Thursday, 5 June 2014 00:27
“You don’t want to run the risk of sclerosis in a democratic society. You want to keep the blood running. You don’t want to get the idea that any country...is dependent on any one person. You look at a lot of these dictators that have been deposed in the last few years...almost all of them at one time were young and idealistic and incredibly capable. And they really meant to do something good. They just kind of outstayed their welcome” – Former US President Bill Clinton on why presidential term limits are important, in an interview with CNN in September 2012The die is cast, unofficially at least for a presidential election in January 2015.
When the poll is declared, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will create history in Sri Lanka as the only incumbent to contest a presidential election for the third consecutive time. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by a two-thirds majority garnered artificially by the UPFA in September 2010, paved the way for this third time candidacy in 2015.
In the first flush of the Rajapaksa administration war triumph, coalition allies including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Jathika Hela Urumaya, LSSP and the Communist Party – all of them now straining at the leash – voted in favour of the draconian 18A, which not only vested more powers in an already-powerful presidency, but guaranteed President Rajapaksa the right to contest an infinite number of terms in office.
Critics have called the passing of 18A one of the darkest days in Sri Lanka’s democratic history. Executive presidential systems, in which vast power is vested in a single individual, carry term limits for a reason. Even in mature democracies with strong checks on executive power, term limits are key to prevent individuals becoming synonymous with state institutions. In imperfect state systems, when checks and balances are weak and the propensity to abuse power is strong, unlimited executive terms become a recipe for authoritarianism. Individuals get entrenched, democratic institutions weaken, cults of personality get created and the political playing field stops being level.
Without the 18th Amendment, as other analysts have pointed out, 2015 would have been the final year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main constituent of the ruling alliance, would be grappling with seeking a new candidate to field at what would have been a January 2016 election. After 11 years in office, President Rajapaksa’s legacy would have remained intact, as the vanquisher of separatist terrorists who waged war against the State for nearly 30 years. In spite of the spectacular way in which the ruling regime appears to be bungling the peace, the war triumph would keep President Rajapaksa alive and well in public memory and consciousness, an indelible if somewhat controversial Sri Lankan hero.
But the allure of popularity and eternal power proved too strong to resist. January 2015, President Rajapaksa’s advisors believe, would be the most propitious timing for a fresh election. Whispers in the corridors of power indicate the date has been set for 29 January, although it appears too premature to set in stone and may well prove a red herring.
The Rajapaksa camp believes that an end January 2015 poll would deliver the President a fresh people’s mandate, armour with which he can face off against whatever consequences an international investigation into the last seven years of the war will bring in February-March next year.
The probe, mandated by the US-led resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, is set to launch this month and will complete its work by the end of January 2015. The investigators – most of them drawn from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), currently headed by High Commissioner Navi Pillay – will travel extensively across the world to gather evidence and witness testimony.
"One picture that is emerging clearly, four years after each of these UPFA constituents voted to strengthen the executive presidency with the 18th Amendment, is a clarion call from them all, expressed in different contexts and at varying volumes, for a curb on or the abolishment of the presidential system. In this the coalition partners of the UPFA are in step with the majority of the OppositionWithout the 18th Amendment, as other analysts have pointed out, 2015 would have been the final year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main constituent of the ruling alliance, would be grappling with seeking a new candidate to field at what would have been a January 2016 election. After 11 years in office, President Rajapaksa’s legacy would have remained intact, as the vanquisher of separatist terrorists who waged war against the State for nearly 30 yearsIt is often said that as Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka’s democratic impulses are strong and resilient; and post-independence political history has demonstrated that often the pendulum swings towards authoritarianism – only to swing back in favour of democratic governance. But relentless assaults on democratic systems and institutions could one day prove fatal. Tattered and fraying at the edges, there is no telling how much more Sri Lanka’s democracy can take before the lights go out. And January 2015 could well prove the tipping point"
As the Daily FT exclusively revealed earlier this week, Pillay’s office will enlist the pro bono support of two experts of international stature to lead the Sri Lanka investigation. International name recognition and credentials are important to the OHCHR to avoid the stigma of bias that is consistently alleged by the Sri Lankan Government against Navi Pillay and her office. The report, due to be submitted in full at the Council next March, is likely to have wide implications for the Rajapaksa administration, whether the Government decides to cooperate and permit access to investigators into Sri Lanka or not.
With regard to incumbency fatigue, the regime has also found the charm breaking, increasing the desire to have snap polls before the oppositional forces gathering against the Government have sufficient time to coalesce. For the first time in its existence, the UPFA is also finding that its coalition is fraying at the seams, with Government ministers and staunch allies publicly criticising policy and threatening to exit unless the regime changes course.
It would concern the uppermost echelons of power it could only garner the support of 113 UPFA MPs of its 160+ to vote in favour of the controversial legislation that was passed in Parliament last month, providing massive tax breaks to large integrated resort projects that will also feature gambling facilities. Sixty-eight MPs abstained from voting on the ‘casino bill’. These numbers will prove a major stumbling block in the event the regime needs to pass crucial legislation to consolidate its power – like the 18A.
At the party’s manifesto launch on Tuesday, JHU Parliamentary Group Leader Athuraliye Rathana Thero openly called for the abolition of the executive presidency and demanded that President Rajapaksa give up all of his ministerial portfolios, with the exception of Defence. Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front is also flexing its muscles; the SLMC and the Old Left have made no secret of their frustration with the regime. With its refusal to address attacks against the Muslim community by hardline groups, the regime is also systematically alienating staunch Muslim allies like Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, a coalition member whose loyalty to the President has hitherto never been in question.
The issues within the ruling coalition are as diverse as the motley crew itself, in terms of potency and impact. But one picture that is emerging clearly, four years after each of these UPFA constituents voted to strengthen the executive presidency with the 18th Amendment, is a clarion call from them all, expressed in different contexts and at varying volumes, for a curb on or the abolishment of the presidential system. In this the coalition partners of the UPFA are in step with the majority of the opposition, and not merely the political Opposition.
It was the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, whose illegal sacking in January 2013 thoroughly exposed the regime’s disdain for constitutional democracy, that has propelled a civil society movement for change. Loosely banded under the leadership of Kotte Nagavihara Chief Incumbent Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero officially, the movement has drawn broad support for advocating the abolishing of the presidency and constitutional change. One by one, political parties from both the Opposition and the governing ranks have joined the bandwagon.
There is a reason for this. President J.R. Jayewardene’s powerful executive presidency was always a dangerous tool, with the potential to create and entrench autocratic leaders. Yet it is in the hands of its fourth bearer that the absolute power and devastating force of the presidential system has been best illustrated, buoyed by the President’s immense political capital from the triumph over the LTTE and his astute consolidation of familial power.
As the oppressive reach of the presidential system impacts students, trade unions, minority communities and other vulnerable sections of the populace, the movement against the executive presidential system in general and the incumbent administration in particular is growing. Harnessing the discontent and broad frustration with the present governance structure, in spite of competing ideologies and approaches, is fast-emerging as the biggest challenge for the political Opposition.
Going forward, each faction or political party fancies itself the leader of this broad Opposition movement. So far, the only point of consensus between all these groups is that the regime’s success at weakening every Opposition party has given rise to a situation in which a single party cannot take on the Rajapaksa juggernaut at a national election.
Since his return from a work-study sabbatical at MIT in Massachusetts, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been asserting his party’s authority as the main political Opposition. Wickremesinghe insists that the UNP must field a candidate at the presidential election, a position held also by his main intra party rival, Sajith Premadasa. The younger politician has expressed a willingness to become a presidential contender in the event that the Party Leader chooses not to contest. But he is adamant that the UNP must contest the next election, with a candidate of its own, rather than support another Sarath Fonseka type situation.
Premadasa’s calculation is simple: the UNP will find it difficult to field a candidate that is not the Party Leader, and a Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa election in 2015 will almost certainly result in an Opposition defeat. Premadasa however will insist upon being the UNP candidate’s running mate, or he will at the very least make a play once more for the UNP Deputy Leadership.
Defeated thrice at a presidential election and already facing immense antagonism within the UNP, the Premadasa faction calculates, Wickremesinghe will no longer be able to continue as Party Leader, finally paving the way for him to take over the reins. Needless to say, this could prove a fatally erroneous calculation, since history has proven time and again that there are no guarantees to Wickremesinghe’s departure from UNP politics, irrespective of what transpires at an election.
UNP insiders believe that if Wickremesinghe manages to strike a deal with Premadasa on the question of candidacy, he will emerge as the UNP frontrunner to face off against Mahinda Rajapaksa in his third round. A Wickremesinghe candidacy will draw the support of the minorities, but it will alienate just about everyone else, including the broader Opposition forces that increasingly see the UNP as being redundant and inept in the movement for change. In the electoral math, the main Opposition cannot be counted out, but in terms of public perception and rallying oppositional forces, Ranil Wickremesinghe would prove a devastating choice.
Every other ‘common candidate’ hopeful brings their own share of problems to the table. Each of them appears in this moment to fundamentally alienate one group or the other.
The 18th Amendment stands to benefit only one individual as much as it benefits President Rajapaksa. As the only living former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga can now potentially contest a third term in office, an option that was not open to her at the end of her second term in 2005. Kumaratunga has consistently denied speculation that she is contemplating a re-entry into active politics. Yet, with or without her consent, excitement about her potential candidacy has gained steam.
In her retirement, she has proven an outspoken critic of the ruling administration and a champion of liberal causes, most recently the issue of religious freedom. She has also been a staunch defender of the SLFP, the party her father created, issuing messages that resonate with party seniors who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the control the Rajapaksa ruling elite hold within the coalition.
Chandrika’s greatest appeal is that she may be able to harness SLFP frustration and win over liberals who have found themselves bereft of political representation in recent years, but UNP members fear her SLFP aristocracy and bluer-than-blue credentials will drastically alienate hardcore green supporters and eat into the crucial 20% of the vote that the main Opposition believes it will bring to the table.
Kumaratunga’s own political history also works against her, with the JVP in particular, which does not believe she will redeem herself in her third round in office by abolishing the presidency. Trust will be Kumaratunga’s greatest stumbling block, because abolishing the executive presidency will be the single-issue platform on which any common candidate will enter the presidential race.
Sobitha Thero has become the champion of constitutional change and the de facto leader of the broad Opposition alliance, and he has expressed willingness to become the single-issue common candidate at the next presidential election. Yet, the question of whether minority communities – currently besieged by saffron-robed marauders roaming free – will be willing to cast their vote for a Buddhist monk remains a fundamental challenge.
As it stands, the JVP, which is making the biggest inroads in terms of an Opposition party, appears strongly unwilling to join a broad Opposition alliance. From the perspective of the JVP’s new charismatic Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, none of the common candidate hopefuls appear palatable and the Marxist party is strongly contemplating boycotting the next presidential election entirely.
The JVP’s calculation – which is not entirely without merit – is that following defeat at the 2015 election, the UNP will be decimated as the main political Opposition, paving the way for Dissanayake and his ‘new’ JVP to emerge as a strong contender for the role.
Already Dissanayake’s fiery speeches and capacity to grasp and articulate fundamental issues plaguing the polity is winning him strong support not only among the party’s core base, but strangely even with the urban elite. Six more years in Opposition could prove a game-changer for the JVP, if Dissanayake can keep the current momentum going and as discontent grows with the incumbency and the alternative, his party would stand the most to gain.
Where the logic fails
The logic fails in one respect, however. President Rajapaksa’s victory at the next presidential election will mark an epoch in Sri Lanka’s political history. For nine years, his reign has proved devastating for the political Opposition and all dissenting groups. A fresh mandate will not only strengthen the President’s hand in terms of effecting certain economic and policy reforms that some advisors are strongly advocating, it will also push his administration into further consolidating power. This will mean the further erosion of political space for opposing groups and perspectives and a crackdown on any dissent that has the potential to grievously harm the ruling regime.
Already whispers abound that the regime is considering extending the life of the present Parliament through a referendum once the presidential poll is concluded and President Rajapaksa is reinstated for six more years. The manoeuvre, once used by President Jayewardene, will hold the flailing UPFA coalition together, with parties falling in line once the President is returned to power with a strong showing at the election. The ruling administration has realised that Parliament could be its Achilles’ heel, and therefore the threat of an implosion within the coalition must be guarded against at any cost.
The Opposition, therefore, faces its greatest existential threat at this presidential election. It is in its own interest to ally – and quickly. Picking a presidential candidate early has its risks, but also gives the Opposition several months to iron out differences, draft coherent manifestos and build momentum. Six weeks once the election is declared will prove woefully inadequate to address the task at hand, when the competition has had nine years. Going forward, the 2015 poll could prove a breaking point for democratic governance in Sri Lanka.
It is often said that as Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka’s democratic impulses are strong and resilient; and post-independence political history has demonstrated that often the pendulum swings towards authoritarianism – only to swing back in favour of democratic governance. But relentless assaults on democratic systems and institutions could one day prove fatal. Tattered and fraying at the edges, there is no telling how much more Sri Lanka’s democracy can take before the lights go out. And January 2015 may prove the tipping point.