By N Sathiya Moorthy
Going by the greetings from Queen Elizabeth II. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, among others, that too weeks after Parliament had voted Ranil Wickremesinghe as President, it is becoming increasingly clear that the hidden message is for the nation and the nation’s polity as a whole. That is to say, they all want President Wickremesinghe to continue in office (until nation-wide polls become due in its time, November 2024, or weeks earlier).
The message becomes even more important, considering that the proposed Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution seeks to curtail the powers of the President and confer relatively greater authority on Parliament acting through the Cabinet with the Prime Minister at the Centre. It may not be the same as it used to be until J R Jayawardene ushered in the Second Republican Constitution in 1978, creating what’s normally understood as the ‘Executive Presidency’.
As the popular saying goes, under JRJ’s law, he as the first Executive President could do everything other than make man into woman, and vice versa. His successors attempted those changes, too, but, thankfully, failed. But that did not stop them from trying further, leaving the nation disfigured.
It does not mean that power-transfer even of the pre-1978 variety would restore the honour of the nation. It is not just about the office of the presidency or the powers that is conferred on it by the Constitution. It is about the men who are seated there, and all the men who vote them in.
Sri Lanka has voted for leaders, not their ideologies. It has voted out leaders, for their failures, real and imaginary, not for the failure of their programmes alone. So, as the idea of the Aragalaya suggests, it is for the people to use their ballot every five year, wisely. That need not actually mean that they should want to run the government, using the President or Prime Minister as a proxy in their place. It’s not democracy, but mobocracy, instead.
It is not unlikely that given the reservations of multiple Opposition parties to some of the provisions of 22-A, which has since been gazetted and presented to Parliament with Cabinet approval, the government itself would be willing to ‘strengthen’ it, to meet the general mood of the nation, as reflected by the Aragalaya movement and the national polity. How much and how far would be known only when Parliament gets to debate it.
One good thing about the Sri Lankan process is that the Supreme Court gets to clear, strike down or suggest amendments to the proposed Bill, to make sure that it fits into the constitutional scheme, before Parliament gets to vote on it. In other democracies, like in neighbouring India, the Judiciary has its say post facto, which means that the courts rule on the law as enforced, not as proposed. This has meant avoidable delays and reversals, which nations and peoples can do without.
The question is how much powers that gets actually transferred from the President to the Prime Minister, as the face of the Cabinet, under 22-A. Already, the Supreme Court has struck down what was notified as 21-A submitted by the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party, pointing out it required a national referendum under the existing Constitution. It is also the reason no one is talking about abolishing the Executive Presidency here and now, leaving it to a Constitution Assembly to decide –- as had happened twice already in the past years.
It is wrong to argue that incumbent Ranil owed his position to the Aragalaya protests and that he had failed them morally by getting some of them arrested (for specific crimes) and all of them to get out of the main venue at Colombo’s Galle Face Green beach-front. If anything, those protestors wanted him not to be made the Prime Minister first, and elected President next. Parliament had its own ideas, and Parliament alone was/is authorised under the nation’s existing constitutional scheme to decide on the matter.
Rule, not reign
But having become President, can Ranil retain those powers that he had inherited from predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his controversial 20-A? Or, will he have to share power with his Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena? It is obvious that both owe their office to Parliament’s confidence in them, in turn, the confidence that the ousted Rajapaksas, particularly, political patriarch Mahinda Rajapaksa has in them.
Translated it means, whether President or Prime Minister under 22-A, Mahinda rules, even if he or any of the other Rajapaksas reigns anymore. Because the Rajapaksas in reality have a majority in Parliament, it is no different when the House passes 22-A with or without new changes, which alone requires two-thirds majority.
The question is, is this what the world wants of Sri Lanka, wants of incumbent Wickremesinghe. Many in the West and the rest of the world might not have wanted Wickremesinghe to become President, not because they had problems with him. Instead, they have problems with the Rajapaksas, with whose parliamentary support alone, Ranil has become President, and can continue as such.
Lack of patience
When the truth hit them, they could not stomach Ranil becoming President. It was an after-thought, as they did not think about the day-after once they got all the Rajapaksas out. They had read the Sri Lankan Constitution well, that the President gets to nominate the Prime Minister and Parliament gets to elect a President.
Because they did not have the patience to work out down to the last ‘t’, they left it at the forced exit of Mahinda R, for Ranil to become Prime Minister, to be followed by the forced exit of President Gota, for the incumbent Prime Minister to take over as ‘interim President’, for the latter to get himself elected President until the next national elections two years hence.
The West, to be precise, failed to do the adding up for the parliamentary vote to elect a President in Gota’s place as and when he was voted out. Mahinda had done his, so had Ranil, but it suited both, for their own separate reasons, not to speak about it until it became too late for the West to learn it, react and undo the ‘damage’ that they had unrolled.
Yet, there is no denying the fact that as a man, Ranil has had multiple episodes of cohabitation problems as Prime Minister under President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga first, and later under President Maithripala Sirisena, whom he had made President, to unseat Mahinda Rajapaksa, to whom he owes the presidency now. So, he is under greater pressure than ever before to prove to the nation – and not necessarily to the outside world – that he can with another person as an equal or above-equal, whoever is that.
Ranil thus cannot go on wanting to decide who has greater powers under 22-A, the President or the Prime Minister. Mahinda has, instead.
If the arsonists among the Aragalaya protestors, whether based in their Ground Zero or elsewhere across the country, thought that setting fire to the homes of then ruling SLPP parliamentarians and other party leaders would frighten the former to ‘behave’ and vote for their choice as President, that was not to be. They concluded that they needed to stay together, and did so, under Mahinda R, whom alone they had known as a leader, dependable than otherwise.
Likewise, the protestors’ setting ablaze then Prime Minister Ranil’s private house only made him more determined to become President. He has also gone after mobsters among the peaceful protestors, not only because he or SLPP politicians were targeted, but it’s also because the world wants order back in place in the country for them to worry collectively about its future!
(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)