Wednesday 23rd December, 2020
Former President Maithripala Sirisena maintains a very low profile, but he is in the news again. He has waxed eloquent, at a recent virtual symposium under the theme, Shared values and Democracy in Asia’, on what he considers his contribution to the strengthening of democracy in Sri Lanka on his watch as the President. Some of his claims have attracted heavy criticism in social media.
Sirisena never misses an opportunity to claim that it was his desire to bring about good governance that made him break ranks with the Rajapaksa government in 2014, beat then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential race the following year and help install the UNP-led yahapalana administration after bringing down the UPFA government. This claim, not to put too fine a point on it, is a mistruth. He is on record as having said that when he was a minister in the UPFA government, he did his best to dissuade President Rajapaksa from advancing the presidential election, which was due in 2016. He has also claimed that he left the Rajapaksa regime to save democracy. How can he reconcile these two contradictory statements? If Sirisena had succeeded in persuading President Rajapaksa to complete his second term without opting for a snap presidential election, the Rajapaksa government would have lasted another year or so; Sirisena would not have had any qualms about being in that administration, which he later condemned as a repressive regime. One may recall that Sirisena voted for the 18th Amendment, which vested unbridled powers in the executive presidency, did away with the presidential term limit, and enabled President Rajapaksa to bulldoze his way through during his second term.
What really drove Sirisena to break ranks with the Rajapaksa government, in 2014, was not any desire to protect democracy but his frustration; he had been eyeing the premiership. There were others with prime ministerial ambitions, and he was convinced that he would not be able to achieve his goal. Had he been appointed the Prime Minister, he would not have left the UPFA government in 2014.
Sirisena was lucky to win the presidency, but he did not whittle down powers in that position of his own volition. The 19th Amendment came into being because the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to consolidate his power in the yahapalana government; he was instrumental in having the executive presidency stripped of vital powers and the presidential term reduced to five years. Sirisena only consented to the UNP’s project for want of a better alternative. He was too dependent on the UNP for his political survival to offer resistance. In 2018, he made a mockery of his commitment to upholding democracy by joining forces with the very Rajapaksas, whom he had condemned as a bunch of self-seeking politicians ruining democratic institutions, to topple the yahapalana government. His plan to win over the SLFP dissidents in the Joint Opposition/SLPP and run for President (in 2019) fell through owing to the collapse of the hurriedly formed government, which lasted only 52 days. The Easter Sunday terror strikes, etc., ruined his chances of seeking a second term. Ironically, Mahinda, who as the President did not appoint Sirisena the PM, had to serve as the PM under the latter albeit for a few weeks!
Sirisena, who deserted the Rajapaksas while being a Cabinet minister as he was unable to achieve his prime ministerial goal, won the presidency, went all out to destroy the Rajapaksas politically, is now back in a Rajapaksa government as an ordinary MP. Worse, his party, the SLFP, voted with the SLPP to do away with the 19th Amendment, which he used to flaunt as his biggest achievement in politics. He and his betes noires have proved that they have no sense of shame, and act out of expediency rather than principle.
Aragalaya goes home
The goal of the Galle Face protest or the Aragalaya was to send the Rajapaksas home. On 09 May, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa went home. On 09 June, Basil Rajapaksa went home, and on 09 July President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to go home. On 09 August, the Aragalaya went home, as cynics say! The incumbent government, which is a Rajapaksa regime in all but name, is cock-a-hoop, thinking that its strongarm tactics have helped bring public protests under control; it is now reverting to old ways.
The fact that the JVP, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), and their allies and sympathisers including former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka failed to bring large crowds to Colombo on 09 August for the ‘final battle’ has given the lie to their claim that they deserve the credit for the success of the 09 July uprising, which led to the ouster of President Rajapaksa. If it is true that they were instrumental in bringing so many people for the march on the President’s House, will they explain why they miserably failed on 09 August?
Similarly, the failure of the ‘final battle’ launched by the JVP, FSP and others has disproved the government’s claim that all those who took part in the previous protests are anarchists sympathetic to some ultra-radical political groups, and therefore the use of military force against them is justifiable. Now, it has become clear that most protesters who thronged the city on 09 July were resentful people, and some organised groups with hidden political agendas used public anger to compass their political ends. Hence the need to separate the irate public from troublemakers, and resolve the issues that make the ordinary public take to the streets.
The Galle Face protest movement started off as an agitation similar to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest in the US, and was leaderless at the beginning; one may recall that the JVP, which had no control over the protest initially, warned that such an uprising would spell disaster for democracy. Thereafter, the JVP, the FSP, etc., gained control of the Aragalaya systematically. The UNP also had a considerable presence at the protest site, as former UNP MP Ashu Marasinghe has admitted. The protest gathered momentum with thousands of angry people, mostly youth, joining it, and some businesses and expatriate Sri Lankans providing assistance; most well-wishers of the protesters remained anonymous. There appeared signs of the Galle Face protest losing steam in early May, but the SLPP goons carried out a savage attack on it, giving it a new lease of life and triggering a wave of retaliatory violence, which was carried out in a systematic manner; organised arson attacks and other crimes were similar to the ones carried out in the late 1980s.
Perhaps, the Galle Face protest would not have snowballed into a mass uprising, much less led to the ouster of President Rajapaksa, but for the aggravation of the economic woes of the public. Oil and gas supplies came to a halt, and inflation continued to gallop, driving the people to protest.
When Ranil Wickremesinghe became the President, fuel and LP gas supplies resumed all of a sudden, and an effort to form an all-party government got underway, infusing the public with some hope. People have chosen to act with restraint, as a result. This, we believe, is the reason why the 09 August protest flopped. But, worryingly, the promised political change as well as economic relief remains a will-o’-the-wisp, and if the government fails to maintain a continuous fuel supply, bring down the cost of living, and form an interim, all-party government, pressure is bound to build up in the polity again and find expression in mass uprisings despite the ongoing hunt for the self-proclaimed protest leaders. Rulers are always left without any defence when a tsunami of public anger makes landfall.
The government has made the mistake of causing an affront to the intelligence of the people who are calling for a radical political change and tangible economic relief. Instead of trying to live up to their expectations, it is planning to appoint a jumbo Cabinet and lure Opposition MPs into joining it so as to retain its hold on power until the expiration of the current parliamentary term.
One of the main criticisms that Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and their Yahapalana allies levelled against the Rajapaksa government ahead of the 2015 presidential election was that it maintained a massive Cabinet at the expense of the public to engineer crossovers. They introduced the 19th Amendment, limiting the number of Cabinet members to 30 and that of other ministers to 40, but made a mockery of their bona fides by craftily inserting a section to remove that limit in case of the formation of a national government. Dissident SLPP MP Gevindu Kumaratunga has told Parliament that the original 22nd Amendment Bill unveiled by the government initially did not contain any provision for expanding the Cabinet, but it has been smuggled into the Bill submitted on Wednesday! Thus, the government has unwittingly shown its hand. The people will be burdened with a jumbo Cabinet, again!
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration is apparently labouring under the delusion that it could cling on to power with the help of crossovers, and coercion will help overcome anti-government protests. Unfortunately, it has, in its wisdom, chosen to test the people’s patience again and is playing with fire, instead of making a serious effort to defuse tensions in the polity by eliminating the causes of public discontent, and making life less miserable for the ordinary public.
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.
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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