan and his colleagues have been persistently trying to secure even the
minimum blessing of Mahinda Rajapaksa for constitutional reform. But,
unfortunately, there has been no reciprocal overture from the former President.
Despite his panache for personal cordiality towards Tamil political and social
leaders, the former President has been niggardly in demonstrating willingness to
accommodate their politics. Among Ranil’s opponents, like parliamentarian
Athuraliye Rathana Thero, the TNA is coming under pressure to vote against the
Prime Minster in keeping with the TNA’s status as the ‘official’ Opposition. The
more hardened of the southern critics are warning that the TNA’s support for the
Prime Minister could turn out to be the political kiss of death for the UNP. On
other hand, Ranil’s supporters will see a vote against the PM as betrayal by the
TNA, no different from Sirisena’s betrayal.

It is widely known that it was Mr. Sampanthan who ultimately convinced and
persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to accept the common candidacy of Maithripala
Sirisena in 2014 November. After three years, the TNA leader is facing a mess of
dilemmas in having to take sides in the separation struggle of the government’s
two co-executives. In the matter of choosing, the TNA is damned if it leans one
way and damned if it leans the other way. Its least damning option may be to
abstain on the vote while hoping that Ranil will survive.

The 20th Amendment: Need not go down as an April Fools’ prank

Ironically, but for totally different reasons, Mahinda Rajapaksa may also prefer to
abstain on the vote, while hoping for Ranil’s survival. He has already made it clear
that he is not in favour of the NCM approach. His ostensible reason is that the
exercise will only provide UNP the opportunity to strengthen itself. That of course
remains to be seen. He has since added a rider that the NCM could succeed if it
gets the support of President Srisena. That is a nice setup for the President to take
responsibility if the NCM succeeds, and blame if it fails. Apparently, even Dinesh
Gunawardena has not been too happy with the stampede politics of his
colleagues behind the NCM initiative. His fear is more rational but less likely, and
it is the fear that Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP may call Sirisena’s bluff,
jettison Sirisena’s government, and move to the opposition. That will project Ranil
Wickremesinghe and the UNP into opposition mode, and give them the platform
to jointly and severally attack Sirisena, the SLFP and the SLPP for the next years.
But this is unlikely to materialize because attacking as a form of defending is not
in Ranil’s political DNA.

He is the master tactician of political survival operating below the radar, rather
than taking his fight to the opponents openly and publicly.

The Prime Minister will be more at home conniving with 0 to get rid of the
executive presidency – to teach Sirisena the lesson of his life, and for Mahinda to
make most of his debarment from running for President again by becoming an
executive Prime Minister without a President. Lucien Rajakarunanyake’s
elaboration of the current table talk in Colombo may seem farfetched now, but is
not totally beyond the realm of possibility. All the ingredients are there on both
sides (Ranil and Mahinda) to thicken this plot and let it brew to its final fruition.
And the plot will work whether or not Ranil Wickremasinghe survives the vote this
week, or succumbs to it. He also has a third alternative – the one feared by Dinesh
Gunawardena, for Ranil to resign, abandon Sirisena’s government and start
blasting the President from the opposition. For utmost effectiveness, Ranil
Wickremesinghe must do the severance, if he were to do it at all, before April 4
and not after. Otherwise, a defeat next week will leave the Prime Minister
irreparably wounded and a victory will leave him at best a permanently limping
Prime Minister and Party leader.

The speculative Ranil-Mahinda connivance will not be without its drawbacks. Its
first and the principal casualty will be the legal initiatives against government
corruption, pre and post 2015. The next in line will be the much labored
constitutional reform proposals. The fact of the matter is that even in the current
circumstances the two initiatives are seriously stalled, even if not totally
abandoned. The huge benefit is the real potential for ending the executive
presidency, which has fallen off the political radar and the JVP’s 20th Amendment
proposal will not create much political traction on its own. A Ranil-Mahinda
connivance, on the other hand, will make all the difference, that would be
objectively positive, even if the subjective intentions may well to be just cynical
opportunism. And there will be better chances for more changes without the
executive presidency than under it as of now.

I will close with a brief clarification on the quote from Dr. NM Perera that I have
inserted at the start of this article. The anomaly that Dr. Perera railed against in
1979, and the President’s arbitrary powers to dismiss the Prime Minister and
dissolve parliament at whim have somewhat been mitigated by the 19th
Amendment. The latter has removed the President’s powers to remove a Prime
Minister and to dissolve parliament except after four and half years after its first
convening. Yet, there still is confusion over no confidence motion and the
insulation of the President from its consequences. It is not a coincidence that the
last No Confidence Motion was in 1976, moved by the LSSP (then out of the
United Front) against Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike over alleged
violations of the Land Reform implementation process. Until then, No Confidence
Motions were the opposition’s stock in trade in the cut and thrust of
parliamentary politics, even though they were never successful.

In 1976, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who drafted the No Confidence Motion, took the
matter to the people with a public lecture in which he placed the land reform
transgression in the historical context of an ethical decay in the country’s political
and social life, and one that seemed to have assumed a high degree of impunity
soon after independence. The decay seems to have gotten worse over the last ten
years than any time before. And the No Confidence Motion next week is a
kneejerk reaction and not a considered response to the ethical lapses and corrupt
practices of successive governments.
No one knows what the No Confidence Motion can or will do in Sri Lanka’s
hybridized presidential-parliamentary system. Even those who are championing it
now are not clear what its consequences will be. It is more than likely that
Maithripala Sirisena will be the biggest loser in this adventure – that may leave
him, minus his Prime Minister, minus his Party, and in less than two years minus
his presidency. The boon of it all may well be the ending of the executive
presidency, if it could happen at all through the unlikely agency of Mahinda
Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. If it were to happen, politics will become a
different business. The overhaul of the system would also facilitate the shedding
of the old and the inspiring of new arrivals to politics. Everything sounds too good
to be true. For now, we are stuck with farce of a No Confidence Motions and the
possibility of a meaningless stalemate.
Posted by Thavam