by Rajan Philips
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made yet another statement in parliament last Wednesday (June 22). Apparently, these are biweekly statements he has committed himself to make “since taking over the reins of this government,” as he put it. With cynical self-deprecation he acknowledged the mockeries directed at him for making too many statements with too little action or results.
Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake have taken the criticism to another level by boycotting parliament until the PM and the government present a plan of action to address the economic crisis. This is the first instance the two leaders have reached common ground in the current parliament. Ironically, their agreement is not over some positive intervention but inexplicable abdication in the face of national suffering.
One appreciates the enormity of the challenge that the Prime Minister and the government are facing and the extremely limited and constantly diminishing assets available to them. People know that supplies are chronically short and they are going to get severely worse. What nobody gets is why cannot the government arrange orderly distributions of limited supplies, and spare the already suffering people the additional trauma of standing in long queues for something they are not going to get in any case.
A case in point is the supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. They have been in short supply since February, and nothing has been done to regulate their distribution. Those who have little or nothing, stand and suffer to get nothing much, while those who can afford – send proxies to collect more for the purpose of hoarding and potentially reselling.
The young and confused Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera, has promised to have a quota system in place by July. That is already too late and would be far too little as well. The bigger question is why the PM and the government are not thinking about implementing a system of priorities for procurement and distribution – food, medical supplies, cooking gas, and allocate fuel only to public transport (including three wheelers) and lorries involved in internal food transport. With all the shortages and closures, it makes no sense continuing with fuel supply for private vehicles and transport.
Given that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is leading a cabinet of old worn-outs, the onus is on the Opposition to constantly raise these matters in parliament and force the Prime Minister and government into taking concrete action. Instead, the SJB and the JVP are running away from parliament apparently intending to force the government to come up with a plan. JVP leader Dissanayake who made big splashes in parliament last year and announced that the JVP is ready for national leadership, is now missing in action and missing out on opportunities to demonstrate his and the JVP’s readiness for leadership. Sajith Premadasa has become the occasional Leader of the Opposition. After weeks of silence, he appeared in parliament only to announce his boycott of parliament.
Political opinion is divided, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledges, between those who ridicule his ‘statements,’ and others who welcome his apparent openness and transparency. The problem is that Mr. Wickremesinghe has not been able to dispel the perception that he is still playing his old political games while appearing to provide a new form of leadership. The Prime Minister and the President are not at all working together. This is the same as what it was during the yahapalana administration, according to former President Maithripala Sirisena. There is a huge difference, of course. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were elected to work together, but between them they botched a joint venture that began with much promise. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have come together by mutual consent and out of desperation. It makes no sense for them to work at cross purposes now. It only weakens the administration and adds to public cynicism.
There is no politics without gossip, and the going gossip is that the Prime Minister has been trying to get one of his sidekicks to step in as the new Central Bank Governor when the Governor’s current term expires. That would mean the replacement of Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe, who came out of premature retirement from Australia to head the bank in a state of crisis, by a rank outsider and a new Arjuna Mahendran. Why? Why would Mr. Wickremesinghe repeat the same colossal blunder that ended his legitimate political career? Fortunately for the country, and for himself, he may not be having his way around this time. But it only shows that there is no end to playing political games even when the country’s economy is in flames.
Full Term as PM
The Prime Minister statement last week included a surprising hint that ‘his’ interim government would go on until firm economic recovery is achieved and only then elections will be called. In a pertinent paragraph towards the end of the statement, the Prime Minister shifted his target audience from parliament to the people, and said:
“Once we have established a firm economic foundation you can hand over power to any political party as per your wish at an election and elect 225 suitable representatives to parliament. The responsibility and power to do so lie with you, the citizens of this country. You will be then given the opportunity to reject those you believe were responsible for the predicament Sri Lanka is facing today. In turn, the new government will be given the mandate to bring those responsible before justice. But all this can only be achieved following the revival of the country.”
“A firm economic foundation” is not going to be established within the next two to three years, which would mean there will likely be no opportunity for an election sooner than when it will be normally due in 2025. That is full term for the current parliament and near-full term for Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The President has already indicated that he will serve out his only term in full. If the Prime Minister wants parliament also to continue for its full term, he must state his intention clearly and categorically to parliament and to the people. It must not be conveyed through hints in a single paragraph in a long statement. Without transparency, there will be no trust.
For instance, the PM cannot be extending his hand for co-operation from the SJB and the JVP for an interim administration of less than a year at most, while seriously thinking of going on for the next three years. Among the people at large the expectation is that the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will steady the ship of state out of the Rajapaksa chaos, reach agreement with the IMF, implement constitutional reforms as widely understood, and then – in the span of about a year, set the stage for a general election. Beyond Mr. Wickremesinghe’s role, there have also been expectations for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign from office and abolish the system of elected-executive presidency. All of these expectations now seem to be water under the Aragalaya bridge.
President Rajapaksa has announced that he will not resign before his term is over, but he will not contest for a second term. With all the talk about a parliamentary election, the Election Commission has started the process of updating the voter registry and lists. That work is expected to be finalized only in October. So, practically no election till October. In any event, for an election to be called this year, parliament has to pass a resolution for it to be dissolved. This is unlikely given the current dynamic in parliament under the Ranil-Rajapaksa government.
After March 2023, the President will have the power to dissolve parliament and call an election. There has been considerable expectation for an election some time in 2023. That may not happen if what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe suggested in parliament last Wednesday is also shared by the President and their cabinet of Ministers. The Prime Minister may have very good reasons for suggesting that a fundamental economic recovery is necessary before there can be a parliamentary election. But his reasons are not an open book unless he shares them with others. And there is more.
It is the Prime Minister who has been consistently saying that there is not only an economic crisis, but also a political crisis, and that the former cannot be addressed in isolation from the latter. If a full term of parliament is needed to address the economic crisis, what is the implication for the political crisis?
Can the present parliament continue as it is for three more years? Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s 21st Amendment might be acceptable as a stop-gap measure for a limited period, but can it meet all the constitutional reform expectations over a longer period? How will the government handle the next presidential election that will come up before the parliamentary election, if the mode of electing the Head of State is not changed beforehand?
Specific to the executive presidency, how will Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Rajapaksa deal with the question of abolishing the elected-executive presidential system over an extended three year period? The Supreme Court has again stipulated, in its ruling on the SJB’s (ill-advisedly rushed) 21st Amendment Bill, that a referendum will be required to abolish the presidential system or to change the mode of presidential election. This is unfortunate in that the court may not have been sufficiently presented with the benefit of sound legal arguments questioning the appropriateness of extending the referendum requirement to matters that are not specifically included in the referendum provision in the constitution. Prof. Savitri Goonesekere and Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama have both expressed this opinion many times in the public domain, and no less a person than Dr. Colvin R de Silva proffered the same opinion 35 years ago during the forensic debates over the 13th Amendment.
Regardless of the legal position, it would be politically conclusive to decide the future of the executive presidency in a referendum of the people. That is what Prof. Savitri Goonesekere suggested in this newspaper a few weeks ago – to bite the bullet and put the question to the people. But government leaders and the current Minister of Justice do not have the courage for it, and are hiding behind the referendum bogey to keep the presidential system going. The question will become a hot potato for the Prime Minister. It will be over a full term that he seems to be fancying now, and not just in the interim as others understand it.