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Man-made constitutional crisis: Personal

vendettas should not be allowed to destroy
the country

The rift between President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP Leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe had a long history and is not something that just emerged on
26 October, on which day the former decided to replace the latter. But now a
private vendetta has become a national vendetta and perhaps, with the
intervention of Sri Lanka’s international partners, a global vendetta as well. This
personal vendetta between the President and Wickremesinghe has ruined the
economy

President is simply one presiding over an entity of people

Monday, 19 November 2018

It all came to surface as the culmination of a personal vendetta between
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The
country at large knew of it when the President sacked the Prime Minister and
appointed his arch enemy, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his place
in the evening of 26 October, according to Indian media, in a hush-hush swearing-
in ceremony.

The ruse used by the President was that a few minutes ago one of the partners of
the unity government, United National Freedom Alliance or UPFA, had withdrawn
officially from the government making the prevailing national government non-
existent as far as the Constitution was concerned. A national government could
have more than 30 cabinet ministers but once it has fallen that cabinet had to be
re-numbered to be within the provisions of the Constitution. This should have
been done in consultation with Wickremesinghe but the President had chosen to
do it solo claiming that he had discretionary powers under the Constitution.
I have pointed out in a previous article that the President
would have been correct had Sri Lanka been a monarchy in which the monarch
could use discretionary powers but still subject to limitations imposed on him by a
code of ethics. But Sri Lanka was a republic and it was a misconception to talk
about discretionary powers within the framework of a republic. That was because
in a republic the President is simply the one presiding over the entity of people
making the republic and he does not have powers which are not being enjoyed by
others in the entity (available at: http://www.ft.lk/opinion/The-flash-election--A-
political-way-out-or-an-instance-of-one-mistake-leading-to-another-/14-
666609?fbclid=IwAR1gldhlQaGTIZEwaf2eKA98zW6PA8OSE9cnxBKGee2iCl1bqOFIy
f1qZx4).

Hence, he who had been sworn into the Presidency under the Constitution of the
Republic should have consulted the stakeholders concerned. In the present case,
that would have been Wickremesinghe who was the incumbent PM.

Looking for numbers after appointing a PM
The President’s ploy had been to appoint Rajapaksa and then work jointly for
getting a majority for him in Parliament. A series of horse-trading took place
behind the scene and some had accused of being offered financial bribes as well
as preferred Cabinet portfolios to crossover to Rajapaksa camp. Later, the
President himself admitted this when he justified the dissolution of Parliament
claiming that there was a price fixed for MPs. Hence, he implied, to punish them,
the present Parliament should be brought to an end.

He continued to appoint Ministers for Rajapaksa Government in a number of
rounds but it was later apparent that the required numbers could not be made-
up. Meanwhile, the sacked PM Wickremesinghe continued to occupy the official
residence of the Prime Minister, Temple Trees, claiming he was still the lawful PM
of the country.

This led to having two PMs but no government in the country. That man-made
constitutional crisis had enormous economic costs and as I had pointed out in a
previous article, needed to be fixed forthwith (available at:
http://www.ft.lk/columns/With-this-man-made-Constitutional-crisis--economy-
will-be-the--casualty--resolve-it-quickly-or-peris/4-665587).

One mistake leading to another mistake

But there was no heeding to sanity and it was the case of making one mistake
after the other. Parliament was prorogued when Wickremesinghe tried to show
his power; then due to the massive public and international protests, it was
reconvened two days before the appointed date. Then, when it was apparent that
on reconvention, Rajapaksa would have been defeated in a no-confidence vote,
the President took some cover under separate provisions in the Constitution and
decided to dissolve Parliament fixing even the date for the General Election. His
mistake there has been not reading the Constitution as a wholesome document
but only the provisions that would have been supportive of his action. This
mistake he had made had been even endorsed by some of the lawyers supporting
him.

However, a Constitution is not like a reference book which is looked at only for
the reference sought. It is a document governing the fate of a nation and
therefore, should be read as a wholesome document. In that Constitution, there
is a prohibitive section which had taken off the general powers of the President to
dissolve Parliament four-and-a-half years before its first sitting unless Parliament
in a two third majority voting had asked him to do so.

When one reads the Constitution as a wholesome document, one has to ascertain
why that particular prohibitive section has been introduced. That was because of
the recognition that for Sri Lanka to adopt a certain medium term policy package
without being interrupted, the sitting Parliament should have a minimum period
of four-and-a-half years to do so. The President should not have read only the
sections relevant to him and ignored the prohibition that had been imposed on
him by the Constitution for a good reason. If he had wanted to dissolve
Parliament, he would have asked Parliament to give him powers through a two
third majority in terms of the Constitution.

Deepening the crisis through unilateral dissolution of Parliament

The unilateral dissolution of Parliament had deepened the crisis prompting
aggrieved parties to seek a ruling from the Supreme Court about the
constitutionality of President’s action. The Court has issued an interim injunction
on the implementation of the dissolution order pending a full inquiry to be
conducted early December.

In the meantime, Parliament which was reconvened in terms of President’s
previous order had passed by majority, using one of the methods which
Parliament uses to pass a law, namely, by the voices heard by the Speaker, three
motions affirming that Parliament has no confidence in Rajapaksa and his
government. In terms of the Constitution, once such a no-confidence motion is
passed by majority vote, the government in power is automatically dissolved
requiring the President to appoint another who can command the majority in
Parliament. But the President made another mistake by rejecting the motions and
asking Parliament to go for stricter methods of passing such motions.

When the Wickremesinghe group yielded, Parliamentary sessions were disrupted
by unruly supporters of the Rajapaksa group. This appalling lawlessness in
Parliament was witnessed live by people both in Sri Lanka and outside. To the
outside world as many diplomats had tweeted, it was a deplorable situation.

The sum conclusion is that it was a vote of no-confidence against the President
who holds the Law and Order portfolio of the Government. This is another
mistake committed by the President without fully understanding its gravity.

Wickremesinghe is also not guilt-free

The President has all the reasons to dislike Wickremesinghe.

One contentious area was the blatant attempts made by Wickremesinghe to
sweep under the carpet the infamous Central Bank bond scam. When it took
place on 27 February 2015, the President was away from the country and when it
was brought to his notice, he ordered his Secretary to appoint a Commission of
Inquiry into the scam immediately. But Wickremesinghe checkmated the
President by appointing three lawyers close to him to inquire into the incident.
The report castigated some officers in the Central Bank but gave clean certificate
to the Governor who had been a close ally of Wickremesinghe.By protecting the
Governor, he played the roles of the proverbial deaf, dumb and blind monkeys
simultaneously.

When the matter reached a critical stage, the President had to come on the
national TV just before the General Elections in August 2015 and reveal a secret
to the nation. He had in all sincerity advised Wickremesinghe not to have his ‘Mr
Clean’ name spoilt by continuing to protect the Governor in question. But this was
not heeded to. The opposition went to town on the Central Bank bond scam in
election platforms making it a national issue, surely an embarrassment to a
government which had come to power on the promise of establishing a
corruption free society. It is the belief of many that UNP lost five or six seats in
Parliament because it could not convince the voters, especially those
cosmopolitan ones, that it was guilt-free.

Attempt to cover up the bond scam was costly
Unfortunately for Wickremesinghe, bond scams continued in greater volume and
intensity angering the market. His government was totally oblivious to it, though
it lost its reputation. The President who was dismayed by the unsavoury
developments sought to rectify it through the Parliamentary Committee on Public
Enterprises or COPE but the report was partially killed by those members who had
represented UNP on the Committee. Pressure was brought on the Chairman of
COPE who had come from JVP; when he refused to relent, the strong message in
the report was diluted by members belonging to UNP by adding a set of footnotes
prompting the Chairman to pronounce that it was not one report but two reports
to be read separately.

The President had to intervene again when attempts were made to cover up the
COPE report by UNP led by Wickremesinghe. The intervention was in the form of
appointing a Presidential Commission into the scam of which the report is now
out. It had implicated the complicity of the Governor, the primary dealer company
owned jointly by his son-in-law and its senior officials, though there was no
reference to Wickremesinghe or his senior ministers. When the term of the
Governor was over, Wickremesinghe tried his best to reappoint him for a further
term angering the President. Wickremesinghe’s attempts were foiled by the firm
stand taken by the President not to give him another term.

Sidelining the President in economic policy making

There was another reason for the President to dislike Wickremesinghe. All
economic policy decisions were taken by a Cabinet Committee on Economic
Management or CCEM headed by Wickremesinghe and the President was kept in
the dark in all these matters. He had to complain in public that he came to know
many of those decisions concerning the country only when they were submitted
to the Cabinet for approval.

This is not the way a good governance government made up of two major
coalition partners should be run, but despite the complaints made, the President
was continued to be ignored in the decision making process. When it became
totally intolerable, he decided to scrap CCEM and establish a new National
Economic Council or NEC under his chairmanship.

Thus, the rift between the President and Wickremesinghe had a long history and
is not something that just emerged on 26 October, on which day the former
decided to replace the latter.

Private vendetta should not play a role in national matters

But now a private vendetta has become a national vendetta and perhaps, with
the intervention of Sri Lanka’s international partners, a global vendetta as well.

The country’s economy which was already in a deep crisis had begun to suffer in
greater intensity. There is no government today and nor there is a mechanism to
make public policies except some ‘unsustainable goodies’ being announced by
Rajapaksa faction to the detriment of the economy. They can be equated to an
instance in which glucose is given in bigger doses to a dying diabetic, though the
diabetic may love to have it without knowing its life threatening implications.

There is no budget for 2019 and therefore there is no mechanism to continue
with the present budgetary disciplining process being pursued by the
Wickremesinghe Government. If an interim ‘vote on account’ is presented to
Parliament by Rajapaksa, it is likely to be defeated in Parliament since he does not
have majority. In that case, his Government will instantly fall.

Without a budget or a vote on account, as I have argued in the previous week’s
article, there is no prospect for Sri Lanka to repay maturing public debt or paying
interest on the existing debt. Most likely, Sri Lanka will have to default, for the
first time in its history, its sovereign obligations. Foreign investors have already
been nervous because of the blatant violation of the Constitution by the President
and the Rajapaksa faction.

Already, the markets have added an extra risk premium in the range of about 2 to
5% to existing sovereign debt of the country. What it means is that if the
government, no matter whether it is led by Rajapaksa or Wickremesinghe, seeks
to go to international markets, it will have to settle for an interest rate, not at
6.5% it enjoyed in the past, but a rate at around 9 to 10%. Borrowing funds at
those interest rates to repay the maturing debt is totally imprudent.

Sri Lanka’s hopeless media discussions

This personal vendetta between the President and Wickremesinghe has ruined
the economy. Yet, discussions by the public in both electronic and print media
had been biased, naive and ill-informed. Hence, the President who triggered off
the crisis does not get an opportunity to see through its long term adverse
consequences.

A good example of how the people should analyse the present situation has been
given by neighbouring India’s Rajya Sabha TV. In its Big Picture programme
(available at: https://youtu.be/Qs2oupk2HKI), the TV station got three
intellectuals to analyse Sri Lanka’s situation without bias, prejudice or
misinformation. They had noted that the Rajapaksa Government had so far been
recognised only by two countries, namely, an unknown Burundi and the muscle
displayer in the region, China. The rest of the world has simply isolated him as the
Head of the Government. Hence, it was truly a learning experience for the
viewers.

The wisdom which the President should get from all of us is that he should not
risk destroying the social, political and economic fabric of the country by
continuing to harbour a personal vendetta. That is not the way a statesman
should conduct his affairs. To his credit, Wickremesinghe has on a number of
occasions pronounced that he has no problem of working with the President. He
is ready to forget the past for the sake of the country. But the President is, to the
contrary, going after Wickremesinghe’s blood.

Thus, if the President could discern the risks of his stubborn conduct properly, like
a good statesman, he would choose to revert to ‘pre-26 October position’ and
allow Parliament to select a new PM until it is conducive for the country to have a
free and fair election. Right now, citizens who have witnessed in horror the
thuggish mob violence unleashed in Parliament by Rajapaksa faction cannot
resolve themselves to believe that there would be either freedom or fairness in
the elections to be held under that administration.

(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka,
can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com.)
Posted by Thavam