Democracy’s breaking dawn

Thursday, 30 April 2015 01:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • The 19th Amendment to the Constitution puts Sri Lanka well on the road to meaningful democratic reform and signalled the return of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. For a President who has just completed 100 days in office, it is a shining moment
In the heady days before a presidential election was declared on 22 November 2014, a UNP delegation comprising key party strategists held a secret meeting with the man who was being proposed for common candidate of a grand opposition coalition gearing up for battle against the mighty Rajapaksa regime. The civil society movement mobilising support for the common candidacy had vetted several options and landed on a most surprising choice. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena was a quiet politician, hailing from a remote village in Sri Lanka’s ancient capital of Polonnaruwa. In a political career spanning 40 years, he never made big waves. For this reason perhaps, his image had remained intact. He was an unassuming candidate, without the ambition and power-hunger that had tainted all other potentials in the ring. Once the choice was made, it was up to the UNP to conduct its own assessment of whether it could throw its weight behind his candidature. Without the UNP, there was no electoral base and no common candidacy. The party was grappling with how it could get behind a true-blue politician, and they needed a good enough reason to do it. It was the UNP’s first meeting with Sirisena. In his quiet, steely way, the man who would be President of Sri Lanka in under 60 days told the UNP group that when he made the decision to contest the presidency, he had realised it could mean death. “I am willing to lose my life, if that is what it is going to mean. If we win the election, I will not give up even if they try to kill me,” Sirisena told the UNP delegation. Five months ago, Sri Lanka was a different place. It was far from exaggerated to believe that contesting against the incumbent could mean death or imprisonment. Sarath Fonseka, the last challenger had been made an example of, and it was a lesson no politician would forget in five years. 2015 was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s do-or-die election. The question of whether he would surrender power if he was defeated was foremost on the minds of opposition strategists. With the might of the armed forces and the entire public service at his command, if President Rajapaksa had decided not to go, the Opposition was convinced there would be blood on the streets on 9 January. Maithripala Sirisena knew he was putting his life on the line with his candidature. His decision to contest in spite of what could prove dangerous consequences, convinced UNP strategists that he was serious about challenging an all powerful-incumbent. “When he said that, that was the moment when we knew we could get behind him, because truth be told, that was our greatest fear about this election. We knew we could win it, but we didn’t know if Mahinda would go, any candidate we fielded would have to know the risks involved,” said one member of the delegation who sat in on the secret talks that day. So when President Sirisena told the people in his address to the nation last Thursday that his decision to contest the presidency was like deciding to jump into the sea with his children, he was not being hyperbolic. In the past 100 days, Sri Lankans have grown used to watching this President speak about the kind of country he is trying to craft, mellow, unfazed and so unlike his bombastic predecessor in tenor and substance. It was the same steeliness the President adopted when he stepped up efforts this week to push the 19th Amendment through a Parliament that is largely hostile to his post-election agenda. Steely resolve In a surprise move, he requested Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero to cease a Satyagraha the monk had planned to make until the 19th Amendment was through the House. Sobitha Thero, the architect and spiritual leader of the movement to abolish the presidency and restore independence to key state institutions, led a highly successful demonstration in support of 19A on Monday, when the amendment was first taken up for debate in Parliament. Hundreds of civil society activists and political party representatives kept up the pressure as they protested beside the Diyawanna Oya in the scorching afternoon sun. The massive crowds that had rallied to support the amendment put pressure on legislators inside the Parliamentary complex, who were already engaged in a bitter battle of wills to ensure their version of the 19A made it through the House. In spite of the uncertainty at the time, President Sirisena provided an assurance to Sobitha Thero that the amendment would be enacted, bringing to fruition a process that the monk had started nearly two years ago, that ultimately propelled Sirisena to the presidency in January this year. On Monday, when party leaders’ meetings turned heated and the two main parties simply would not agree on proposed changes to the 19A, President Sirisena, who was shepherding the amendment through Parliament on both Monday and Tuesday, appointed a six-member committee to thrash out the sticking points. He picked three legislators who supported the 19A and had a working knowledge of the legislation - Ajith P. Perera from the UNP, Rauff Hakeem who leads the SLMC and M.A. Sumanthiran from the TNA - and asked the SLFP to nominate their own representatives. The Attorney General was named as the chief arbiter of the committee, tasked with ensuring any amendments agreed upon were in line with the Supreme Court’s determination. President Sirisena suggested Prof. G.L. Peiris and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who were the most vocal at the meetings, be nominated as SLFP ‘negotiators’. But both MPs backed out and refused to participate. The SLFP finally nominated Party Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Rajiva Wijesinha and Faiszer Mustapha to negotiate on its behalf. The committee met from 3:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Parliament and managed to reach a consensus on six out of eight amendments the SLFP was proposing. The meeting hit a deadlock when the SLFP refused to budge on two demands. The Opposition party was demanding that MPs should form the majority of the 10-member Constitutional Council which would appoint independent commissions to key state departments, including the police and elections. They were also insisting that Section 43 (2) changed in accordance with the Supreme Court determination, which stipulates that the President shall appoint the Cabinet of Ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister be amended to make it discretionary for the President to consult the Premier. Deadlock The President’s team of negotiators decided that the two points could not be conceded because they dealt with the heart of the 19th Amendment. The amendment was primarily aimed at curbing the powers of the executive presidency and depoliticising key institutions of the state, explained TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran. On the first issue, the Government team argued that an all MP Constitutional Council would politicise the appointments to the independent commissions. Secondly, they felt that diluting the clause that required the President to seek the Prime Minister’s advice would allow the President to retain absolute power with regard to Cabinet appointments. “To pass 19A after diluting these two clauses would be a case of pulling the wool over the people’s eyes,” Sumanthiran said. Still, the pressure on the SLFP was showing after a long day of bickering over amendments and when the President’s team threatened to quit the talks and go outside and inform the people that the SLFP was holding the 19A hostage, Yapa and the others insisted they were not attempting to prevent the passage of the amendment. Keen to brief the President on events that had transpired before the SLFP reached out to him with their own version of the meetings, Sumanthiran, Hakeem and Perera walked into President Sirisena’s residence at 10:00 p.m. on Monday. They briefed President Sirisena on the technical points relating to the amendments and explained that the SLFP’s final demands would seriously undermine 19A. The President promised to reach out to UPFA members overnight and restart the discussions on Tuesday morning. Dramatic scenes unfolded, mostly behind closed doors, when Parliament convened on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Through 23 speeches in the Chamber, nearly all of them by UPFA MPs, President Sirisena was front and centre in frantic negotiations between the SLFP and the UNP in various committee rooms of Parliament. The President’s Constitutional Adv-isor Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne was leading a team of lawyers, including Suren Fernando the late Justice Mark Fernando’s son, which was participating in many of the discussions on Tuesday and rushing to draft amendments before the bill reached the Committee stage. Ups and downs But by mid morning the situation was looking dire for the 19th Amendment. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was adamant that the two changes the SLFP was mooting would negate the purpose of the amendment. By afternoon, the UNP was seriously considering several tactical manoeuvres when it looked like consensus could not be reached by 6:00 p.m. when the first vote on the amendment was to be taken. UNP insiders said the Government was seriously contemplating announcing that consensus could not be reached and postponing Tuesday’s vote after the second reading. The tactic would ensure that the UNP could start pushing hard for the dissolution of Parliament with the promise that the first order of business upon winning a majority would be to set up a constituent assembly to draft constitutional reform. Dissolution works heavily in the UNP’s favour in the current political climate, with the party more than likely to be the single largest party in Parliament with the prerogative to form a Government. Conversely, divided as the party is at this point, dissolution would be the SLFP’s worst nightmare. In the days and weeks beyond the passage of 19A, President Sirisena will have serious decisions to make on the question of dissolution. The UNP is hopping mad about the SLFP moves to dilute the amendment and are getting vociferous about the need to elect a new Parliament that better reflects the current will of the electorate. Dissolution conundrum UNP MP Eran Wickremaratne slammed the UPFA for diluting the reforms and said the situation would have played out very differently if Parliament was acting according to the people's mandate. "The consequences of a Parliament that has outlived its mandate are grave," said Wickremaratne in a statement issued yesterday. Immediate dissolution was a necessity now, he said. This puts President Sirisena in a bind. The SLFP does not want an election now because the Party knows it will be defeated in its current divided state. Maithripala Sirisena, as the leader of the SLFP would hate to be the party leader responsible for breaking the party's 20 year winning streak. Yet he has other matters to consider. For instance, the UN report in September, which is likely to name officials linked with grave human rights abuses that are associated with the former regime. Movements in Geneva are likely to have a butterfly impact back in Sri Lanka, where nationalist forces already gathering around Mahinda Rajapaksa could crystallise in opposition to the report. Declaring elections well ahead of the UN Session in September could help to circumvent the problem and ensure President Sirisena can continue with his reforms programme. This was the subject of a lengthy cabinet meeting yesterday, when the ministers argued strongly that the present situation could not be permitted to continue where the SLFP was able to hold a gun to the head of the minority Government. Back on Tuesday, when compromise seemed elusive, the second scenario being discussed by UNP strategists was whether it was wiser to allow the 19A to pass, even in a diluted form. Wickremesinghe and TNA members like Sumanthiran were strongly against the move but other UNP MPs argued that even a diluted 19A though far from ideal, would serve a particular purpose. Even if the SLFP proposals were accepted, this group argued that 19A would still ensure the President could not dissolve Parliament at will until four years of its new five-year term was fulfilled. It would also restore the two-term limit on the presidency, effectively neutralising President Sirisena’s chief opponent - his predecessor - who was quietly mobilising in the shadows and waiting for a moment to strike. Personal stakes For President Sirisena, getting the 19A through Parliament was crucial, both to his electoral legacy and political survival. Constitutional reform and strengthening democratic systems formed the bedrock of his election campaign in January. Every move he has made since election has indicated that he was keen to keep his promises to the people. But there were other, more personal gains too from getting 19A through the House. As head of a minority Government, the threat of impeachment hangs like a sword of Damocles over his head. The pro-Mahinda faction, though relatively small within the UPFA, makes a lot of noise. It has proven its capacity to mobilise crowd support. It was clear during the 19A negotiations that the SLFP old guard, which holds real power with its 90 MPs in Parliament, was desperately afraid of being overshadowed by the more vociferous Dinesh Gunewardane-Wimal Weerawansa faction. The group has already made several unverified claims that it has the support of 113 members - all it needs to bring a motion of impeachment against the President and stay his hand on dissolution. It was important for President Sirisena to prove that even with a minority Government he still had the clout to work out a compromise that would go largely in his favour and ensure his reforms agenda was fulfilled. With the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled for the weekend, dissolution of Parliament and by extension reducing his Government to the status of caretaker was off the cards. If 19A did not pass the House on Tuesday, President Sirisena would have had no choice but to delay dissolution and risk an impeachment motion being tabled by the pro-Mahinda faction, with the tacit support of the SLFP which was adamantly against an immediate election. A second preoccupation for President Sirisena is related to his personal security. Intelligence services uncovered a plot to cause harm to the new President at the Independence Day ceremony this year within two weeks of his assuming office. Last week, when the President was addressing a SLFP meeting in Agunakolapallessa in the Hambantota District, an army corporal was found in possession of a pistol within the President’s security perimeter. The corporal was identified in due course as MP Namal Rajapaksa’s personal bodyguard. While details of the incident have been elusive, some eyewitnesses claimed that certain members of the President’s own security team had recognised the corporal and saluted him as he walked in. According to a high level account of the incident, when Presidential Security discovered that he was carrying a pistol they apprehended the soldier. It was then that MP Rajapaksa shouted out that the corporal was a member of his security team. President Sirisena himself has noted privately that the corporal in question had been within a stone’s throw of the VVIP before he was apprehended. MP Rajapaksa has denied knowledge about the incident. But questions are being raised as to how the young MP from Hambantota has an army corporal serving as his personal security officer. Ordinary MPs are only entitled to two or three Ministerial Security Division (MSD) officers - all of whom are police personnel - for their personal security. While a probe into the incident is already underway, authorities at the highest level are in possession of information that the corporal in question is one of 160 army personnel assigned to former President Rajapaksa’s security detail. Worth a compromise? The incident in Hambantota, coupled with the Independence Day plot, are raising questions about a possible attempt to harm President Sirisena, authoritative sources told Daily FT. The fact that the Rajapaksa regime was in the process of constructing a highly militarised state, in which the armed forces were fiercely loyal to the Defence Secretary when it was defeated, is feeding these fears. One theory being floated is that with moves afoot to try to bring President Rajapaksa into Parliament, the sudden death of the incumbent President could bring his predecessor back to power very swiftly. In the event of a President’s death in office, the Prime Minister assumes office, but only for the period of one month. Then the constitution empowers Parliament to vote one of its members into the office for the unexpired term of the deceased President. Much of this remains in the realm of theory and speculation, but they are nevertheless the subject of discussion in political circles. The restoration of the two-term limit on the presidency effectively neutralises at least part of the physical threat against President Sirisena from factions that seek the resumption of office of his predecessor, even if there are still other ways for such a manoeuvre politically. When hope was fading of a compromise on 19A late Tuesday afternoon, the UNP was contemplating if this provision alone was worth adopting the amendment over. Finally, however, after delaying the vote on the Second Reading of the amendment by one hour, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe managed to gain consensus on the crucial legislation. Wickremesinghe told the House as he closed the debate on Tuesday, that he was not happy about having to compromise, and that he still believed the Constitutional Council should be made up of professionals rather than politicians. “This bill doesn’t go as far as we want it to go, but it goes some distance,” he said. The SLFP for its part had agreed to drop its Opposition to the provision about the Prime Minister advising the President on Cabinet appointments. Masterstroke The decision by the President and the Prime Minister to achieve consensus with the SLFP turned out to be a masterstroke. Once the SLFP and the UNP had agreed on the amendments outside the Chamber, 19A was safe on the floor during Committee Stage, where the SLFP-led UPFA had the numbers to pass any changes it desired - in theory. Thus while the pro-Mahinda faction led by Gunewardane and Weerawansa tried hard to scuttle the process, with points of order and long drawn out debates on amendments that were never going to be accepted by the Government, the SLFP was no longer biting. All attempts at sabotage by the pro-Mahinda faction of the UPFA failed because President Sirisena and his minority UNP Government had focused entirely on reaching a consensus with the SLFP - the party that really had the numbers - in the last 48 hours. The UPFA succeeded in getting a few amendments made on the floor, but these were largely negligible, with the exception of the dilution of a section pertaining to political crossovers that the Opposition strongly protested against. The major compromise the UNP Government would have to make with regard to the Constitutional Council was already decided in the meetings that had preceded the Committee Stage of the bill. And so it was that at 11:02 p.m. on 28 April 2015, a certain dream died. With the passage of the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa can never again become Sri Lanka’s president. His erstwhile cronies in Parliament stormed and railed against the reform during a marathon 14-hour legislative session with filibustering and last-minute dirty tricks to sabotage the legislation. Always the Rajapaksa spectre lurked in the shadows of the debate as MPs most loyal to the former President danced like puppets on strings to serve an older master, striving hard to prevent the rollback of his most autocratic moment in September 2010, when an artificial majority passed the 18th Amendment into law. But even they ultimately muttered a highly defensive ‘aye’ when their name was called during the vote, apparently unwilling to be recorded in history as naysayers to one of the most progressive pieces of legislation Parliament has enacted in years. A legacy intact President Sirisena, the peasant son from Polonnaruwa had kept his word and proven that he was no run-of-the-mill Sri Lankan politician. In reversing an authoritarian system put in place by J.R. Jayewardene in 1977 and taken to draconian heights under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, President Sirisena has begun to craft his political legacy. These were his powers to keep or surrender. He chose to surrender, just as he has these past three months chosen to refrain from exercising the full might of his office. Even in trying to achieve compromise on 19A, President Sirisena chose the more difficult route, when a host of options were available to him. He fought to build consensus rather than exercise the full powers of his office or that of SLFP leader. He could have threatened to withhold nominations. He could have threatened to dissolve Parliament. He did neither. And while internal party meetings were heated and the President is reported to have been firm with his MP group, he chose to scold and cajole rather than threaten and intimidate. He remains still, and for the most part, a dark horse. But his actions this past week will ensure that he will not only be remembered as the President who sacrificed some of his power but he will also forever be the statesman who chose democratic means to get the reforms passed. The Parliamentary process on Tuesday was messy and tedious. Throughout the day, the pendulum swung one way and then another during frantic negotiations that ensued up to one hour before a vote on the Second Reading. Lawmakers argued, threw up their hands and walked out of rooms. Hopes for the bill’s passage rose and fell with every round of talks. It has been some time since the country has witnessed and experienced the awesome messiness of parliamentary democracy at work. And it was beautiful to behold.