Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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The TNA’s role as the real opposition in national politics

Posted by harimpeiris on January 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 3rd January 2019)

It has to be back to the drawing boards for the SLPP and the Joint Opposition (JO) after their roller coaster ride (no pun intended) of a very brief spell as a Government which never commanded the confidence of Parliament during its very short tenure. Consequently, they were forced to accept the status quo ante which existed before their assumption of office on the 26th October 2018. The significant political change which has occurred since then of course, is that President Sirisena, if not the entirety of the UPFA / SLFP he leads has decided to throw in its lot with former President Rajapakse. However, this formal political divorce of the UNP and the SLFP partners of the supremely badly named “unity” government, was a long time in the making. A strained political partnership for quite a while now, the estrangement may well have had its origins as early as late 2015 itself.

So, there is a clear political gain for former President Rajapakse, in that he has now secured a partnership with the executive president, who almost unbelievably ousted him from office four years ago. How much of the SLFP’s remaining support base of twelve (12%) will shift to Rajapakse due to the president’s actions remain questionable, as does the appetite of some of its other key leaders and members of Parliament, who believe they have no political future with another Rajapakse led dispensation. However, former President Rajapakse and the Joint Opposition (JO), it is a serious downgrade that their leader, after struggling for the premiership for several weeks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, now finds himself in a tussle for the much less exalted position of Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. It is also ironic because in the past, the pun of being an eternal opposition leader and quite comfortable in that government paid and supported post was made by UPFA / SLFP activists about Premier Wickramasinghe due to his very long spell in that office. They now find their new ally struggling for this same position in Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition appointed after the August 2015 General Elections, veteran politician Rajavarothian Sambanthan has not just rolled over made way. He has through ITAK Spokesman MA Sumanthiran, made an appeal to the Speaker of Parliament, that Mahinda Rajapakse having joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, very publicly after the now nullified dissolution of Parliament by the president has vacated and lost his seat in that august assembly by virtue of Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution, which stipulates that a Member of Parliament ceases to be a member of the party from which he or she was elected, he ceases to be a member of Parliament. Further the TNA contends, that President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the UPFA, opting to retain the Ministries of Mahaweli Development and Environment, besides the mandatory ministry of Defense, makes it impossible for the UPFA to both have the Head of Government and Head of Cabinet through its leader, President Sirisena and the leader of the opposition to also a UPFA member of Parliament. The merits of these claims are asked to be decided through a select committee of parliament and a motion to convene such a select committee has already been tabled. This analysis though will look at the role as a national opposition which the TNA has played.

TNA as a national opposition

The TNA is clearly boxing way above its weight class in national politics. The Sri Lankan State system, by accident or design may well have inflicted injustices on the Tamil people, but political representation in the center is not one of them. By virtue of the concentration of its support base within several districts of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, the TNA with a popular support base of about half a million voters, elected sixteen members to Parliament at the last election. This was following up on the decisive role which it played in the January 2015 election, where voting as almost a monolithic bloc, together with the Muslim voters within their constituencies, the TNA vote bank was largely the difference between the winner and the looser at the last presidential election. This dynamic will largely hold true for even the next presidential elections which is why the “three S troika” of Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Senathirajah are important players in national politics today.

However, the TNA genuinely acts as a real opposition in Sri Lankan politics in several ways. Firstly, it genuinely acts as a check and balance on the raw abuse of state power by governments of the day. It is the TNA which can claim credit for its principled opposition to the Divi Neguma Bill under the Rajapakse Government in 2013 through the Eastern Provincial Council and subsequently launching the legal challenge to the said Bill, which when upheld by the Shiranie Bandaranaike Supreme Court, eventually led the then CJ to face impeachment charges by an overconfident and overbearing Rajapakse Administration, which may have won that battle but lost its war for reelection. In the most recent constitutional crisis drama, it was the TNA which played a significant role discretely and behind the scenes to ensure that democratic practices and principles were upheld and democratic institutions held sway.

There are many internal critics of the TNA and this is both natural and healthy in democratic politics. Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran are no dictators to assassinate their opponents, even politically let alone with any physical violence or brutality. None of them have a tradition of militancy or armed rebellion against the state as many of their detractors do and generally box by the Queensbury rules in a more genteel kind of politics which is perhaps the perfect antidote to the extreme violence which was Tamil politics during the years of the armed conflict. Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has come a full circle, ten years after the end of the war, democratic, diverse and now increasingly nationally quite decisive.

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An agenda for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 5th Term as Prime Minister

Posted by harimpeiris on December 19, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 18th December 2018)

It is unlikely that any Sri Lankan politician anytime soon, would beat the record of the UNP’s long-time leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, who last Sunday was sworn in for his fifth term of office as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. If some of his terms have been quite short, such as his six-month third term from January to August 2015, the record for the shortest term of office as Prime Minister, must surely go to Mahinda Rajapakse for his ill-fated government of several weeks, exactly how many weeks depending on whether one is inclined to accepts the passage of the no confidence motions in Parliament as the end of his government or his “resignation” last Saturday.

Sri Lanka is back from the brink and not of a constitutional collapse, because our state institutions, especially the judiciary stood tall above the political turmoil and ultimately was instrumental in resolving the crisis, while our military, the 24th largest armed forces in the world, stayed out of the fray, due to both the staunchly apolitical tradition and strong professionalism of Sri Lanka’s military and a resolute Army commander in General Mahesh Senanayake, a war-hero who was forced out of service under the previous Rajapakse Administration.

Saved from a Rajapakse return

 Many times, since 2015, in conversation with key leaders of the rainbow coalition which brought him into office, President Sirisena had reiterated again and again, that their common major political objective should be in preventing a return of Rajapakse rule in Sri Lanka.  With the swearing in of Ranil Wickramasinghe and the restoration of the status quo ante the catastrophe from which Sri Lanka was saved, was a restoration of unreformed Rajapakse rule. Rajapakse rule since end October 2018, would have been wrong for at least two reasons. Firstly, a key aspect of the mandate of 2015 was to end Rajapakse rule, the mismanagement and corruption alleged during the 2015 campaign was serious and ending that rule, was a key aspect of the public mandate. Secondly, the other aspect of that and indeed any mandate is timing. A public mandate is given for a time period, a term of office. A politically motivated premature end to the Wickramasinghe national government was against the mandate of August 2015, which is quite distinct from President Sirisena’s presidential mandate. With the concurrent exercise of two distinct mandates, the 19th amendment to the constitution codifies the safeguarding of the legislative mandate from executive manipulation. The Supreme Court has clearly articulated this in its landmark unanimous judgement by a seven-judge bench.

Heed the people’s verdict of the LG Elections

 The political turmoil of the past six weeks or so, should not detract from the reality, that the UNF was resolutely defeated at the Local Government polls earlier this year. The LG election was not even close, it was a rout for the government. That election was the clearest indicator and indisputable popular verdict, that the public was dissatisfied with the performance of the UNP led national government. Clearly the people did not feel that they had received a good governance dividend. This absence of results was not merely in the economic sense, though that likely dominated. It was non-delivery on many fronts, including the non-prosecution of the large-scale corruption and abuse of power cases alleged during the election. At least with regard to the bond scandal a presidential commission had been appointed and had produced a report. Several commissions of inquiry into the numerous other issues raised on public platform and in the mass media, would have at least have found all the facts and held those responsible to account.

Address the alienation of minorities

A key player in safeguarding democracy in Sri Lanka, through dogged determination, principled politics and an insistence on the rule of law has been the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its key leaders, the triple S (no pun intended) of Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran. Early on in this saga the TNA leadership correctly became convinced that indeed everybody’s including Tamil rights were best protected, promoted and advanced in and through a democratic polity rather than an authoritarian and populist political leadership.  Accordingly, they set out to play the honest broker, the middle men who could potentially mediate between the UNF and President Sirisena, both of whom they had worked together with, in 2015 and persuaded their constituents in droves to support the then common candidate Sirisena. In fact, the overwhelming support for Sirisena in the North and East, was the margin of victory for him.

The TNA, has fourteen votes in Parliament. Actually, there are sixteen, but only fourteen in the parliamentary group because Vanni MP Shivashakthi Anandan from the EPRLF refuses to adhere to the TNA whip and Mahinda Rajapakse succeeded in persuading Batticalo District TNA MP Viyalanderen to cross over to the SLPP, that gentleman clearly deciding, allegedly for a price, that he would rather support the Rajapakse’s and then retire than continue in active politics beyond the 2020 elections. Both President Sirisena and the UNF sought the TNA’s support because the numbers game in parliament made clear, that whom the TNA supported had the majority. This was a point made by Mahinda Rajapakse in the course of his resignation speech last Saturday, where he used the term, the “remote control” to indicate the casting vote or deciding factor of the TNA in Parliament. While the minority party leaders, not just of the TNA, but also the SLMC and the Peoples Congress played a constructive role in restoring constitutional governance and the rule of law, their constituencies themselves, the Tamil and Muslim communities were generally much less interested in the power struggle at the center. This alienation of minorities from the democratic policy debate and processes is not desirable for a socially cohesive and integrated Sri Lanka. National integration and reconciliation should not just be a subject assigned to a Cabinet minister, but a concrete part of the program of the government.

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Political options for President Sirisena, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse

Posted by harimpeiris on December 13, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 12th December 2018)

As this article is being penned, the nation awaits the decision of the Supreme Court on the legal validity or lack thereof of the presidential gazette dissolving Parliament. With the traditional year end court vacations scheduled for December 14th, many are expecting that Court would give its judgement before the vacation. However, Court is not bound to give its judgement before its vacation. Setting a date after vacations for its decision would in the interim period, again allow the political actors in the drama, the opportunities to work out their out of court settlement as it were and inform court that all parties have come to an agreement. Eminent counsel has made their arguments both against and for the dissolution and this article does not seek to rehash the legal arguments which have been published elsewhere but to explore the options for the three principal political actors in this drama, President Sirisena, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse. All three sides in this political drama are on record that they are awaiting the decision of the court, to decide their next course of action.

The concrete political change which took place in end October, was President Sirisena deciding to end his lately rather tortured relationship with his erstwhile political allies of the UNF and hitch his political bandwagon and future to the Mahinda Rajapakse political project. This decision, confirmed at party level when the UPFA formally chose to exit the government, did create a shift in political forces in the country. The complication of course was that the President’s advisors deemed it fit to seek to immediately translate a political change into a government change. Changing a democratically elected government in a civilized society and we are an ancient civilization, has to be done in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions and the issue before the Supreme Court, is indeed whether this was the case.

In the scenario that the court holds that the dissolution of Parliament is invalid, or even prior to the Court’s decision, President Sirisena can explore a compromise, where he restores the status quo ante, or the UNF to Government, but with an undertaking for an earlier dissolution of Parliament with the consent of Parliament. It is clear from UNF circles that they are prepared to compromise but not on the core issue of a Ranil Wickramasinghe premiership, the thinking being that the office of Prime Minister, should be safeguarded within the context of the will of Parliament. i.e. the time-honored tradition and indeed legal principal that the head of state, appoints as Prime Minister a member of Parliament who commands the confidence of that august assembly.

The real political ambiguity which is creating the space for dissent from the President’s political initiatives or plenary prerogatives as the AG’s Department likes to call it, is that the marriage between the SLFP and the SLPP or between President Sirisena and all three Rajapakse brothers has not been cemented and is not ironclad. It is neither concrete tactically nor in terms of shared political interest between Sirisena and the three Rajapakse brothers. Political insiders, minority party leaders, civil society and even government officials see and recognize this ambiguity. This is the political problem which President Sirisena has to address to ensure that his political switch of end October is at least concretized for the immediate future.

The slightly more medium-term challenges which Sirisena and Rajapakse face as they seek to work together with each other are also complex. Technically in the event that the Court holds the President can sack governments at will, then there is always the possibility that he can always also sack a Mahinda Rajapakse Government in the future as well and insist that the SLPP appoints someone else he prefers from that Party, like the current initiatives to get the UNP to nominate another Prime Minister, other than its long serving leader. There is also the JVP which is raising the issue of impeachment of the President for alleged violation of the constitution. The issue is not just legal. After all we had Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike booted out the Supreme Court under Rajapakse. A Mahinda Rajapakse, victorious at a general election may find the option of an impeachment with the support of the UNF, an attractive political proposition. The political machinations going on are rather similar to the palace intrigues of Sri Lanka’s bloody monarchial past, where the majority of our kings ascended the throne, killing their predecessor, who was often their father, brother, uncle or other close relative.

In the event that the Court allows the dissolution of Parliament, the respite granted would still be temporary because then essentially the President can keep sacking and replacing Prime Ministers at will. Further the tensions between the SLFP and the SLPP also rose rather quickly to the surface, in the context of their short few weeks together in government office. Most likely, a general election will witness a result reversal of the general elections of 2015, with the UNP getting some ninety something seats and the SLPP eclipsing the UPFA / SLFP, even in an alliance and becoming the largest party in Parliament, but still well short of the one hundred and thirteen seats required for a majority. The alternate route of a presidential election may more likely provide a fresh mandate and a clear path for Sri Lanka’s future progress and the prosperity of her diverse peoples.

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Will Mahinda Confirm Maithri as Presidential Candidate?

Posted by harimpeiris on November 26, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published on The Island on 24th November 2018)

Prior to end October and the controversial sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe by President Sirisena, the general focus of the political debate in Sri Lanka was on the upcoming presidential elections, the next national elections that was due, nominations for which would be called by this time next year. The Joint Opposition (JO) did make noises about the provincial council elections, wanting to follow up their performance in the February local government elections, with an encore in the provinces, barring possibly the North and East in which they are very weak. However, the focus of the polity was on the presidential election politics. It is perhaps precisely this dynamic, the presidential election politics, which triggered the change in prime minister, as indeed claimed by Ranil Wickramasinghe, early on in the saga to an Indian interviewer.

The Rajapakse problem with a presidential election is well known, with Mahinda being ineligible to contest a third time. It is clear now that President Sirisena, has his sights firmly set on a second term, but the electoral dominance within the Rajapaksa and Sirisena combine, is clearly Mahinda Rajapakse and his SLPP. Which as per the February election results brings about 40% of the national vote to the table, compared to about 12% contributed by President Sirisena and the once proud and governing SLFP led UPFA. So, the presidential election candidate will still be decided by Mahinda Rajapakse. Will he pass the baton on to the younger sibling, Gotabaya or would he opt for Maithri as a stop gap till 2025, when first son Namal, becomes of eligible age to contend for the top job.

However, with the change in Prime Minister, the Rajapakse and SLPP demand has been a general election to Parliament, a tactic which reverses the role of the presidential election as the crucial test of electoral strength. It allows Mahinda Rajapakse to be the leader who delivers an election win, making the presidential election later on in 2019, of secondary or at least lesser importance politically. A general election also plays to the SLPP’s strength, which is that it currently has the largest popular support base in the country, going by the February election results. Combined with the support of the SLFP, it is arguably a majority in the country.

However, a presidential election exposes the electoral weakness of the Rajapakse political project, namely its attraction, largely if not solely, to a Sinhala voter base and that too with a Sinhala nationalist message and appeal. Among the non-majority ethno-religious community, the Rajapaksa’ s fail to attract sufficient support, making their presidential election bid always a tricky exercise and one that failed in 2015 and also only just barely succeeded in 2005. It is precisely this argument, which is made by President Sirisena’s SLFP backers. That he has sufficient appeal among minority communities and a degree of trust from their leaders to enable him to win some support from the non-Sinhala communities.

The UNP too has a problem with a presidential candidate. For their candidate to have any hope of victory, it requires the tacit support from the outside, of the JVP and the TNA, similar to the support given by them to common candidate Sirisena’s campaign in 2015. Whether long time UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe would be acceptable to the political elite, as the presidential candidate and marketable within their constituencies, remains to be seen.

An unstable Rajapakse premiership sans parliamentary support

Meanwhile the new (purported?) Rajapakse government is in relatively dire straits without adequate parliamentary support. The JO / SLPP point out correctly that they and the UNP both have probably the same number of members in Parliament, maybe 101 each, the balance being the JVP and the TNA, which are currently consistently backing the status quo ante in Parliament and especially the JVP playing a lead role in opposing the return of Mahinda Rajapakse to executive office. This point was emphasized by Dinesh Gunawardena at a press conference recently that even if a no confidence motion against the Mahinda Rajapakse Government succeeds (again?), that the UNP will also be forced to form a similar minority government, sans the support of the JVP and the TNA which is unlikely to want to be a junior partner in a short-term government.

However, the political position adopted by the JVP and the TNA, is a principled one, which has allowed them to capture the political moral high ground. Their commitment to the status quo ante, or Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister is faithful to the general election mandate of August 2015 in which the UNP clearly came out as the party with the largest number of seats. Further the presidential election of January 2015 was a stinging rebuke to Mahinda Rajapakse, whose governance and alleged corruption was the key election campaign platform for the then common opposition campaign. Accordingly, by all accounts of the principles of popular mandate, there is absolutely no basis for President Sirisena to claim in appointing Mahinda Rajapakse, who was defeated twice in 2015 in both January and August, to the office of Prime Minister.

A Friday night appointment as Prime Minister, the suspension of Parliament, an attempt to dissolve Parliament and a Supreme Court push back on the presidential action and the subsequent mayhem in Parliament by Rajapakse allies, the mob led take overs at state media institutions, the lightening transfer (since reversed)  of a CID officer investigating sensitive cases regarding the previous Rajapakse terms , have all made the floating voters consider again carefully exactly why they wanted an end to Rajapakse rule in 2015. A weak Rajapakse Government leading up to a presidential election fraught with internal challenges for the SLPP / SFPF combine may be more a poisoned chalice, rather than the blessing it seems on the surface.

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The Politics of President Sirisena’s October Revolution

Posted by harimpeiris on November 14, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 14th November 2018)

 

President Maithripala Sirisena has been crafting his own October revolution in Sri Lanka, sacking a Prime Minster, appointing a new one (who probably did not command support in Parliament), proroguing parliament, reconvening parliament, denying any attempt to dissolve parliament and finally dissolving that august Assembly, a little over three years into its five-year term. A revolution it certainly is because the President dismissed the winner of the August 2015 general elections and appointed the two-time loser (no pun intended) of the elections of 2015, in which elections the popular mandate included ending Rajapaksa rule in Sri Lanka.

The constitutionality of the President’s actions is being challenged before the Supreme Court and as the legal issues are now sub judicia, this article will not comment on the matter. However, the President’s actions besides its constitutionality has political implications and ramifications and it is the politics of President Sirisena’s October revolution which we will examine. The start of the October 2018 revolution probably began as way back as 2015 itself, when despite his shock electoral defeat, Mahinda Rajapakse decided not to retire from politics but continue. This resulted in Sri Lanka essentially having three political leaders with national electoral appeal, Maithri, Ranil and Mahinda. Any two of them combining together, effectively kept out the third. This was essentially the politics of January 2015.

Most probably due to the belt tightening following the debt driven economic growth of the second Rajapakse term, there was no good governance dividend for the electorate, which mid-term has been souring with President Sirisena and PM Wickremasinghe’s supremely ill named unity government.  It also did not require much political sagacity to realize that of the three leaders, one Mahinda Rajapakse was term limit barred from seeking election a third time for the presidency, while the other two were not and likely opponents in 2020. Also, conventional wisdom held that Mahinda and Maithri divided up the SLFP vote base, while the UNP vote bank was solidly behind Ranil Wickramasinghe. While the former continues to hold true, if there is fidelity to the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, February 2018’s Local Government election results proved the second thesis wrong. Sirisena had won over more swing voters and UNP supporters than otherwise. Also, Sirisena and his UPFA / SLFP ended up a distant third with 13% of the popular vote demonstrating that Maithripala Sirisena required to team up with one of the two political forces in the country, the UNP or the SLPP to be electorally viable nationally.

The issue is the power of the Executive Presidency

 

The first political issue is the manner, nature and exercise of executive presidential powers in Sri Lanka, post the war and post the 19th amendment. Having campaigned on a platform of abolishing the executive presidency, the 19th amendment was presented as a half way house towards that goal with a severe restriction on the unilateral powers of the presidency. Whether the letter and spirit of the 19th amendment was violated the Supreme Court will now decide. The political issue is whether the exercise of executive presidential authority was done in an accountable manner. On the face of it, the Friday night after hours, political plans, deals and machinations, hatched in secrecy, is hardly the hall marks of transparency and procedural due process required to make democracy meaningful. Coupled with the mob led takeover of state media, the prime ministerial change had all the hall marks of a coup de eta, albeit a non-violent one.

The second political issue with the October revolution is the independent mandate of the Prime Minister and the legislature.  The office of Prime Minster, is that unlike in the days of Sri Lanka’s absolute monarchs, when the king may appoint whoever he wished as his prime minister and indeed remove the same, in our current republic, the Prime Minister has an independent mandate flowing from the general election to Parliament. The supreme legislature of the country, is indeed supreme legislatively speaking. It’s second function of holding the executive, answerable and accountable to the legislature for their actions, is a necessary feature of any democracy and is also enshrined in our constitution. Sri Lanka’s 1978 constitution creates a political situation where there is the concurrent exercise of twin popular mandates, the mandate of the executive president and the mandate of the legislature. There is a need to balance these both and not let the executive dominate the legislature. This was the letter and spirit of the 19th Amendment, in the context that many were calling for an abolition of the executive presidency and a return of the executive to be embedded within the legislature.

A free and fair general election

 

The third political issue is that a general election to parliament must be both free and fair. Free elections are generally the atmosphere in which electors exercise their franchise. Fair elections require that the system in which the elections are held is a level playing field. A key aspect of fairness is the timing of an election. Timing is important in two ways. First a PM and government elected for a term of five years, reasonably expects to serve out that term as long as it commands the confidence of parliament. The middle of a term of office, is always a bad time for governments, where the euphoria of the victory has worn off and the results of its work have not yet borne fruit. Accordingly having the rug pulled under their feet at a time disadvantageous to one side, the incumbent government seriously negates the fairness of the election.   The other aspect of the same issue is should the president be entitled to sack prime ministers and dissolve parliament except within prescribed circumstances, that power may well be exercised again and again for good, bad or no cause.

President Maithripala Sirisena has sprung his own October revolution on Sri Lanka and has selected Mahinda Rajapakse to get a popular mandate to cement the change. Time will tell whether the revolution succeeds or not.

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