President Gotabaya and Parliamentary Polls

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 7 2020
Columns President Gotabaya and Parliamentary Polls

By N Sathiya Moorthy

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs to be congratulated and thanked for his bold announcement, telling candidates (belonging obviously to his SLPP combine) not to use his photographs in the ongoing campaign for the postponed General Elections, slated for 5 August. At the same time, he has also urged the electors to vote in a ‘strong Government’, arguing that the Nation cannot afford a Parliament that is at loggerheads with the (directly-elected) President. 

"President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered candidates contesting the upcoming Election not to use his photographs in their propaganda campaign. No public official serving in Security Forces, Government service, Corporations, Boards and Statutory Bodies should engage in political activities,” his office said in a statement.

In this context, the statement referred to ” information …to the effect that candidates contesting the Election are using the photographs of the President in their campaign, secure service of the Army officers and public officials and promise job appointments”. Accordingly, the President has sent out instructions to all concerned, starting with provincial Governors to check against the use of his photograph in Election campaigns and directed “public officials to refrain from engaging in political activities”.

By marking a copy of the communication concerned to the Chairman of the Elections Commission, the President has clearly indicated that he means business. It is another matter that even without Gotabaya’s missive, the EC has the powers to intervene, whenever and wherever Government officials get involved in Election campaign – whether of the ruling party candidates or others of their choice. 

It remains to be seen how active does Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets involved in the poll campaign for the party that made him President. In setting healthy precedents that the Nation can abundantly do with, he could well leave it to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ‘political face’ of the SLPP combine, to do the campaign with his minimal presence and commitment. 

Yet, President Gotabaya will have to draw the line even here, as he still needs to be seen as the President of the party, for him to carry the people with him, and not make the party a pawn at the hands of the President of the day. The latter has remained the stark truth since the advent of the Executive Presidency scheme, with the Second Republican Constitution, full 40-plus years back, in 1978. 

De-politicising Presidency

It may be a greater idea still if through the new Constitution, or whatever constitutional amendment that is possible with a new Parliament sworn in, President Gotabaya should institutionalise the spirit of his current concerns. This will involve de-politicising the Presidency. That is to say that once elected, the President will automatically cease to be a member of any political party, and can yet return to its fold say, six months before the due date for the next General Elections. 

This will translate as the President not continuing to head political parties, attend party plenaries and other committee meetings, and expend his previous time on petty party politics. This may also give an extra leeway for the Prime Minister, even if indirectly elected, to run the day-to-day administration, in consultation with the President, and at the same time, aid and advise the latter, too, in turn. 

It the contemporary context, it could also mean that in the absence of an overt political identity, a President could still strive to have a healthy working relationship with a Prime Minister from another / rival political party with a distinctly different ideological mooring and policy orientation. 

In more ways than one, every Executive President, starting with founder J. R. Jayewardene, loved wearing two and more hats, all at the same time. The President is the Head of State and Government (the latter even after 19-A), Head of the Cabinet and chairs Cabinet meetings, and is also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. But what has always stood out as a sore thumb is their inability and unwillingness to shed the add-on weight of party Presidency, which only lowered the image and imagery of the other constitutional offices that sat on his shoulders well. 

The nadir was reached twice during the past decades. First, when President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga  and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively from the SLFP and the UNP, were in office, 2001-04. Given their individual capacities, the cohabitation-administration could have worked wonders for the Nation – but did not.

Cutting out the President of the constitutional obligations, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe went ahead and negotiated the Norway-negotiated cease-fire agreement (CFA) with the LTTE. Short of learning the details from media reports the next morning, the Presidency was reduced to everything else. If despite the personal insults and the constitutional confrontation, CBK did not sack PM Wickremesinghe and dissolve Parliament, that too in the pre-19A era, with adequate powers in this regard, at least after the end of the first of their five-year terms, it may have owed to ‘international pressures’. And ‘international pressure’ is what the Nation votes in a President, to desist, in the name of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. 

Earlier, when Ranil was still in the Opposition, pre-Elections-2001, CBK too, smudged her copybook, and also tarnished the image of the Presidency that much more when she employed subterfuge to have her term extended cheaply. In doing so, she pushed the relevant provisions through the ‘Chandrika Package II’. In seeking to hide this provision behind the more visible and more urgent constitutional amendment aimed at a political solution to the ethnic issue, war and violence, she also afforded PM Wickremesinghe the opportunity and excuse to throw the baby with the bathwater. 

In burning the constitutional amendment draft inside the Parliament Chamber in an unprecedented manner, Wickremesinghe & Co ensured that they were not called upon to vote on the more substantive part on the ethnic issue. Both leaders have since continued to offer lip-service to the Tamil minorities, one more pretentious than the other – and have also got away with that. 

Incidentally, it is anybody’s guess how Wickremesinghe and his UNP has had the courage of conviction to condemn other political parties and Parliament members for tarnishing the image of the august House. Worse still, when a near-similar thing repeated itself after President Maithripala Sirisena had sacked the empowered Wickremesinghe Government and the Supreme Court restored the same, the collective memory of the Nation was so faded and jaded that no one pointed to the precedence set by the UNP while in the Opposition, not very long ago.

Yet, nothing could match or substitute for the way President Sirisena lowered the dignity of the high office by constantly quarrelling with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. That it should happen even when the two of them were supposedly electoral allies is what made their tiffs, funny and cruel at the same time. Conscious of the protection rendered by 19A in terms of the reduced, six-month time-frame for the President to be able to dissolve Parliament, Wickremesinghe, too, played havoc with the system, making the Nation a laughing stock, both inside and outside.

Stable Government

It is in this long background, President Gotabaya’s repeated calls for a two-thirds majority for the ruling combine makes some sense. It is however, left to the Nation’s ethnically distinct electorates to vote on this call, but then the campaign this time, too, can be expected to take the same old routes and stop at the very same stops, as in the past. 

The question also remains what if the people do not give a two-thirds majority to the President’s party, and what if they give. These are larger issues that can be tackled only in the post-poll era when real issues are accosted in real time. More complicated will be a (theoretical) situation in which the voters impose an ‘Opposition Prime Minister’, and cohabitation becomes as complicated as it was under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo. 

Parallel power-centres

It is also in this context the SLPP nominating civil society members of Viyathmaga group from the months before the General Elections assumes certain significance. It remains to be seen how, if elected and also made ministers, they would gel with the politico-administrative class. There is always the danger of parallel power-centres, which is what did in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe team, as much as their own proverbial ego clashes, ideological distinctions and attitudinal differences.

This will be more so when the post-poll Government is called upon to address multiple issues – or, the same issues that have become more critical than in the past years. The Economy is at the top still, and there is no denying the apprehension that Sri Lanka could end up having to default on loan repayment and honouring international bonds that too, should fall due for redemption. 

It requires a lot of balancing-act on the part of the Government, the Sri Lankan State and the identifiable leaderships, if the Nation hopes to cruise through the crisis that is ahead of it. Despite public posturing by ruling party stalwarts, the time may be now for their second-line to tease the ‘international community’ (read: West), who have a big say in such matters as further loan-facilitation. 

It is not unlikely that some in the political Opposition, now and later, will taunt the Government party about the latter’s known position on the pending ‘MCC aid pact’ with the US. The JVP is the most likely candidate in this regard.

In the North, the TNA, which is supposedly facing stiff competition from multiple Tamil actors, has once again declared that for them, political solution should precede development and growth. Obviously, TNA boss R Sampanthan was responding to Prime Minister Mahinda R’s tetetete with Tamil media editors, when the latter pointed to the post-war development era under his presidency, 2010-15. 

All this is after TNA Chief Minister 

C. V. Wigneswaran, now heading an anti-TNA grouping, had used the argument to return Central funds to Colombo each fiscal – through his five years in office. As if to respond to Sampanthan, Mahinda too, has said that an SLPP Government would not succumb to politics with pre-conditions.  

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 7 2020

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