“A polis ruled by one man is no polis at all.”
– Sophocles (Antigone)
Four years ago, a majority of Lankans elected Maithripala Sirisena as the country’s executive president.
A year from now, the country will be asked to elect its next executive president.
Can the mistakes of the past be avoided in the future?
What were the mistakes of the past?
With the memory of the recent anti-constitutional coup still raw, the readiest answer would be choosing Maithripala Sirisena as the common presidential candidate.
Hindsight enlightens. It also distorts. In 2015, the choice was a simple one – do we give Mahinda Rajapaksa a third presidential term, or do we not? If we wanted to evict the Rajapaksas from power, democratically, our last chance for it was the presidential election of 2015. Six more years of Rajapaksa rule, and Lankan democracy would have been vitiated beyond repair. As Anura Kumara Dissanayake said, “If the people fail to defeat the insane dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this point, there will be no turning back for Sri Lanka.”
That was the logic behind the selection of Maithripala Sirisena as the common presidential candidate. The outcome of the election proved the correctness of that logic.
The mistake was not the selection of Maithripala Sirisena. That was the right thing to do in 2014. The mistake was failing to hold him to his solemn public pledge to abolish the the executive presidency.
In his nine-year rule, Mahinda Rajapaksa had demonstrated the dictatorial dangers inherent in the Lankan presidential system. By 2014, that danger was clearly understood by a wide range of oppositional forces. In consequence, the demand to abolish the executive presidency gained new traction in oppositional circles.
On 21st November 2014, Maithripala Sirisena walked out of the Rajapaksa government, and publicly accepted the mantle of common presidential candidate. Addressing a media briefing, he expounded what he was offering the electorate. The first item on his list of pledges was the abolition of the executive presidency. Mr. Sirisena excoriated the executive presidency as a political and moral calamity, and a crucible of injustice. “We came to a clear decision with the UNP to abolish the executive presidency,” he stated. “I ask the people to give me power to abolish the executive presidency in 100 days.”
The mistake was to let that promise fade into the background, post-victory. The mistake was to be satisfied with the 19th Amendment. The mistake was to think that the executive presidency no longer contained a threat to democracy.
For that, the blame cannot be heaped on Mr. Sirisena alone. An equal share of the blame goes to the UNP.
Ranil Wickremesinghe dreamt of using the Rajapaksa-Sirisena divide in the SLFP to win the next presidential election, easily. His belief of a romp to victory was such that he paid scant heed to public sentiment, and violated the norms of good governance repeatedly. Sajith Premadasa (and perhaps Ravi Karunanayake) dreamt of ousting Ranil Wickremesinghe, and becoming the UNP’s next presidential candidate. The UNP ceased to champion the abolition of executive presidency.
Meanwhile, the plague bacillus of executive power was afflicting Maithripala Sirisena. He slowly abandoned all talk of abolishing the executive presidency or being a one-term president. He too had a new obsession – how to win a second term.
Had Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita Thero been alive, the pledge to abolish the executive presidency may not have faded from both political discourse and societal memory. In his absence, there was no one of sufficient stature to advocate the idea at the national level.
Another contributing factor was the mistaken belief (which this writer too shared) that the 19th Amendment had defanged the executive presidency, and rendered it sufficiently harmless.
Thus, the ground shifted, enabling the anti-constitutional coup of October 2018.
The anti-constitutional coup as a blessing in disguise
Where was the country on October 25th, the day before the coup?
In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena won thanks to the unified effort of a truly Lankan coalition. By 2018, that coalition was in tatters.
The government, by its actions and inactions, had antagonised most of its former allies. Many of the failures were needless. A political solution to the ethnic problem might be hard to achieve, but why the failure to build houses for the war-displaced in the North and the East? The anti-Muslim riots of Kandy might have taken the government unawares, but why the failure to prosecute the suspects, and punish the guilty? It might not be possible to totally stop the slide of the rupee, but why be so blasé about its impact on the living costs of ordinary Lankans? Why turn a blind eye to one’s own corruption? Why fail to convict a single political killer? This last failure looms with obscene starkness as we mark the tenth anniversary of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga.
Not even the drubbing it received at the local government polls could make the UNP face reality. The disastrous fuel-price formula became a symbol of the government’s unconcern about the plight of ordinary voters. The government just didn’t seem to care, whether it was about the effects of global warming on Sri Lanka, or the rapidly increasing Chinese footprint (public notice boards in government projects in Sinhala, English and Chinese, not Tamil!), the daily killing of elephants or the disastrous consequences of Norochchoali coal-power plant, corruption or child abuse. The recent horrific incident in Negombo where a dog was burnt to death served to highlight another one of the government’s avoidable failures – the non-enactment of the Animal Welfare Act. The government was sleepwalking into disaster, taking Lankan democracy along with it.
Perhaps the most striking measure of where we were before the anti-constitutional coup was the TNA’s (erroneous) decision to nominate Chamal Rajapaksa to the vitally important Constitutional Council. Thanks to the government’s idiocies, even the minorities were forgetting the danger presented by the Rajapaksas to the notion of a pluralist Sri Lanka.
Maithripala Sirisena’s coup, despite its massive downside, was a much needed knock-on-head for the somnambulant UNP. The prospect of the return of the Rajapaksas acted as an eye-opener. Ranil Wickremesinghe displayed unaccustomed resolution, and the UNP, by and large, rallied round.
Faced with that mortal threat to democracy, the 2015 coalition recreated itself. The valiant role played by the TNA and the JVP in defence of democracy was one of the most positive outcomes of the Sirisena-induced crisis. Speeches by parliamentarians MA Sumanthiran and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for instance, became essential reading, because they explained and interpreted the ongoing crisis from a national rather than a partisan point of view.
The spontaneous rallying around by ordinary people in defence of democracy and the rule of law was another key positive development of the last several months. The mistakes, inabilities and hypocrisies of the UNP-led administration had done much to alienate the very people who voted against the Rajapaksas twice in 2015. The anti-Rajapaksa, pro-democracy camp was so demoralised, scattered, inactive, its very existence was in doubt. That changed when the anti-constitutional coup happened, and the stakes facing the country became clear. Ordinary people did what they could to stand against the growing anti-democratic tide, be it taking part in demonstrations or signing a petition. That societal engagement is something new in Sri Lanka, and hopefully will continue to grow, post-crisis.
But the real hero of that saga was the judiciary. In the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court, all judges stood as one to face the challenge (including Justice Eva Wanasundera). As the Supreme Court judgement in the case on the dissolution of parliament stated, “…this court has time and time again stressed that our law does not permit vesting unfettered discretion upon any public authority whether it be the president or any officer of the state.”
The coup has given Lankan democracy a second chance to save itself, by reminding democrats everywhere of the impending Rajapaksa threat, and by highlighting the need to abolish the executive presidency before it falls into the hands of a leader who is more ruthlessly effective than Maithripala Sirisena.
This is no country for an executive presidency
Sri Lanka’s ancient past and its modern present render the country unsuitable for an executive presidency.
Executive presidency and democracy go in tandem generally in countries unburdened by a monarchical past, like the United States. France had a monarchical past, but she also made a republican revolution against monarchy, and beheaded a king for good measure. In ancient Lanka kings were killed by usurpers, and not by their own subjects under the banner of liberté, égalité, fraternité. In that crucial absence, the executive presidency gives rise to monarchical longings on one hand, and instincts of servility on the other.
The obvious danger facing Lankan democracy is a Rajapaksa winning the next presidential election. 19th Amendment may have placed Mahinda, Basil, Gotabhaya and Namal Rajapaksa out of the running, but no such disqualification hampers Chamal Rajapaksa. He will be a very effective candidate, both in terms of attracting supporters and disarming opponents.
Even if the Rajapaksas lose, who will win? Maithripala Sirisena fortunately cannot. That leaves Ranil Wickremesinghe – and as lesser possibilities, Sajith Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake. Do we have any reason to believe that any one of these leaders would conduct himself more democratically than Maithripala Sirisena, once the presidency is his?
The new president (whoever he is) is likely to dissolve the parliament as soon as possible, to enable his party to benefit from the knock-on effects of the presidential win. This would mean a parliamentary election around late March/early April. The chances are that one party/formation will gain control of both the executive and the legislature. How effective will the checks and balances introduced by the 19th Amendment in such a situation, when the prime minister is merely a minion of the president?
There is a glaring flaw in Lankan political system which renders the country particularly unsuitable to an executive presidency – the absence of inner-party democracy in any of the major political parties. For instance, many democracies with executive presidencies (the US, France, Chile etc) have systems or traditions necessitating major parties to hold primaries to choose their presidential nominee. In Sri Lanka, leaders remain leaders, and there are no democratic spaces within the main parties to challenge their stranglehold or policies. This absence of internal democracy can play a role in negating the achievements of the 19th Amendment.
When the Supreme Court gave its judgement on December 13th, Maithripala Sirisena accepted it. The importance of that acceptance cannot be overemphasised. According to some Sinhala media reports (notably Irida Divaina), his new ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, advised him to do the opposite, ignore unfavourable verdicts and plough ahead towards an unlawful election. Had Mr. Sirisena followed that advice, the repercussions would have been devastating. He didn’t. That alone, the fact that he is still a president willing to abide by extremely unfavourable judicial rulings, renders the choices of 2015 correct, even after cataclysms of the last three months.
As the prospect of electing the next president nears, the question assumes an increasing urgency – how do we ensure that the candidate we back does not do a Maithripala Sirisena or worse?
There is only one safe option – abolish the executive presidency.
If there is sufficient societal pressure to abolish the executive presidency, if parties like the JVP and the TNA can provide leadership to that demand, it might be hard for the UNP to refuse. The JVP’s draft 20th Amendment which envisages a president who is not the head of government, is elected by parliament, and cannot function as a member of a political party might be a good starting point.
The effort may succeed or it may not. But the effort must be made. Failing to do so would be a criminal folly, after what the anti-constitutional coup taught us.