I. Kishali Pinto Jayawardene: “Measuring the Maturity of the Sri Lankan Electorate,” from Sunday Times, 25 July 20
If Sri Lanka’s political and legal history since independence demonstrates one fact, it is the fundamental dishonesty of those whom we elect to serve us. Even the rare exceptions to this rule have failed to emulate an Ambedkar, a Gandhi or a Nehru whose visions and dreams lifted Indian society from its depths and fashioned an inimitable national spirit which carried that country through decades of communal turmoil. This has been our singular loss.
Lofty sentiments and ugly realities: Insisting on a rights discourse when drafting salient paragraphs of India’s Constitution for instance, Dr Ambedkar warned that ‘for a successful revolution, it is not enough that there is discontent.’ As this bespectacled advocate of the underprivileged observed, there needs to be a profound conviction of precisely what changes we seek, what rights we demand from politicians and collective determination to ensure their outcome. India has done relatively well in that regard. Not so, Sri Lanka.
This month marks the barbaric massacring of ordinary Tamil civilians more than three decades ago even as we still vainly struggle with ensuring rudimentary norms of democratic rule, let alone addressing far more complex questions of justice. The nation witnesses this week, the ugly sight of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa behaving much like a common street thug in attempting to pummel an over-enthusiastic supporter grasping his famous (or rather, infamous) ring finger during a campaign meeting. As these images are beamed across the world, one can only shudder at the impression that is conveyed of the country.
To these bizarre happenings, one must add much needed comic relief as an ex-Chief Justice of Sri Lanka mounts the political stage of the former President quite irrespective of his own apology issued not so many months ago in regard to freeing that very same worthy from alleged financial misconduct in the Helping Hambantota case. Indeed, the coming together of Sarath Silva and Mahinda Rajapaksa was quite predictable in many respects. The one wonder was why it took so long. Let us rest with that pungent observation for the time being.
The choices before us: Essentially the choices before Sri Lankan voters come August 17th are simple. Will we applaud the political cunning of the former President in seemingly triumphing over President Sirisena, now party leader only in name, whose idealistic belief in compromise was twisted to engineer a Rajapaksa return? Certain economic and institutional ruin can only follow if so.
Or will we hold our noses and vote for the United National Party (UNP) believing even uneasily that its leaders may have learnt from their ‘yahapalanaya’ mistakes? Yet the alleged Central Bank bond scandal continues to haunt the UNP campaign and raise questions of financial accountability. This is quite apart from the antics of former UPFA Ministers who stayed deathly quiet when the Rajapaksa daylight robbery of public funds occurred over the years but now wax eloquent on this matter.
In fact, the over-enthusiastic attempt by the UNP to prevent discussion and discussion of the documentation placed before the COPE committee first by threatening privilege of a ‘dead’ Parliament and then dizzyingly applying for but thereafter withdrawing an application for an injunction in court has only aggravated the dispute. Certainly these are ham handed tactics not worthy of a party once known for its deft political maneuvering.
The dangers in constitutional compromises: Between these uninspiring choices, the strength demonstrated by President Sirisena in exercising the powers of his Office in accordance with his January mandate is crucial. Rather than personalizing the problem as a simplistic question of Rajapaksa evils, the President’s recent identification of systemic failures of the political system is welcome. His assertion that he was reluctantly amenable (a better word is hopelessly vulnerable) to the cross play of political currents in order to get his Bills passed during the 100-day period of the transitional government is well and good.
But the fact remains that the 19th Amendment was an emasculated creature, agreed to in the best Sri Lankan traditions of compromised constitutional amendments that deceptively appear as if they are a great advance on what existed before. Quite apart from discarding the earlier apolitical majority of the Constitutional Council and refusal to strip away Presidential immunity wholesale, it completely bypassed the prohibition on the distasteful practice of parliamentarians crossing over the floor for gain. In fact, even the mild prohibition that such questions should only be decided by the Supreme Court was discarded after pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians of little ethics and even less shame objected. No doubt we will see the same old games defeating the electoral outcome in the coming Parliament as well. Public agitation must ensure that this is not the case.
Sri Lankan voters will, of course, have the third alternative of preferring the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which, to give the party due credit, has engaged in a bold transformation of itself. This must assuredly be in the hope that it will act as a buffer to the misdeeds of both major parties.
Grateful for small mercies: In the meantime, we may note that state resources and the state media are not being ruthlessly abused for electioneering. In that salutary spirit of being grateful for small mercies, we need not turn away from drunk and boisterous ‘Nil Balakaya’ revelers arriving in hundreds of state buses to election venues to worship in veneration before a ruling family cabal. The Commissioner of Elections has asserted himself to the extent of prohibiting repeated telecasts of President Sirisena’s address to the media which was fiercely critical of the former President now contesting for an ordinary MP’s seat.
Granted, these are changes that would have been unthinkable during the Rajapkasa era. In the final result, the President’s request to elect individual parliamentarians capable of taking the peoples’ verdict in January 2015 forward (regardless of divisive party politics) must remain as the single most important deciding factor as each and every citizen traipses to the polling booth on August 17th. The way the vote turns on that day will be a true test of the maturity of the Sri Lankan electorate.
II. Nalaka Godahewa; On Mangala’s accusations & the Basic facts of sri Lanka’s economic Performance between 2005 and 2015 … in a three-minute video presentation at http://fbcdn-video-n-a.akamaihd.net/hvideo-ak-xft1/v/t42.1790-2/11759831_972204256133436_667314696_n.mp4?oh=ffac8827a281392991260ba52f45592a&oe=55B6BE2C&__gda__=1437963088_5bee6a462f422a2ca109865e2e5406f8
A Comment in Respone to my Request from Premachandra Athukorala of ANU, Canberra:
But, the accuracy of the figure is highly debatable; there has been a lot of ‘creative accounting’ going on during the MR regime. We have discuss the risk of using these figures at ‘face value’ in our paper (see pages 16-17 in the attached paper – I am resending the paper for your convenience).
A few months ago the Central Bank issued revised national accounts data according to which the growth rates in 2013 and 2014 are much lower (about 4%) compared to the rates (about 7%) based on the previous national account estimates. According to a Central Bank media release, the Department of Census and Statistics started compiling the new series (based on expert advice provided by the IMF) in 2011, but the previous regime did not want to release the new series!
III. Darshanie Ratnawalli: “Does President Sirisena require a professional speech writer?”, in Sunday Island, 25 July 2015
The sixth Executive President has become known for his note-less, teleprompter-less, stream of consciousness style of speech-making. Reports suggest that in the aftermath of the controversial ‘I have nothing to do with Mahinda’ speech, the need for some sort of notes has occurred to his political allies and even to the President himself. According to some Sunday political commentaries he admitted to Ranil Wickremesinghe in a telephone conversation that even things he hadn’t planned to say came out.
In this speech the President forgot to hold up the official version that after assuming office he had met the former President only twice. After starting to say at 25.31 of the speech, “as all of you know, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and I met three times” Sirisena seems to recollect the official version and proceeds to validate only the first two meetings through description. After hearing the revelation `three times,’ a viewer’s excitement would mount because media reports of the third meeting had been firmly denied by both parties earlier. He or she would listen breathlessly between 25.31 and 28.58, only to be disappointed when the President moves on to another topic after saying that the second meeting concluded without any result.
The second inadvertent revelation by President Sirisena comes around 39.53 in his speech when he declares “Mahinda Rajapaksa who was defeated on January 8 will be defeated again.” Less than a minute later however there is a seeming contradiction when Sirisena makes the definitive prediction (40.48-41.04) that if Rajapaksa and Co. “did not receive nominations from the UPFA they will come to Parliament from another party. And that coming to parliament cannot be stopped.” There seems to be a certain attempt (perhaps unconscious) in the English translation provided by the President’s Media Division to dilute the definitiveness of this statement when they translate “ethakota sandhanayen nama yojana nolebuna nam e golla wenath pakshekin parlimenthu enawa. Ethakota e parlimenthuwata ena eka walakwanna behe” as “if they did not receive nominations from the UPFA still they could have contested from another party and come to Parliament and it could not have been stopped.”
If I had been a editor, I would have placed the following headlines side by side to illustrate the seeming contradiction. “Even without nominations from UPFA, Rajapaksa coming to Parliament cannot be stopped-President” “Rajapaksa who was defeated on January 8 will lose again-President” Both the headlines would have been accurate and represented faithfully two strands of the Presidential thought process. It is when one tries to reconcile these two apparently contradicting strands that one strikes gold. For there is only one way that a Mahinda Rajapaksa nominated by the UPFA and whose coming to Parliament cannot be stopped according to the President, could lose: by having his Prime Ministerial aspirations crushed by a UPFA loss.
Subsequently, UPFA contestant, deputy minister, and Sirisena loyalist Thilanga Sumathipala came forward to say that President Sirisena did not say that the UPFA will lose merely that Mahinda Rajapaksa will. The meaning of the word loss/defeat applied to a person depends on his aspiration. When a person’s aspiration is to mobilise his party to win a majority of seats (at least more seats than the main opposition party) in Parliament so that he can become Prime Minister, then that person’s win or loss becomes conflated with the party’s win or loss. Did Sirisena conflate? Did he fail to properly distinguish or keep separate the destinies of Rajapaksa and the UPFA at this election? Did he treat them as equivalent? Yes he did. By effectively communicating in a televised address to the Nation that Mahinda Rajapaksa who lost on January 8 will lose again, even though his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped. Sirisena forces us to question the meaning of ‘losing’ as applied to Rajapaksa. He helpfully narrows down the definition. It’s not by failing to come to parliament that Rajapaksa will lose. In the special way of ‘losing’ assigned by the President Sirisena to the former President, Rajapaksa’s losing is dependent on the UPFA’s losing.
So it is that kind of Parliamentary election fight and not the other kind that Mahinda Rajapaksa will face. In the Sri Lankan tradition Parliamentary elections are contests between two leaders, only one of whom actually contests the election as the clear Prime Ministerial candidate. The other leader remains as Executive President and drives a team of his or her party towards victory without naming a PM candidate before the election. Thus even though he was appointed as PM after it, Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t win the 2004 Parliamentary election. Chandrika Kumaratunga did because it was in her name the UPFA mobilised to win that election. In reality it was a contest between Ranil and Chandrika. Ranil Wickremesinghe lost that election. If during the campaign Chandrika had predicted ‘Mahinda will lose’, it could only have meant ‘Mahinda will not be elected to Parliament’. At the 2004 Parliamentary election a UPFA defeat was equivalent to a CBK defeat. Perhaps that’s why whichever party has the Executive Presidency refrains from naming a PM candidate. It would divide the mobilising spirit of the party and dilute the drive.
What happens when an Executive President cum leader of a party is unwilling or not sufficiently powerful to mobilise the party towards victory in a Parliamentary election? In the 1994 Parliamentary elections we may have an example of a leader who lacked sufficient vim or motivation. This election was a contest between Chandrika Kumaratunga and D. B Wijetunga, an unelected UNP Executive President who had been appointed by Parliament after President Premadasa was assassinated. As the incumbent Executive President and leader of UNP he was expected to mobilise his party’s team to win the election. Despite the UNP team containing both Gamini Dissanayake and Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Prime Ministerial candidate was not named and neither of them was Chandrika’s opponent in this election. If President Wijetunga had announced ‘Gamini Dissanayake will lose, but his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped’, it would have been taken as nonsense. There was no other way for Dissanayaka to lose that election except by failing to get elected to Parliament. Ditto with Ranil. But Chandrika stood to lose if the PA did not get a higher number of seats even if she was elected to Parliament because her win or loss had become equivalent with the PA’s win or loss. If Mahinda will lose even though his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped, it’s because Mahinda’s loss or win has become equivalent with the UPFA’s win or loss. In that case it is Mahinda who is mobilising the UPFA towards victory. In the event of a UPFA win, it wouldn’t matter if the UPFA was choc a bloc with seniors.
It’s not the kind of Parliamentary election fight in which the Executive President can say; “even if my party wins, there are enough seniors in my party other than Mr. so and so to appoint as PM”. President Premadasa was entitled to say that in the 1989 Parliamentary election. He did not say ‘In the case of a UNP win there are enough people to appoint as PM other than Lalith or Gamini” but must have thought it. He appointed D.B Wijetunga, a nonentity compared to Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka. He was entitled because the UNP win in that election was his. His was the leadership spirit and the mobilising force behind his party’s victory. Chandrika Kumaratunga could have said a similar thing in both 2001 and 2004 when she acted as the mobilising spirit. The only Executive President of Sri Lanka to actually say it isn’t entitled to say it.