In a far more carefree world, today would have been full of light-hearted laughter. COVID-19 has put paid to all the pranks. Even Comedy Central has grown dull with heavy commentary on the mess world politicians are making of a global pandemic. The exceptions to the rule are few.
Yesterday, when all our troubles seemed so far away, Sri Lanka was ahead of a losing game. With a technocratic president and a militarised bureaucracy in place, we seemed set to flatten both SARS-COV-2 as well as the rising curve. Perhaps we still are – by dint of some divine or climatic favour, hard work by expert hands and much more clear-headed planning. Or maybe not, because some balls have been dropped? Only time will tell.
One thing is sure. In the midst of the crisis, government has slipped in an extra item off its own agenda. A peculiar attention to detail as to who gets its special blessing this viral season. Once where we accepted at face value its humanitarian concern for prisoners in close quarters, we now take its care for the cloistered with a pinch of salt – or something far bitterer. After a presidential pardon saw a convicted mass murderer being given his liberty last week, that cat is out of the bag.
As usual, Sri Lanka was divided on this contentious issue. On social media at least, there was a strangely muted outcry against the ethicality of it all. The usual suspects – civil activists, libertarians, NGO crusader types – were predictably up in arms. That they were largely shouted down by the chauvinistic-minded over Facebook-wall barricades came as no great surprise.
Where Colombo was once abuzz with indignation over a similar presidential pardon under the previous dispensation, perhaps the biggest shock was the stunning silence of the big guns in the city and suburbs!
Maybe those who had trusted the state to prioritise handling the emergency were the most understandably taken aback. From since a while ago, an unwritten MOU had been invisibly inked by and between big business/professionals and academia (among other influential sectors of society) and small government. Under this pact’s TOR, the nation at large including an increasing number of former naysayers was looking to a tough president and a tight cabinet to take national development to the next stage. And par for the course were to be dynamic and efficient measures to contain the contagion – an iron fist in an iron glove.
COURTING CONFLICT – Successive presidents have cavalierly reversed key Supreme Court rulings. Looks as if the state of a nation short of lockdown is on a vector to a showdown between the executive and other estates of government?
Now, however, there is consternation even in the ranks of Tuscany. How a head of state could pick such a moment to pardon a disgraced staff sergeant from his own former regiment is beyond the pale of most tender-minded people’s thinking. Why he did so at just this time is altogether a different question; but one that needs much asking and answering about.
The enlarged miscreant didn’t murder a cosmopolitan socialite in a drug-induced state of apoplectic rage. But rather, he was – and is – a cold-blooded assassin who cruelly killed an entire family in a time of war. The former was evidently released after an alleged deal between the erstwhile president and influential persons in society. The latter is the brainchild of the bigwigs in the establishment acting unilaterally.
The wayward youth disgraced only himself and let his family and friends down. The Army NCO is arguably a blot on his regiment’s escutcheon, to say nothing of that of the larger service he once represented. The comparisons beg themselves. And the relative merits or demerits can be debated until kingdom or global pandemic come and go.
What is of importance now is the direction civics and governance are taking. Depending on one’s political allegiances as well as philosophical big picture, these could span a spectrum of interpretations.
- At the superficial level: it’s business as usual for a regime whose principal leopards can or never will change their spots. It is confirmation – if such was needed – that the trajectory our nation-state is moving along is nationalistic, populist and militarised. And a strong signal is being sent out to say that no misdemeanour is so marginalising that the highest powers in the land will not overlook it if the cut of your cloth – bars, crowns, pips, epaulettes and all – is to its liking. Or suits its purposes at the present juncture? It will pass cursory muster.
- In a slightly more sinister interpretation: the most recent release of ex-forces cadre is a testing-ground for the shape of things to come. Could it be that other convicted criminals languishing at the pleasure of the state are also to be let out soon in the absence of a significant enough hue and cry? Even the ranks of Tuscany would forbear to cheer such a move…
- On a more strategic plane: this is a red flag being raised with a tactical objective in mind. To wit, that if a hubbub were to ensue in the media or other mainstream political discourse, it would set the stage for an administration seeking a stronger mandate (at postponed but inevitable elections) to play the strongest card in its suite. That of race, ethnicity, and patriotism…
The backlash against such a blasé opposition to a still popular national leadership would drive swing and peripheral voters more lovingly into the welcoming embrace of a consolidated government that takes care of its own. If it is over and above the opinion of not one but many courts and in the face of a convincing conviction, then so be it – say they who need a fresh mandate to rule with a firmer hand.
That the state is set for a showdown between the executive and other estates of government may well be the writing on the wall. Hyper-presidentialism (the executive acting arbitrarily in the absence of a legislature) is pressing its case, and a call to either declare an emergency and/or reconvene parliament are being heard in the corridors of power. However good a strong government may have shown itself to be in winning a war, in matters of civilian conflicts and crises it’s advisable to let laws – even poor ones – run the show (or so goes the liberal argument against a one-man-show).
There is an almost numerical progression to the steps that government is taking.
First, the president dubiously invoked Article 33 of the Constitution to appoint his brother as the head of a Presidential Task Force to combat the coronavirus threat; over and above any recourse to the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 as the established statutory body to deal with national emergencies.
Then, he countermanded the same writ, to pardon a capital convict – one whose conviction a Supreme Court bench of five was unanimous in upholding after a full round of appeals. As a constitutional lawyer said: “For this pardon to be accepted as legitimate, the public needs to see the following in terms of Article 34(1) of the Constitution: 1. Report of the trial Judge; 2. Advice of the Attorney General; 3. Recommendation of the Minister of Justice.” The point that this legal expert was making is that [there is] “no such thing as absolute presidential power.”
Let’s tell that to the Marines. And finally, as another wit essayed: what next? Will it be Article 35, which deals with impunity?
Or will the head of state do twice as well, numbers-wise? Note that Article 70(7) empowers the president to recall a dissolved parliament in an emergency. And for once, there seems to be warrant to declare the state of the nation to be such. This time, ironically, even the – especially the – minority parties would welcome it. Or the chief executive can rescind the proclamation of dissolution in the gazette of early March, which will give the legislature a new lease of life.
April fool… Go to political and military school – learn your lessons like a fool… Or stay at home, stay safe and secure, and take care not to let strange goings-on in the state discomfit you too much.
(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer on the laughable and the lamentable)