Sri Lanka: The before and after of the Supreme Court decision

December 18, 2018 Asia , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

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Malinda Seneviratne



The Supreme Court has ruled. The decision has been announced. Accordingly, the surreptitiously inserted clause allowing the President to dissolve Parliament (in order to circumvent an earlier Supreme Court ruling insisting that a two-thirds majority and a referendum would be necessary for the dissolution clause in the draft 19th Amendment to stand) is meaningless.


Now we can talk about the before and after.


First the ‘before,’ briefly. We saw in the aftermath of President Sirisena’s sacking of Ranil Wickremesinghe and subsequent dissolution of Parliament, many born-again democrats howling in protest. Few if at all showed any concern about the many anti-democratic acts of the Yahapalana regime as a whole or its constituent parties and relevant leaders, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena included. They did not voice any concern about the sophomoric piece of legislation authored by the UNP and endorsed by 223 members of Parliament (Sarath Weerasekera alone objected). That’s the 19th Amendment, the piece of paper that has spawned the chaos.


The UNP’s cheering squad is naturally elated. The hurrahs are actually hilarious. Many have claimed that the decision itself shows that Sri Lanka has an independent judiciary. What this means is that had the SC determined otherwise, they would have lamented ‘the lack of judicial independence’.


Some have called for Sirisena’s resignation because ‘he violated the constitution’. Some believe that the SC decision should automatically catapult Wickremesinghe back into the Prime Minister’s seat. That’s outcome-preference speaking. And that’s what has been spoken by most on both sides of the political divide.


It has to be remembered, also, that those who came to abolish the executive presidency, through crimes of omission and commission including the flawed 19th Amendment, brought about a situation where the President is the only individual with power.


Perhaps the most abiding outcome of the SC decision is that law-makers will show more seriousness in future. That would be a very positive outcome.


That’s the future. Where do we stand right now? Well, the President cannot dissolve Parliament arbitrarily. Parliament itself is at a standstill thanks to the antics of the Parliamentarians, a clearly partisan Speaker, a stubborn President and a court order. We will have to wait and see if the key players in the drama can rise above their personal and political agenda to resolve things.


What we do know is that no single party has a majority in Parliament. We have the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), officially part of the Opposition with R Sampanthan holding the office of Leader of the Opposition acting in cahoots with the former government, i.e. the pre October 26 disposition led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, two individuals who have since parted political ways. We have TNA spokespersons talking of an agreement with Ranil Wickremesinghe. We saw how M.A. Sumanthiran batted for Wickremesinghe and indeed the TNA operating now as Wickremesinghe’s sidekick but as though Wickremesinghe is his (Sumanthiran’s) sidekick.


Whether or not there’s an agreement between the UNP and the TNA needs to be disclosed by either or both parties and if there is, then its substance must be made public. Let’s wait on that.


We have a claimant to power (the UNP) that’s terrified of going before the people. Their legitimacy was questioned when the party was routed at the local government elections. Their legality is hanging by a judicial thread, so to speak. We have their track-record over almost four years, part tied to Sirisena but part a brief they have to defend on their own. This includes the bond scam, mismanagement of the economy, absolute incompetence on all counts, shameless bartering of the country’s sovereignty, clearly partisan constitutional tinkering (19th Amendment) and underwhelming work on the reconciliation front.


We have the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) with much stronger legitimacy claim courtesy the February 2018 election result but a legality that is under a shadow and dependent on the President’s whims. We have a President whose legitimacy is horrendously compromised and whose legality might come under threat if UNP-noises regarding impeachment turn into concrete action.


And there’s the people. They are not a monolith of course. Any keen observer on the political ferment following the sacking of Wickremesinghe would have noted that the objectors were essentially diehard UNP loyalists or else those who benefited from the Yahapalana regime. There was no groundswell of support for the UNP. The ‘massive protests’ called never converted into mass support for the UNP, its leader or its political position. This is not to say that everyone who didn’t add voice to shout condoned the President’s actions of course. Many would have found it all unpalatable, but at the same time few had taste for what the UNP has dished out.


If, as the greens have argued, the people were horrified by Sirisena’s moves and were appalled by the unexpected elevation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, why did it not translate into mass protests? Those who take the trouble to talk to a cross section of the polity would conclude the following: a) they found the recent political developments distasteful, b) they weren’t too unhappy about Wickremesinghe being ousted, c) they found the behavior of parliamentarians disgusting, d) they want an opportunity to express their sentiments on all things, e) they are willing to go along with the SC determination, and f) they are waiting for the case to be brought to them for judgment.


The problem is that the greens talk and have talked for years in echo chambers. When they say ‘everyone’ they are really referring to ‘everyone they speak with’ and that’s essentially ‘other members of the club’.


The more serious issue is that the vast majority appear to be nonchalant regarding the machinations in Colombo. They don’t really lose any sleep over constitutional matters, the executive powers vested in the office of the president or judicial processes. That’s not apathy, as some might claim. That’s judicious decision. The institutional arrangement has essentially operated in a way that public views are immaterial. The public seems to have returned the perceptional favor, even though the state is in their face and enters their homes in multiple ways. This mismatch has not really troubled lawmakers. Indeed they thrive on it.


There are other interesting developments. We’ve not had any talk of devolution in months. In fact the postponement of provincial council elections has raised not a hair of protest from the people. Those whose agitation was loudest, namely the TNA and the devolution-touting sections of the NGO community appear to have forgotten the word. And yet, the provincial councils, sans representatives, do operate (as did the local government bodies in the years when they were decreed to sleep by the election-fearing Yahapalana Government) courtesy of the administrative structure. It’s as though the 13th Amendment has been dumped. We might as well lay it to rest with a decent funeral if necessary.


Indeed, the absence of politicians has not really hampered the day-to-day operations of ministries and state run institutions. Sure, we need Parliament to pass laws and budgets, but state officials have risen to the occasion and proved that they can get things done as well or better as they did when politicians interfered in their work.


People involved and who talk about doing the decent thing should indulge in deep self-reflection. Jayampathy Wickramaratne and Ranil Wickremesinghe, most of all, should reflect on their absolute incompetence and political chicanery with respect to the 19th Amendment. Yes, they won’t. Politicians are not made that way.


The UNP cheering squad, going by statements issued by party leaders and born-again democracy lovers, seems to believe that the SC decision was only a first step. They are correct. They believe that the last step would be the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. That shows their limit and moreover demonstrates once again how utterly divorced the party and its loyalists are from the masses. The party is not democratic (if you believe otherwise, read the party constitution). The party does not operate democratically. The party has always put party interest ahead of national interest (check all the amendments to the constitution).


It is easy for loyalists to play the game of relative merits with liberal doses of selectivity and convince themselves that Wickremesinghe is the best. If that’s the extent of vision, it would explain why this entire drama was people-less as far as the UNP is concerned.


In the ‘long way to go’, whether they like it or not, there will be non-loyalists. The UNP can wish them away at cost; factor them in and the party may have a chance at a future election. As of now, the party leadership does not seem inclined to trust ‘the people’, using the term only for political convenience.


The people. They’ve been quiet. That could be ominous and not just for the UNP.





Malinda Seneviratne

I am a journalist, political commentator and a chess enthusiast. I was educated at the University of Peradeniya, Harvard University, University of Southern California and Cornell University and live in and work from Kottawa, Sri Lanka.

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