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Sri Lanka: The Battle of Immoral Equivalences

by Rajan Philips

It is both ironic and insulting that the Rajapaksa camp and the UNP alliance have become identified with the two political systems contending for primacy in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas are identified with and are the champions of the executive presidential system. This is ironic given their so called roots in the SLFP, and it is insulting to the legacy of JR Jayewardene the acknowledged father of the presidential system in Sri Lanka. The UNP, on the other hand, is now identified with the restoration of parliamentary system, which is ironic given that JR Jayewardene crafted the executive presidency to become a permanent governing apparatus for the UNP. It is also an insult insofar as it was the UNP government between 1977 and 1994 that destroyed every aspect of the parliamentary system that had until then taken root in Sri Lanka’s political soil.

The Rajapaksas earned their notoriety by enacting the 18th Amendment to give them unlimited terms in office, and if their plan had worked would have given them a 99-year lease over Sri Lanka. But people thwarted the Rajapaksa plan in January 2015, and the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe became the dubious beneficiaries. Now they are the targets of national political ridicule over their constitutional contraption called the ‘National Government’ with a comical circularity: its sordid purpose is to create more ministers out of MPs and its crass survival depends on an enlarged cabinet. The power to make ministers out of MPs at will is not a feature of the parliamentary system, nor is it a feature of any presidential system in constitutional democracies. It is an unusual presidential power that JR Jayewardene created for himself as a mechanism for manipulating parliament. The biggest user and beneficiary of this mechanism was of course Mahinda Rajapaksa. The tragic-comic travesty now is that the incumbent President has no support in parliament, and the government in parliament is desperate to expand its cabinet size but has no support for it from the President.

The myth of stability

The farce of forming national governments to increase the cabinet size is also the perfect fodder for the critics of the 19th Amendment. The critics always pick on the many imperfections of 19A but severely ignore the principal purpose it has served – that of rescinding the 18th Amendment and removing the President’s arbitrary power to dissolve parliament practically at any time of her or his choosing. In fact, those who are vociferous in their criticisms of 19A did not have anything critical to say about 18A. And those who shed tears for democracy because of the removal of the President’s power to dissolve parliament and hold elections – either surprisingly forget or they are unsurprisingly ignorant of JR Jayewardene’s cardinal reason for implementing the presidential system: STABILITY. And JRJ’s main evidence for political instability in Sri Lanka until 1978: too many elections, too many cross-overs and too many government turnovers! As for that small segment of pundits who are both critics of 19A as well of JRJ, we can only wish them well in sorting out their own contradictions, if not confusions.

Not that JRJ was correct in his evidence or convincing in his argument. NM Perera contemporaneously dismissed it as JRJ’s "lame contention that the present (parliamentary) system of Government makes for instability and lack of continuity scarcely bear examination." What JRJ offered as ‘examples of instability’, NM applauded as instances that "neatly reinforce the power of democracy" and "prove that the present Parliamentary system has been tested and found not wanting." It is the Presidential system that has been found wanting, and never more so than under the current incumbent.

Lanka’s current problem is that the same old problems have been passed over from the hands of the sublime to the hands of the ridiculous. That is how we came upon the obnoxious 18th Amendment, and after getting rid of it we are stuck with the imperfections of the 19th Amendment. And the debate between the two sides has become the proverbial tale of the pot and the kettle calling each other black. It is not only in regard to the constitution, but also in regard to acts and allegations of corruption and instances of abuse of power. When both sides have immoral equivalences, neither side can claim a high moral ground over the other. Any allegation by one side against the other provokes the retort – what about your side? End of discussion.

Moral equivalence was the notion that was made popular in America by President Reagan’s UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a young socialist, life-long Democrat, and a Republican hawk after her fifties. Kirkpatrick was a defender of American power overseas, arguing that there was no moral equivalence between America, the chosen land of democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union, a totalitarian communist state without freedom or democracy. The Soviets responded with the argument of ‘whataboutery’ - that is, what about the state of affairs in the US? The Soviets picked on the difference between real freedoms (in the USSR) and the formal freedoms (in the US), and plights of the African Americans and the American poor.

A people’s candidate

In todays’ politics – moral equivalence and ‘whataboutery’ are arguments over corruption within countries. When the main political parties are all corrupt – ‘whataboutery’ becomes the argument of everybody. There is also no moral equivalence, false or otherwise. There are only immoral equivalences, and plenty of ‘whataboutery’, as there are now in Sri Lanka. When political choice is narrowed to choosing between immoral equivalences, the only way to positively move forward is to break out of the logjam of immoral equivalences and limited choices, and to positively expand the people’s choices.

Put another way, when no political party can nominate a presidential candidate with clean hands and honest intentions, isn’t it time for the people to clean out the whole bunch? It is that simple as an idea, and it is that difficult to execute. But it is neither inevitable nor impossible. Political change cannot be brought about by chanting prayers, chasing planets, or breaking coconuts. Nor does Sri Lanka need a violent revolution. Simple elections are good enough to effect big enough changes. That has been the experience from 1931 to 2015, even though the outcomes have been mostly mixed and often short-lived.

Who would have thought that in January 2015, an obscure common opposition candidate would get the better of a governing juggernaut that too had stolen the national limelight after starting in obscurity and was hell bent on taking out Lanka on a 99-year lease? The people made it happen in January 2015. They can make it happen again. But they need a candidate who can best represent the most of what they want. The country needs a people’s candidate as opposed to party and family candidates.

The idea of a people’s candidate sits well with the recent initiative for people’s constitution- following the consensus reached by 46 people’s organizations at a meeting in Colombo convened by the Punarudaya Movement on Saturday, January 19, 2018,to launch a ‘Movement for Making a People’s Constitution’ based on a "grand alliance" of people’s organizations. The gathering of 46 organizations and the launching of a broader movement for a ‘people’s constitution’, demonstrates two political facts.

One, the dissatisfaction with the existing constitutional system and the desire to overhaul it might be more deep seated and widespread than what most constitutional experts and political commentators might be willing to concede. And, two, the new movement demonstrates the determination to take the task of constitution making out of the hands of politicians in parliament and hand it over to a genuinely participatory constituent assembly.

The real question is what will the Punarudaya Movement and others associated with it do to advance their project in this year of elections, 2019? It should be obvious to them that what happens in the upcoming presidential, parliamentary, not to mention provincial elections, will undoubtedly have serious implications for the constitutional project. The project itself is an extension of the single-issue movement for abolishing the executive presidency launched by the late Sobitha Thero in 2014. The project is also the result of the people’s frustration with what has transpired after the January 2015 election victory that was a direct outcome of Sobitha Thero’s movement.

It is incumbent on everyone who did the political legwork in 2015 to make sure that the expectations of 2015 are not further stalled or totally reversed by the upcoming elections in 2019 and 2020. We can expect only stalling and backpedaling from the candidacy and the presidency of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s mission is to reverse the verdict of January 2015 and take the country back to the 18th Amendment and unlimited presidential powers and terms for the Rajapaksas. Maithripala Sirisena has made so many false starts in his first term no one is going to trust him for another term.

Speaker KaruJayasuriya began the New Year (2019) determined to abolish the executive presidency. There is no time left for him to accomplish that task before the next presidential election. But he presents an intriguing prospect to become a people’s (not the UNP’s) candidate in the next presidential election, one who might even win the election on the promise to end the presidency and fulfill that promise. Unlike Sirisena!

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