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non-aligned bluff
Malinda Seneviratne
ilvin Silva of the JVP made
an interesting point at the
commemoration of comrades
slain in 1988-89: ‘Mahinda has
already run half the race.’ The constitu-
tion favors incumbent. Authorities turn
a blind eye on the abuse of state resourc-
es and indeed the institutional arrange-
ment is so poor in terms of checks and
balances that this is a ‘given’. Citizens
have, sadly, resolved to shoulder-shrug
in a ‘par for the course’ sense. And then
there’s the Opposition: broken, confused
and running around in circles. So yes,
Tilvin has a point.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has been running
for re-election since January 2010. He
had the J R Jayewardena and Chandrika
Kumaratunga presidencies to figure out
the fate of a lame duck incumbent. His
decline would begin on Day 1. He must
have started plotting the 18th Amend-
ment the moment he was re-elected. He
had the numbers in Parliament. He got
it passed.
There was of course what appeared
to be a hiccup in the form of the former
Chief Justice, Sarath N Silva raising the
issue of ineligibility. JVP leader An-
ura Kumara Dissanayake referring to
this as well as the Supreme Court’s dis-
missal of the objection, claims that even
a schoolboy would know that the Presi-
dent was ineligible. This means that for
four years, Anura as well as the JVP had
the political maturity of toddlers. After
the SC determination, Silva says ‘noth-
ing can be done now except defeat him’.
It is almost as though he brought the is-
sue up to ensure that Rajapaksa would
not be stumped on nomination day.
Sections of the Opposition briefly
flirted with the idea of a Chandrika
come-back. Ranil Wickremesinghe is re-
ported to have supported the idea. If this
is true it only indicates that he doesn’t
believe he can defeat Rajapaksa. Dayan
Jayatilleka got it right when he said
that if anyone can do worse than Ranil
it is Chandrika. She was President for
11 years and has nothing to show for it.
She played hide and seek with the LTTE
and came off second best. She has noth-
ing concrete to show compared to what
Rajapaksa can brag about. Rajapaksa,
moreover, presided over a comprehen-
sive victory over terrorism. Track re-
cords will be compared. In any case,
Silva’s antics have effectively dumped
the Chandrika Candidacy idea in the
bin. She can keep out of things or she
can support an Opposition candidate.
She would be a liabilitymore than an as-
set in the latter case.
Mahinda has things to show. That
counts. It counts more than things
that begin with ‘If I am elected…’ He
has his liabilities and handicaps but to
make these count the Opposition has
to start running, to take from Tilvin’s
observation. Right now, though, while
Mahinda has got off the blocks and is
half way towards the finishing line, all
the running that the Opposition seems
to be doing is ‘in circles’.
Mahinda has the show-tell advantage.
He has the regime-fatigue handicap. He
has the incumbency edge, but has to deal
with the fallout of non-deliverability on
several issues. Abolishing the executive
presidency is a non-issue for the average
voter, but law and order is an in-your-
face matter. He has failed there and he
can thank the thugs and crooks he has
indulged or cultivated for this. His coali-
tion has not seemed as solid as it used to
be. There has been audible grumbling
about the ‘Clan mentality of the Raja-
paksas’. These haven’t resulted in ma-
jor cracks. The Opposition, with its own
confusion and fractures, is an hardly
attractive place for dissenting voices to
relocate. As of now, only the JHU seems
uncertain of supporting him for the
third time. There is no guarantee that
a possible JHU exit would precipitate an
exodus that is significant.
The weight of the ‘JHU factor’ will de-
pend on whether they support someone
put forward by the UNP or whether they
decide to contest separately. A JHU can-
didate would be a spoiler but it is hard to
say who gets spoiled. If Ranil is contest-
ing, the Ranil-Mahinda gap could be so
wide that the JHUwould be a non-factor.
Such a candidate might get a few dis-
gruntled votes from both sides. A Karu
Jayasuriya candidacy might succeed in
obtaining JHU support. Whether this
would translate into victory is left to be
The Opposition right now appears
hell bent on making most of the above
irrelevant. What the voter is seeing
is a bunch of self-serving politicians
under-cutting one another. Sajith Pre-
madasa is playing spoiler. He knows he
can’t defeat Rajapaksa and therefore he
doesn’t want anyone else, particularly
Karu Jayasuriya to have a shot at the
presidency. He backs Ranil because he
is banking on turning Ranil’s probable
defeat into an edge in ousting the man
as Party Leader. He is balking fromsup-
porting Karu, perhaps thinking that he
has an outside chance. Ranil holds the
cards: he decides who will contest. If he
feels he can’t win then he would want to
put forward a loser. Karu doesn’t know
who to trust. The Opposition’s self-ap-
pointed spin-doctors are not helping
by throwing other names into the hat:
Arjuna Ranatunga, Chandrika, Ven
Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and even
Maithripala Sirisena of the SLFP (he
has since ‘opted out,’ clearly signal-
ing that the rank and file of the ruling
party doesn’t want to gamble on an iffy
Opposition candidate).
The JVP ran with Silva’s objection
and is now left without a slogan. ‘Boy-
cott’ seems to be the face-saving option,
but this might result in further erosion
of vote base in a possible General Elec-
tion following the probable Presidential
Election in early January.
Tilvin, then, is describing only part of
the unfolding political. Mahinda is not
only half way there, the Opposition is
running in the opposite direction.
Some run, some crawl
and some stand still
ssues related to President Mahin-
da Rajapaksa running for a third
term of office was settled this
week when the Supreme Court de-
cided he could do so, even as former
Chief Justice Sarath Silva lamented
that, with the decision of the coun-
try’s highest court now known, ‘noth-
ing more could be done’.   
The opposition is still engaged in
its search for the ‘common’ candidate
but the rallying point for this is not
so much a campaign against Mahinda
Rajapaksa, but a different demand:
the abolition of the Executive Presi-
dency and repealing the eighteenth
amendment to the Constitution.
The Father
The Executive Presidency was in-
troduced in 1978 by J.R. Jayewardene
who sought to ‘marry’ the features of
the French and American presiden-
tial systems to make the office even
more powerful with, of course, him-
self firmly at the helm.
Jayewardene had visions of trans-
forming Sri Lanka into another Singa-
pore and saw himself as a Sri Lankan
Lee Kuan Yew, believing that changes
in government every five years erod-
ed economic development. He wanted
his party to govern uninterrupted
and carry out its programs.       
Proportional Representation
Jayewardene also deduced that un-
til then, his United National Party
(UNP) had always polled more votes
than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) even when the latter won gen-
eral elections. So, he proposed a pro-
portional representation (PR) system
which he thought would always favor
the UNP.
Three dozen years later, the UNP is
clamoring for the abolition of the Ex-
ecutive Presidency while the SLFP is
advocating its retention. Indeed, the
country’s two SLFP Presidents, Chan-
drika Kumaratunga and Mahinda
Rajapaksa promised to abolish it, but
did not honor their promises.
Stability achieved
If ‘stability’ was what Jayewardene
desired, that was certainly achieved.
Under the Prime Ministerial system,
power changed hands between the
UNP and the SLFP almost every five
years. Since 1978, UNP and the SLFP-
led governments have changed but
once, in 1994.        
There was a period between 2000
and 2004 when the legislature became
unstable with three general elections
within five years when control of
Parliament alternated between the
two parties. However, Kumaratunga
remained President, shifting the bal-
ance of power in her favor.   
The Executive Presidency did pro-
vide stability to the country when it
was most needed: when the govern-
ment was conducting the war against
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) in earnest during President Raja-
paksa’s first term of office.
Presidential Chess
President Rajapaksa had inherited a
Parliament where the United Peoples’
FreedomAlliance (UPFA) retained control
with a wafer thin majority. The President
then moved to engineer defections from a
UNP faction led by Karu Jayasuriya, to en-
sure that his government survived.   
In a climate where the PR system en-
sures that one party does not enjoy an
overwhelming majority in Parliament,
a government led by a Prime Minister
could have succumbed to the maneuvers
of some minority political parties, which
at the time were acting as mouthpieces for
the LTTE.
This is presently being suggested as a
reason to retain the Executive Presidency.
There is no threat of terrorism now but
threats from the Eelam lobby continues, it
has been argued, and it requires a strong
leader, not subject to the whims and fan-
cies of Parliament, to withstand them.
There ismerit in that argument butwhat
is happening now amounts to the reverse
of this: Parliament is being subjected to
the whims and fancies of the President
who has played an astute game of politi-
cal chess, moving most of the opposition’s
pawn on to his side.
The alacrity with Parliament moved
to impeach former Chief Justice Shirani
Bandaranayake is proof of this. Such
acts, and the repealing of independent
commissions governing key institutions
suggest that President Rajapaksa has used
his presidential powers more than his pre-
decessors, arguably to excess.
Ogre or scapegoat?
The other point to ponder is whether
the opposition, especially the UNP, is re-
ally interested in doing away with the Ex-
ecutive Presidency, or is it using this issue
as a political slogan to unite all anti-Raja-
paksa forces to try and vote the President
out of office?
The diverse forces coalescing against
the Executive Presidency suggest that
most of these parties and organizations
are genuinely concerned about the degree
of power vested in one office and on a sin-
gle individual. But, do all stakeholders in
this project share the same view? 
Having languished in opposition for
most of the last twenty years and hav-
ing been a non-executive Prime Minister
under an SLFP President, Ranil Wick-
remesinghe must surely want to com-
mand absolute power-even if he is now
being critical of the system foisted on the
country by his uncle.
In the final analysis though, what might
matter in early January is a different is-
sue: is the average voter concerned enough
about whether the country is governed by
a Prime Minister responsible to Parlia-
ment or an all-powerful President? That
may well decide the fate of the Executive
Presidency in Sri Lanka.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Executive Presidency
Genuine pressure point or slogan-mine for regime change?
ormer TNA leader and veteran politician
R Sampanthan has raised important
concerns that are shared by many outside
his party’s constituency China. He is worried
that ‘Chinese influence on Sri Lanka has grown
exponentially’. This goes counter to a foreign
policy that has ‘followed non-alignment for
decades,’ he says.
Sampanthan is particularly upset that the
Government has privileged China over India.
He gives it in numbers. Chinese support is 98%
loans and 2% grants, he argues, comparing
it with ‘a more generous India’ that has 2:1
loan-grant ratio. China’s support-share is
almost twice that of India, he concedes, but
nevertheless laments the Government’s
‘insensitivity to the concerns of its neighbor’.
He stresses that the Chinese loans would be
turned into equity and points out that ‘it was a
grave concern for many Lankans worried about
its impact on the island’s independence and
It is heartening that Sampanthan gets
hot under the collar about things such as
independence and sovereignty, given a
considerable track record of undermining
both. If this change of heart is real then the
confusion over history and reality can certainly
be forgiven. The problem is that it is difficult to
trust the man.
Even as he bats for non-alignment,
Sampanthan wants Sri Lanka to keep
India happy. He doesn’t want Sri Lanka ‘to
undermine India’s interests’. Well, Sri Lanka
has to look after its own interests and if this
upsets some other country, hard luck. Sri
Lanka can plead ‘non-alignment’ and ask
Sampanthan to defend positions against all
Sampanthan believes that there’s a deliberate
plan by the Government ‘to isolate India and
thereby free itself from obligations made to
India in the interests of reconciliation, peace
and harmony’. Why is this great champion of
Sri Lanka’s independence and sovereignty not
upset about obligations made to the people of
this country in the first instance? He knows,
for example, that the 13th Amendment was a
document JR had to sign while a pistol was
held to his head, so to speak. Recovering
independence and sovereignty, therefore, must
begin with an unceremonious burial of the
same, surely?
And why is he upset about India getting
isolated? Is India so weak that it can be isolated
by Sri Lanka? And even if that were possible
why should this great and proud Sri Lankan
patriot be upset about anyone else getting upset
by Sri Lanka’s foreign policy?
Finally, what moral right does Sampanthan
have to indulge in independence-speak when he
rushes to India every time he suffers political
indigestion? He has none. He nails his own
sovereignty-claim coffin when he says ‘The
establishment of a maintenance facility in
Trincomalee by China contravenes the Indo-
Lanka Agreement’.
He’s seasoned enough to know that the true
squandering of sovereignty took place the day
JR signed that very agreement. Transferring
that which was robbed from India to China
should not upset Sampanthan because what
is key is sovereignty (or its loss) and not the
identity of the sovereignty-thief.
Yes, there are legitimate concerns about the
Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka. That China has
not interfered in political processes or armed,
funded and trained terrorists like how India
did is not consolation enough for anyone who
wants Sri Lanka to recover independence and
sovereignty. Sampanthan, however, has no right
to complain.
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