Not another election, please

Last week’s yet unpublished but widely publicised judgement of a 7-judge bench of the Supreme Court on the proposed 19th amendment to the constitution has certainly set the cat among the canaries. The big question now is whether the country is to go through another election, the third in a little over two years, when the crying need of the moment is not political gerrymandering but getting to grips with the pressing problems of the nation. It need hardly be said that chief among them are the forging of a durable peace and reviving the tottering economy.

It will only be later this week that the judgement will be known. But the PA and the UNF have obviously been privy to the determination. This is hardly surprising, given that it has already been communicated by the court to the president and the speaker. The knowledgeable manner that ministers of the government and PA personalities have been spouting on the subject, not to mention the original leak from wherever scooped by the Lankadipa, serves to adequately demonstrate that nothing is secret in this republic of ours, supposedly both democratic and socialist. Nonetheless, we must wait till Tuesday when the authentic document will be published after the speaker communicates the determination to the House.

The PA obviously regards it as a victory, an infusion of adrenaline into its tired frame after it lost the election last December even though the all powerful President Chandrika Kumaratunga was firmly ensconced in the throne. Her acts of derring-do as recently as last year, when she first prorogued parliament after her party lost its parliamentary majority and then dissolved parliament the moment she was empowered to do so, are now all but forgotten. We now have the self-same Kumaratunga gravely pledging by word and letter (remember the one she wrote the JVP in 1994 promising to abolish the presidency by July 1995?) that she will not use the dissolution power the government wants to take away.

Professor G. L. Pieris, the cabinet spokesman, has already made very clear that the government does not want a referendum and will not go for one. On the other side, there is the PA which obviously does not want an election given the sorry shape it is in. The possibility of going for another general election had been bruited around even before the 19th amendment business came to pass. Now it looks as though a section of the government is inclined towards that option although it is by no means clear that it can compel the president to sign the needed proclamation by passing a parliamentary resolution demanding dissolution. As our front page news report says, the constitutional position on this score is open for interpretation and, as is to be expected, the UNF and PA are interpreting it for their own advantage.

While there is every likelihood of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe improving the UNF’s numbers in the event of a poll, not even the most faithful green backer will forecast a two thirds majority for the ruling party and its allies. The old fox wrote his 1978 constitution in such a way that landslides for any side will not be possible under the present system of elections by proportional representation. So even if we do have an election, in the unlikely event that the president will do the government’s bidding without rigorous resistance, the political landscape is not likely to change very much. The government will claim a stronger mandate for the peace process, many heads will be broken, an already bankrupt exchequer will spend money it does not have to pay for a poll we can’t afford and we’ll all be back on square one with the two authorities — the president and the government — that the voters have ordered to cohabit firing cannons at each other.

Unhappily for the nation, the present impasse points only in one direction: both the rulers and alternative are only interested in getting advantages for themselves with the national interest relegated to the back burner. Consider the situation. The government that wished to clip the president’s wings to prevent her from destabilising the country and the peace process by opportunistic dissolution of parliament now wants her to dissolve the legislature and call fresh elections. On the other side, we have been coyly informed by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse that the PA is willing to form a government if the president, in the context of the present scenario, calls upon it to do so — no doubt in the context of rejecting a dissolution demand. Not only Rajapakse but the whole country knows that with ministries and deputy ministries to dole out, it is no hard task to get our politicos to change allegiances. That, after all, was what the PA did to the UNP and the UNP was preparing to do to the PA to get the two thirds majority for the 19th amendment. The cost does not come out of anybody’s private pocket. The long suffering taxpayer must pick up the tab.

Given the track record of the various dramatis personae, be they green, blue or red, the people are bound to take a cynical view of the various strategies and counters now on display. They know that the jockeying is for political advantage and nothing else. If the interest of one side or the other is congruent with that of the nation, the country can go along with it; but not otherwise. This is a time that Sri Lanka’s foreign friends have shown a willingness to help us repair and rehabilitate our war-torn nation and, hopefully, revive our economy. Any perception that the agenda of the national leaders is not in the country’s larger interest will only serve to dissuade them from helping us to help ourselves. This is not a time that the political interest can be allowed to subordinate the larger issues and it is to be hoped that both the president and prime minister, as well as the parties they lead, see it that way.

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