No sooner had the UNF-JVP presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka's campaign officially kicked off from Kandy last Friday than UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made known his political plan yet another time. In an interview with The Sunday Leader yesterday he said he hoped to be Executive Prime Minister, after winning the next parliamentary polls, in the event of Fonseka's victory.
In other words, if Fonseka became President, he would have to strip himself of all the executive powers for Wickremesinghe to be the Executive Prime Minister. But, Fonseka has already said in no uncertain terms that he does not want to be reduced to a mere figurehead like the late President William Gopallawa! He has promised many things in return for votes and he will need executive powers to honour his promises, if he wins the next presidential election and abolishes the executive presidency.
However, even if Fonseka became President and reneged on his promise to scrap the executive presidency, he would still be at the mercy of the UNP government ‘to be formed’ with Wickremesinghe as the prime minister. For, Fonseka is without a political party capable of capturing power in Parliament; without control over the legislature, the President finds his or her powers curtailed and cannot sack even a hostile government within the first year of its formation, as we saw after the UNF formed a government in 2001 with Chandrika Kumaratunga as the President. She had her powers 'usurped', as it were, by the UNF government headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who became de facto President.
Fonseka would be a prisoner of the UNP, so to speak, if he won the presidency. After all, some JVPers and UNPers claim that they could use their strength in Parliament to ensure that Fonseka honours his promises including the abolition of the executive presidency.
However, Fonseka could seek to strengthen his hands in parliament to some extent in such an eventuality by fielding candidates at the next parliamentary elections from the 'Swan Party'. He may even forge an alliance with some other smaller parties. The JVP, which is desperate to avoid an electoral disaster at the next general election, would readily throw in its lot with Fonseka, whether he wins or loses the presidency.
Fonseka, like any other ambitious politician, is hankering after power. His claim that he gave up the post of CDS and came forward to contest the presidential election because of a burning desire to 'restore democracy', 'end corruption' and put the kibosh on 'family bandyism' should be taken with a pinch of salt. If his letter of resignation is anything to go by, he would not have resigned, if he had been granted what he aspired to such as the 'operational command' and 'administrative authority' in respect of the armed forces. "It is not to lick his fingers that a man gathers honey from a beehive," the wise old folk in this country say. No one in politics is driven by altruism!
In reality, the executive presidency cannot be abolished even if Fonseka becomes President and makes a sincere effort to do so because that task requires a two-third majority in the House, which no party will be able to secure under the existing Proportional Representation (PR) system. So, if Fonseka became President, we would have two centres of power––the President and the Prime Minister (from the UNP, in case of its victory at the next general election)––as was the case from 2001 to 2004.
In such a situation, unless either the President or the Prime Minister gives in, there will be utter chaos. If the President throws in the towel, the Prime Minister will act as the de facto Executive. If the Prime Minister gives in, the President will ‘reign supreme’.
If Fonseka became President and abolished the executive presidency without retaining any executive powers for himself, he would only help Wickremesinghe become the Executive Prime Minister. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, Fonseka would have acted like a political hit man for Wickremesinghe; the country, which would have rejected Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election––it was the fear of being defeated yet another time in the presidential contest that made him opt out of it––would have him thrust upon it as the Head of Government! In such a situation, the JVP, for its part, would have helped Wickremesinghe, whom it prevented, with the help of Mahinda Rajapaksa, from becoming President in 2005, return as the Head of Government in 2010!
Initially, Wickremesinghe wanted to be appointed Prime Minister of a caretaker government, if Fonseka became President. In fact, in an interview with the Sudaroli newspaper, he said the UNP made its support for Fonseka's candidacy conditional upon Fonseka's acquiescence to that appointment. But, Wickremesinghe has chosen to remain silent on that condition after it became extremely embarrassing to the JVP, which pretends that it does not want to be party to any political project that would be beneficial to the UNP.
Asked by the Sunday Leader how Fonseka would be able to carry out the promise of eliminating corruption without executive presidential powers, Wickremesinghe said he (Fonseka) would be in charge of an anti-corruption drive to be launched. That is, one may argue, Wickremesinghe wants Fonseka to become president, abolish the executive presidency, abdicate his powers and finally be someone like the Bribery Commissioner! The million dollar question is whether this is what those who may vote for Fonseka at the Jan. 26 election, with high hopes, really want.
Never mind electors, will Fonseka agree to this kind of arrangement? Remember he retired and took on the present executive president because he found himself 'powerless' as CDS. If he ever became President, would his ambition and craving for power allow him to give up the executive presidency––which gives him the 'operational command' and 'administrative authority' over not only the armed forces but also the police (and the Civil Defence Force)––and deny himself the benefits of his political 'victory' by opting to be a mere 'corruption buster' under Wickremesinghe?
These are some questions that need clear answers from the Opposition for the voting public to make an informed decision at the next presidential election.
In 1982, when Hector Kobbekaduwa entered the presidential fray because SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike was debarred from contesting owing to civic disability imposed on her by the JRJ government, jealous loyalists of Sirimavo, bent on ruining his prospects, projected Kobbekaduwa as a political hit man. They put up a poster with a classic slogan, 'Sirimata rata bara denna Kobbekaduwata chande denna' (Vote for Kobbekaduwa to hand over the country to Sirima.) Many people, who brought themselves to vote for Kobbekaduwa, though they detested the SLFP and its leadership, changed their mind at the eleventh hour. Kobbekaduwa lost!
Twenty eight years on, it looks as if history were repeating itself albeit with a different set of politicians and a different slogan, 'Ranilta rata bara denna Fonsekata chande denna' (Vote for Fonseka to hand over the country to Ranil).