Colombo, Politics and Governance

Defeating MR: All but impossible

By Victor Ivan

The forthcoming budget will be decisive to the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

The 1978 Constitution gave absolute power to the president. Defeating an incumbent president is all but impossible. The only realistic possibility of throwing out the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa is to defeat him in the next presidential election of 2011.

In spite of all the allegations — corruption, large scale human rights violations, unprecedented nepotism and rising cost of living — the President will remain in office until the end of his term. This pattern cannot be altered except by a crisis caused by a complete collapse of the political system, and certainly not by political manoeuvering by the opposition.

At this time, when the political system is being driven towards yet another historic crisis, the opposition parties as well as the government party are compelled, yet again, to conduct themselves as a group of comedians in a circus.

The system is such that the people have no role to play. The only actors are the 225 Members of Parliament, who at best can topple the ruling party in parliament and force a parliamentary election. Even then it is the President who will play the most decisive role in deciding who will form the next government.

Under the parliamentary system that existed before 1978, the ruling party could be changed at least once in five years. It was possible to topple a government by a motion of no confidence or by defeating a money bill. However, J.R. Jayewardene introduced the present system, not to change the ruling party every five years, but to enable a party that comes into power to remain in power continuously as long as it does not ‘drop the ball.’

The UNP ruled for 17 years at a stretch, from 1977 to 1994. And this was despite the 1983 riots and ensuing separatist war, the intervention of Indian troops, the second JVP uprising and the biggest blood bath ever witnessed in the country, massive corruption, and the use of terror to control any form of opposition to the government.

But in 1994, President D.B. Wijetunga ‘dropped the ball.’ He refused to contest the general election with the small minority parties such as the Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress. If the UNP had done so, the results of that election and the presidential election that followed could have been different.

Despite being in power for 17 years and the UNP contesting alone and despite Chandrika Kumaratunga creating a broad alliance of all anti-government groups, the People’s Alliance won just 113 seats in Parliament. It is very perceivable that the UNP regime could still be in power if not for President Wijetunga ‘dropping the ball.’

Thereafter, the People’s Alliance has ruled the country for 13 years from 1994 to date, with a two-and-a-half year break when the UNP won the general elections. The allegations against this government are the same as in the 17-year-old rule of the UNP —corruption, disappearances and violation of human rights.

Complaints about the rising cost of living have been made against every successive regime. But it did not create a situation in which a government was forced out of power. The ruling party remained in power in the midst of all the chaos.

The people supporting the opposition parties were waiting with great expectation for the fall of the government, but the opposition had no understanding of the fundamental rules governing politics. That is exactly what is happening today.

The UNP would be able to defeat the budget proposals only if it can enroll the support of the JVP. Even then, the opposition has to persuade convince or bribe at least eight government Members of Parliament to cross over. The JVP has an unending hatred towards Ranil Wickremesinghe. The reason for this is that it believes that it was Wickremesinghe who masterminded the crackdown against the JVP in 1987-89. At every opportunity it got, the JVP took its revenge.

The JVP compelled the former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga to use her powers and dissolve parliament where Wickremesinghe had a majority. Then the JVP entered into an alliance with the SLFP, denying Wickremesinghe the opportunity to come back to power at the election that followed.

At the last presidential election too, the JVP played a role as decisive as the LTTE in defeating Wickremesinghe. The JVP has hidden and will continue to hide its personal hatred by articulating policy differences it has with the UNP, specifically on the ethnic and economic issues.
However, recently the JVP’s K.D. Lalkantha gave Wickremesinghe an important character certificate, much to the surprise of the people. He said that Wickremesinghe was a leader who has not robbed a cent from the people.

Although it may be one of the most valuable certificates Wickremesinghe has received, it does not imply that the two parties have come to a position where they would work together against the Rajapaksa regime.

At present, it is not in the JVP’s interests to topple the government and force another general election. The JVP will never get votes from the hardcore UNP vote bank. What it can hope for is for disillusioned PA supporters and the youth voting for it. But by defeating the government, it would upset a vast majority of PA supporters and part of its own vote bank.

To add to this equation the JVP can still get political and personal favours from the current government. The other important reason is that the JVP cannot forego the artificial strength it has achieved in parliamentary representation by contesting in an alliance with the PA.

If the JVP joins with the UNP and brings down the government, the JVP will have to contest alone at the elections. That might reduce the JVP’s representation in Parliament by more than half.
The JVP is not prepared to incur such a great loss by moving towards bringing the government down. As a result, the JVP leaders are chanting, for public consumption, that they are not with the government, but are following a policy of defending the government indirectly. The people will see this strategy in action at the next budget.

UNP Leader Wickremesinghe knows that this is his last opportunity to gain political power. Therefore, he has to show an unaccustomed militancy now for the purpose of pleasing what is left of his party. Wickremesinghe is not unaware that there is no possibility of a fundamental change prior to the next presidential election.

However, he also knows that a large group of his party people is not prepared to wait such a long time. Therefore, he also has to at least pretend that he is working towards toppling the government. He knows that the budget is decisive for him too.

The only way to stop another batch of UNP MPs from joining the government is to promise them political power soon. He is well aware that there is a group of MPs in his party who cannot afford to wait long due to their age or other reasons. If nothing positive can be done at the budget, Wickremesinghe will face another internal crisis in the party.

In this game, the millions of Sri Lankan people become important ONLY at the time of elections. What is most important is the allegiance of the 225 MPs in Parliament. They are more decisive than the electorate.

Although the frustration of the people is extreme, a decisive victory will go to President Rajapaksa if he can maintain the support of a majority of the 225 parliamentarians. If Wickremesinghe is able to get the support of a majority, he will be able to create a serious crisis for the Rajapaksa government.

However, the rules of the game are framed so that the President rather than the Leader of the Opposition has the advantage. Consequently, there is a greater likelihood of President Rajapaksa winning this round.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the opposition to persuade MPs to topple the government, knowing very well that the President will immediately dissolve Parliament. As history has shown, no government MPs will be tempted to vote against even an unpopular government and lose all the perks sooner than they need to. History has also shown that the only way to do that is to pay them huge bribes running into hundreds of millions of rupees.

Even here, it is the government that has the upper hand. With billions of rupees available in the government coffers, offering ‘bribes’ in the form of perks to keep MPs in line is not difficult. In the end, the people’s discontent with the current regime, which is clearly evident, amounts to nothing.