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Absolute Power



John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th and early 20th century famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” Absolute power is what the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of the Rajapaksas won last Wednesday and the biggest challenge for President Gotabaya and brother Mahinda, who will continue as prime minister, is to ensure that Acton’s words do not come true in Sri Lanka. Theirs was a stunning victory belying even the wildest expectations of their most optimistic supporters. Conventional wisdom that nobody can obtain a two thirds majority under proportional representation, as JR Jayewardene intended, went with the wind with the SLPP and its allies tantalizingly close to that mark. One hundred and forty five was the official tally, seats won in the electorates plus the national least places – just five short of the magic number. But one must add Douglas Devananda’s two seats in the north to that total, as he is very much a part of the SLPP, having served even in the caretaker cabinet, and the single seat the SLFP won. Even former President Sirisena chose to run under the purple banner as did many other blues who knew the coming colour. No doubt the SLFP will be offered to the Rajapaksas and the UNP will strive to re-unite.

Who would believe that the greens would fail to get even a single MP elected? Most expected the Sajith Premadasa faction, which is also UNP, to do better than Ranil’s team notwithstanding the possession of Siri Kotha and the recent court judgment. Both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa must take the blame for the debacle they have suffered. It is not rocket science that united you stand and divided you fall. That is what has happened to both sides of the UNP. Ranil loyalists say Sajith was too greedy, having been anointed as the presidential candidate last November and been appointed the chairman of the Nomination Board.. He demanded the party leadership as well although his Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) had the UNP’s imprimatur. Premadasa chose not to remember that he had agreed to let Wickremesinghe lead the party till 2025. But Ranil also was greedy, having attained the party leadership by “fortuitous circumstances” (we borrow the words from W. Dahanayaka who used them when he succeeded SWRD Bandaranaike as prime minister) and continued for 27 long years through thick and thin.

He became prime minister and party leader following the assassinations of both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. two UNP stars of the JR era, eclipsed by Ranasinghe Premadasa who first became prime minister and then president. Wickremesinghe had four innings at the prime ministerial crease, though he didn’t serve a full term on any these occasions. He was unlucky to have lost the presidency to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 as the LTTE closed entry to the polling stations at that election and prevented voters living in areas they controlled from exercising their franchise. These were votes that Ranil would have polled. But that was not to be. He must also be given credit for subordinating his own interests in 2015 and throwing the UNP’s weight behind Maithripala Sirisena who the combined opposition fielded against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common candidate. Siresena could and would not have won that election without UNP backing. Thereafter Wicremesinghe, whatever his own ambitions, conceded his party’s presidential ticket to Premadasa last November.

What the UNP would do with the solitary National List seat it has won has not been decided at the time of writing. A wag remarked that Wickremesinghe would appoint another one of those committees he’s famous for to decide who should take that place! A correspondent, in a letter we publish today quotes Mangala Samaraweera saying that Ranil was the best president we never had. Karu Jauyasuriya was also described as the best leader the UNP never had. That was Ranil’s doing. Despite his admiriation of Wickremesinghe, Samaraweera, notwithstanding his subsequent backdown, threw in his lot with Premadasa as did the vast majority of the UNP’s 106 MPs in the last Parliament. They eloquently expressed the overwhelming majority view within the party of who the better leader would be – at least to win the election. But Wickremesinghe chose not to listen. That he lost even his own seat at Colombo Central, one of the UNP’s strongest bastions, was the result.

What now? The leaders of the two main parties, the SLPP and both factions of the UNP, failed the people massively by nominating the vast majority of those who sat in the last Parliament for re-election. Most of them, certainly from the Pohottuwa, have been re-elected despite the questionable reputations of many. This is the nature of politics – especially landslides when herd instincts takeover. Will the Rajapaksas, faced with the stiffest possible economic challenge in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, be willing to take the impossibly hard decisions that the situation demands? There is a strong conviction within knowledgeable circles that big business firmly believes that President Gotabaya is the country’s only hope. He has demonstrated ability to deliver not only as Defence Secretary during the war, but also as Secretary for Urban Development thereafter. There is optimism that he would do what is right leaving the politics to brothers Mahinda and Basil.

Constitutional change, or at least amendment by repealing 19A, was spoken of from most SLPP platforms during this campaign and the one before which propelled GR into office. This was despite a severely adverse minority vote. But the majority community ensured his comfortable election althopugh it did give the victory a racial tinge. Hopefully the baby will not be thrown with the bathwater and the two-term limit, the Constitutional Council, Right to Information, and the Independent Commissions will, with appropriate changes, remain in the statute. After all the Elections Commission ran a fine election, in the teeth of many difficulties, for which it must be congratulated. So also the different political parties and their hot blooded supporters for keeping this election violence free.


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Gallup polls and G-strings



Thursday 11th August 2022

The results of an opinion survey, released recently, indicate that JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is leading where the public approval ratings of the candidates who vied for the presidency in Parliament last month are concerned. Dissanayake leads the survey on trust in leaders to do the right thing to resolve the economic crisis, with 48.5%, followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (36.6%), Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (29.1%) and Dullas Alahapperuma (23.7%).

The outcome of the aforesaid opinion poll is likely to make the JVP believe that it stands a better chance of shoring up its image and improving its electoral performance if it remains independent of the grand alliance thought to be in the making, and acts as the Opposition. If all other parties represented in Parliament join forces with the SLPP to form a unity government officially, then the post of the Opposition Leader will have to go to the JVP; that is the basis on which TNA leader R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader in 2015.

However, it is not advisable for anyone to go solely by opinion/polls survey results in making vital decisions, for public opinion could be as elusive as the weather; forecasts thereof could go wrong, and some politicians who disregard this fact have found themselves up the creek without a paddle. What befell Keith James Locke, a New Zealand Green Party member, may serve as an example. In the run-up to the 2005 election, he was so confident of victory in his electorate because of Gallup polls predictions favourable to him that he undertook to run across Epsom, in the buff, if his rival won. Unfortunately for him, the pollsters’ predictions went wrong, and he lost! Under pressure from the media and his political rivals, he carried out his promise; he made a dash across the Auckland suburb, wearing a G-string with bodypainting depicting a full suit!

Even in the US, where pollsters employ advanced methods to gather data and analyse them, the Gallup polls results went wrong as regards the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Polls forecasters confidently placed Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning at between 70% to 99%! But Donald Trump came from behind to beat her. It may be argued that Clinton won the popular vote, but the fact remains that Trump secured the presidency. Pollsters also failed to predict the outcome of the British general election in 2015.

One may recall that in Sri Lanka, too, something similar happened at the 2015 presidential election. All secret opinion surveys commissioned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ahead of that election predicted a landslide win for the sitting President, but his main rival, Maithripala Sirisena proved to be a dark horse. Rajapaksa did not know what hit him. Even Sirisena may not have expected to pull off such an upset victory.

Sri Lankan pollsters may be familiar with the idea of ‘shy Trumpers’, which came into being during the 2016 US presidential election; many Americans did not want to identify themselves as the supporters of Trump, during surveys, due to his undesirable behaviour but approved his policies and voted for him. Likewise, there may not be a dearth of ‘shy Rajapaksers’ in the Sri Lanka polity, and the beleaguered Family may be planning a comeback a la Bongbong Marcos of the Philippines. This may be the reason why they enabled two non-SLPP members, Wickremesinghe (UNP) and Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) to secure the presidency and the premiership respectively and function as placeholders, while enjoying life, until the time is opportune for the Family members to crawl out of the woodwork.

President Wickremesinghe has likened his unenviable task to that of Grusha, who carries a baby across a collapsing rope bridge, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That, we believe, is an understatement of his daunting mission; he is carrying a much heavier burden—a full-grown, former ruggerite, who is the son of not just a former Governor but an ex-President, no less!

As for surveys and statistical analysis of public opinion, it behoves politicians to tread cautiously. Prudence demands that they keep an ear to the ground, and factor in all political developments and trends in making crucial decisions, instead of being carried away by survey results.

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Reds at sea



Wednesday 10th August, 2022

The JVP has refused to join the proposed all-party government, calling it a ruse to perpetuate the Rajapaksa rule, in all but name, with President Ranil Wickremesinghe being at the beck and call of the SLPP leadership. What the country needs is an interim government pending an early general election because the SLPP’s popular mandates have expired, the JVP says. This is an interesting argument.

Mid-term elections are the best way to ascertain public opinion about a government in power, and this is why the SLPP has postponed the local government polls indefinitely, but it has been losing the co-operative society elections, which are considered a political windsock in that they help gauge popular support for a government. Popularly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has resigned, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the SLPP’s general election campaign in 2020 and obtained a mandate for the party, has stepped down; Ranil Wickremesinghe, who did not run for President and failed to secure his parliamentary seat, has become the President with the help of the SLPP. Thus, the current dispensation has lost legitimacy, as the JVP claims. It is like a third-rate mega teledrama dragging on without the title character.

It is being argued in some quarters that the SLPP administration is constitutionally empowered to complete its full term because it has a working majority in Parliament; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s successor has been elected by the legislature in the constitutionally prescribed manner, and therefore the government has a legitimate right to remain in power, and there is no need for a snap general election. But what is constitutionally permitted and approved by Parliament does not necessarily become legitimate or morally right or acceptable to the public. The 18th and 20th Amendments introduced by the Rajapaksas to enhance the executive powers of the President may serve as examples. They passed muster with the Supreme Court, in the bill form, and were ratified by Parliament with two-thirds majorities, but the very MPs who voted for the 18th Amendment, overwhelmingly supported the 19th Amendment, which curtailed the presidential powers, in 2015; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had the 20th Amendment ratified for self-aggrandisement, finally agreed to deep-six it. In 2018, the UNP government succeeded in securing a majority in the House and defeating a bid to dislodge it, but it suffered massive electoral setbacks in 2019 and 2020. So much for the public acceptability of parliamentary majorities!

The JVP, however, has a history of propping up crumbling regimes and supporting governments while being in the Opposition; in 2018, it defended the UNP-led UNF government vis-à-vis a bid by the then President Maithripala Sirisena, and Mahinda Rajapaksa to wrest control of Parliament. It voted with the UNP, enabling the latter to retain a working majority in the House. The JVP was also a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) set up by the Yahapalana government in 2015 purportedly to strengthen democracy; the NEC consisted of political parties with parliamentary representation, and some civil society outfits. Subsequently, the JVP pulled out of the NEC, which became defunct. In 2001, the JVP offered to shore up the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which was teetering on the brink of collapse, owing to a spate of crossovers, and undertook to introduce the 17th Amendment, curtailing the powers of the Executive President. So, President Wickremesinghe may be able to enlist the JVP’s support if he can assure the outfit that the all-party government on the anvil will be an interim one. Such an arrangement will go a long way towards restoring political and social order.

What the JVP ought to bear in mind is that the time is opportune for making some progressive laws that the country is badly in need of. The Executive Presidency is like an attenuated virus in a vaccine; the incumbent President is without popular support, and the SLPP fears the public. It is hoped that the JVP and other political parties that claim to be pro-people will not squander this opportunity. As the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera famously said, rotis must be baked while the griddle is hot.

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Mahadenamutta and his golayas



Tuesday 9th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is no doubt a land like no other. Nowhere else in the world are intellectually-challenged, self-important characters are allowed to go places as leaders, causing irreparable damage to vital sectors, especially the economy. Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for not only suffering fools gladly but also electing and deifying them.

Mahadenamutta, a self-proclaimed pundit who always comes out with stupid solutions which turn out to be worse than the problems he undertakes to sort out, is a character we come across in local folk stories, the most interesting being the one where he has a goat beheaded to save a pot, which its head is stuck in, and then gets the pot smashed to extricate the poor animal’s head. But going by what is unfolding in this country, one wonders whether Mahadenamutta actually lived here and his descendants are holding responsible positions in politics and in the state service.

Some Wildlife Department officers have proved that they are proud descendants of Mahadenamutta by carrying out a rescue operation in Hatton. In a bid to save a leopard, they felled a tall tree, on which the animal had got stuck while escaping from a wire trap. The falling tree crushed the poor creature, and then the officers removed the trap! Minister Mahinda Amaraweera lost no time in ordering an investigation into the incident, and this is a baby step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done to save wild animals that stray into villages and estates.

Leopards continue to perish in traps and at the hands of villagers and hunters in the hill country; these endangered creatures must be protected and those who harm them severely dealt with. Leopards invade villagers as their natural habitat is fast shrinking owing to human activity. Instead of conserving forests, the government has, in its wisdom, introduced a scheme where their buffer zones are released for agricultural purposes. If this disastrous policy is followed and the ruling party supporters are allowed to clear the areas necessary for the recovery and natural expansion of forests, people will have more wild animals roaming in their villages, and the Wildlife Department will go on cutting down many more trees with animals trapped thereon!

Wildlife officers are not alone in emulating Mahadenamutta. It is also thanks to the Mahadenamutta in the garb of political leaders and servile panjandrums that the national economy has collapsed on the hapless public, crushing them, so to speak. They slashed taxes recklessly to win elections, and threw around billions of rupees by way of pandemic relief for political reasons, printed colossal amounts of money, defended the rupee at the expense of the country’s foreign currency reserves and then opted for a free float of the rupee. They refused to seek IMF assistance last year despite warnings by the Central Bank experts and other economists. A blanket ban was imposed on agrochemicals in the name of green agriculture, which should have been implemented in stages; it was lifted after it had ruined the agricultural sector and incensed the farming community beyond measure. Having thus caused the economy to collapse, the ruling party Mahadenamuttas are now trying to resurrect it by undoing what they did.

The Wildlife officers responsible for the leopard’s death are now up a gum tree, but the Mahadenamuttas in kapati suit and their bureaucratic golayas or pupils have got off scot-free, to all intents and purposes despite having ruined the economy and reduced the country to penury.

When Parliament was prorogued the other day, the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) had begun questioning some government officials responsible for bankrupting the country. The COPE now stands dissolved and will have to be reconstituted fast. It will become compliant and stop investigating how the economy was ruined unless its former members are reappointed with Prof. Charitha Herath as its head. One can only hope that all those who have caused the people to be crushed under a heavy economic burden just like the poor leopard in Hatton will be brought to justice.

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