Ranil’s mentality pushed country into current impasse | Sunday Observer

Ranil’s mentality pushed country into current impasse

Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the UNP leader for an eternity, but he is almost there.

When he was asked this week about his current status in the political Order, he said, he is ‘Number 1.’ It’s this mentality of entitlement that has pushed the country into the current impasse, with the majority of people being held hostage to the whims of a cabal of Colombo based politicos, and their enablers.

The story is not very edifying. But let’s begin at the beginning. It was Wickremesinghe and his political ideologues in prettified sections of the so called civil society, that introduced the 19th Amendment.

The initiative’s primary goal was to make sure that the Wickremesinghe UNP Yahapalana Government survives sans a serious challenge for four and a half years.

This was done for the Yahapalana regime, by the Yahapalana regime, and was among the initial legislative efforts of the new government.

Its primary aim was the petty, self serving goal of making sure the Yahapalana Government stays in power, for at least four and a half years, no matter what.

Done in the name of Good Governance, this initiative was undemocratic to the core. Victor Ivan, who is no fan of any of the Rajapaksas, and has been liberal in his leanings, wrote recently that the move to perpetuate the government in power for four years and more with the inclusion of the time bar, removed one of the last avenues of recourse that citizens had, to change governments midstream.

It’s serial dissolution in France

In other words, this was base, power grabbing tyranny, all dressed up and prettified as ‘Good Governance.’

It goes against all the fundamentals of democracy that allow for governments to be changed periodically, the standard practice in all performing democratic polities of the world.

Strome and Swindle, two political scientists who researched the subject, wrote that ‘The dissolution power is often viewed as a key characteristic, or even a defining property, of parliamentarism. Douglas V. Verney, for example, counts it among the eleven defining characteristics of parliamentary democracy (Verney 1959). When vested in the head of government, the authority to dissolve Parliament represents a counterweight to the parliamentary majority’s dismissal power’, Strome and Swindle opined.

Since Gen. Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth French Republic in 1958, for instance, the Lower House of France’s bicameral Parliament has been dissolved five times in the 20th century alone -- by De Gaulle in 1962 and 1968 and by Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981 and 1988, and by Jacques Chirac in 1997. In all except one of those cases, there was either a grave political crisis or acrimony between the President and the Parliament, that precipitated the dissolution.

The French did not react by placing a bar on dissolution powers, by tinkering with the Constitution to permit winding up Parliament only after four and a half years!

In many other countries, such as Austria, Denmark, or South Africa, Parliament can be dissolved by the Head of State in consultation with the Prime Minister, and with these consultative powers not binding, this essentially means that deadlock between the Executive and Legislature, or eventualities such as the loss of confidence in a government due to gross actions of corruption, etc, can be remedied by recourse to dissolution of the Legislature, by the Head of State.

By introducing the four-and-a-half year time bar against dissolution, the Yahapalana Government ensured continuity, and this made way for an absurd situation in which Parliament cannot even be dissolved strategically by the Prime Minister himself, by conveniently losing a vote of no confidence.

The Prime Minister cannot dissolve Parliament early and opt for elections even if he wants to, under this scheme of things! He would need to obtain a two-thirds to do this, and if the parliamentary opposition decides to deprive him of such a super-majority, he cannot choose early elections that strategically governments are adept at opting for, in most advanced democratic parliamentary systems.

It is clear, as Victor Ivan said, that the abomination of the four and a half year time bar was introduced to ensure continuity in power, entirely as an end in itself.

The Amendment to pass the time bar into law was moreover, steamrolled in Parliament, ignoring the most rudimentary democratic principles in what amounted to a constitutional coup d’etat.

A Prime Minister was appointed subsequent to a presidential election, over the head of a sitting incumbent PM, and a so called National Government was formed by the undemocratic crossover of over forty MPs who were voted into power some five years earlier, not from the Prime Minister’s party but the one that was opposed to him. These MPs quite understandably had policies entirely opposed to those of the newly, palpably illegally appointed Prime Minister.

In short, the introduction of the four and a half year time bar was nothing short of being illegal, certainly violating the spirit of the law by far due to the aforementioned, if it did not violate the letter of the law, which it also did, due to the various machinations to avoid a referendum, as was recommended by the Supreme Court.

Kumaratunga did it often

Only readers with short memories would not recall that the Legislature was dissolved early not just in France, and some of the other countries mentioned above, but also in Sri Lanka, with the effects being nothing but salutary.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on April 4 2004 sacked three ministers and took away the ministries of Defence, Interior and Information, from the Prime Minister’s control. She then dissolved Parliament, without any no-confidence vote in the House having precipitated that dissolution.

Al Jazeera reported that President Kumaratunga has dissolved Parliament ‘seeking to end a power struggle that threatened to take Sri Lanka back to civil war’. i.e: the dissolution was seen as having a salutary effect on the country’s fortunes.

The Parliament dissolved by Kumaratunga in 2004 was just two years and four months old, having been elected in December of 2001.

Interestingly, the 2001 parliamentary elections were held a little over a year after the previous general election in 2000.

This healthy tradition of parliamentary democracy allowing for dissolution as a way out of gridlock or policy failure etc., was destroyed by what was tantamount to brute force by the Yahapalana Government, which used egregious manipulation of the system to introduce the four and a half year time bar to prolong Parliament’s life, even in the event Parliament was on life support.

Those who say the Amendment was bipartisan may contend that introducing the four- and-a-half year bar was supported by the then Joint Opposition (JO). It was, indeed, but only in a draconian atmosphere of political steamrolling that the country had not experienced since Independence, with the Opposition Leader’s post given to a party that had less seats than the JO, the Speaker serially blocking judicial review of legislation with Committee Stage amendments, with a palpably illegal National Government for which the people had emphatically not given a mandate, when they elected the crossover MPs which formed that entity. Most importantly, the support for the Amendment was given when members of the former President’s family and others were being subjected to persecution, leading to a situation of blackmail.

At the risk of repeating myself, it has to be stated that a leading Yahapalana ideologue confessed on pubic television just two weeks ago that the JO had indeed been blackmailed to support the 19th Amendment, which introduced the four-and-a-half year time bar.

One more contention that’s probably in the armory of fans/advocates of the 19th Amendment, would be that the British Parliament introduced a similar time bar for dissolution of its own Parliament.

Those just desserts came fast

This contention holds no water, with Britain being a nation that has an accommodating political culture, the best example of that being a necessary two-thirds being given last year to dissolve Parliament. This happened with Opposition and Government MPs alike voting for an early end to the previous House of Commons, elected just over a year back.

Quite unlike that example, when even the UNP-supportive JVP has declared that it would lend its heft for a necessary two-thirds for a dissolution of parliament, the Wickremesinghe UNP these days almost defies the odious political culture of overstaying voters’ welcome, by refusing a super-majority for early dissolution.

If there is one constant in all of this, it’s the fact that the UNP brought the current situation upon itself, and is currently being handed its just desserts.

The hubris of defeating the powerful Rajapaksa regime — also by deceit of many sorts incidentally — consumed the party, and Wickremesinghe became Executive Prime Minister for all intents and purposes, bettering his uncle the late J R Jayewardene in abusing the power of that executive premiership, in contrast to the manner in which JR abused his office of the executive presidency.

In doing this, Wickremesinghe encroached on both the Executive and the Judiciary, basically ruling by diktat, and making himself dictator, all but by name. He encroached with impunity on the Judicial branch by engineering the sacking of the Chief Justice with the stroke of a pen, with ill conceived contempt for constitutional procedure or nicety.

He encroached on the Executive branch, on a daily if not an hourly basis, regarding the president as a mere factotum, a manservant at Temple Trees at best.

What’s almost comic, if it did not have such dire consequences for both him and the country, is that he did all this, when in the delivery department all he could come up with was corruption, more corruption, regular compromising of national assets by selling off state property and enterprises outright, and disdain for the majority community, culminating in the persecution of the Armed Forces, with an attitude that seemed to suggest he absolutely relished in doing so.

In many ways, this is not quite surprising for someone who is a holdover from the JR era UNP, which oversaw — nay engineered — the 1983 pogrom (riots) and the persecution of the JVP, with Batalanda type torture chambers being the signature tactic.

Checks and balances

An Executive Prime Ministerial dictator who forgot the Executive President who he treated as a mere factotum, would use his truncated but still intact powers to strike back.

This striking-back is being defined these days in the common narrative as being personal, but it is a godsend of a correction for the people and the nation, which has been teetering after the Wickremesinghe UNP upset of the checks and balances of the system of separation of powers, by foisting an Executive premiership on the country.

The Bond Scam and a taxation economy that fleeced the people, placing a tax down to everything including children’s piggy bank savings, were RW’s signature achievements in power.

Those and of course his style of riding roughshod on due process, which he still has the temerity to do even as this is written, by ensuring that his Speaker treats Parliament as his petty fiefdom.

In the UK if ten — just ten — members rise against the suspension of Standing Orders, such a suspension is not allowed. Such rudiments of parliamentary practice means nothing for a Speaker who has dismantled the most basic of tenets of parliamentary practice.

Speaker Jayasuriya was instrumental in appointing a Leader of the Opposition from a party that had far less seats than the Joint Opposition, on the fiction that the JO’s party leader had allied with the Premier, in a National Government.

He even decided to deprive JO members speaking time in Parliament, using the same or a similar justification.

‘To tell the SLFP members of the Joint Opposition which votes against the Government and speaks against the Government in Parliament to get the concurrence of Nimal Siripala de Silva, a Cabinet Minister in the Government, for them to function as a separate group is not something that any self-respecting Speaker would have done,” wrote a commentator, on the political site dbsjeyaraj.com. If there was a constitutional coup d’etat in this country, it was engineered by the UNP Government by foisting a spurious ‘National Government’ on the people, that stole over four lakhs of votes, the day after the election.

It’s not hard even for the man from Mars to learn from the above — especially, from the Speaker’s decision to deprive the Joint Opposition of speaking time in Parliament etc — that hubris let these people down the road of rubbing the collective face of the Opposition in the mud.

This was done not with mere impunity, but with a madman’s relish.

Poetic comeback

It’s poetic under the circumstances that these same people are complaining now of unconstitutional conduct, and a smothering of democracy. Whose democracy, one may ask? It certainly can’t be Ranil Wickremesinghe’s democracy, as nothing even remotely like it ever existed. A Ranil Wickremesinghe dictatorship existed, and it encroached on the Executive and the Judicial branches from, as they say, the get-go since Yahapalana began.

Under all of the circumstances detailed above, the UNP’s complaint of a democracy deficit is not just hypocritical, it is also an inexplicable exercise in denial.

When the delicate balance of separation of powers is upset by a dictatorship, the other branches are bound to fight back, by fair means or foul.

If the striking back is by foul means, or means that tread the line between legality and the extra-constitutional, that should have been expected by a dictator.

Most of those uninitiated, who see the world through filtered news that completely blots out the antecedents to this crisis, pointed out above, and also in previous columns by the writer, would be forgiven in many ways for thinking that the dictator RW is the Democrat.

They have to learn the facts, and disabuse themselves of the notion that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been on the wrong side of an anti democratic onslaught. A Ferdinand Marcos, can never pass off as a Mandela held in Robben Island.

This is why the UNP can’t fight back. It’s meetings are an embarrassing copycat effort of the SLPP rallies that mustered massive crowds against the Wickremesinghe dictatorship, down to the very style of speech and the antics of the emcee.

If the party can do no better than to copy the enemy even in the manner of protest, that points out to the lack of imagination, one more hallmark facet of the Yahapalana Rule.

There was stasis, and nothing got done in their time except corruption, persecution and incompetence. The results are clear. The government went down the tubes, crashing to a historic defeat at the LG election referendum, because that’s what it was declared to be, a ‘referendum’ on Ranil rule.

Hubris blinded the supporters, who can’t believe that their dictatorship, like all dictatorships that trod hard on the people, got unraveled oh so quickly. It all went down the tubes, before Ranil could bring himself to say the word ‘reality.’