THE ETHIOPIAN HIS SKIN: With his true colours nailed to the mast, the ambitiously driven president has been exposed as being yet another realpolitik-playing politico. And with the naïve and sentimental protestations of an aggrieved prime minister ringing all the way to court in our ears, we might only yet be on the long hard road back to being a constitutional republic. The most pressing unanswered question is whether the leopard can change its stripes, and a former president turned prime minister be trusted not to take a political coup as seriously as a polls based confirmation of a mandate from the people. Time will tell; but that is just the commodity the country may have run out of over the weekend: and democrats who seek refuge in a subjectively interpreted constitution may be hoist with their own petard – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
I am no constitutional or legal expert. But like most other politically-aware readers, I know what I like to see in my
democratically-elected leaders. Sorry to say that despite being something of a maverick when it comes to the herd instinct, I agree with the common consensus that the common candidate has both disgraced himself and dismayed the people with his altogether common character.
However, there remains something to be said for distinguishing between what has been called a ‘coup’ and/or a ‘constitutional crisis’ – and power-hungry self-serving politicos playing at realpolitik. Which is both their prerogative and their right (even if it is wrong in the eyes of a discerning but still conservative democracy). Therefore, indulge me as I trawl the murky depths of our present impasse for the moral takeaway or morale of the story. While being fully aware that a day or two is a long time in politics and that the ground which has shifted under our feet since last Friday might cave in entirely since the time of writing.
The president may have a stronger case than many folks might realise for getting away with his capricious dismissal of one prime minister and cavalier swearing in of another premier. A more prudent approach may be to wait for the aggrieved party to seek some relief from the Supreme Court. But I for one have waited what seems like an eternity for the UNP to get its act together. So I’m going to plunge in and say my piece in these columns. As much as my favourite horses in a two-horse race have taken the liberty to address the nation with their respective sob stories in the past few days…
Much of the learned commentary has focussed on the process and perversion of what is permitted by the constitution.
To wit: that after 2015’s 19th Amendment, the prime minister can only cease to hold office by death, resignation, ceasing to be a member of parliament. Or if the government as a whole has lost the confidence of parliament by dint of being defeated post the throne speech, budget, or a vote of no-confidence [Articles 46(2) and 48]. And that the president has been too literal in his interpretation of Article 42(4). That he has the right to appoint as PM whoever “in his opinion” is “likely to command the confidence” of the house.
And there is general annoyance (to put it mildly) that the chief executive’s failure to grant parliament the space to demonstrate to the people that his opinion was in fact justified is a great discourtesy to the electorate. It is also a sign that the people’s president was being simply another disingenuous politician who spouted platitudes about accountability and transparency to come into and stay in power. No big surprise there, but shock and dismay at the ramifications of his selfishness for all of us.
There is also a bad taste in the democratic-republican public’s mouth that the PM’s dismissal was sudden, planned in great stealth or ‘hopper-eating’ mode, and no courtesy notice of intention was given one’s coalition partner of many years much less one’s voting public of many decades. It tastes too much of native cunning for the likes of café society and constitutional coffee klatches. Many of us had lost faith in our once fit for statesman prime minister. But another no-confidence motion or the coming election would have been a better brighter way for our head of state to go. To rid us of a technocratic in public, autocratic in private, democratic-tyrant. As well as safeguard democracy – to say nothing of his preserving his own lacklustre reputation for unsmiling posterity.
But in liberal circles (pro-UNP, business, Western-orientated English-speaking social media centric civil society et al.), little attention has been paid to the president’s rightful prerogatives – or it has been negligently overlooked. There is leeway for even the most leech-like executive clinging to his opinion – and to power to boot – to appoint the MP who commands his own confidence, and allow parliament to ratify it at the next election.
Here we must not forget a few key constitutional elements militating in favour of the sitting president – even if we are prone to cynicism and tend to dismiss his crocodile tears on national TV at the hard time his erstwhile prime minister gave him. To wit: that Article 43(3) gives the president the authority to change the cabinet of ministers, and that the sitting prime minister ceases to function when the cabinet of ministers have been removed according to Article 46(2); and also that the president’s unilateral abrogation of the UNP-SLFP pact effectively terminated this cabinet and therefore its premier’s tenure.
And so, all we’re truly upset with Maithripala Sirisena about is that he has been less than a democrat. Prone to play realpolitik – like a long line of many better and brighter republicans before him. And proven publicly that power tends to corrupt. Which is no shock or surprise, really. If you consider that the president’s political DNA comes from tainted stock. With the sterling common candidate of 2015 having been a stalwart in an authoritarian antidemocratic regime under two Rajapaksa administrations spanning a decade from 2005-2015. Once bitten, we the public and our pouting premier could or should have been twice shy.
We chose to be blind to relative power’s relative corruption and built castles in the air on a dead-letter constitution that no political party embraces as faithfully as it should – no matter how much they protest when its loopholes militate against them. It is not the letter of the law that is sick, however, even though it may be weak. Rather that the political culture that appropriates and implements it is rotten at the core. And we the people are constantly compelled to choose between the lesser of the two evils. It’s becoming increasingly harder to do that. Though for the moment it looks like the UNP and its outraged premier are the aggrieved party.
It did not behove us to give bad wine good bush. So perhaps we will forbear to mention the UNP’s own short memory as it appears to have forgotten that their prime minister was also in a minority in government in January 2015 and was sworn in on the confident opinion of the president whose loyalty – or attention or anything else – he no longer commands. We need not even mention that if the born again democratic-republicans who are pounding the pulpit on legality and constitutionality now were to refer to the terms of the 19th Amendment, the not so small print would remind them that the cabinet of over 30 was in itself contrary to the spirit of the constitution – so let’s not lose too much sleep or waste airtime over the letter of the law not being honoured. On to impeachment of the incumbent president or a no-confidence motion against the now ensconced new premier or whatever the next fortnight brings.
But not before I air a few rhetorical questions of my own. And like Pontius Pilate, I’m not waiting for an answer. But will be content to see the good offices of the prelate-endorsed speaker or petitioned chief justice rule for us.
Is MS constitutionally entitled to entertain a wrong opinion – even if his political motives are transparently craven? Has RW lost the moral right to take the legal high ground because he has violated the people’s mandates in manifestly more ways than one from being a minority PM himself to abysmal condoning of the bond scam by virtue of dissociation? Will the Sangha sanctioned speaker’s prevailing on parliament to reconvene violate even a politically driven president’s constitutional right to prorogue it? Would the aggrieved parties do well not to go to court and set a precedent such that the supreme ruling on the legality or constitutionality of it would establish the bona fides of MR, arguably the worst of a bad lot?
(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)