by Rajan Phillips
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation last Wednesday, again during his presidency of just over two years. The nation was briefly spared power cuts for the televised state of the country address. The speech was 15 minutes long, shorter than the previous ones, and also lacked interesting details. There was nothing of substance in the speech, except his decision to ask for help from the IMF to overcome the economic and debt obstacles that are discouraging the country. At that time, everyone knew that the government was turning to the IMF for help, except, apparently, Nivard Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank.
Accountants aren’t meant to be ideological, but Mr Cabraal has imagined himself as Sri Lanka’s economic oracle and envisions a non-IMF way out of the national financial mess, to which he has largely contributed. Now that the government is going to the IMF, where will the Governor go? Turn around and join the delegation for negotiations with the IMF, or join Vasudeva Nanayakkara and leave the government?
The decision to seek IMF assistance is already a year too late, as is the decision to artificially prevent the rupee from falling against the dollar. We now learn that since December 2019, the current government has “wasted up to $5.5 trillion trying to prevent the depreciation of the rupee” (The Island, March 15 lead story). But the president continues to insist: “This crisis was not created by me”, as he did again in his speech. The high-level appointments he made, especially to the Monetary Board, and the directives he gave to officials based on wacky outside advice, brought the country to its current pathetic state.
Sri Lanka has had currency problems since the 1960s, but there has never been a time when the country was going to have to compromise, or triage, as it might be called in today’s medical parlance, between the paying off debt and importing food for its inhabitants, poor and rich. The situation was by no means so dire, even in November 2019, when GR became president, as it is now, in the second year of his first term. So it’s a bit rich for the president to say now that he didn’t create any of that.
It is as if his government’s beloved road contractors are saying that they did not create the poor ground conditions where a new bridge must be built! They could be right if they were given the job without a call for tenders!! The president has no excuse. He should have known what he was negotiating for when he applied for the position – giving up one citizenship for another, accepting his family’s nomination for the presidency of the country, getting favorable court rulings that his citizenship papers were in good standing and to be voted on. – as he constantly reminds – by 6.9 million citizens. Now that he’s no match for the challenges he himself made worse, he can’t throw up his arms and say, I didn’t create them.
There was someone else raising their arms to be recognized in Colombo last week. It was Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the leader of the opposition in parliament. SP broke its periodic silence in front of the presidential secretariat the day before the president’s periodic speech. Carried away by the enthusiasm of his supporters who were protesting against the government, Mr. Premadasa called for “an early presidential election with the consent of all political parties”, as “the only way out for the country”. The Leader of the Opposition should know his Constitution. There is no provision for an “early presidential election”, regardless of the degree of consent of all political parties.
Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama wrote again detailing the constitutional provisions relating to the timing of presidential elections. It is unfortunate that after more than 40 years of presidential rule, senior politicians, including presidential candidates, are unaware of the rules governing the timing of presidential and parliamentary elections. The next presidential election will take place when Gotabaya Rajapaksa completes his five-year term. He can only call an election before the end of his five-year term if he stands for election for a second term, not otherwise. Even then, a snap election can only be called after four years have expired from the last election in November 2019. This means that there can be no presidential election, snap or other, before November 2023.
Likewise, the next legislative elections will be held after the end of the current parliament’s five-year term in August 2025. The president can dissolve parliament before August 2025, but only after March 2023, thanks to the 19th Amendment. Under the same amendment, Parliament may, by resolution, request the President to dissolve Parliament. But the SLPP will not support an early dissolution of parliament, and the president will not be in a rush to dissolve parliament anytime after March 2023. So how are Sajith Premadasa, SJB, JVP or any other opposition party doing? will rush early parliamentary elections under the existing constitutional arrangements?
In other words, an opposition party calling for a snap election in 2022 is empty bluster that will not embarrass the government in any way, nor will it help ease the real-time burdens of the people. Besides calling for snap elections, Mr. Premadasa also calls on the current government to cede power to the SJB, as the SJB has “capable people who could cope with the current economic crisis” and that the SJB has lined up” three Eastern countries (which) had already promised to provide oil at preferential rates to a future SJB government.
This type of rhetoric was quite common before 1977, when the country had a parliamentary system of government. There was even to be moon rice after the 1970 elections. But frequent elections and changes of government did not result in significant beneficial changes either in the immediate or long term. This was one of the reasons behind the plea for a presidential system. This (the presidential remedy) has proven to be worse than any disease associated with the parliamentary system. Where do we go from here?
The difficulties are many. Under the current system, it is virtually impossible to overthrow governments and let an opposition party take power instantly. What is also unique to the current situation is that a government and a president who are not even halfway through their term have exhausted what little use they ever had and become themselves burdens for the country. It is therefore logical and compulsive for people to protest against the government, but political leaders, if they should be at the forefront of protests, should know better when they brag about snap elections and transfers of power which will never happen. They should use the protests to empower parliament to play its constitutional role even under presidential rule.
Even the plan to abolish the presidential system that has shaped and defined opposition politics since the day the JRJ constitution took effect, now appears to have run its course. Its high point was the presidential campaign of 2014-2015 and the victory of the abolitionist candidate of the common opposition, whose betrayal ultimately became the low point of the abolitionist project. What was the defining dynamic of the 2014-15 election is no longer really an election issue given the current basic needs and concerns of the people. The presidential system could eventually be drastically changed or significantly abolished, but that is not the question most people are concerned about.
Again, it will be up to Parliament to make this happen with or without a referendum. Not this parliament, maybe not even the next parliament, but certainly a future parliament. It can be a routine resignation of the executive without unnecessary political fanfare. For now, the current parliament, although dominated by the SLPP majority, can and should play a decidedly aggressive role in identifying priorities and pressuring the cabinet and the president to act accordingly until that the expected results are achieved.
In his speech, the President sounded adamant when he said, “I urge Cabinet, Parliament and civil servants to work together as a team to achieve our desired goal of delivering a better country for our children with great commitment. “. How can the president urge parliament to work with the government if he is not prepared to tolerate dissent within the government and reach out to opposition MPs and build consensus on actions that are urgently needed?
Likewise, if opposition parties have ideas about possible solutions, why shouldn’t they work to build consensus in parliament and put pressure on the executive? If Sajith Premadasa has in his party, as he claims, “capable people who could cope with the current economic crisis”, and if the SJB has secured promises from “three Middle Eastern nations…to supply oil to preferential rates”, why can’t they be used now, through the current parliament? SP and the SJB can claim all the credit, and they will be duly rewarded in the next election, whatever it is and at any time.
The protests are working and they also seem to prevent the government’s alternative recourse to the use of its coercive powers. Even the president’s frequent speeches are welcome, because, to modify what Jayaprakash Narayan, India’s valiant fighter against Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency, once said, political speeches can be a way of escaping to military action. So let there be more speeches from the president. Let him pronounce them in Parliament, and stay there to listen to the deputies criticize his speeches. That he will keep the colonel away from his generals. There are also growing external deterrents to internal repression, thanks inadvertently to Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president, when he embarked on his misadventure in Ukraine, may not have realized that his action would trigger a reshaping of the world the opposite of what he would have liked. There is now a new global weapon, the weapon of sanctions, which has transcended the previous limits of state-to-state interactions and can be applied against anyone, anywhere, and not only by states, but also by individuals and businesses.
Freezing bank accounts, which proved to be the ultimate tool to end the truckers’ protest in Canada, has now become the common weapon against Russia. The International Criminal Court that few have noticed has become a forum of interest, inadvertently thanks to Putin. The positive and negative ramifications of these developments may not be obvious now. But their relevance and their deterrent power against authoritarianism cannot be confused. And the government of Sri Lanka cannot ignore it.