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The Necessary Battle over Presidential Term-limits

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Tomorrow, perhaps the future” - WH Auden (Spain 1937)

(August 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The charade is finally over. President Rajapakse has informed Sri Lanka’s Micawberian Opposition that he intends to remove presidential term-limits and run for a third (and, the Grim Reaper permitting, a fourth and a fifth…) term. Clearly Rajapakse père means to be President for life, and be succeeded by Rajapakse fils. The UNP has been deluded, yet again, and (wittingly or unwittingly) made to serve the dynastic ambitions of the Ruling Family.

Now that the truth is out, the UNP cannot continue to cling to the mirage of consensual politics. Here is an issue which must be fought and can be won. If the Rajapakse plan to remove presidential term-limits is successful, Sri Lanka will succumb to Dynastic Rule. But, if the proposed amendment is defeated, there is a fighting chance for a non-Rajapakse to succeed Mahinda Rajapakse, six years from now. This is a battle which cannot be evaded by any who abhors the thought of Sri Lanka in the grip of a tyrannous and rapacious Family Oligarchy.

Removing presidential term limits while preserving the powers of executive presidency is incompatible with democracy. Consequently this is not a partisan issue but a straightforward battle for democracy in which all opposition parties (from the UNP to the JVP and the DNA, from the SLMC to the TNA and the TULF) can join, without reservations about political principles or electoral spoils. Since, in the final analysis, the only real beneficiaries of the proposed amendment are some members of the Rajapakse Family and their hangers-on, this issue can be used to drive a wedge not only between the Ruling Family and the Ruling Party but also within the Ruling Family, causing the isolation of Rajapakse père and fils, (Would Basil Rajapakse, for instance, be elated at the thought of a President Namal?) The Rajapakses, in their unctuous greed, have presented the opposition with the ideal single-issue campaign which can ‘unite the many to defeat the few’. Will the opposition grab this opportunity or miss it to the detriment of our common future?

Will to Power, Leni Riefenstahl’s artistically magnificent and ideologically diabolical movie heralded the Nazi future. Pongu Thamil venerated Vellupillai Pirapaharan as a living god. Jaya Jayawe, a musical show sponsored by the state TV, presaged the Rajapakse future. Panegyric after panegyric hailed President Rajapakse as the ‘Lion in the Lion Flag’, ‘Our Time, Our Legacy, Our Future, Our Solution, Our Father, Our Comfort, Our Happiness, Our Light…..’, the ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Wonder of the World and the Universe’, ‘High King’ and ‘Divine Gift’, a ‘Golden Sword which defends the nation’ and a ‘Golden Thread which unites sundered hearts’, the Sun and the Moon (Hiru and Sandu to the South; Thinakaran and Chandiran to the North). The final song of the evening was dedicated the President’s mother; ‘Mother, are you watching from heaven, as the Son, whom the gods and the Brahmas sent to your womb from golden palaces, is protecting the Nation?’ queried the songstress, while the said heaven-donated son listened with manifest complaisance, finding nothing out of the ordinary in this and other idolatrous outpourings. His demeanour indicated that he considered such slavish obeisance to be his due. It was the attitude of a man who sincerely believes that absolute power and lifelong rule as his right. Removing presidential term-limits is a sine-qua-non for the realisation of that manifest destiny.

Task of the Hour

The Rajapakses, when inveigling opposition members to defect, use cupidity as their main psychological propellant. The opposition can use similar tactics to cause dismay and consternation in government ranks. If Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga removed Presidential term limits, Mahinda Rajapakse would not have had a chance of becoming the President. Similarly, if the Rajapakse plan works, all senior and up-and-coming SLFP leaders will be condemned to stagnation and to end their political lives as the servitors of this or that Rajapakse.

The constitutional amendment removing Presidential term limits contains the potential to create dissension within the ruling coalition. If the amendment goes through, non-Rajapakse SLFPers will have to be content with nothing more than toothless ministerial posts, since real power will be concentrated in the hands of the Rajapakses. A word picture of this unending Rajapakse future, consisting of unquestioning obedience to every caprice of the Ruling Family and humiliating servitude to a President Namal, for a paltry reward, should be drawn for the edification of SLFP seniors and potential Young Turks. The prospect of such a life sentence of servility cannot but dismay any vertebrate SLFP leader. Given their dread of Rajapakse vengeance (of which Gen. Sarath Fonseka is living proof), leading SLFPers are unlikely to join any oppositional campaign openly. But if the opposition can launch a broad and a spirited campaign against term-limit removal, some SLFPers may be emboldened into urging the President to shelve his signature constitutional reform.

There was a time when the UNP was a source of inspiration to its supporters and unease to its opponents. Today, thanks to the long, debilitating leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP is a source of inspiration to its opponents and unease to its supporters. Reversing this reversal totally is impossible until Mr. Wickremesinghe is ousted from UNP leadership. Fortunately the necessary battle against the removal of presidential term-limits need not wait for that felicitous change. In fact, the conduct of leading UNPers on the issue of presidential term-limit removal can become a litmus test to gauge their capacity (or lack of it) to battle the Rajapakses. Will Mr. Wickremesinghe be able to unite the opposition and launch a strong and spirited protest campaign against presidential term-limit removal? Which of the UNP’s Young Turks will play a leading role in this national campaign? Incidentally the Rajapakses are likely to make insidious attempts to exacerbate the leadership squabble and other divisive issues to prevent the UNP from focusing on the battle against Presidential term-limit removal. The UNP needs to avoid such ruses and concentrate on the task at hand. Let Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake, Sajith Premadasa and others with leadership aspirations show their mettle in this necessary battle for democracy against a common enemy.

An effective and united protest campaign may also discourage potential opposition defectors. The regime does not have a two-thirds majority as yet. Unless the Rajapakses can engineer a substantial defection from the opposition, they will need to retain the support of every UPFA parliamentarian. If some of the minority or left parliamentarians can be persuaded to dissent on just this issue, while remaining in the government, the Rajapakse plan to remove presidential term-limits may be stillborn.

The opposition lost many battles because it never waged them. Today indifference and inaction are non-options. The term-limit removal issue is the last real hurdle in the path to dynastic rule; it is also the highest because this is an issue which cannot be justified, ipso facto, using patriotism, Sinhala supremacism or any other ism. On this issue, the Rajapakses are at their weakest and most naked. They can and must be defeated, for a democratic Sri Lankan future to become even a remote possibility.

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