Meethotamulla and the fate of the executive presidency
Posted on April 18th, 2017
By DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
April 18, 2017, 7:39 pm
A few days after the Meethotamulla tragedy in Sri Lanka, a referendum was held in Turkey. The people of Turkey rejected Western liberal warnings and voted in favour of an executive presidency.
The Meethotamulla tragedy, which occurred utterly inauspiciously as it were during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year holiday, was symbolic. Two years into the neoliberal Yahapalana government (and a perennially UNP Municipal Council), at least 30 people died horribly, buried under an avalanche of a visibly growing mountain of garbage, neglected and deprioritised despite warnings (including from Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith) and protests by the residents.
It is eerily symbolic of this government’s policies and performance which taken together is a growing pile of dangerous neglect and toxicity, which will bury this country and its people under the collective and growing weight of its colossal callousness and incompetence.
It is clear. This country will have to bury this government under an electoral avalanche first, or this Government will bury us. Furthermore, it seems imperative to retain the Executive Presidency to put in place the kind of strong leader who has the foresight and ability to save us from yet another such catastrophe by timely and determined action. It would be fortunate if the country had the choice of a person who has proven successful in matters of conceptualizing and managing urban development and renewal, to work the same developmental miracle on a national scale, leaving no garbage dump, literal or metaphorical, uncleared. We need a man who strategized, organized, cut through red tape and managed to clear all ‘uncleared’ areas.
But, how to bury this government? May Day this year is the chance for the Opposition to drop the political equivalent of the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ on the Government. But will it? A referendum is the best occasion to bury the Government. What is the line the Joint Opposition rally on May Day at Galle Face Green will take on the abolition of the Executive Presidency and therefore the Referendum that will be automatically triggered if the Executive Presidency is to be abolished? On this crucial issue, what is the signal that will be sent from Galle Face? Who will send what signal to whom?
One has to distinguish between a President and the Presidency. There are those in the JO who are opposed to both the President and the Presidency. There are those who are opposed to the Executive Presidency only because they are opposed to this President or because they think they themselves cannot be elected president. There are those in the Yahapalana coalition who are opposed to the Presidency but not so much to the President. Then there are those in both the JO and the Yahapalana constituency who are not opposed either to the Presidency or to the President as much as they are to the Prime Minister. Anyway, that’s where I stand. Where do you stand?
The slightest acquaintance with Political Science teaches one the difference between the State and the Government. Unfortunately, strategy in the Opposition movement is being impacted by persons who do not understand this or who deliberately ignore and confuse this issue. In the name of the struggle against the Government, they take up positions which are anti-State; which weaken the State. The Executive Presidency—not this or that President—is part of the State.
Sri Lanka has a Presidential form of State. Our Executive Presidency is the centrepiece of what Prof AJ Wilson rightly termed ‘The Gaullist System in Asia’. Turkey has just voted YES in a referendum to introduce an elected Executive Presidency, such as we have had since 1978. Those who target the Executive Presidency, rather than merely criticizing this or that policy, or action or inaction, of the current President, are targeting and weakening the State. From my perspective of ‘State patriotism’ I must denounce and oppose this, despite the fact that I am sharply critical of the Government and its policies, including many of those of President Sirisena.
A faction of the Government led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and supported by his TNA allies, propose to weaken the Sri Lankan State by abolition of the Executive Presidency, quasi-federalization of center-periphery relations, and the massive sell-off of state assets. Ironically, a faction of the Opposition too wants to weaken the Sri Lankan State by the abolition of the Executive Presidency.
Only “master manipulators” who are politically illiterate do not understand the theory of contradictions. There are contradictions within everything and as Mao said one must identify “the principal contradiction” and “the principal aspect of the contradiction”. The formula that “the main enemy is the Government” ignores the fact of important contradictions between (I) the interests of the State and the Government as well as (II) within the Coalition Government! As Mao again said “one divides into two”. Obviously the SLPP strategists do not know this, but genuinely well-read progressive politicians such as Dullas Alahapperuma and Vasudeva Nanayakkara do.
It was CBK as President who presented the federalization (‘union of regions’) package, brought in the Norwegians, double crossed the Karuna rebellion and signed off on the PTOMS, but it was also her i.e. the Presidency, that had to be motivated and leveraged to remove Ranil and finally did so. The Presidency is still the Archimedean point of the System.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is trying to cede strategically precious parts of the country and its economy to foreign powers in the treacherous hope that they would annex these parts (e.g. Trincomalee) and keep him in office to safeguard their acquisitions by any means necessary, including military interventionism against the local populace. For Ranil the slogan is not “Sri Lanka is Open for Business”. Instead, Ranil’s slogan is “Sri Lanka for Sale!”Therefore, the principle contradiction in Sri Lanka today is between the nation and this nihilistic anti-national project.
The formula that Maithri and Ranil “are the same” or are “two sides of the same coin” rather than regarding Sirisena and his SLFP as actually or potentially a vacillating intermediate element i.e. a crucial variable, are revealed for the dangerous silliness it is when one ponders the question of how fast and fully the worst elements of Ranil’s agenda would have gone forward without Sirisena. The sell-off of Trincomalee and Hambantota, the fast-track federalizing Constitution pushed through outside of Parliament (Ranil’s January 9th 2016 draft Resolution), the full implementation of the Geneva resolution with a hybrid court and foreign judges, would all be realities today.
One only has to recall the draft 19th amendment of 2015 that was challenged in the Supreme Court and then modified, as well as the draft resolution of January 9th 2015 which was also modified by the SLFP and adopted in March 2015, to know that if not for Sirisena and his SLFP faction’s covert dissent or vacillation—and the tacit support of the JO– Sri Lanka would have, by this time, a Constitution in which Ranil Wickremesinghe is the powerful executive PM, Sirisena the nominal President, with Wigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council with qualitatively more powers than it has now. Perhaps that is the outcome that some Fifth Columnists in the Opposition were hoping for or are still awaiting and working towards.
The outstandingly brilliant Greek Marxist and political thinker Nicos Poulantzas who died tragically while still young, wrote that any serious political strategy had to take into account three types of struggle and operate along three axial routes: (I) struggles against the State (II) struggles within the State and (III) struggles at a distance from the state. We can adapt this to the present context.
The third type of struggle, “at a distance” from the regime, are being waged by the FSP, JVP, trade unions, GMOA, student unions etc. They confront the regime directly and physically but are “at a distance” because they do not and perhaps cannot directly pose the question of replacing the regime and taking political power, while a broad “JO+ SLFP + patriotic UNP” bloc can.
The JO and SLPP are waging and must wage the first type of struggle, namely struggles directly against the regime. But they must also recognize that there are potential and actual struggles going on within the regime which must be encouraged and supported. The JO’s senior parliamentary leadership does this, but this is precisely what the line of the “master manipulator” of the SLPP fails to do—possibly because “manipulation” is not political strategy!
The SLPP’s political line needs to be clarified and rectified. Antonio Gramsci explains that “Lenin said…‘separate yourselves from Turati and then form an alliance with him.’ ” That is precisely what the JO/SLPP must do with President Sirisena’s SLFP, or more correctly, with the SLFP and patriotic elements of the UNP, with or without President Sirisena.
All three types of struggles identified by Poulantzas, along all three routes, must be waged simultaneously in order to defeat the government and replace the regime, while defending and protecting the State.
In this centenary year of the October Revolution, it is apt that I conclude with a little lesson from Lenin: “…to refuse beforehand to manoeuvre, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary) among one’s enemies, to reject agreements and compromises with possible (even though temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies—is this not ridiculous in the extreme?”(Collected Works, Vol XXV, p. 210).
It is ridiculous in the extreme “to reject agreements and compromises with possible (even though temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional allies)”, such as the official SLFP in Government, especially over issues like the Constitution.
A political line that does not aim to build the broadest possible alliance by uniting all forces that can be united and neutralizing vacillators instead of pushing them back into the enemy camp; a political line that refuses to win over the middle ground, alienates potential allies, concentrates on the secondary enemy and lets the primary enemy go free; only benefits and can only benefit the primary enemy. In short, a political line that exclusively attacks Maithripala Sirisena and makes passing reference to Ranil Wickremesinghe can only benefit Ranil Wickremesinghe—which is perhaps what it is meant to do!
The formula that “the main enemy is the government” and seeing Sirisena and Wickremesinghe as one monolithic enemy and target, is politically naïve and strategically dangerous. It is this kind of nonsensical “manipulative” thinking that lost us two national elections in 2015, and three successive votes, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, in the global arena, at the UNHRC in Geneva—which began the regime change.
If this is the line that’s being urged on the SLPP and the JO by the “manipulators”, then a serious political and ideological struggle will have to waged against this “deviation” within the ranks of the Opposition, to put it back on the right track and prevent one faction of it from objectively being a Trojan Horse or Fifth Column of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.