Whatever the Judiciary decides this week, the electoral calendar as reinforced by the Judiciary remains, and Sri Lanka will have a presidential election this time next year
– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Quite obviously I haven’t the slightest notion of what the Supreme Court verdict will be, unlike my friend Eran Wickramaratne who announced publicly (and rather curiously) that he doesn’t have the slightest doubt about it. However I do know, as a political scientist, what the implications and consequences will be if it were to go one way or the other.
I tend to perceive and analyse things from the perspective of comparative global politics. Therefore I tend to view the whole debate about parliament and the presidency in Sri Lanka today, not from a parochial point of view but from that of what is going on in the world around me at present and what has gone before.
What do we see? In London, there are no street demonstrations but no one knows who the Prime Minister will be, which party will be in power, what the composition of the cabinet will be next week! Further down the road, we do not know how Brexit in whichever variant will affect the unity of the United Kingdom, what with Northern Ireland and Scotland indicating that there may be an exit within Brexit. This is the result of the Westminster model and the absence of an overarching Presidency.
Conversely, there is a violent rebellion in France, both in Paris and the provinces. Yet, there is no visible crisis of governance and chronic political instability unlike in Britain! This is despite the unpopularity of the sitting President. That then is testimony to the strength of the directly elected Presidency in France, unlike the volatility and fragility of the Westminster model.
The implications in and for Sri Lanka should be thought through. Insofar as the French rebellion is due to the neoliberal-globalist economic policies and remote, socially inattentive style of President Macron, we too in Sri Lanka could have such social turmoil if the economic policies of Ranil and Mangala are resumed.
What is more, if the courts rule against the President’s decision and thereby tilt towards the interpretation that favours the Westminster model, we shall have social upheaval due to economic policies without the stabilising factor that is the executive Presidency as in France. We shall have the worst of both worlds: a Parliament which is volatile will be at the centre of decision making, while neoliberal globalism will cause social earthquakes but will not have a strong presidency to stay above the fray and maintain stability.
This is precisely that which JR Jayewardene wished to forestall when he argued for “a strong and stable executive free from the whims and fancies of the legislature”, as a sine qua non of the stability needed for economic growth.
The worst possible recipe in a global situation in which the worldwide trend is of an inevitable populist revolt, indeed nationalist-populist revolt, against neoliberal globalism, is to have a Westminster model rather than a presidentialist one.
France was thought to be an exception to such nationalist populist backlash against globalism but the backlash came from below. Britain is dealing with the aftershocks of such a backlash which has impacted on the Westminster model, almost capsizing the government. France is managing for now because of its contrasting political system, though that too may not be for long.
If, through judicial rulings, Sri Lanka converts in effect to a British model from the French—but a British model without the Sovereign, the Crown-- we shall be hit by a combination of what we see now in Britain and France: a backlash against neoliberal globalism, without the stabiliser of a strong presidency, without the safety valves of a snap election, and within a weaker more fissured, less stable shell of a fractious parliament.
The nonsensical view, often expressed either with decisive contempt or hysteria, that President Sirisena is responsible for all this, misses the obvious questions. If he took this course of action because he wants to run next year and be re-elected, why then didn’t he stick with the UNP as a partner, as he opted to in January 2015? The answer is that he saw that the UNP would lose. He saw this not only in the Feb 2018 local government elections but in the electoral history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Due to combination of anti-nationalism socioeconomic elitism, the UNP has almost always produced one term governments. It went three terms from 1977 simply because it skipped a second term Parliamentary mandate by foreclosing a parliamentary election through a referendum, just as it is trying to do through the courts this time.
The result was a massive social explosion. It barely survived that explosion by choosing under duress, a pronouncedly populist and patriotic candidate. President Sirisena tried desperately to pick such a personality as his coalition partner so that the drag effect the UNP was having on him, as well as on itself, could be reversed. That effort failed and has continued to fail.
The simple minded would wonder why President Sirisena didn’t go along with Mangala Samaraweera’s arithmetic after Feb 2018, namely that the anti-Rajapaksa vote was bigger than the pro-Rajapaksa vote. President Sirisena knew that the arithmetic was based on a stupid miscalculation. He knew that it was a non-Rajapaksa vote that was larger, not an anti-Rajapaksa vote and that the SLFP’s 13% would not remain, if the party and he himself remained within a coalition with the UNP under Ranil’s leadership and headed along the neoliberal globalist path that Ranil, Mangala, Harsha and Eran had charted.
The President had seen the UNP go down this road many times, starting with 1956, and he wasn’t going down that road with the UNP. More importantly he knew the SLFP voter would not stay the course, and would switch to the Rajapaksa camp.
What is almost unbelievable is the crass obtuseness and myopia of the UNP, its western patrons and its liberal civil society followers, in failing to spot the mounting contradictions between Ranil and the President. The parting of the ways can be traced way back, to the Geneva 2015 resolution when President Sirisena gave the New York Times and the BBC Sandeshaya, interviews around the same time as the Resolution, which drew red lines around its implementation. Mangala Samaraweera responded by saying that was the personal view of the President—something that would not have been lost on the latter. By 2017, Samaraweera had lost his job as Foreign Minister and SLFP intellectual and current Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama had publicly signalled an end to Sri Lanka’s patience with the Resolution.
The next fissure was about the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank. This issue was swept under the rug but resurfaced with a bang with the bond scam and the appointment of the Presidential Commission.
The issue that followed was about the Constitution, with the SLFP and the President opposing a new Constitution as well as any reform that dispensed with or jeopardised through fraudulent finessing, the unitary character of the state—as the UNP and TNA were determined to do, with the JVP’s tacit concurrence.
So the crack up was inevitable. Shrieking about the President’s rapprochement with his erstwhile rival Mahinda Rajapaksa is as intelligent as shrieking about the Russia-China rapprochement given that the two powers were adversaries and each was a friend of USA some time ago! Luckily they are all adults in the rooms in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, so no one shrieks or wails complainingly about such a turnaround; they only set about dealing with the reality.
No less stupid is the identification of the issue of democracy not with that of elections but rather with the alleged need to abolish the executive Presidency as an institution and replace it with a parliamentary system. No continent has suffered for longer and more often, from dictatorship and authoritarianism as much as has Latin America. And yet, even those who were fought with arms against and/or were tortured by such regimes, have never advocated the abolition of the executive presidency in any of their countries, and many have gone on to be elected Presidents!
This is because these are rational, intelligent and authentically democratic political currents and personalities, who know that the executive presidency had nothing to do with dictatorship and that the institution itself is the best to serve the interests of the people, national sovereignty and stability. The same is true in the other corner of the world, namely South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines.
To conclude by returning to the issue at hand: the decision of the courts. If the courts green-lights the dissolution, then the crisis will be resolved in a peaceful democratic catharsis of a general election. If not, the issue won’t go away, because it is the self-same issue that has manifested itself in the Brexit vote, the Mexican election and the street violence in France: the contradiction between neoliberal globalism and the nations and peoples of the world.
The courts either have to unblock a safe and swift passage to address that problem or it has to further block and delay its addressing by democratic elections. Then the pressure will erupt in one way or another, in one place or another.
Fortunately for Sri Lanka, there is a second chance, down the road. Whatever the Judiciary decides this week, the electoral calendar as reinforced by the Judiciary remains, and Sri Lanka will have a presidential election this time next year.
If anything is predictable about that inevitable election it is that a neoliberal globalist will not win. Whether that election will yields a moderate-centrist populist or a more extreme nationalist populist will depend on whether or not the courts decide to open the safety valves this week, and let off the built up social steam. If the only election we have next year is the presidential, then the swing away from neoliberal globalism will be that much greater, more decisive and durable.