Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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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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