By N Sathiya Moorthy
Three days in a row, there are two ‘prime ministers’, hence two ‘governments’, hence a class one constitutional crisis, but Sri Lanka is not worse for it. From the people’s perspective, the governance parameters remain, wherever used to be until sundown on Friday, 26 October. Going by the looks of it, it could well continue this way, say, until 16 November at the very least, and may be beyond – but one still hopes that it all comes to as sudden an end as it had begun!
The message is for the political class, and from the common man! The supreme indifference of the common man, who should be collecting on the streets, protesting one way or the other, hoarding up essentials as if the shops and businesses would close indefinitely until ‘normalcy’ (?) returned, and buses and trains would stop half-way through. That used to be the case earlier, but now – and not possibly, hence.
Better still for those that predicted and/or anticipated uncontrolled violence with the ‘power-transfer’, and rightly so, given Sri Lanka’s unforgettable past and precedents, there is calm on the streets. Barring a few changes in road-end check-points and additional police men on the streets, the overall Law & Order situation remains mostly unaltered. There, of course, was the personal security guards of (former) Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, opening fire at a mob of protestors, in which one person was killed and two others injured. It had less to do with the constitutional crisis, it would seem.
Today, the army is in the barracks, no one is talking about a military coup, not even seem to be discussing whom the ‘forces’ are/will be backing if there is a real showdown. With this, for one more time, the Sri Lankan forces have shown that they are as much professional as any of their critics have in their own nations. This becomes necessary, as in the aftermath of Elections-2015, motivated rumours were floated around that outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa was planning a constitutional coup with military help!
Twice and more for Ranil
Today, Mahinda is back in the news, seeking to be Sri Lanka’s very own Vladimir Putin, but very tentative at that. From President, he has now sought to become ‘Prime Minister’, but he has to prove to the nation and the rest of the world, that he actually is. It is one thing for President Maithripala Sirisena to nominate whomsoever he thinks could command a majority in Parliament as Prime Minister. It is another thing for the latter to prove that he actually has a majority.
There are also contradictions in the constitutional provisions about President Sirisena’s post-19-A powers to ‘sack’ a Prime Minister. Once bitten, ‘sacked’ UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed twice shy, when piloting 19-A in Parliament and getting it passed. For, President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, had sacked him once earlier, in 2004.
When the rest of the polity and civil society was looking at the abridgement of the powers of the Executive President on other aspects of constitutional governance, and/or at the withdrawal of Rajapaksa’s 18-A facilitated removal of two-term upper-limit for an incumbent to contest the presidency, Wickremesinghe was quietly at work on the other side. He ensured, even when Sirisena was keeping his eyes open, that the constitutional provision empowering the President to sack a Prime Minister at will, was taken off the statute book.
Bad in law
Yet, Team Ranil did not seem to have learnt enough while drafting 19-A. As Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe had also faced a President proroguing Parliament, once earlier, but did not provide for such an eventuality in 19-A. He and many others in the present Parliament were around then, again, when CBK as President prorogued Parliament. Then, as now, there were submissions and arguments that the President did not have unilateral powers in the matter.
The year was 2003, and Speaker Joseph Michael Perera held that the President’s order proroguing Parliament was bad in law. Today, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has been called upon to decide on the matter, and he has hinted at the way he may act, or react to the presidential order. Better still, he has a precedent from living memory, which no one sought to challenge, no one attempted to alter. It was pre-19-A, and the limits and limitations of the Executive Presidency with the so-called ‘sky-high powers’ remained exposed!
Despite Rajapaksa naming names for various ministries, and Sirisena promptly swearing them in, the huge gap in numbers, and the non-participation of the SLPP-JO team in the Government, has raised questions about the numbers game. It is inconceivable that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa team started it all without doing their basic arithmetic. If it were so, they better go!
If nothing else, Rajapaksa had proved to be a past-master in engineering defections from the UNP especially. After becoming President in 2005, he got 20 UNP parliamentarians cross over without hitch. He even restricted the intake, and for a specific reason. With this, Rajapaksa also ensured that Sri Lanka’s GOP, especially his ‘friend-and-foe’ Wickremesinghe did not have to lose the Leader of the Opposition status to the Government party in the JVP.
Translated, it meant that Rajapaksa’s SLFP wanted the national battle left to the ‘Big Two’ for all time to come, if he could help it! Today, when the 16-member Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and group boss R Sampanthan are identified for the job of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’, then political egos, more than ethnic egos, are hurt. Whatever be the consequences of the present confusion, Sampanthan may have to end up making way for a new ‘Leader of the Opposition’.
At the same time, on the other side of the fence, Team Wickremesinghe, starting with the man himself, has been claiming that they have the numbers, but have not shown them up. If they do not show up at the promised public rally on Tuesday, then there may be trouble for and within the UNP even as the party ‘Prime Minister’ is battling heavy odds.
There is the missing-link in all these constitutional conversations through these three or four days. Very few UNP veterans have shown up alongside Wickremesinghe in his various news conferences, or at the Temple Trees – or, so it would seem. There are many prime ministerial aspirants in the party. They have been holding fire for a while since Sirisena quit the Rajapakasa Government to become the common, Opposition presidential candidate in November 2014.
From among them, the party’s eternal number two under Wickremesinghe, namely, Sajith Premadasa, is reported to have recalled for willing newsmen over the past couple of days, the glory and the hoary past of the UNP, but stopped with his slain father, Ranasinghe Premadasa. He did not touch upon the Wickremesinghe leadership of the party.
It is likely that leadership aspirants in the UNP may have concluded that with his ‘sacking’ now, Wickremesinghe has run out his ‘full term’ as party chief and Prime Minister, and should vacate for one of them to succeed him, possibly in both positions. It is even more possible that there are second-line UNP leaders, including ‘Ministers’ under him, who are piqued at Wickremesinghe’s inimitable style of non-consultative leadership – or, a consultative leadership that foists a pre-determined decision on the party and the Government.
This was also the sum of Sirisena’s complaints about Wickremeisnghe while they were together at it. Yet, both the Sirisnea’ charge-sheet against Wickremesinghe in a national address, and the latter’s purported response at a news conference a day later, lacks seriousness and specifics. Where there are specifics, there is enough material in the case of both to charge themselves as co-conspirator, co-accused.
At the end of it all, the nation needs one Prime Minister, not two. The more honourable way than Speaker Jayasuriya to reconvene Parliament over the head of President Sirisena, could be for Team Wickremesinghe to seek a favourable verdict from the nation’s Supreme Court. The reluctance to approach the highest judicial forum in the country, saying that Parliament is even more superior, may end up giving credence to Sirisena’s claims that he had the powers and that he had acted within the four walls of the Constitution.
Today, Rajapaksa has the ‘position’ and may be ‘power’, too, but has not shown up the numbers. The limited number of ministerial colleagues by his side may have a different story to tell. In the past, Wickremesinghe had hinted that if push comes to the shove, he may have some of Sirisena’s SLFP Ministers and MPs on his side. Going by news reports, they were all present when Sirisena had their decision for the SLFP-UPFA to pull out to withdraw support to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Friday evening.
Wickremesinghe says he has the numbers, but is taking time demonstrating it. Social media rumours claim that he has them all signed up and ready. If true, a public display would do wonders. If nothing else, it would let the nation go back to its own ways, as always, of which nothing much has been missed or misplaced in the past days!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)