Saturday, June 13, 2015

Maithripala Sirisena's moment

It is necessary for politicians to talk. Necessary to explain. Necessary to meditate on some issue or the other. Talk is cheap, however. Rhetoric too. When concerns are raised and people are with one cause or the other, lip-service is easy to get. Actual support isn’t. That is why the 19th Amendment was badmouthed, scuttled, and in other ways cut down. That is why the 20th Amendment is said to face an even bigger setback. Politicians are frail, after all. They’re human.

The SLFP has not split to the extent where every issue being debated on has splintered and fragmented between two or more sides. That is why last Monday’s gathering of the SLFP and UPFA near Town Hall stood out.  It was not just Maithripala Sirisena’s faction that stood there. There were other people. Other names. Some didn’t turn up, but they were mentioned too.

The 20th is not the 19th. This we know. While the 19th cut down the powers of a man who still can and does call the shots, the 20th is wider and more all-encompassing. It affects everyone and for this reason not everyone wants to see it through. The SLFP’s position is clear, however. It wants enactment. The UNP on the other hand is pettifogging. So is the JVP.

There were people who came and spoke at the rally. For the first time since his coming to power, Maithripala Sirisena acknowledged that other parties (he did not mention the UNP explicitly but he needn’t have) were in his way. Rajitha Senaratne asserted the SLFP’s mandate and authority in passing it. So did Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. So did Thilanga Sumathipala. And so did D. E. W. Gunasekara.

The Mahinda faction did not attend (though SLFPers were present whatever their affiliation) but that didn’t show. The gathering was significant not least because the 20th Amendment is seen to be “authored” by the UPFA. The SLFP and more importantly the Sirisena faction showed that they were capable of assertion. There were accusations aimed at the UNP and other parties. Senaratne in particular was vocal. He lambasted the UNP’s role in scuttling the proposed Amendment and accused it and several other parties of hypocrisy.

He is correct. The UNP supported the 19th. So did the JVP. Both parties are now silent. The JVP has all but completely given up its (earlier) stand on reform. One can argue that electoral reform and the abolition of the manapa kramaya (which is what the 20th aims at) will fare badly for it. But the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) supports it. So does the Liberal Party (Professor Rajiva Wijesinhe was present at the rally). So does the TNA (though it wants adjustments to guarantee representation for minorities). That’s courage. That’s statesmanship.

In this context the SLFP’s stand on electoral reform needed to be clear. Both Senaratne and Sirisena spoke for everyone when they mentioned that the 20th is more important than its predecessor. This is true. While pruning the powers of the Executive was all fine and well, one can argue that they didn’t detrimentally affect other parties. Not even the SLFP.

Electoral reform is different, however. It can dampen and reduce parliamentary presence. As Premajayantha, Yapa, and even Sirisena reiterated, fears of enacting the 20th on this count are natural. But I believe Premajayantha got it right here: “We must put national interest ahead of personal want.” If the 20th will reduce numbers and support, and this is why certain parties are opposed to it (in secret of course), that is not statesmanship. That is duplicity.

Let’s not forget that the electoral system we have at present is flawed. It aggravates inter- and intra-party rivalries and, as seen in the last few years, can even provoke crime and dissension within party. It’s all about big bucks. All about money and power. Now it is true that extrapolating wildly and blaming everything and anything on the system is easy, but then again even such problems as intra-party rifts can be traced back to the manapa kramaya. That is why it must go. Period.

There is another reason. Ranil Wickremesinghe was not elected as Prime Minister. His party has relegated the SLFP to the opposition and continues to be in power courtesy of a pre-election agreement with Sirisena. The president is not a puppet, however. He can’t afford to be seen as one. He can assert. He must. The 20th gives him an opportunity to do so.

There may be an underside to all this, of course. We can assume that the likes of Senaratne want “show”. We can assume that they are accusing the UNP of not “toeing the line” when it comes to reform to show that they can represent the SLFP that way. That’s coalition politics. We have seen it before, especially during the years 2001 to 2004.

But times have changed. The president supports what the government opposes. Whether or not he genuinely opposes the UNP, we don’t know. Nor do we care. What we want is reform. We want to see that through and anyone who wants to scuttle it for reasons of expediency must be scripted out. Purely and simply.

Rajitha Senaratne was probably trying to unify the SLFP’s stand on this matter when he referred to both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena as “president”. He called Chandrika Kumaratunge “mathiniya”. Whether or not that was a slip of the tongue, he made one point clear. The SLFP and the UPFA need to be in on this. It has the numbers in parliament. The Cabinet is in the hands of another (unelected) party, but if the president can deal with that (with or without exercising the “Chandrika option” of dismissing them), obtaining support will not be difficult.

The message was clear, hence: “Everyone in the SLFP and UPFA is with us. We admit their role in what we’re doing whether they’re here or not. They were with us once, after all: Comrade Vasu, Dinesh Gunawardena, and even the former president to name a few. Besides, it was the SLFP that reformed the Local Government electoral system three years ago. We have the mandate to continue. We can oppose the UNP. And at the end of the day, we will.”

Point well made, Mr Senaratne. And well taken.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 13 2015