The Nugegoda rally and the government’s midlife crisis


by Rajan Philips

The government’s 100-day plan is nearing its halfway mark. The record so far is somewhat mixed. The big concern is whether all the constitutional and legislative changes proposed in the plan can be implemented within the remaining 55 days and certainly before the meaningless April 23 deadline for dissolving parliament. More than anybody else, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is insistent on sticking to the dissolution deadline with the expectation of forming an all-party national government after the elections in June. The simple question is why not make sure that the entire 100-day plan, including changes to the electoral system, is implemented by letting the current parliament complete its term in April 2016. Why not let the current parliament function as a ‘national government’ without prematurely putting the country through a general election in the hope getting a different national government? Would it not be prudent to use the current parliament to its maximum potential without risking the uncertainty of an election? Isn’t it too early for anybody to forget the lesson from the last prematurely held presidential election?

The risk of having a parliamentary election sooner than necessary must have been brought home to the UNPers in the new government by the inciting ‘MR for PM’ rally last Wednesday in Nugegoda. The rally did not fizzle out as many in the government were predicting, but attracted a massive crowd and received extensive media coverage, far more than the organizers were expecting. Politically, the Nugegoda rally outdid the government’s diplomatic success in getting the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka deferred till September even though it is due this March. The Geneva deferral spared the country from the ides of March for the fourth year in succession. But in Nugegoda, there was wild cheers for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa who had thrown the country into diplomatic mud in Geneva after winning the war in 2009.

True, one rally does not a PM make. And the surging crowds at the rally did not cover up the self-serving opportunism of the rally organizers and the chauvinistic content of their messages. Laksiri Fernando has superbly ridiculed the silly comparison of the Nugegoda rally to the United Left Front rally of the LSSP, the MEP and the CP in 1964. It is not the size of the crowd, but the credibility of the leaders and the content of their politics that should be compared. And there is no comparison between NM-Philip-SAWicks, in 1964, and Vasu-Dinesh-Wimal in 2015. Taking a different line, a recent Daily News editorial, now written under different dictation and without vitriolic personal malice, has rightly contrasted the freedom the organizers had in going ahead with the Nugegoda rally, to the difficulties that Maithripala Sirisena and the opposition had to face in organizing their meetings during the presidential election campaign. Official access to meeting sites was routinely denied and unofficial thugs were routinely sent to destroy meeting preparation when alternative sites were found. But the pro-MR organizers are not interested in the observance or denial of democratic freedoms. By hook or by crook, they want their man back to serve their own ends.

The organizers were smart in picking Nugegoda and not any other traditional political battleground in Colombo to rally for Rajapaksa’s resurrection. An MR rally at Hyde Park might have been a different story. Nugegoda is a different stomping ground. It was in Nugegoda, in January 2007, that Mervyn Silva led a gang of thugs to beat up a peace rally organized by the United Peoples Movements. It was also in Nugegoda last year that the BBS brought out its own throng of storm troopers to bad mouth the Muslims and the Christians. More than the location, the rally organizers think they have a smart strategy up their sleeve. They are not opposing the Sirisena presidency and programme, but are targeting Ranil Wickremesinghe and daring him to run against MR for Executive PM. Their strategic premise seems to be that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the chief architect of the January 8 regime change, is also the Achilles Heel of the new government in a political contest. For political pundits on the sidelines, a blood contest for the Prime Minister’s position is more entertaining than the boring politics of constitutional and administrative changes. All that Mahinda Rajapaksa has to do is to politically disown his nuclear and extended families, and he will be unbeatable again. That is the assumption.

The absurdity in spoiling for a Ranil-Mahinda face-off in a future election is that of all the 20 million and more people in Sri Lanka, it was to Ranil Wickremesinghe that Mahinda Rajapaksa turned at the worst moment of his political career, that early morning on January 9, allegedly after exploring unsavoury alternative options, to ensure safe passage from Temple Trees to ordinary life. Clearly, the outgoing president was not thinking of Vasu, Dinesh, Wimal, Udaya, or Dayan for political smarts at that time. It was vaguely reported then that Ranil Wickremesinghe assured the then President that he and his brothers deserve to be protected for the service they had done for the country. There has since been a lingering suspicion that Ranil may try to protect at least Mahinda Rajapaksa from the consequences of a full scale investigation into the misdeeds of the Old Regime. The suspicion is not unfounded because that is the name of the game that has been going on for almost 40 years. Even a former Chief Justice boastfully conceded how he saved a certain political leader from certain conviction in a case connected with tsunami funding.

Nearly four decades of executive presidency, and the last ten years of unbridled family bandying and power abuse, have erased the traditional political affiliations and party loyalties. The system is awash with all manner of not so strange political and personal bed fellows. Politically connected people are always safe no matter whether they are with the government or with the opposition; in fact they enjoy connections to both sides. It is the politically unconnected but concerned citizens who are vulnerable to official punishment and unofficial attacks. It was revealed in parliament the other day by the Minister of Justice that the rate of conviction in criminal cases is four percent Sri Lanka. It could be even lower if one were to include the cases where prosecutors have blandly told judges that the case files have gone missing. Worse, politically connected people are neither investigated nor prosecuted, let alone being punished, no matter which political alliance is in power. Putting an end to this game of mutual back-scratching was one of the solemn promises in the Maithri Manifesto.

Apart from sensational allegations, nothing concrete has been accomplished. There is no clear and consistent messaging of the steps that will be taken to investigate and deal with allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Different statements have emerged at different times: revamping the Bribery Commission, setting up Presidential Commissions, establishing a new secretariat and so on. While resources are needed to investigate and frame charges, the prosecution and trial of those charged should be left to the Attorney General’s Department and the court system. What is needed is to ensure that prosecutors and judges can function independently in dealing with charges of corruption and abuse of power. What is not needed and what should be avoided is the creation of politically constrained judicial commissions to administer justice. The purpose of prosecution should not be political vindictiveness but future deterrence. And corruption cannot be fought by prosecution alone. Systemic checks and balances to prevent corruption are even more important.

A useful lesson from the Nugegoda rally is that the new government must be alert to protecting the victory against authoritarian abuse of power that the people won on January 8. This can only be done by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe constantly working with the current parliament, where they have combined majority support, as a transitional body for the specific purpose of implementing what they promised to the people in January. It seems not only odd but a significant omission that the ‘new government’ did not commence its term and mandate with the President delivering the Statement of Government Policy to parliament when it met for the first time after the Presidential election. This is a constitutionally mandated function that seems to have fallen by the way side during the Rajapaksa years. Midway through its 100-day plan, the government could use this time honoured convention to update its plan and the road map to fulfilling the promises in the Maithri Manifesto.

It is worth restating what is commonplace. Unlike any of his predecessors, President Sirisena enjoys unquestionable democratic legitimacy and the unequivocal and entirely voluntary support of every member of the current parliament. The reason for this is both his subjective commitment to ending the executive presidency in its current form, and the support that the said purpose enjoys unanimously within parliament and almost universally in the country at large. President Sirisena should therefore be presiding over and be seen to be presiding over the changes that are underway, including the abolishing of his own powers. In addition, as a measure of safeguard he should keep his powers until all the other changes have been implemented.

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