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How the mighty have fallen

The Editorial, the Sunday Morning July 17, 2022

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“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” 

– Howard Zinn

Sri Lanka’s shortest-ever elected presidency in a nutshell – promised a breathtaking ride, got in the driver’s seat, drove in reverse gear, crashed, driver fled; passengers injured and stranded.

If a citizen of this country were to tell a foreign tourist here that Sri Lanka, a nation of 22 million people, had a president who polled 6.9 million votes at the last poll but fled leaving the post to a person who had polled 30,000 votes at the same election, the reaction would most likely be laughter and, when realisation dawns that it wasn’t a joke, disbelief. The supreme will of the sovereign expressed periodically at elections as enshrined in the Constitution has been turned on its head in the past week; rather paradoxically, the harvest of three months of unprecedented and persistent people power protests. All thanks to a warped political system designed and nurtured to further the interests of politicians over and above those of the citizenry. 

It is this twisted system that people in their millions took upon themselves to change three months ago and resulted in no less a person than an all-powerful President being forced to flee. But the ‘system’ quickly bit back in return with the ‘replacement’ appointment of the Acting President. As a movement that has steamrolled every obstacle put across its path, the people power protests are obviously in no mood to give up the fight for complete ‘system change’ it has embarked upon, notwithstanding the latest challenge of mass infiltration by saboteurs and anarchists. The ‘replacement’ disappointment has now got the movement girding its loins for a second innings of what really should have been a one inning match. 

While the nation surely has much to rejoice over the achievements of a spectacular people’s revolution, all indications are that it is just the beginning of an expanding people’s movement, anchored on public activism. The first and the biggest of the battles has been fought and won, but much more needs to be done in order to win the war for complete system change.

There is general consensus among the people, primarily arising out of the ‘People’s Struggle’ or ‘Aragalaya,’ that their aspirations – which inevitably change over the course of time based on evolving circumstances – must be reflected in the Legislature in real time. For that, a mechanism has been proposed in the form of a supreme People’s Council placed above even the Cabinet. This proposal, if taken on board, will render elected MPs redundant to some extent. More importantly, it is symptomatic of the greater issue that Parliament in its present form has failed the people. That being the case, serious thought needs to go into reviewing the electoral process – an endeavour that began many moons ago but is yet to see the light of day for reasons best known to our lawmakers. 

The final report of that particular electoral review identified the current Proportional Representation as the main barrier that separates the parliamentary representative from the people they are supposed to represent. A switchback to the First Past the Post (FPTP) system with specific wards for each representative was recommended to fix the issue. If that process had been carried forward and implemented prior to the last poll, which was a distinct possibility if not for lack of political will, Sri Lanka’s current Acting President would not be in the picture today and the ‘Aragalaya’ would have concluded with Friday’s (15) announcement by the Speaker.

Be that as it may, the crisis today is essentially the result of electing a misfit to the highest office in the land. With Parliament set to elect a replacement on Wednesday (20), the country can ill-afford to make the same mistake again. As we write, parties are in a dog fight to have their man elected to the post, pushing to the backburner the need to first recognise the requirement and, if need be, look beyond party lines in order to secure the best fit for the job.

It is not too late for parties to come together in the national interest by agreeing on a common candidate who, in their opinion, is the best fit for the demanding and unforgiving role that lies ahead. If that were to materialise and such a candidate is elected unanimously, it will send the strongest possible signal to the world that Sri Lanka has indeed turned the corner while also redeeming the confidence of a broken people. What the doctor has prescribed for ailing Lanka is a competent statesman – a reconciliatory figure and unifier, not another party-centric individual afflicted with tunnel vision who will end up hammering the final nail in the coffin.

While the number of contenders appears to be increasing by the hour, there is an emerging trend of thought among legal circles over the validity of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidature based on the premise that he no longer enjoys a parliamentary seat upon being sworn to the presidency, given that the holder of that position has in fact resigned. Therefore he is no longer acting for Gotabaya Rajapaksa per se, but in fact fulfilling a constitutional obligation that exclusively accrues to him all powers the position entails for a period of 30 days. In the alternative, if Wickremesinghe does in fact contest while being Prime Minister, it will also serve as a direct vote of confidence in him. And, if by chance he loses the contest, then it is clear that he no longer enjoys the confidence of the House – the constitutionally-prescribed criteria to be PM. Therefore, there is every possibility of confusion being confounded as events unfold in the week ahead.

Even though there is a precedent of sorts in the manner in which Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunga automatically assumed the office of president following the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, the similarities end there, as Wijetunga’s appointment was unanimously endorsed by Parliament within the 30-day window, whereas in this instance there is an election for the position involving multiple candidates.  

It is probably with this possibility in mind that Wickremesinghe stated in his special statement following his swearing in as Acting President that he was determined to abolish the 20th Amendment and revert to the 19th Amendment prior to Wednesday’s (20) election. It should not pose too much of an obstacle to secure the requisite two-thirds support as every member in the present Parliament who was also a member of the 2015 Parliament raised their hands in its favour, save one. Should for whatever reason Wickremesinghe find himself second best at the finish line on the 20th, it would echo the prophetic words of his colleague and friend, the late Mangala Samaraweera, who only a year ago described Wickremesinghe as “the best president Sri Lanka never had”.

It is also important to keep in mind that whoever takes over the role will have no choice but to dish out unpopular and tough economic and tax reforms that will most likely not go down well with the electorate, unless of course the appointee does an exceptional job of it. In the alternative, it is inevitable that his as well as his party’s popularity will suffer come the next election, with a General Election already on the horizon. Therefore, the margin for error is zero and, given this predicament, it is a catch-22 situation for most candidates who have already thrown their hat into the ring. 

Every one of the 225 parliamentarians must remember that it is the people and not them who mobilised and did what was needed in order to arrive at this decisive and historic moment. Having done all the hard work, enduring copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears in what has been a painful process, they are certainly in no mood to see their efforts flushed down the drain. All MPs have been put on notice, more notably by the ‘Aragalaya,’ that people are watching hawk-eyed as to whether their aspirations will be reflected in the actions of their representatives on the 20th.

It is all the more important considering the conduct of the last holder of the position who not only brought disrepute to himself and the nation in the manner in which he held that office, but more so in the manner he abandoned it. The entire process – up to the point of the ex-President’s official resignation – was in no way keeping with the dignity and decorum expected of the holder of that exalted title.

Yesterday marked a week since Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to flee and go into exile, leaving the country and its 22 million people well and truly in the lurch. The scrambled departure appeared to be more in line with that of the Mafioso than the Head of State of Sri Lanka. The fact that he had no qualms in putting personal safety and wellbeing ahead of the interests of a nation that only two-and-a-half years ago accorded him the biggest election victory ever recorded by a president has inflicted a deep wound even in the most fanatical of the faithful. The biggest collateral damage arising out of the infamous exit has been the busting of the carefully-constructed narrative over the years that the Rajapaksas have always put country first, second, and third.

From the minute Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the President’s House last Saturday (9), to when the resignation was announced by the Speaker on Friday morning (15), a good seven days later, the country and the world were kept in suspense as to what was to become of Sri Lanka, tottering as it was on the edge of an economic and political volcano. It came to such a state where constitutional experts were compelled to pore over the Constitution in search of a remedy, at one point even considering the incumbent as having deserted post. This line of thought was made known to the Speaker, who, quite aware of the tension boiling over outside his gate, appeared amenable to the idea. Thus, a conflagration of monumental proportions was averted in the nick of time between anarchists masquerading as protesters and the security forces in close proximity to Parliament just 24 hours before the most-sought-after letter finally reached the hands of the Speaker.

Given that the ousted President has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid legal hindrances in his exit plan, he will probably end up in a safe haven that is likely to offer immunity from prosecution and, more importantly, has no extradition treaty with Sri Lanka. Therefore the next president will do himself a world of good in mooting legislation to at least preempt others from taking the same route in future. Such an approach will also be in line with the call of the ‘Aragalaya’ to hold to account those entrusted with public responsibility and, as things evolve, to even incorporate legislation to facilitate the confiscation of the unaccountable wealth of politicians. 

While at it, another key learning from the ‘Aragalaya’ that can potentially be a signature piece of constitution-making under the next president is the inclusion of the right to recall an elected official. It will kill two birds with one stone, acting as a deterrent against mid-way political crossovers, the likes of which contributed to creating an artificial two-thirds majority for the ruling party in the present Parliament, which ultimately paved the way for the disastrous 20th Amendment. The mechanism can be enabled through a simple by-election if at any point during the elected tenure the member in question is seen as acting contrary to the aspirations of their electors. As recent events have proven, it will open a window for people to correct a ‘mistake’ they feel they have made, without having to endure the sort of nightmare the country has experienced in the recent past. (The Sunday Morning)