Reporting on Sri Lanka’s current political situation can be quite exciting. However, commenting on it is difficult and hazardous. The reason is simple. The current politics in our country is in flux. Events appear and disappear so rapidly and unexpectedly that identifying any patterns and regularities in the political process, which are so crucial for political analysis, is not easy. It is not very clear who is actually in charge, or who is setting the political agenda. The analysis made in the morning may have to be discarded in the afternoon, and a new, tentative one would be needed to make sense of what happens in the evening. then, the morning after? It can very well be another day of uncertainty.
Watching all the confusion about the 19th Amendment, just before its latest version is presented to parliament, several possibilities, or scenarios, seem to emerge. The following are a few plausible ones:
• The 19th Amendment would be passed with amendments in such a way that its original purpose of substantially reforming the executive presidential system within a framework of democratic constitutionalism would be distorted beyond recognition. It is the SLFP’s new constitutional team of Nimal Siripala de Silva and G. L. Peiris who seem to be spearheading this campaigning of sabotaging the 19th Amendment, obviously on behalf of the former President Mahinda Rajapakse. The duo is emboldened by the UNP’s machinations to get a version of 19th Amendment to serve its own political agenda. President Maithripala Sirisena’s lack of control over the SLFP parliamentary group, and perhaps the Central Committee as well, has made things worse for the poor 19th Amendment. If passed, such a 19th Amendment will only serve the narrow interests of some sections of the political class of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese society.
• The 19th Amendment would be defeated, failing to secure the two-thirds majority support in parliament. In such a scenario, either the SLFP parliamentary group will try to wrest control of the government through its parliamentary majority, or President Sirisena will be forced to dissolve parliament and call for fresh parliamentary elections.
Both these possibilities are equally plausible. The easiest shortcut for the Rajapakses to return to power is through a parliamentary vote, which would be both legal and legitimate. The Rajapakse faction of the SLFP and UPFA is convinced of the urgent need of returning to power right now, in the context of the Sirisena-Wckremesighe government’s new resolve to take action against alleged corruption involving members of the Rajapakse family and their close associates. Thus, the staging of a ‘counter-revolution’ through parliamentary means is both urgent and probable. Such a change of government would push the UNP out of power and into opposition. President Sirisena, with all the powers available under the unchanged 1978 constitution and the 18th Amendment, would still be a hostage of the parliamentary group of the party he himself leads!
This is the worst – case scenario for the UNP, President Sirisena and his SLFP supporters, and all those other political parties and citizens’ movements who worked towards political reforms through regime change. It would be the best-case scenario for the Rajapakse family, their loyalists, and most of the SLFP and the UPFA MPs.
The option of dissolving parliament, still available to President Sirisena soon after the most important clauses of the 19th Amendment are defeated in parliament, is perhaps the best alternative, from the point of his reform agenda. Dissolution will enable President Sirisena and the UNP to resolve the fundamental contradiction they have been finding themselves in since January 09, 2015. That contradiction is the mismatch between the political agendas of the President and his cabinet on one hand, and the composition of parliament, with a SLFP majority, which is not a part of the government.
Now, we have an executive branch of the government with a constitutional reform mandate, and a parliament without, and in fact largely opposed to, such a mandate. And to make matters worse, the majority entity in parliament has been sabotaging the constitutional reform initiative of the executive.
Without resolving this contradiction, there will be no way out from the present constitutional-political impasse. In that impasse, President Sirisena is in a real political quandary, emanating from his own values and style of politics. He is not using the tactics of intimidation and political corruption etc., ably employed by his predecessor, to garner the necessary two-thirds majority for constitutional alterations. At the same time, President Sirisena’s tactic of moral persuasion and political reasoning does not seem to have worked so far with most members of a corrupt and selfish political class. It is most likely to work with the people, the electorate, who are obviously disgusted with the way in which the self-swerving class of politicians is holding the democratic constitutional reform process hostage.
As it became quite clear in his recent television/radio address, President Sirisena’s moral reasoning and humble political appeal based on reason, political moderation, patience, and common sense, not only stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor’s super-man image and demagogy of his troopers; it is also the most effective personal political weapon any politician in Sri Lanka seems to posses today in communicating with the ordinary people and the voters. What his opponents and critics see as his weakness is in fact President’s Sirisena’s strength in the current political conjuncture. It is a reservoir of political capital that can be effectively used in a parliamentary election as well. And, it should be used before it becomes irrelevant in the unpredictable morass of power struggles that are only going to be worsened.
Once the parliamentary polls are announced, we can see a new configuration of political forces emerging. The National Democratic Front (NDF), which brought the opposition to victory at the January presidential election, is not likely to be revived. Differences among the NDF partners have become so sharpened during the past three months that they have already drifted away in their own individual directions. A parliamentary election will also split the SLFP, since a rapprochement between the Sirisena and Rajapakse factions is not possible under present circumstances.
A pre-electoral coalition between the UNP and a Maithripala faction of the SLFP may not be possible either, primarily because of the SLFP’s inherent mental bloc towards the UNP and Ranil Wickremasinghe. Beside, the UNPers might not want to share seats with the SLFP in a coalition arrangement for obvious reasons of maximizing partisan gains. ‘Let us contest separately and come together later’ seems to be the UNP’s electoral message to President Sirisena. However, if the UNP, Maithri faction of the SLFP, and other parties who support the government now can form a broad pre-election coalition for the parliamentary election, seeking a mandate from the people to reform the constitution, that would be the dream scenario one can visualize. But, in a society where political optimism borders on naivety, it is better to be pessimistic about political dreams.
Meanwhile, a new parliamentary election is not likely to enable any single party to emerge victorious with a clear parliamentary majority. In a most probable scenario, when both factions of the SLFP are weakened, the UNP will stand to gain; yet still not being in a position to secure a majority in parliament. The most likely outcome of the parliamentary polls, if held in June-July under the existing PR system, would be for the UNP to gain the highest number of seats, still short of a parliamentary majority. The SLFP under President Sirisena and the new political formation of the Rajapakse loyalists may come second and third respectively. This will open up the important possibility for the formation of a new coalition government, with a popular mandate to carry out its democratic constitutional reform agenda.
Early dissolution of parliament and fresh parliamentary elections is the best democratic option available to break the present political impasse in Sri Lanka. Let us hope that President Sirisena and the UNP will agree to pursue that path.