Image via Al Jazeera

“‘Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried… And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail, Precious, and he was gone.”

JRR Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)

One man created chaos out of order and plunged an entire country into a seemingly bottomless crisis. Just one ordinary man, in a fortnight.

Would Maithripala Sirisena have been able to unleash mayhem on an entire nation had it not been for the executive presidency?

There are times in life one must turn to satire or literature to make sense of events. This is such a time. Soon after Maithripala Sirisena committed his second constitutional violation by dissolving the parliament illegally, News Curry responded with a tweet – “Sales of Marijuana, Cocaine and Ecstasy stall as drug users demand something stronger. Please give us whatever…President Sirisena is smoking,’ said several druggies.”

The drug Mr. Sirisena is on is as old as civilisation, power. He wants a second presidential term. That obsession has blinded him to every other consideration – principles, decency, gratitude, shame, ordinary common sense, enlightened self-interest. He is JRR Tolkien’s Gollum, the hobbit who found the One Ring, claimed it as his own, became its creature, lived for it, and died of it.

Mr. Sirisena who started his presidency with a solemn and public promise not to seek a second term is busy nuking the constitution to win a second term. If his transformation, from one of the architects of the 19thAmendment to its serial violator, doesn’t convince us of the dangers of executive presidency, nothing will.

Executive presidency is the unholy grail of Lankan politics. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe abandoned the pledge to abolish the executive presidency. It is common knowledge that Mr. Wickremesinghe saved Rajapaksas from prosecution, in the hope of breaking the SLFP/UPFA, in furtherance of his own presidential ambitions. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s greed for a first term as much as Mr. Sirisena’s greed for a second term contributed to crisis we are in today.

JR Jayewardene, the creator of the Lankan version of presidential rule, bragged about its omnipotence, claiming that the only thing it couldn’t do was to turn a man into a woman and vice versa. The system was extremist in conception; scorning limits is visceral to it. The 19thAmendment sought to democratise it by pruning its more egregious powers and privileges. Mr. Sirisena took an axe to two of those provisions. His action is proof not of the weakness of the 19thAmendment but of the danger posed by the presidential system. It cannot be restrained or tamed. Like with the One Ring, the only solution is to uncreate it.

Every single president since Ranasinghe Premadasa won presidential elections solemnly promising to abolish executive presidency. Every one of them broke that promise. Mahinda Rajapaksa went one step further, and rammed through a constitutional amendment removing term-limits. It was the ‘precious effect’ (Gollum called the One Ring ‘my precious’). Once a person becomes the executive president, the desire to abolish the executive presidency vanishes. Instead, you spend your first term planning to win the second term.

Mr. Sirisena was probably more sincere than his predecessors in his promise to abolish executive presidency. Then he became infected by the plague bacillus of power. The man who wanted to reduce his presidency to four years in 2015, tried to extend it to six years in 2017. The judiciary ruled not per his wishes but per the constitution. Then came the shock of LG polls. The UPFA/SLFP vote-share plummeted to 12.1%, shattering whatever hopes Mr. Sirisena entertained of winning a second term on his own steam.

Had Ranil Wickremesinghe promised to back him in 2020, Maithripala Sirisena would have stayed loyal to his prime minister, at least till after 2020. Mr. Sirisena’s nativism, his cultural conservatism, his horrific homophobia are probably real; but he would have swallowed all that and more, had Mr. Wickremesinghe promised him the UNP’s backing in 2020. Since Mr. Wickremesinghe wouldn’t, Mr. Sirisena tried to incite rebellion within the UNP, probably hoping that a new leader would be more amenable to his presidential ambitions. When those attempts failed, he did the seemingly unthinkable. He formed a pact with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksas are here, to stay

The Rajapaksas were already on the electoral path to power, thanks to the political and economic inanities of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Had they waited till 2020, they could have regained power openly, legally and constitutionally. But the DA Rajapaksa museum case was to be taken up on a daily basis by the special high court starting December 4th.[i]Since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was one of the accused, scuttling the case would have been a matter of utmost importance to the Rajapaksa family.

Mr. Sirisena needed a reed to hang on to in his mad scramble for a second term. The Rajapaksas needed a fast track to power. The twain that was fated never to meet thus met.

At a recent rally, Mr. Sirisena said he appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister because he needed someone capable of toppling Mr. Wickremesinghe and charging ahead. When it comes to toppling anyone or anything, Mr. Rajapaksa is a master. Now that he has a gained a foothold on power, he will definitely charge ahead. The question is not whether he will topple Mr. Sirisena, but when.

Elections can be both democratic and anti-democratic. As soon as he became Germany’s new chancellor through a backroom deal with a senile president, Adolf Hitler called for an election. The Nazis knew they needed a solid parliamentary majority to paralyse the parliament. They understood that democracy can be killed best and easiest using the legitimacy a victorious election would bring.

As Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed, their aim is to win a two-thirds majority. With such a majority, they can use the threat of impeachment to deactivate Mr. Sirisena. They can also replace the 19thAmendment with a 20thAmendment, removing presidential term limits and enabling Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the presidency again.

At the 2018 LG polls, the SLPP won 40.47% of the vote while the SLFP/UPFA won 12.1%. By contesting together with Mr. Sirisena, the Rajapaksas have a good chance of winning around 50% of the vote, while keeping violent and skulduggery at a minimum. (The decision is yet to be arrived at, since many Rajapaksa supporters want to go alone). But to gain a two-thirds majority, extraordinary levels of illegality and violence will be necessary. With his serial violation of the constitution, Mr. Sirisena has cleared that path for the Rajapaksas as well.

The Nazis used the Reichstag fire to ensure their electoral victory by changing conditions on the ground. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa combo will use similar tactics, if the anti-constitutional dissolution is accepted by the Elections Commission and the courts. We may hear more of that crazy assassination plot, one of the lies used by Mr. Sirisena to justify his monumental betrayal and shameless realignment. That crazy story might well be our version of the Reichstag fire, an excuse to arrest UNP heavyweights (possibly under the PTA) and create an atmosphere of unalloyed terror in time for the election.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the Sirisena presidency, some Sirisena loyalists produced a song hailing their leader as the new king from Polonnaruwa. The story leaked out and there was a public outcry. The plan was aborted and the song removed from the internet. That was perhaps the earliest warming that the plague bacillus of power had infected Mr. Sirisena.

Now the king from Polonnaruwa and the king from Ruhuna are together. That partnership can have only one ending. Perhaps it’s time Mr. Sirisena brushed up on his knowledge of folk wisdom. He might not know anything about Tolkien, but surely he has heard about the man who grabbed the tiger by the tail?

Hope and resistance

In one of those ironies history delights in, Mr. Sirisena’s attempt to bury the mandate of 2015 under a Rajapaksa avalanche has given the democratic forces an unlooked for chance to reclaim it.

When 6.2 million Lankans voted for Maithripala Sirisena on January 8th2015, most of them voted not for the man but for the promise he symbolised, escape from Rajapaksa familial rule. Today, he had reopened the door wide for a Rajapaksa return. If the illegal dissolution stands and the illegal election goes ahead, on January 6th2019, would be as if that other January never was?

The illegal sacking of a Prime Minister followed by the illegal dissolution of parliament has created a situation which would test the democratic reforms of the last three plus years. Are they real and lasting or are they illusory and ephemeral? Are the independent commission truly independent? Is the judiciary capable of protecting the constitution and due process from marauding political leaders? Are the democratic institutions created or revitalised after 2015 capable of standing up to an abusive executive? Is this the end of democratic hope or a mere setback?

Courts do not decide based on laws alone; especially when fates of nations are at stake, politics play a part. If the court acknowledges the illegality of Mr Sirisena’s actions, that in itself would be a victory for democracy.

But what will happen if the Elections Commission kneels before naked power and if Lankan judiciary’s independence is merely seasonal?

Then illegality will triumph; and election will go ahead. And by its very nature, that election will become not an exercise in democracy, but an exercise against democracy.

That is the worst case scenario, what we need to be prepared for.

We are in a time of systemic – and perhaps violent – unravelling. Still there are developments which burn bright in the gathering dark. Be it the principled stand taken by Dr. Devanesan Nesiah or the daily protests by groups of mostly ordinary citizens, the decision by the TNA and the JVP to work together to protect the constitution or the further remanding of a Navy officer accused of abducting two persons in 2009, there are signs, large and small, of resistance, courage and decency.  According to a report in the Colombo Telegraph, the Mahanayake Thero of the Malwatte Chapter has refused to meet with Mr. Sirisena. (The same treatment might have been meted to Mr. Rajapaksa, since his post-October 26thpolitical pilgrimage to Kandy did not include a visit to the Malwatte Maha Viharaya.)

Hope has been murdered, but there is no reason to despair.

Had the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government continued to meander its accustomed way, by 2020, it would have reached the depths of unpopularity. Its policy and its conduct would have driven many of its supporters either into Rajapaksa arms or into disillusionment, despair and eventually inactivity, including not-voting.

The anti-constitutional crimes of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combo have caused a drastic change in the politico-psychological landscape, by casting into sharp relief what is at stake. The crisis is no ordinary crisis. The choices we make today would decide whether we remain citizens or we return to a subject-hood worse than earlier.

The challenge is far harder than that of 2015. It can be faced only if the UNP understands a basic truth; it cannot win this election alone, whether its leader is Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa or someone else. This is an election about the fate of democracy and it must be fought as such. If it is fought along party lines, the UNP will be lucky to get 35% of the vote (at the LG polls it barely reached 30%; that was before the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy and the deadly fuel pricing formula).

Only the broadest possible democratic coalition has a chance to resist the revitalised Rajapaksa juggernaut. The UNP has to be a part of it, together with the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC and all other parties opposed to the serial violation of the constitution. This battle requires the most inclusive tent. It is a battle that must be waged, and waged right, irrespective of the outcome. In the Odyssey that is history, Ithaca is only a way-station.