Will Vasu, DEW and Tissa dare oppose Mahinda?
Has the Left been recalled to life?

by Kumar David


A constitutional amendment, which will, presumably among other things, lift the restriction on a person holding the presidency for more than two terms, is being prepared. However, Ravaya (6 June) reported that the Left parties in government, that is the LSSP, CP and DLF, are opposed to the change and Vasu is on public record as having spoken rather strongly against relaxing term restrictions. There are also reports of a heated encounter between the President and DEW. A David and Goliath confrontation has been brewing for a month, but it is too early to say how far these parties will push their point. If they vote against the amendment DEW and Tissa will be fired from the cabinet for sure.

If however, the five (three elected, two nominated) UPFA-Leftists stand firm the government will need to find 10 to 12 UNP traitors who are prepared to sell their votes. The rump UNP has no less voracious an appetite for political malfeasance than the bloated UPFA, but 12 is rather a large number. It will be ignominious to present the amendment and see it defeated – that is, fall short of the magic two-thirds. The consequences will be grave; it will undermine the regime’s credibility and endanger its stability. Make no mistake, the large electoral majorities of a few months ago not withstanding, a severe public relations reversal will ensue. The budgetary belt-tightening just round the corner will then turn into a firefight heralding skirmishes, which in time, will grow into political trench warfare.

I am not suggesting that the fall of the government will be imminent upon defeat or withdrawal of the constitutional amendment, or that the president will be ousted on the morrow. Rather, the regime will be knotted into immobility as real politics comes to life and resentment smouldering within the SLFP breaks into the open. Factions in the SLFP already sing from different hymn sheets; some decry Rajapakse’s dynastic aspirations, his third-term appetite thwarts the ambitions of other pretenders to the throne. The government must carry the amendment in parliament, or pull back from tabling it if it fears defeat.

Awakening from an extended slumber

It is quite astonishing that the leaders of these parties, so beholden to Rajapakse for their positions and sinecures, have decided to make a sudden stand, but they have. The following passages are from a document, signed by Tissa, DEW and Vasu and formally dispatched to GL Peries and Maithripala Sirisena.


"We are surprised that instead of moving to abolish the Executive Presidency as promised to the people for over 30 years, a proposal has now emerged to do away with the two-term limit of a person being the president of the country.

"In regard to the proposal to do away with the two-term limit, we wish to make it clear that we are totally against the proposal. We fully understand the general desire to continue with the present leadership. This could be best achieved by abolishing the Executive Presidency and making provision for President Rajapakse to be Prime Minister, in which event, the question of term limits will not arise.   The first prime minister (that is the present president) under the proposed amendment could even be invested with certain special powers but without any immunity for his executive actions.

"As the proposal impinges on fundamental rights and sovereignty it may well require the approval of the people at a referendum. We also wish to state that we are opposed to bringing any bill for the amendment to the constitution as an urgent bill. The country must be given ample time and opportunity to discuss proposals for constitutional reform, especially because no firm proposals were included in the Mahinda Chintana Idiri Dekma, which was the UPFA’s manifesto at both presidential and parliamentary elections".  

End quote

The internal discussion in the Left parties centred on several worries and I summarise as follows. An undertaking has been given to the electorate; hence the executive presidency must be abolished as promised. Term limits provide a check on the concentration of power; they strengthen democracy and ensure long-term stability. Experience in countries with no term limits for the chief executive shows that when a chief executive hangs on for long, the delineation between the state and the ruling party is blurred, the balance of power between organs of state eroded and legislature, judiciary, election authority and political parties weakened. The end point is authoritarianism.

This is all obvious and as old as the hills, but what’s significant is that constituent Left parties of the UPFA are canvassing their opposition openly at a time when the Rajapakse wing of the government is preparing a constitutional amendment to remove limits. The Left has planned an island-wide seminar series to be addressed by party leaders, constitutional expert Dr Jayampathi Wickremeratne (PC) and other public figures. Is the Left, which has so long shown no courage, letting a genie out of the bottle rather naïvely, unaware where it may lead? It is possible that the left is not fully alive to how far the genie, once freed, may travel. Either Left will be forced to back down, quickly, or a serious confrontation is on the cards.

What disturbed their slumber?

The Left rejected the executive presidency from the inception and NM published a comprehensive critique of the monstrous 1978 JR constitution. Therefore the tantalising question is why these UPFA-Left leaders awoke from a deep snooze and peremptorily threw down the gauntlet now. There are two explanations for this surprise; a somewhat facile personalised explanation, the other more substantive and political. Actually three options if you grant the possibility of sleepwalking as adverted to at the close of the last section. The two waking options are as follows.

Were this parliament to run its full term, DEW and Tissa will be in their eighties when the curtain falls in six years, and Vasu will be in his late seventies. I wish these old friends long life and good health, but on the practical side, it is improbable that they can serve a further six-year parliamentary term as nonagenarian status closes in. Perhaps therefore, they are asking themselves "What the hell do we have to show as our lifetime achievements? Is there anything that future generations will look back and remember us for?" That is, there may well be motivation to bat out, at least the last innings, with some courage for the sake of posterity. That’s as good a reason as any and I pray they stand firm on term-limits and refuse to cave in. Unfortunately they have decided to take a stand only on this matter and not to add an undiluted Seventeenth Amendment, or devolution cum power sharing, to their do-or-die list.

Perhaps personalised explanations are too trivial; then there is a more substantive political one. Radical left factions of substantial strength have emerged in all three parties. I will not name CC-members, who have chosen not to reveal themselves as accomplices of a radical tendency, but at least two make no secret of it; Lal Wijenayake in the LSSP and this writer in the DLF; but trust me, there are dozens more. The grouse is the same everywhere; the Left in the UPFA has erased its identity by perpetually kow-towing to successive presidents. They (that is we) stand for nothing independent. Why should people look Left (at us) when there is nothing different from the SLFP? Therefore it is possible that, at last, in the context of a drift to dictatorship and dynastic rule, the term limits issue has pushed the left identity critique right under the nose of the leadership, which can no longer ignore the hurly-burly of internal and external challenges. Good, very good, if that be the case!

Moving one step forward

The UNP is paralysed. It is not able to pull itself together and provide any leadership against emerging absolutist tendencies, the repeal of term-limits one among them. If another political force leads and directs, the UNP will tail along. The JVP is firm in its opposition to a third-term, and thankfully, moving away from chauvinism, though anti-Indian opportunism seems hard to cast off. Furthermore, when budget cuts bite, it is the JVP that will lead working class resistance. If the LSSP, CP and DLF throw their hats into the ring, even on the single slogan ‘No Third Term’, a very formidable de facto alliance comes into existence. Indeed it is just this strength that worries me that they will back out, but perhaps I am unfair to prejudge, let us take our leaders at face value and focus on unity and action.

It is true that this activism will transiently ease our focus on the central historical question of our recent history, the national question, towards resisting a sharp and immediate political menace. But one must move forward, one step at a time, whenever and wherever the road opens. No matter, eventually all roads lead to Rome. Making democracy secure, in whatever scene, will contribute to a democratic resolution of the national question.



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