The reform agenda and Opposition options

Monday, 4 August 2014 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Here’s the scenario for one year from now: one, possibly two more members of the ruling family will almost certainly be in Cabinet, while a bloodless Night of the Long Knives would have seen off the SLFP barons suspected of allegiance to the deposed queen. I ain’t got no dog in this fight, but I would like the political situation to have far greater balance and wouldn’t like the System to be even more top-heavy than it is. Simply put, I wouldn’t like Sri Lanka to function, or rather, dysfunction, ridiculously like a medieval kingdom in the 21st century. Now if you think appearing as a kingdom or transitioning from a republic to a kingdom is a good thing provided roads get built, real estate gets gentrified, and the minorities are kept in their place (i.e. down), then you won’t have a problem. If however, you think it’s a bad thing, as the Opposition and dissident civil society seem to, then you really should stop playing silly buggers, as the Opposition seems to be doing currently.   Opposition is being strategically suicidal The regime’s performance at the parliamentary election will depend, above all else, on its performance at the preceding presidential election – which is why the margin of victory/defeat is crucial and why the Opposition is being strategically suicidal. Nobody outside of Colombo and Kandy, and not many in those two towns, give a damn about the executive presidency and its abolition. What they do care about is that they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. They care that the peace dividend hasn’t reached them in the sense of material improvement in their lives. This discontent can be (graphically) linked by an intelligent opposition, to the phenomena of family rule and the chokepoints of resource allocation, as the UNP did in 1977. In focusing on the abolition of the executive presidency, the Opposition is moving in entirely the wrong direction: away from palpable mass concerns to those whims of a faction of the urban political class; from the socio-economic – the physical quality of life – to the purely political; from the concrete to the abstract. Elections aren’t won by candidates who promise to abolish institutions. They are won by a positive appeal. They are won by candidates who credibly promise a better tomorrow and level a credible critique about the present. Hence the success of the Clinton (actually James Carville) campaign strategy: “It’s the Economy, Stupid”. Hence the triumph of Obama’s rallying cry, “Yes, We Can”. Hence the platform and victory of Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988:‘New Vision, New Deal’. Executive presidency Certainly the Presidency is overly powerful, but the way to handle that is to reform it by reintroducing the 17th Amendment. What kind of mindset could imagine that the mass of people would want Mahinda Rajapaksa to be replaced by a set of bribable, bickering Parliamentarians? The voters are going to ask themselves whether they prefer Mahinda or a collective of Cabinet Ministers and MPs. “What a bunch!” they’ll think to themselves. There’s also the question of the national experience of having Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM and the UNP constituting the Cabinet. Does the Opposition think that in the minds of the people, that was some kind of Camelot? Is that why the UPFA was voted back in after Chandrika dissolved Parliament and went for election in just two years? What if we didn’t have an executive presidency when Ranil signed the CFA and arrested the operatives of the Directorate of Military Intelligence in their Athurugiriya safe house? We would still have had Prabhakaran running a de-facto Eelam in the north and killing people in the south whenever he felt the urge. It is only the existence of a powerful executive presidency which constitutionally held the portfolio of defence, which saved this country. Ironically it is JR’s Constitution, in the hands of his old foe Sirimavo’s daughter that saved us from his nephew’s Neville Chamberlain-esque policies of appeasement. So, do we really want to abolish the Constitution rather than rationally reform it? Reform package Does the Opposition really think that the mass of voters are going to opt for a political system in which power in Parliament and therefore in the whole country, may one day be determined by the (post-Sampathan) TNA, instead of by a leader elected directly by the country as a whole? I rather think not. Therefore I was glad to read (in a newspaper) that ex-CJ Sarath Nanda Silva is working on a reform package that rebalances the system while retaining the executive presidency. At least the man, unlike the monk, knows what he is talking about. So far, the legal ‘intellectuals’, academics and professionals working on the abolitionist package are those who either gave Chandrika the wrong advice about her adventurist ‘union of regions’ packages of 1995-1997 and the treacherous PTOMS of 2005, or constituted the chorus for them. Chandrika’s place in history has been devalued because she opted to rely on their counsel rather than that of Lakshman Kadirgamar. By contrast, Sarath Nanda Silva is far more grounded and does not have a profile of a minoritarian sell-out. His patriotic profile and anti-Tiger trajectory is unexceptionable: he saved the country from the PTOMS. Furthermore, unlike the immediately preceding CJ, the darling of Colombo’s legal fraternity and feminist lobby – and decidedly a political non-starter – Sarath Nanda Silva can be a heavy hitter on a platform in support of a decent candidate. If he, General Fonseka, and CBK were to actively support a Karu Jayasuriya-Sajith Premadasa (or vice versa) ticket, that electoral option would be decidedly competitive in the Sinhala Buddhist heartland. What I was not glad to read was that the reform package contemplated by ex-CJ Sarath Silva contains the abolition of the system of Proportional Representation. J.R. Jayewardene’s structural reforms were the most modernist variant of capitalism that Sri Lanka has seen: the open economy, the directly elected executive presidency, proportional representation and semi-autonomous provincial councils. These must be improved upon; re-balanced, not abolished. It is Proportional Representation that gives the JVP, the Tamils and the Muslims fair political space. I for one would like to keep the JVP comfortably within the Parliamentary system. Shouldn’t everyone? What the Opposition needs What the Opposition needs aren’t absurd proposals for beheading or dismembering the Constitution. All that’s a sad waste of the Opposition’s time and energy, months away from utterly decisive, even historic, national elections. What the Opposition needs is a viable program for socioeconomic betterment; for a better tomorrow – and above all, a candidate who has the mass credibility to pitch it. What it really needs right now – all it really needs right now – is a kinder, gentler Narendra Modi or at least a Nawaz Sharif. Then it can organise. (Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva from 2007-09, and until recently, Ambassador to France. He is the author of ‘Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka,’ Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2013.)

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