Bond fallouts: President goes to court, PM provokes brawl in parliament
Posted on January 13th, 2018

Rajan Philips Courtesy The Island

Is it the beginning of the end? The end of what, you may interject. As Doric de Souza did when colonial sleuths asked him if he was a member of the Fourth International. “I teach English”, Doric snapped, “International is an adjective. International what?” The police had no answer to Doric. But there are multiple-choice answers to today’s question: the end of what; especially after last week’s developments. The unexpected was the President’s unilateral and undisclosed (till the court documents bared it) referral to the Supreme Court to clarify if there is any ‘impediment’ to his serving out six years from the date of his election on January 8, 2015. Then there was the fracas in parliament when the Prime Minister made his pre-emptive and self-justificatory statement on the Commission of Inquiry report on Central Bank bonds. The President’s move was seen as calculated and pre-meditated. But no less calculated and pre-meditated, it would seem, was the UNP’s hand in convening parliament to debate the bond report without ‘anybody’ tabling the report, and the Prime Minister insistently making a statement and provoking a brawl between his MPs and Mahinda’s.

Is the Sirisena-Ranil cohabitation over? Is it the end of the national-unity government? Is it going to be the end of SLFP disunity? Or is the politics of the seven provinces getting permanently polarised into three political alliances – the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP? There have been screaming headlines about the end of yahapalanaya. It is as if the scribes have been waiting for this to happen. There are quite a few who want to prove the point that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was never serious about yahapalanaya. But they miss the point that the people, at least a voting majority of them, identified with what that term stood for and voted in a new government to change the way governments are run in Sri Lanka. The lesson from the bond saga is not that yahapalanaya was doomed to fail. Rather, it was made to fail. It is not ‘yahapalanaya’ that deserves derision, but those who failed yahapalanaya politically deserve political punishment. But there is no mechanism to inflict punishment on the political wrongdoers.

The developments last week were efforts to avoid responsibility and shift blame in the wake of the bond report. That was/is clearly the stratagem of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. On the other hand, President Sirisena, while asserting zero involvement in the scam and claiming credit for the commission of inquiry, is clearly frustrated that he is not getting much by way of political dividends – either for his tenuous presidency or for his beleaguered party. The SLPP as the de facto opposition party in parliament should be the real beneficiaries of the troubles of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. But it is stuck in the same place where it was in January 2015. The Nugegoda acclamation to bring back Mahinda did not get traction as many predicted it would. Instead of Mahinda, it is Basil who has returned to pick up from where he left after the last defeat.

The truth of the matter is that none of the three leaders and their alliances has shown any capacity to offer anything new or different that will resonate with the people and win their support. Instead, the three groups are pulling at each other and no one seems capable of striking out a palpable political lead. Without it, a long stalemate in national politics seems increasingly inevitable. It is doubtful if the local government elections will light a spark in an otherwise gloomy political night. Unless something dramatically ignites the situation, no party is unlikely to emerge a clear winner on February 10. In point of fact, none of the three parties deserves to emerge a clear winner in the local elections. Even allowing for the relative appeals of the three alliances, the main determinant of the results will be the voter turnout. Historically, local government elections register the lowest turnout. It was 65% in 2011 and anything lower could be seen as protest apathy against all three parties.

As well, regardless of the results in February, national political institutions and actors will be stuck where they are for another two years, or for three years, depending on what the Supreme Court will tell the President today. ‘Stability’ is what Sri Lanka is supposed to have gained from the JRJ (1978) constitution and the presidential system. Never mind there has been far greater instability in Sri Lanka, politically and otherwise, after 1978 than before. What is obtaining now is not stability but immobility. The promises to reform the constitution including the abolishment of the presidential system and the experiment in national-unity government are all stuck in the existing constitutional straight jacket. President Sirisena’s Supreme Court referral is the result of an incomplete constitutional reform, not to mention the fact that the constitutional involvement of the Supreme Court to decide political questions is one of the chief defects of the JRJ constitution. This is according to NM Perera and AJ Wilson, not table talk.

President’s panic attack and PM’s counter-attack

The bigger political question is what prompted President Sirisena to ask the Supreme Court for clarification about the length of his term. Why did he do it unilaterally without consulting his national-unity partner, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe? Why now? He has naturally come under criticism for going back on the Nineteenth Amendment’s reduction of the presidential term from six year to five years, and his own commitment to not only reduce the term of executive presidency but also abolish it. What is striking, more than the retraction, is the absence of any reference to 19A in his court referral, going by what was published in the media. He asks the court if there is any ‘impediment’ without mentioning the only impediment, i.e. 19A, by name! Speaking at Akuressa on Friday, the President once again was in promise-mode: that he would abide by the Court’s ruling (is there a choice otherwise?), and played the sacrificial card that he is prepared to step down from office on Friday itself.

Given his growing estrangement with the Prime Minister and the frustration of his efforts to strike an electoral alliance with the SLPP/JO, President Sirisena’s only political safe-space is his office. Extending it even by one year would make sense from his standpoint. He will at least have one additional year to try some of his old and failed maneuvers, or even entirely new ones, to strengthen his position and that of his bifurcated party. Asking the court now will also help set the stage for another run for a full second term. If the Court says that there is no impediment to his completing a six-year term, it could bolster his and his party’s chances at the local elections. It could also backfire at the elections if the court were to determine that 19A is indeed an insurmountable impediment.

The President’s choosing not to consult the Prime Minister about the court referral speaks volumes of the state of the relationship between the two men. Equally, the President chose not to share the report of the Commission of Inquiry with the Prime Minister before he made his public statement on the report. A handful of non-elected government officials have copies of the report, but not the PM, the Speaker, or Parliament itself. On the one hand, the President may be thinking that he is sending a message to the public that he is keeping at arm’s length and more, the PM and everyone else directly or indirectly associated with the bond scam. On the other hand, it may be that the President has lost both his official and personal camaraderie with the Prime Minister to have a free and frank discussion on the bond scam, the Commission’s report, and the almost daily fallouts from it.

Ideally, if President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were to salvage anything from/for yahapalanaya after the bond fiasco, they should have engaged in face-to-face talks on the matter and decided on a course of action that would have included at the minimum: unimpeded legal proceedings against those criminally implicated; the relocation of the Central Bank to the Ministry of Finance; and the removal of Ravi Karunanayake from the public face of the government and even that of the UNP. The President’s unilateral actions show that either he did not want to deal with the Prime Minister, or he was not hopeful of getting the Prime Minister to agree to any of the minimum action items.

The Prime Minister’s and the UNP’s response to the Commission report would seem to vindicate the President’s unilateral actions. Rather than showing even a pretence of remorse and willingness to take corrective actions, the PM and the UNP leadership would seem to have decided to use the party muscle and go on the counter-attack. Notwithstanding the Commission’s strictures against him, Ravi Karunanayake remains the public face and the physical bulwark of the UNP. If the brawl in parliament was not an accident, its real purpose was to rile up the UNP base to defend the party politically against the fallouts from the bond scam of its own making. The fisticuffs and the orchestrated catcalls, apparently led by the Prime Minister himself, clearly show that when push comes to shove the UNP will not hesitate to fall back on its time-honoured thuggish traditions – yahapalanaya or no yahapalanaya. With a riled up base and a strong campaign, there can be a good showing at the local elections. And a good showing there will help sweep away the fallouts from the bond scam. If that is the thinking, it is a betrayal of good governance.

It is worse. It brings to nought all the efforts on constitutional reform expended over the last two years. It puts the TNA in a quandary, having little to show to a skeptical electorate after two years of reconciliation. It has no answers to the survivors of victims of murders after two years of tantalizing promises. It will also be bizarre after the local elections and the people’s vaunted exercise of their sovereignty this time through the local version of the franchise, the stable JRJ constitution will ensure that the country will have the same President and the Prime Minister. Thanks to 19A, the President cannot easily, or not at all, fire the Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister will have to work with the same President at least for two more years, and potentially three, depending on what the Supreme Court decides. And the parliament, given all the crisscrossing movements across party lines over 20 years, will remain one large extended and dysfunctional family. There will be governance. But is there an adjective suitable enough to describe it?

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