More trouble in paradise

The sighs of relief in some circles following the absorbing of 18 opposition members to the government, given the degree of stability it afforded the current administration, have transformed quickly into sighs of frustration. Barely two weeks have passed since the UNP reformists were inducted into government, laying to rest the publicís fears of another costly election and worse yet, further instability in the countryís security situation. Now, in what looks to be the defining moment in yet another series of political upheavals in embattled, beleaguered Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday night sacked three senior SLFP ministers from office.
In one fell swoop, the President not only succeeded in naming and isolating a splinter group that was gathering momentum in his ranks, but also ensured that all those who might be tempted to brook dissent and follow their lead were effectively silenced.
However, with the UNP also up in arms against the Rajapaksa Administration, accusing them of enticing crossovers and the JVP and TNA, both parties with significant numbers in the House flexing their muscles against the government, the splinter group looks to be guaranteed of some degree of support as they prepare to strike back. The big question is will Rajapaksa now face what his predecessor Ranasinghe Premadasa did back in 1991, with an impeachment motion being filed against him or at least a no-confidence motion against his government?
One way or another, the political climate looks to be growing murkier, and President Rajapaksa, not to mention the splinter group will have to step cautiously in the coming days. In fact, it will be incumbent on Rajapaksa to use his political knowledge shrewdly to surmount the problems he now looks sure to encounter both within and outside his government.
The actions of the President cannot be condoned for it sets an unhealthy precedent: he will not take kindly to dissent and criticism. At the same time however, he cannot be blamed for using the full gamut of powers afforded to him as Head of State. Under the J.R. Jayewardene Constitution, the President is granted virtually supreme powers and the system has been structured in a way that allows little room for his removal from office, as the UNP splinter group were quick to discover in 1991. In fact, the impeachment moves against President Premadasa came about largely due to the fact that elements in the UNP at the time believed that while the full exercise of presidential powers under JRJ was permissible, the same was not acceptable in the case of Premadasa. And herein lies the rub. Has a certain aristocratic segment of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which allowed former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to flex her presidential muscle at her will, decided that it will not tolerate President Rajapaksa using the same powers to ensure his own political survival? If Anura, Mangala and Co. are labouring under the illusion that the might of the presidency can be challenged with such ease, they had best also keep in mind that Rajapaksa can scuttle them all with a single presidential decree to dissolve parliament.
In fact, if it is the aim of this splinter group to gather support in what is remaining of the opposition and pave the way for Anura Bandaranaike to attain the premiership, then they would also do well to realise that in such a scenario, the only course of action available to Rajapaksa would be dissolution. A snap poll at this stage would not bode well for the dissenters of both sides of the divide, SLFP and UNP, since the recent military gains in the north east and other populist tactics have boosted the Presidentís image, virtually ensuring him a clean sweep at any election held in the near future.
All this notwithstanding, there is a great onus on President Rajapaksa in these troubled times. It is true, a great amount of power has been vested in the office he holds. But, as a popular superhero once sagely observed, with great power comes great responsibility. In the Presidentís power is vested the trust and the mandate of a people that voted him into office. In exercising this power, Rajapaksa exercises the executive power of the people, the power of 20 million citizens. It will be remembered that in speeches he made soon after his election to presidential office, Rajapaksa vowed that he was only caretaker of this land, and not its owner. Here is the moment to live up to those words.
He can go down the path of his predecessors and allow the absolute power of the presidency to corrupt him absolutely. Or he can be the moderate politician he is by nature and set about putting his house in order; resolving his partyís internal struggles and ensuring omissions on his part do not allow external forces to enter into the Sri Lankan power play and further de-stablise the government. Rajapaksa can deal with dissent like a statesman or he can choose to behave like a street thug. The executive presidency gives him enough leverage to play either role to its full potential. Which road will President Rajapaksa choose to go down? For Sri Lankaís sake, may it be the right one.