Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for December, 2018

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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