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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Second-rate 19A Better Than No 19A – Kumar David

If one were to make a fair and sober evaluation of the Ranil-Sirisena (R&S; the order is intentional) administration, the judgement of history would be that it was not a failure but it achieved less than it could and should have. The big achievement of course was that it happened at all – it was a vehicle that by its mere happening ended the abominable Mahinda Rajapaksa proto-dictatorship. The credit goes to thousands, including Ranil and Sirisena, who stuck out their necks and fought abuse of entrenched power and astronomical amounts of money. January 8 in itself was the apogee of this achievement. Further achievements are the change of provincial governors and the dismissal of a rat donned in the mantle of a CJ, a malevolent UGC Chair and rotten eggs in the state and corporate sectors. The Weliamuna Board of Inquiry into corruption in Sri Lanka Airlines is an exemplar of more that could have been done but was not. High marks must be awarded for the suffused but significant change in the long prevalent mood of Sinhalese-Tamil hostility which has been noticeably alleviated. And finally, President Sirisena and his charming and dignified wife have enhanced Lanka’s image in the foreign capitals they visited.

No one can achieve much more than circumstances permit. The impediment confronting R&S is that the balance of power was only slightly in their favour. Sirisena’s winning margin was modest and he polled less than MR among the muscular Sinhalese majority. Problematically the R&S combo does not command a parliamentary majority. On the subjective side, R&S’s character weaknesses (aversion to mobilisation, abstaining from risk taking), poor judgement (choice of Defence Secretary and Governor of Central Bank) and the silence of the radical and leftist allies who should have rebuked Candidate Sirisena when he reneged on abolishing the Executive Presidency, all contributed to the under achievements of the administration. The two big shortcomings, nay let us call a spade a spade and say failures, of this government are first that 19A is a disappointment, and second that R&S have not set about systematically uprooting the Mafia State per se but confined themselves only to exposing a few egregious cases – actually only one, Sri Lankan Airlines.

19A: Today’s flop, tomorrow’s hazard

I am a puzzled that no other commentator in the print or electronic media, as far as I know, has picked up on the terrible Achilles of 19A; its design for the coexistence of two equally strong centres of state/governmental power. I am puzzled that no one else perceives that future constitutional deadlock is staring Lanka in the face. The system proposed in 19A has been compared with, but it is worse than the French system of government. In France too president and parliament (National Assembly) are separately elected by direct mass suffrage. When the two are from different parties and ideologies, not much gets done in government. France has a long (albeit four times interrupted) democratic tradition going back to 1789, hence De Gaulle’s post-1958 Fifth Republic has survived through compromises. But when crisis arrives in Lanka it will be destructive partisan attrition.

Conflict is softened by the existence of the French Senate with powers similar to the National Assembly. Legislation may be submitted or amended in either house. A Senate with muscle can ease conflict between president and parliament. Senators are elected by 150,000 Regional, Departmental (these are smaller regional units) and city councillors, mayors and members of the National Assembly. It has bargaining power; it is not a shadow or a phantom. In Lanka the Council of State (CoS) proposed in 19A is a feeble spook endowed merely with an advisory role. Over 80% of its members will be dummies nominated by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

It is a pity that there has been no discussion of what will be major impediments to the stability of the state in time to come – the creation of two equi-potential power centres in president and parliament and an emasculated CoS. Nevertheless a lousy 19A is better than no-19A if the alternative is to allow the current constitution to survive unchanged. Repealing 18A, reintroducing presidential term limits and bringing back the checks and controls envisaged in 17A are small mercies worth two cheers though the president now stands taller than in the Gazetted version of 19A.

The ruling of the Supreme Court stripping the prime minister of certain powers over the Cabinet, unless approved at a referendum, is impeccable. The supporters of constitutional change landed in a mess by accommodating Sirisena’s backtracking on his pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP). As father of the Single Issue (abolish EP), Common Candidate (this has been successful), strategy, I find myself unhappily vindicated. After the Supreme Court ruling the government with a neither-here-nor-there muddle on its hands naturally has funked a referendum. A single minded strategy to abolish EP and restore the essence of 17A (18A falls by the wayside) would have been doable. The forces that would have mobilised if campaign promises were kept were substantial and a referendum could have been won. It is of course certain that the Supreme Court would have insisted on a referendum for the complete abolition of the executive presidency.

I will move on after one tangential comment. I do not think President Sirisena will precipitate a conflict with parliament if after the next election the SLFP fails to secure a majority. He is not overtly power hungry and has said he will not seek a second term – maybe he will keep his word this time. The perils emerge later, after Sirisena, after the Sirisena-Ranil honeymoon.

The mafia state plods on

The electronic media is replete with salacious humour after the Weliamuna BoI report. One says the airline should re-brand itself Airborne Bordello for Highflying Hookers; another asks if the Big Boy dipped in the honey pots too. In all this spice and levity two important concerns are in danger of being lost. Firstly, so far as cases of transgression go, the airline example is but one of many and though the most lurid, not the worst case of financial sleaze. The country has been purloined of far greater amounts in the Highways Ministry (expressway projects) and in schemes handled by Basil. It is not the Weliamuna BoI report, important as it is, that should be our focus but the other, bigger cases that have not been addressed. The second point is a bigger picture. These phenomena are studded into a nationwide statist network of fraud and violence of high leaders in cahoots with an army of cronies – the Mafia State.

The Ranil-Sirisena government has not taken on these two big challenges and been content with a piecemeal approach to some politically less sensitive cases; that is cases not involving the three younger Rajapaksa siblings (the Speaker is not a party to any alleged criminal offence). One or a combination of three reasons are ascribed to this hesitation; there was/is a tacit understanding among leaders not to hound each other, or R&S lack the guts and balls to go for a big kill in circumstances where their power is constrained by political reality, or thirdly maybe they need to sustain a working relationship with sections of the SLFP to secure votes for the passage of, an albeit now castrated 19A, by the requisite two thirds parliamentary majority.

For one or a combination of these reasons the government is fighting the corruption issue with one hand tied behind its back and it is not motivated to make a broad frontal attack on the Mafia State. It made a wide platform of election promises that it cannot deliver within 100 days; instead it should have focussed on an ‘Abolish EP’ slogan, winning a referendum, and dissolving parliament; economic issues, cost of living and the national question should have come afterwards. Yes this is too simply stated; of course there would have been some mix of targets, but the focus on abolishing EP should have been retained. Experience now shows that this would have needed less than 100 days. If drafting new electoral bill was included, only a little more time was necessary – not including new electoral delimitation and preparing registers which together take about a year to perfect.

I am persuaded that history will not judge Ranil and Sirisena’s 100 days too harshly, but it will also mark it down as opportunity missed on some long-term issues.


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