Emergency Vote: Reading the Writing on the Wall

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The parliamentary vote on President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s maiden Emergency proclamation has gone on expected lines. Rather, it has reiterated the confidence of the House in his leadership, on a specific issue that is as sensitive s it has been made controversial.

If there is one thing good about the Constitution as it stands, it relates to Parliament’s decisive role in overseeing instantaneous decisions of the Executive Presidency, as with the proclamation of Emergency.  First, Parliament has to pass the presidential proclamation within 14 days. Subsequently, it can be extended only by a month, each, to be cleared likewise.

There have thus been occasions when the House had to be called, only to vote on extending the Emergency. So, for someone to say that the Executive Presidency eats into the inherent powers, authority and responsibility is patently wrong, if not an outright lie. Talking about constitutional committees for high-level appointments and the like are farcical, to concede the truth.

Truth be acknowledged, no one should be afraid of Emergency after predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s toothless twine in as many months. If now it is however proclaimed, it seems to be more for the effect, given the way the Aragalaya protests motivated – but also actually shocked the State structure and upset the societal orderliness.

What is required, instead, is the enforcement of existing police and policing powers, which had commenced well under Wickremesinghe rule. Just as they failed on other fronts, they did so on this one too. It will serve the cause of the State and the internal security dimensions involved for the incumbent government to order a through probe and fix accountability and also the leaks.

High treason?

If the struggle flowed from the total failure of the Sri Lankan State on multiple fronts, the Emergency proclamation is the official call to halt it – here and now, as the major goal of having all Rajapaksas out of the Government, has since been met. Adding new demands like wanting Parliament-elected President Wickremesinghe, too, to quit, because of his suspected links to the Rajapaksa, is not just on.

Addressing Parliament on the Emergency resolution, Opposition Samagi Janabalawegaya  (SJB) member, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka provoked protestors to stick to their 9 August deadline for Wickremesinghe to quit. He even mentioned that Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena should be succeeding the incumbent (just as the latter had taken over from Gota, who fled and then quit).

For argument’s sake, it should be pointed out that in such a case, the likes of Fonseka would then argue that Gunawardena too was a ‘Rajapaksa man’ – which he is more definitely than Wickremesinghe ever was through the latter’s 45 years of parliamentary politics.

But the problem with Fonseka and his tribe is not just that. In Parliament, he repeated his public call for the military and police not to take orders from the Government. Even without Emergency regulations in force, this should tantamount to ‘treason’, especially when he adds that most men in uniform were not with the Government but with the Aragalaya protestors.

In the same vein, former Rajapaksa ministerial aide and one-time Mahinda confidant Wimal Weerawansa has openly declared that the protestors were ‘conspiring’ to destroy the Sri Lankan State. Which is what a section of them seems to have been attempting, that too in the cover of ‘peaceful’ protests. ‘unarmedinsurgents’ as a term should explain them better.

Half-full, half-empty

As the results showed, Parliament passed the Emergency resolution, 120-63 with 41 abstentions excepting Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. As if to atone for their sins of kick-starting the crisis by targeting Mahinda and brother Basil Rajapaksa long before the Aragalaya protests started, Weerawansa & Co, comprising 10 MPs are supposed to have voted with the Government.

It is easy to argue that the Government did not win as many votes for the Emergency resolution as much as Wickremesinghe obtained in the presidential election the previous week. 134-82-3, with two abstentions and four invalids. The fact is the Opposition has garnered fewer votes than their candidate Dulles Alahapperuma had polled in the presidential vote.

The assumption is that the three-member JVP, which had fielded party chief Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the presidential poll, has now voted against the Government. This should make the non-JVP Opposition tally of 63 slimmer still.

Effectively, the gap between the ruling party’s votes and the Opposition’s has widened between then and now –52 / 57. The emergence of 41 abstentions this time should imply that most, if not all, are open to be ‘convinced’ by the Government leadership ‘in ways that they understand’.

The question is if the cup is half full or half empty. The immediate provocation to conclude that continuous instability is still in the air. It could also mean that consolidation in favour of the Ranil presidency is in the air – unless otherwise proved on the ground.

No ear to the ground

The fact is also that SLPP chairman G.L. Peiris has made a laughing stock of the party – and possibly himself, too — by voting with the Opposition for a second time in as many weeks – so also are the 10 ‘Independent MPs’ comprising ruling SLPP rebels, stuck to their earlier stand.  But then Wimal Weerawansa and his second group of 10 SLPP rebels voted in favour of the Emergency resolution, this time, as against the presidential vote.

That the left-leaning Weerawansa, his leftist friend Vasudeva Nanayakara and their centre-right ally Udaya Gammanpilla et al, supposedly with their ears to the ground, did not even know what was in the making, should show how cut off they were from the evolving reality. That should also explain how the Rajapaksas in general, and Mahinda in particular, did not and could not calculate that the end-game was near and they had been served a foul-shot that they still had to play with a red-card showing up against their names, one after the other.

Unfortunately, it did not stop with the political class. Even police intelligence and other security agencies too have failed the nation for a second time in a row, after the ‘Easter blasts’. At the time, it was about not acting on ‘actionable intelligence’ shared by neighbouring India, repeatedly over the previous week.

Now, you know where the blame lies. India did have any intelligence to share and Sri Lanka did not have any information to act upon. Is it?

(The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy