by Rajan Philips
PAKISTAN’S twisted political saga continues without the slightest deviation from a tired and predictable script. PTI chairman Imran Khan has been found guilty of “corrupt practices”, disqualified from representing the people of Pakistan, fined Rs100,000, and sentenced to three years in jail for good measure.
Dawn (Pakistan Daily), August 6 Editorial The only relevance to Sri Lanka in the citation above is how a “twisted political saga continues without the slightest deviation from a tired and predictable script.” Sri Lanka’s political saga is also twisted but in far less precarious and less intractable ways than in Pakistan. Put another way, Sri Lanka’s political saga is a muddling version of the more dangerous drama in Pakistan. And the muddling version, in my view, arises out of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s moves and maneuvers to be a candidate at the next presidential election. His obstinate objective is to become an elected president after quite fortuitously becoming a caretaker president. And why is that objectionable? Here is why.
After he was ousted from office in April 2022 through the chicanery of a no confidence motion in parliament, Imran Khan has been agitating for general elections to be held for the people to decide who should be running their government – elected representatives or ensconced army generals. After ignoring the election calls for over a year, the Shehbaz Sharif government has dissolved parliament (for new elections mandated to be held within 90 days) just three days after the Election Commission barred the former Prime Minister from running for office for the next five years. The five year disbarment is based on the ridiculous three year jail sentence that the lower courts have meted out to Imran Khan based on spurious charges of improper declaration of ceremonial gifts received from foreign dignitaries. So, Pakistan’s tragic political drama continues with the same old script and the same unhidden military hand, but with a different cast of actors.
Unlike in Pakistan, there is no military hand in Sri Lanka, hidden or not hidden, despite occasional speculations to the contrary. The stifling leviathan in Sri Lanka is the Executive Presidency, which over a period of 46 years has emaciated parliament and reduced a reasonably well-functioning administrative machinery to institutional dysfunctionality. There are two sides to Sri Lanka’s current crisis: A collapsed economy and a dysfunctional political and administrative system. It is the latter dysfunctionality that primarily caused the collapse of the economy. At least a partial reforming of the political and administrative systems is necessary if the economy is to be salvaged and put on a sustainable development path.
My contention is that any and all possibilities of even a partial political reform are being destroyed by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pre-occupation with becoming an elected president. Put another way, going ahead with the next presidential election, whenever it is due or prematurely called, and enabling Wickremesinghe to become an elected President will permanently entrench the current political deformities. That will also scupper all efforts toward saving the economy and growing it.
The situation will not be any different or the prospects for reform will not get any better even if Ranil Wickremesinghe were to be defeated in a presidential election and someone else were to become President. This will be so even if Anura Kumara Dissanayake were to become the next elected President of Sri Lanka. It is not because Mr. Dissanayake will not sincerely try to achieve political reform including the ending of the elected presidential system. It is because his efforts will be systemically frustrated. He will be frustrated by parliament; the majority of whose members will be hostile to any constitutional reform initiative that the JVP may sponsor. The hostility and sabotage will be there whether it is the current parliament or a future parliament with JVP having as many as forty times more MPs than it has today.
Historically, the very first election for a new President in 1982 featured a candidate who ran on the sole plank of dismantling the presidential system, restoring parliamentary government, and selflessly withdrawing from power. That was Colvin R de Silva, but his promises were resoundingly rejected, and he became ‘the prophet outcast’ at home, though not quite like in the circumstances of Leon Trotsky in post-revolutionary Russia.
In every presidential election from 1994 till 2015, the winning and losing candidates promised to abolish the presidential system but did nothing about it after the elections. The biggest betrayer was Maithripala Sirisena who won the election in 2015 as a common opposition candidate and unprecedentedly defeating an incumbent president. Sirisena’s co-conspirator was Ranil Wickremesinghe even though the two men were mutually estranged as political bedfellows.
By the quirkiest of quirks, Ranil Wickremesinghe is now President, but rather than building alliances and support for reforming the presidency, Mr. Wickremesinghe is creating cabals among his own government MPs to advance his presidential candidacy. In normal times, such maneuverings could have been seen as Machiavellian brilliance. These are not normal times, and such machinations are hardly becoming of a man of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s age and the caretaker circumstances in which he was vaulted to power. There are two matters of concern here.
First, Mr. Wickremesinghe, in his current capacity as caretaker president, is squandering a rare and fortuitous opportunity to initiate and implement serious political reforms including the reform of the presidency. The somewhat ‘hung’ situation of the current parliament without a dominant party or alliance is an ideal opportunity for coalescing sufficient numbers of like minded MPs to support a positive reform agenda. The numbers (and members) are there in parliament for President Wickremesinghe to facilitate a two-third majority, constitutional-reform voting bloc if only he would jettison his usual machination habits and work with honesty and sincerity on a principled reform agenda.
The agenda can be limited to a few critical areas of reform: the presidency, the electoral system, provincial councils, and public service. Enough work has been done in each of these area for decades and there are enough people who could draft up the details of reform for the President and for parliament. If a referendum is needed it could be piggybacked on to a nationwide election – either local government, provincial council or parliamentary elections. Fundamentally, there should be no more presidential elections and the election of future Heads of State, after the current President, should not be directly by the people but through their representatives in parliament ,and potentially in the provincial councils.
There will have to be a sunset arrangement for President Wickremesinghe as part of such a reform agenda. If he were to play a crucial role, in good faith, in facilitating the reform process, there could be consensus among political parties to extend his time in office, but with reduced powers, under the new system of indirect election by the people’s representatives rather than directly by the people. An extended term in office for the caretaker president would also enable him to focus primarily on the economic crisis and to continue in his current role as the country’s economic ambassador and plenipotentiary. This is wishful thinking, but better than the baleful schemes that the President seems to be currently pursuing. The latter is the second matter of concern.
There is an ominous side to Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has not been shy of exposing it after succeeding the runaway Gotabaya as caretaker president. At that time last year, Imran Khan was out of office in Pakistan and was leading countrywide agitations for a general election. He reportedly rejected the idea of emulating the aragalaya agitation that successfully brought down a Prime Minister and President in a matter of weeks and months. Perhaps, he made the right judgement call in the context of Pakistan, where confrontation with the military may have led to a nationwide bloodbath. Today, Imran Khan languishes in jail and is barred from contesting the upcoming general election.
In contrast, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who cannot ever lead a political protest, became the biggest beneficiary of Sri Lanka’s most consequential protest. He is now President and wants to hold no other election other than a presidential election as it is the only election that he (and his followers) can conceivably win. Rather than reforming the presidency, Mr. Wickremesinghe is acting to perpetuate it. Imran Khan rejected emulating the Sri Lankan aragalaya in Pakistan, but there is much in common between the political machinations of the Shehbaz Sharif government in Pakistan and the Wickremesinghe administration in Sri Lanka.
As part of his agitation for national elections, Imran Khan got the provincial governments led by his party (PTI) in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to dissolve their assemblies to force elections. But the Sharif government let the dissolved assemblies remain in limbo, ignoring the constitutional mandate for holding elections within 90 days of dissolution. The government rebuked the judiciary for ordering an election date, and made its own ruling that elections could not be held due to the prevailing economic crisis and security situation. Sounds familiar?
As soon as Imran Khan was illegitimately barred from contesting, it was time for dissolving parliament in Pakistan, economic crisis or not. Similarly in Sri Lanka, the treasury has no cash for conducting local elections, but it will find plenty of cash for a presidential election if and when Ranil Wickremesinghe decides to have one at the convenient time of his choosing. Should he be allowed to do so? And thereby not merely prolong but perpetuate a dysfunctional political system? Alternatively, could a reform project be launched, and the current caretaker presidency be brought to a desirable end? The country has options too.