Sirisena too shoots himself in the foot

By N Sathiya Moorthy

 

Independent of the ‘determination’ that the Supreme Court sends to President Maithiripala Sirisena on his constitutional query regarding the operation of the 19-A provision on the duration of his term, there can be no denying or going back on the fact that he has already shot himself in the foot, good and proper. At a time when he has been seeking to de-stabilise political friends and foes alike, as he did at the time of his nomination as the ‘common Opposition’ candidate for the presidency ahead of the January 2015 polls, and subsequent elevation, he may have de-stabilised his own tottering political position, entrenched as he has been only by the constitutional mandate of a fixed term, which can be disturbed only in and by extraordinary political circumstances, going beyond natural causes and personal decisions.

At the centre of the current avoidable controversy is President’s request for the Supreme Court to ‘determine’ if his incumbent term extends to six years under the original provisions of the Constitution, or is limited to five years, as himself had piloted through the Cabinet during his first few weeks/months in office, flowing from his otherwise forgotten ‘100-day poll promise’, which he did reiterate at Inauguration. It woud be even more controversial and suicidal if it turns out that the President had sent in his query to the Supreme Court behind the back of his Cabinet, and more so the majority UNP partner in the ‘national government’ that he heads, and all those other partners in the coalition and also those like the TNA and the JVP that had backed him for office.

Those that may feel ‘cheated’ thus may not stop with political personalities and parties that had supported him in his election, but also are partners in this government. The common voters, especially those that had backed him against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, be it at the instance of the stronger UNP or TNA or Muslim party allies, or ‘otherwise’, should feel dis-heartened, not only at the U-turn that Sirisena has now taken without signalling to those that had followed him, and may continue to follow him, even  though from a distance, unsure as much about themselves as of the man leading them. It is not without reason.

Both during the shortened campaign, and later after assuming office, Sirisena declared himself to being a one-term President in the place of all his popular and natural predecessors, barring Ranasinghe Preamadasa, who fell victim to an LTTE suicide-bomber, had continued on in to a second term, the constitutionally-mandated upper-limit. His declaration meant even more, considered in the context of Rajapaksa removing the two-term upper-limit through the controversial 18-A, with even more controversial provisions in it. In swearing by a single-term and initiating the process for reducing the term from six years to five, dovetailing with the ordinary term of Parliament, Sirisena, at least some would remember and recall, had fvoured only a four-year term for the Presidency, one short of the Parliament’s term.

CBK precedent, but…

The ‘determination’ query to the Supreme Court need not alter Sirisena’s commitment to hold only a single term in ofice, not contesting for the presidency a second time. But the very nature of the query, its timing and the perceived secrecy attending on it, along with the short-term that he has given the Supreme Court, to decide on the question by 14 January, have caused more eyebrows to raise than otherwise.

Even granting that Sirisena’s query is genuine and flows from a ‘constructive’ interpretation of the Constitution that he might have been offered, possibly even without his asking, he would have done well to take it to his Cabinet and even initiate a national discourse on the subject, before some light gets thrown for the benefit of the Constitution Assembly, grabbling with all other issues barring this one. It might be argued that the President did not want to create confusion in the minds of the people by opening up the issue for public debate, where poliical positions (alone) would be taken, but the indecent and avoidable ‘secrecy’ attending on the issue now, may have made the people ‘suspicious’ of his past commitments and future intenions.

The last time the nation heard of an incumbent President going through the question and getting caught in the attendant controversy that was avoidable, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK), shot herself in the foot by having then Chief Justice Sarath N Silva swear in her for a new term in the secrecy of her office room, and later facing the humiliation of the very same CJ, presiding over a Supreme Court Bench, like the present one, ruling against a six-term for her, under different constitutional circumstances. With that Justice Sarath Silva also got into avoidable controversy of a unique kind. Sirisena has made the Silva experience near-exclusive by joining the unenviable club where CBK alone belonged – after JRJ had extended the Parliament’s term to six years, citing LTTE war andviolence, but in reality, only to avoid facing the nation’s electorate.

‘Social media’ voters

There is no denying that Sirisena did not have too many committed voters to call his own in Elections-2015. There were clear and identifiable constituencies, like those of the UNP, TNA, and also those of the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties apart from the JVP, who all were opposed to incumbent Rajapaksa leadership. If there was a new constituency that had moved away from pro-Rajapaksa to the anti-Rajapaksa camp between the war victory and subsequent Elections-2010, and the later-day Elections-2015, it was the emerging ranks of the semi-urban youth voters, living by and through the innovative ‘social media’.

This ‘social media’ generation were not voting for the man, or even against the man then in power. They all knew that Sirisena belonged very much where he had grown and grown roots, the corrupt political system, whatever be his personal and familial contributions to the same be, at the time. Instead, they voted to change the ‘system’, where corrupting the system did not mean financial corruption of the more recent ‘bonds scam’ kind, but one of corruption of personal integrity and political positions. In the given circumstances, where they did not have powers to change the system itself through the ballot (and not certainly through bullet-s), they needed to choose someone from within, on his promise and commitment, to change the system from within.

Over the past three years, by maintaining stoic silence over various decisions of the UNP partner in the coalition Government, led and represented in the person of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as and when such decisions were going through various processes of public discourse and parliamentary debate, and hitting out when such decisions had been reached, Sirisena displayed the kind of constitutional authority that CBK in his place shied away from doing, in her time. Maybe, she did dismiss three ministers of co-habitation government of PM Ranil (in that case, too) that too when the latter was conferring with then US President Bush in the White House, and also caused snap-polls to Parliament, too, bringing back her SLFP government, this time under later-day political nemesis in Mahinda R.

Like Sirisena, CBK too bound herself with a pre-poll commitment to reforms, but of the ethnic, power-devolution kind. In the era of LTTE, her going back on her perceived and pre-defined commitments, the former could convince its captive Tamil audience that she too was not-trustworthy, and went to war against the Sri Lankan State, all over again. Today, there is no LTTE, not even the JVP kind of militancy and insurgencies that threatened two governments, bi-partisan kind. SLFP’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike and UNP’s Premadasa, Sr, were made of sterner stuff in terms of domestic popularity, if not as much political cunning that Sirisena may have been endowed with. But it is also a quality that could make him as unpopular with the voter, starting with his one-time captive ‘social media generation’ as he became popular – but with a national commitment against militancy of the traditional form, but with constitutional consequences that could become even more difficult to repair, in the contemporary Sri Lankan political milieu.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, he multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

1 Comment for “Sirisena too shoots himself in the foot”

  1. punchinilame

    Can he not shoot at his other foot later on! He had rightfully obtained only an
    “opinion” which was not a fatal shot. Power greedy and cunning as he is, he will hang on at the end of the 5th year, putting the blame on his cohorts, when the courts will with a fuller bench decides as he wishes when numerous approach
    is made to Courts?

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