Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for November, 2018

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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Chief Minster Wigneswaren breaks with TNA and forms the TMA

Posted by harimpeiris on November 1, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews)

As the term of office of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) concludes this month, Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, elected from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), actually from the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK, the TNA not being a recognized political party or alliance), finally and formally broke with the TNA and announced his plans to form a new party, the Tamil Peoples Alliance, perhaps as the successor of the Tamil Peoples Forum which he oversaw and patronized,  for the last several years. As Justice Wigneswaran prepares to form his new political party and take on the traditional ruling elites of the Tamil people gathered under the banner of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA), it would be useful to examine the track record of the man who would seek to unseat or replace, one of the current pillars of Sri Lankan politics, the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, as the leader of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Despite the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 and the existence of provincial councils in the rest of the country, the Rajapakse Administration’s policy of seeking to govern in peace time, as in the time of war, meant that it was disinclined to fulfil its constitutional obligation to constitute the Northern Provincial Council. It took increasing international isolation and lack of sympathy for the hardline Rajapakse Administration internationally, to coax it to hold the first ever post-war provincial elections in the North as a concession and constitute the NPC.

Despite the stellar efforts and the example of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC), which initiated the first step in the defeat of the Rajapakse Administration by refusing to give accent to the “Divi Neguma Bill” and initiating the successful Supreme Court challenge to the same, which consequently saw Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike impeached by an over-confident Rajapakse Administration, thereby commencing the slippage of its Sinhala support, who still hold the judiciary in high esteem. The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) under Chief Minister Wigneswaran became a strange creature. It neither had the political imagination nor the courage to take on the Rajapaksa’s at the center as the EPC democratically and judicially did, nor did it go about the urgent task of providing relief and bettering the lot of the people of the Northern Province, all of whom had been at the center of a war for close upon three decades. In fact, in the first year of the NPC’s administration it actually returned unspent money to the Treasury in Colombo, for projects that had been approved and funded but not implemented. In the second year, the Chief Minister engaged in a financial sleight of hand to prevent returning the money and donated all remaining funds to provincial public libraries in the North, in a process which barely passed muster with the relevant Financial Regulations (FRs).

Instead, the Chief Minister busied himself with a rather impractical and  unproductive agenda of passing an endless array of resolutions in the NPC, which dealt with various issues, mostly in the area of accountability during the war years, but this too selectively and with no mention of LTTE culpability or responsibility for the LTTE international crimes of child conscription and assassination of democratic (unarmed) political opponents and dissidents. He was also unwilling to support the resolution which called for the return of and restitution to the Muslims who had been evicted (ethnically cleansed) from Jaffna by the LTTE during the war.

With the change of government in 2015, there was a significant change of policy by the Government towards the Northern Province. For the first time since 1999 and only second time ever since 1982, the Northern Province had voted for the winner of the presidential election in Maithripala Sirisena and that by a huge margin of nearly 75% and President Sirisena was duly grateful to his constituency. An obstructionist and retired military General Chandrasiri were replaced as Governor by S.G.M.S. Palihakkara, who went with clear instructions to bring relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction to the North. This writer, as the then Chairman of the Resettlement Authority, had a ring side seat to painfully watch the Chief Minister, use the power of his office, to obstruct all efforts to use the provincial administration to serve the people, including delaying World Bank funded projects. He spent a couple of years, fighting fruitlessly with the UNDP to get an Australian national and Diaspora activist appointed as his Advisor / Consultant and used the UNDP’s needs assessment process as his weapon of choice against the UNDP.

In hindsight it might not be unfair, having watched for five years to conclude, that the C.V. Wigneswaran, in full agreement with his hardline political backers in the Diaspora and particularly the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) of Gajen Kumar Ponnambalam, was determined to prove that the provincial council was useless, even as an institution of limited devolved executive authority. As much as Velupillai Prabhakaran believed that using poor Tamil children as cannon fodder was acceptable in the greater goal of Tamil Eelam, Chief Minister Wigneswaran clearly believed that using the most vulnerable Tamil war widows, orphans, the homeless and the maimed as continuous “beggar’s wounds” was fair game or collateral damage in his quest to prove to the Tamil people and the world that the provincial council is useless. Rather like Mahinda Rajapakse before him, he has used ethnic nationalism to disguise, poor governance as well as poor service delivery in the Northern Province.  Sadly, another wasted opportunity for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.

It has been however in his public political challenge to the moderation and engagement strategy of the TNA and its leader R. Sambanthan, that Wigneswaran has done the most damage to the cause of post war reconciliation in Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil people in particular. Following the end of the war in 2009, the Tamil people were close to the brink of destruction as a people group. Their middle class was decimated, their brightest and best had been forced to flee abroad and worse probably for reconciliation and integration, completely alienated from the Sri Lankan State. It was into this political post war vacuum that the ITAK led TNA, headed by R. Sambanthan stepped in and adroitly marshalled the Tamil people, to use their electoral muscle to politically engage the Sinhala southern polity and seek to pursue reforms of the Sri Lankan state. Reforms which may not have progressed much, but Rome was not built in a day and the alternate of war did not achieve anything for the Tamil people either. Wigneswaran clearly differed with the engagement strategy. He would solely articulate the grievance but never provide a solution. He should then have either followed the moto of his alma mater, “disce aut discede” and resigned as the TNA‘s CM or engaged with Mr. Sambanthan on the policy in private and in intra-party conclaves and behind closed doors. Not grandstand and seek to pressure in public and thereby politically weaken Mr. Sambanthan and the TNA.  The peddling of despair by the former Chief Minister, who was elected to bring help and hope to the Tamil people, was perhaps the saddest aspect of the many missed opportunities of the now unlamented end of the Wigneswaran Administration in the Northern Province.

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