Can Judiciary help break the dead-lock?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Irony of ironies, whether or not the so-called popular movement for the wholesale exit of the ruling Rajapaksas meets all its goals and ends, definitely it seems to have driven a cleft between the top two in the family and government. After the mass exit of all Cabinet ministers, which included three Rajapaksas, namely, Basil, Namal and Chamal, in the order of political importance, today, President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda are seen indulging in shadow-boxing.

If anything, the veritable ways of the politicos, including those in the Opposition, have nothing in them to stabilise the current drift and reverse it, even if in stages. The Opposition, divided in all permutations and combinations, too have nothing concrete to offer in terms of an alternate government with provable parliamentary majority on hand, or an economic revival plan that would restore the nation’s confidence in itself and the people’s confidence in the nation and its failed systems.

The Opposition simply does not have an all-acceptable name of an alternate president or prime minister to offer, leave aside the methodology for them to reach there. The presumption is that SJB Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa will lead a new government if the Opposition has its ways. Yet, even Premadasa Jr does not seem to be clear whether he wants to be president or prime minister. It is not because he too is unclear about what powers would rest in a new president if and when the controversial 20-A is replaced but more because of the lack of clarity about how to reach there.

There are others in the Opposition, who have floated Ranil Wickremesinghe’s name as the man of the hour, and the man for the hour. He is literally a one-man army, at least inside Parliament, as no one has proposed his name, nor has anyone else referred to him in any positive way. Other names from the divided Opposition is also being mentioned, but to no avail, whether they are from the SJB or from the two distinctive groups of erstwhile ruling SLPP parliamentarians and ministers.

Some from within the SJB has even proposed economist and former state minister Harsha de Silva for heading an interim government. It is unclear if it owes to Harsha’s qualifications for heading an economic ministry, which was not given to him when his party and friendly UNP boss, Ranil, was in power. It is not clear whether the proposal owes to Harsha’s academic excellence or because someone cannot accept Sajith P as his leader – whatever the reason. The same argument owes to some social media posts that have proposed another SJB economic expert and ex-minister Eran Wickramanayake.

Tail wagging the dog

From the government side, too, there are motivated campaigns and social media posts, proposing a new prime minister. The latest is the name of senior minister Dinesh Gunawardena. People seem to forget that Dinesh, whatever his seniority or efficiency, is still from a junior partner in the SLPP coalition. His choice or that of anyone else from the ruling combine, would tantamount to tail wagging the dog – which is not on, when the nation needs a government more stable than at present, or even prior to the present political crisis.

It is highly doubtful that the SLPP leadership (read: Rajapaksas, if you wish) would want such an experiment, especially after two of its senior ministers from junior alliance partners, namely, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, were the ones to first rebel against the Gota-Mahinda leadership, and now want both of them out.

Having lost hopes of possibly retaining all the government as if it were a family fiefdom for being passed on to the next generation, through the process of electoral democracy, Gota and Mahinda (not necessarily in that order) are indulging in a shadow-boxing. A team of 13 ruling party MPs, supposedly aligned to Gota from his pre-presidential days and who were not your traditionally active partymen, have reportedly sought a new prime minister. Mahinda has since countered this by calling a meeting of the SLPP parliamentary group, where a unanimous resolution was passed in his favour.

The Opposition has claimed that only 88 MPs, or less, had attended the Mahinda endorsement event. The message was that the government had fallen woefully short of the required minimum of 113 in a House of 225. The government has not refuted the claims straight, but some have been quoted that the leadership still had 117 MPs with them. That claim is yet to be proved.

However, the Mahinda messaging is neither for the Opposition, not certainly for the nation. Instead, it is meant for the fraternal Gota camp, to tell the president that for him to continue as president without facing the humiliation of an impeachment, he needed elder brother Mahinda with him. Even otherwise, granting that the Rajapaksas have lost most if not all of their committed 40-plus per cent of vote-bank, whatever remains, remains (only) with Mahinda and none else from the clan or the SLPP party and combine.

Sly operation

A fortnight after the ‘mass movement’ commenced for forcing the exit of the Rajapaksas, there is no movement on that score barring the preceding departure of the entire Cabinet, barring the president and the prime minister. A few others have taken their places, with new state ministers being added to the list, one day after another, as if it were meant to be a sly operation.

There is  greater degree of confusion about what the protestors want, and if they think that the exit of all the Rajapaksas would ensure that milk and honey would flow through the expressways and rivers of the nation and an alternate government leadership would pull the rabbit out of the hat, for the whole nation to see, touch, feel and enjoy.

The alternate week parliamentary session has given the government leadership to buy time until the next session that is not due for another nine days (including the two weekends), and hope that manna from heaven saves the day for them, jointly or separately. Unfortunately, the Opposition also seems to think the same way, as they too get the same time to prove their parliamentary majority, which they obviously do not have, at least as yet.

From day one of the political crisis (which has since pushed the economic crisis out of the nation’s focus, almost for good), the Rajapaksas had betted on it, and betted only for a parliamentary battle. Obviously, they did not foresee a people’s movement or an ‘Occupy Galle Face Green’ protest with Colombo’s famed beach-front renamed, ‘GoGota Gama’ or village. Hence the early sacrifices, of Chamal, Basil and Namal, but in the garb of the whole Cabinet quitting in unison.

Today, neither the public protests, supposedly all across the nation but not with the same intensity as urban middle class Colombo, nor the non-existent parliamentary tactic of the divided Opposition has forced the anticipate exit of the top two Rajapaksas. It remains to be seen how the Gota Cabinet accepts Mahinda’s expected proposals to tame the Executive Presidency through a constitutional amendment.

Already, the SJB and the 40-rebel SLPP parliamentarians have come up with their own sets of constitutional amendment proposals, signalling the lack of unanimity among them. There are also the traditional left leaders from parties representing the 40 rebels who have questioned ‘American economic hegemony’ in contemporary Sri Lankan affairs and indicated their reservations in the matter. Their early objection in the matter when in government flowed from the ‘New Fortress Energy’ deal almost in the middle of last year. Their objection to Basil owed to his ‘support by subterfuge’ for the deal, and they extended it to cover his dual citizenship, including the US.

The fact that most cabinet ministers had reportedly attended the pro-Mahinda SLPP parliamentary group meeting has sent out a confusing message. This was so despite PM Mahinda openly boycotting President Gota swearing in a Cabinet of his own choice, leaving out most of the party veterans, as if a ‘new-face’ government would convince the protesting populace that their world has overnight changed for the good.

Apart from the exclusion of senior leaders upsetting cadre mood more than already, the absence of experienced persona at the helm of ministerial affairs can add to the burden of political administration, where President Gota’s inexperience had contributed in no small measure to the current economic crisis and the consequent political dead-lock(s).

Saving the day

It is interesting to note that despite visualising and then viewing the emerging political dead-lock, neither the political Opposition, nor the ever-ready civil society organisations, have thought it worthwhile to move the Supreme Court, to issue a mandamus writ for the president and prime minister to quit, or face a confidence-vote in Parliament, without any loss of time, and on a date fixed by the higher judiciary.

The reasons are not far to seek, as no one, including those camping at GFG and other protest sites, through sun and rain, with their infants and kids in tow, seems to be in a hurry. The fear is that the GFC protest has the potential to turn into a carnival of sorts, which its critics have already begun dubbing it as in media and social media sites. That is the licence that the political leaders of all hues are waiting for, to go back to their old ways.

Can the Supreme Court be asked to adjudicate on the failure of individual government leaders to secure the economy, and thus the people’s lives, livelihoods and standard of living, which is among the basic tents of constitutionally-mandated political administrations? The answer is ‘yes’, particularly when compared to the demand of the GFG protestors for the government leadership to quit, in the name of larger democracy.

Definitely, the founding fathers did not mean public protests as a demonstrable way that the sovereignty of the nation rests in its people. Parliament, yes, but in public protests, definitely a big ‘NO’. If the court too allows such an interpretation to be carried forward, then mobocracy first, and anarchy, next could come to rule the roost. Any political party or leader who could make a mass of people to sit in a protest for days and weeks together would then be dictating terms, not to the rulers of the day, but more to the nation, the constitutional scheme, and institutions, starting with the Judiciary.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court alone saved the day after Maithripala Sirisena as President played havoc with the constitutional provisions and established scheme in end-2018. Today, again, only the higher Judiciary commands the respect of the entire nation, and also that of nations that are friendly and not-so-friendly towards Sri Lanka. The implication is that not just the Rajapaksas, president, prime minister or both, but also the political Opposition and the public protestors should and would abide by the Supreme Court’s rulings, if and when someone approached the same.

That is where the current crisis should end, and a new beginning made, however old it may or may not be!

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)