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Monday, July 22, 2024

A New Cabinet, But Political Balance Still Precarious

 by Laksiri Fernando-

The election victory of the common opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, can be characterized as a victory for democracy in its broadest meaning of the term. However, the specificities of the future processes of democracy or good governance are still to be worked out, not to speak of reconciliation for the moment. Not that I am considering reconciliation as secondary, but it should go hand in hand with democracy and good governance. If we get the house in order, we might be able to live like a family.

When a major political transition takes place in a country all cannot go in an ideal manner at least at the beginning. There is a permissible margin for realpolitik. However, it should not be ‘dirty politics’ like under the old regime. Samaraweera’s statement can be a warning or even a threat.

If not for that victory of Maithriplala Sirisena, who is already our President, the already fragile Sri Lanka’s democracy could have deteriorated into a one-party dominant state with a mixture of family oligarchy, corrupt bureaucracy and ethnocratic majoritarianism. Major elements of the equation were already there by the time of the elections. That is why a decisive change was necessary. There is no need to say that Sri Lanka has a mammoth military of over 200,000 to back all these evils, if need be. The expansion and strengthening of the military were not only a product of the war, but also the post-war politics moving steadily away from the norms of democracy.

Just because the defeated president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was compelled to leave the office peacefully when the results became clear, it should not be taken as an indication of his commitment to democracy or people’s verdict. Equally fallacious is the notion that everything is now hunky-dory. It is said that although the outgoing president attempted to tempt the military, the police and the legal department to support him in cancelling the election results, they were not amenable to the suggestion as good Samaritans of democracy.

Cabinet of ministers, Daily Mirror graphic
Cabinet of ministers, Daily Mirror graphic

It is true that the Election Commissioner was quite courageous at the last stages. So much so he even threatened to ‘shoot on the head’ if anyone breaks the law or make mischief on the Election Day. The military or the police spokespersons were much more sober. One may argue that the Election Commissioner was correct because that is the language that the people or the miscreants know. If that is the case, then it speaks very poorly on the notions of rule of law or democracy that the country at present entertains.

This is the same kind of democracy that the last president Rajapaksa was advocating. After the war, he wanted to solve the minority problem in the country by declaring that ‘there is no minorities’ in Sri Lanka. There are only ‘patriots and traitors,’ he said. He also gave quite a ‘post-modernist’ interpretation to good governance saying that what is good in governance is what produces results. Therefore, it is not that he was not committed to democracy or good governance as such, but his commitment was entirely different to the known principles. According to which there is nothing wrong if someone makes even a 30 percent commission of a contract, if the project is completed on time successfully.

He even was committed to elections. He always wanted to call elections before the scheduled time including the last presidential elections. He perhaps genuinely believed that there is nothing wrong in using the state resources or breaking the election laws because he knows what is best for the people. After all he was the leader who liberated the people from brutal terrorism. Therefore, he has a ‘divine right’ to do so. Not only had he believed that he has some superhuman qualities but some people did the same. Even a defected MP wrote to him saying that ‘your excellency is only next to God.’

After all he obtained 5.7 million votes at the elections. Some of them are extremist sections of the Southern constituencies. As Alexis de Tocqueville said about the French revolution in his “Old Regime and the Revolution” (1856), ‘there are some rivers burying themselves in the earth and rise again to the surface later.’ Old regimes are like that. The corrupt ones are more so to the rule of surfacing, unless firm actions are not taken.

However, Mahinda Rajapaksa is bouncing back already. He has addressed his supporters in Tangalle, bracing his fists in agitation. Then he came to the SLFP headquarters in Colombo. He is planning to visit all the districts that he has won. This is in contrast to the demeanor of the President elect, Maithripala Sirisena, addressing the nation in Kandy on the same day. President was saying that ‘the country needs not a King but a true human being.’ He is true to his name, ‘Maithri’ – the compassionate.

However, there are contradictions emerging. The first outburst came from the actor-politician, Ranjan Ramanayake, who openly criticized, both the President and the Prime Minister, that they were too diplomatic towards the ousted President. Ramanayake, contradicted the claim that the outgoing president gracefully stepped down claiming that there was an attempted coup.

This line of thinking or claim became more prominent when Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister to be, gave a press briefing on the subject. The claim was unequivocal. The story has now become international. The “Sydney Morning Herald” also gave prominence to this story today (12 January 2015). Samaraweera has said “people think it was a peaceful transition. It was anything but.” More serious was his statement that “The first thing the new cabinet will investigate is the coup and conspiracy by president Rajapaksa…He stepped down only when the army chief and the police inspector general refused to go along with him.”

This is undoubtedly a serious statement although it is not the cabinet which should investigate the coup! If there is credible evidence, the investigations should start forthwith. The former president’s past immunity does not apply here. However, the country should not get the impression that the ‘new order’ is not different to the ‘old regime.’

When General Sarath Fonseka lost the presidential elections in 2010 he was arrested and prosecuted on various charges. It was utter vengeance. He was not in power other than being the army commander during the war against the LTTE. However, Rajapaksa is not like that. As I have characterized his regime, here and in many previous articles, he is undoubtedly implicated in so many deviations or atrocities. It is not only him but so many people of his cabinet and in the administration must have been involved in those violations or atrocities. Some must have already crossed over to the winning side now. Corruption was one of the main concerns of the people at the elections. However the investigations should be conducted in a procedural and not an arbitrary manner. The due process should be followed.

When a major political transition takes place in a country all cannot go in an ideal manner at least at the beginning. There is a permissible margin for realpolitik. However, it should not be ‘dirty politics’ like under the old regime. Samaraweera’s statement can be a warning or even a threat. Otherwise, an open statement is not very prudent without apprehending the perpetrators, if there were a serious threat of a coup. On the other hand if the ‘coup attempt’ was limited to an indirect sounding of opinion or possibilities, then it would be difficult to pin down the charges. Then it is quite reasonable or natural for Samaraweera to use the story to warn the people that Rajapaksa is not that innocent on the matter of transition.

There are other and more serious concerns in respect of power balance in the country. When the former president called for elections two years before the schedule, on 20 November, there were 158 members for the ruling UPFA or the government. Now it has dwindled to 125 or so. No one knows the numbers correctly unless a voting takes place in Parliament. For the sake of numbers, there is no point in taking defectors to the camp of Sirisena. Some of our politicians are completely unreliable, schooled particularly in Rajapaksa family politics. During the election campaign, there was a young local government politician who came for an opposition press briefing and then pledged his continued allegiance to the president. These things can happen even from ‘senior politicians’ who are not sure whether they are coming or going.

The most bizarre thing happened on Sunday, when a group of SLFP politicians defected to the Sirisena/UNP camp, or I must say President’s camp. There were very senior and even respectable politicians among them. They were however a handful in numbers. They said that the central committee of the SLFP has decided by majority vote to appoint the elected President, Mr. Sirisena, as the Chairman of the SLFP, implying that Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer the Chairman. They cited the party’s constitution in support of the decision.

This declaration of adventure if backed by the President himself, not only contradicts his pledge to the nation at the most sacred place of Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, inviting all parties to join in for a national government but also beyond the reality of truth. The invitation, if I had understood correctly, was for the existing SLFP or the UPFA to join in for a national government. If the ‘Democrats’ capture power in the SLFP in the future, that is well and good for democracy. However, that is not the case at present. Capturing or winning over power cannot be done through a press conference. There are so much of hard work to do as Maihripala Sirisena has already initiated. I also like to call the defected faction, the SLFP (Democrats), if they are really committed to democracy.

In politics, or in democratic politics, the best thing is to go by the existing realities based on simple truths. The President has now formed a new Cabinet with 27 Ministers. It is a cohesive body which can govern the country for the promised 100 days. The President is still within the schedule of his Diary.

There are 10 other State Ministers and 8 Deputy Ministers. It is still not a “National Government,” but can go towards that objective, later than sooner.

The new government does not need to bother much about the numbers in Parliament until that matter arises. If that matter arises, then the country can go for a new parliamentary election. We are still working under the existing constitutional framework which is an executive presidential system. If the new government tries to troop up the necessary numbers artificially in Parliament, then all the scums and crooks will soon be with them. Some are already there. It is better to be cautious than being unduly optimistic.

Let me wish well for the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as one who consistently campaigned for a democratic change in our beloved country of origin for the last three years.


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