Political chess

The United National Front government led by the UNP has decided to take the road of constitutional amendment to clip President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s wings by taking away her power of dissolving parliament after December 5. The UNF, of course, does not have the needed two thirds majority in the legislature to achieve this objective and must necessarily depend on some PA MPs backing this move if it is to succeed. This necessitates protecting those MPs defying their party whip to support the amendments and this too will be covered in the bill that is due to be presented within the next fortnight.

Professor G. L. Peiris and other leaders of the government, excluding Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, are on record saying that the government has the numbers to push this legislation through and the country will not have to wait very long to see whether this boast is factual or empty. It is obvious that the people do not wish another election now and the president has clearly said that she does not intend using her constitutional powers of dissolution "at present.’’ As we pointed out last week, she has no power to dissolve at present and must wait till December 5 if she plans such a short-sighted course. Subsequently her spokesmen have said that she has no intention of taking such a step when she is constitutionally empowered and that she’d already written to the speaker to this effect.

Although the lady with the dazzling smile has time and again assured her countrymen that she does not lie, very few believe her. Even though we are notoriously a people with a short memory, CBK has not been allowed to forget her written promise to the JVP to abolish the executive presidency by July 15, 1995. She secured the withdrawal of the JVP candidate from her first presidential race on that basis. No wonder then that her former minister, Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, nailed Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar who brought a message from the president to the PA parliamentary group promising that she will not dissolve. Fernandopulle reminded that such an assurance had been given last year too but parliament was in fact dissolved. As Friday’s The Island headlined the story, "How can one believe Chandrika....?"

The people of Sri Lanka are well experienced about the ways of our politicians, whatever their parties, and have enough savvy to know that what they do usually depends on expediency and spot advantage. An assurance now by a president that she will not use her power of dissolution once she is empowered to do so will not wash whatever the promises that are made, memoranda of understanding that are signed or letters she might write. No government would want the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head, even when it enjoys a parliamentary majority, and getting rid of that sweeping power out of the country’s basic law must be a top priority for the UNF, placed as it is in uneasy cohabitation with a president from a rival party. Junius Rex, as the Economist called President J. R. Jayewardene, also appropriately described as the "twentieth century fox,’’ may very well have armed the presidency to deal with a hostile parliament thinking that proportional representation (PR) will render the amendment of the 1978 constitution not just improbable but impossible.

We all know that our MPs, whatever their party, do not want premature elections when they are incumbents. It need hardly be said that elections are very, very expensive for candidates, exhausting and in recent years dangerous. Moneybags who funded the various campaigns less than a year ago are not likely to be enthusiastic about backing their horses anew, especially when they have not yet had a chance of cashing their IOUs. So nobody, not even those in the PA waiting with bated breath to return to office and the perks that such office bestows, want an election just now. Given that the boot is in the UNF foot and it will call the shots in the event of a poll, the ruling party is less averse to an election than the opposition who had that advantage last time round, dispensing seenibola that the economy could not afford, and using the apparatus of the state and the funds of the taxpayer in their unsuccessful bid to get themselves re-elected. This time those handicaps are elsewhere so no wonder that those in the saddle are less averse to a poll than those in the wilderness.

We need hardly state the obvious about the horrendous cost of elections not only in terms of a cash-starved exchequer but also in terms of the blood that is shed. Who wants more Udatalawinnas or Akuressas merely to find out whether the incumbents can get a stronger mandate than last time? Given the realities of PR, there will be no two thirds majority for anybody so that the country will be spared the tyranny of absolute majorities that we’ve already known - the two thirds of 1970 and the five sixths of 1977. The country, like those who are already warming their parliamentary seats and drawing their parliamentary pay and perks, do not want elections. What it wants desperately is peace, an honourable peace with no sell out, and the stability that will help the peace process to get started and the economic development that will deliver a better standard of living for all the people.

But the political chess will continue and self-interest of MPs, be they government or opposition, may ensure the needed numbers to clip CBK’s wings. Unless the UNF is sure of that, there will be no 18th or 19th amendments. CBK has been in parliament last week sweet-talking her MPs to retain their support. September will show us how successful she was. So await the free entertainment in the political circus in the weeks ahead even as the long-delayed peace talks that are bound to be both tortuous and difficult begins.

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