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Sri Lanka: JHU fingerprints all over constitutional proposal

Paper No. 5851                                  Dated 26-Dec-2014

Guest Column by Dr Kumar David

(Nomenclature: Mahinda Rajapakse in the President of Sri Lanka and leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Maithripala Sirisena, the challenger fielded by a joint opposition in the 8 January 2015 Presidential Election, was Secretary of the SLFP till November. Ranil Wickremasinghe is leader of the United National Party (UNP) the largest party in the opposition. CBK (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumartatunga, a prominent SLFP figure, engineered Sirisena’a defection from Rajapakse. The Tamil National alliance (TNA) has an electoral base of about 12%; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is a Marxist party (about 5% base); the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist party (about 3-5% base).

Mr Sirisens’s Election Manifesto released in mid-December caused consternation and disappointment among those who had trusted his pledge to rescind the autocratic executive presidency and replace it with a democratic parliamentary system. Now he offers “an essentially Executive” presidency wrapped in a honeyed sentence about an alliance with “Parliament through Cabinet”. Nothing new in that, he has simply reneged on his pledge. Sirisena is refusing to bow to pressure to amend his position, hence, as for ending authoritarian structures that have done so much damage this election has degenerated into farce. Jettisoning hopelessly failed Mr Rajapkse for untested Sirisena under a similar constitutional system may only do some little good for a few months.

There are two points of view in the Opposition. The minority, like this writer, hold that the central task is to dismantle authoritarianism structures, without which power abuse and corruption could not have gone to such extremes. We would of course welcome the defeat of Mr Rajpakse as an added bonus. On the other side are the empiricists, the superficial majority, who see all evil in the subjective failings of the Rajapakse clan and regime, and seek to replace them with other persons. They are not opposed to abolishing the presidential system, but personalities are what matter to them. Superficial, born to be chagrined every six years, they will weep the same lament again soon.

The damaging contradiction

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of November (before nomination date), whose first and principal point I quote, was the basis on which millions backed Sirisena as a Common Candidate. Notice the explicit pledge to “abolish” and the explicit reference to a “Parliamentary system”. There is no ambiguity unless Sirisena’s handlers attempt the dodge of hanging on the word “present” to imply that they intended all along to replace one EP by another EP! If they try this dodge what further deceptions are we in line for down the road?

QUOTE: “1. The present executive presidential system will be abolished within a hundred days and replaced by a Parliamentary form accountable to the people. Under the Parliamentary system, the President will symbolize national unity and have duties and powers appropriate to the position”. END QUOTE

Now look at the Manifesto released after nominations closed (very significant as it was by then too late to replace the candidate); it reneges on this pledge. I quote:

QUOTE: “The new Constitutional structure would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System. Under it the President would be equal with all other citizen before the law. I guarantee that in the proposed Constitutional Amendment I will not touch any Constitutional Article that could be changed only with the approval at a Referendum. I also ensure that I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country. My amendments will be only those that facilitate the stability, security and sovereignty of the country”. END QUOTE

The system will be “essentially Executive” we are told. It will be “allied to Parliament through the Cabinet” we are told; what a cryptic choice of words! Allied but not answerable! Is the current president not similarly “allied”? If the government loses a vote of confidence the President carries on unchecked – the donkey of a Prime Minister gets kicked out. The President is insulated; “essentially” an Executive demigod. And what will be the powers of the Prime Minister? What the separation of powers between Cabinet/Government and President/State Power? This formulation is a ploy to hoodwink the public and retain the Executive Presidential system with no more than cosmetic retouches. When it comes to drafting and enacting these words make room for anything.

Why all this mumbo-jumbo if he was/is genuine about abolishing executive autocracy? Many, this writer included, have supported Sirisena’s candidature in numerous ways. We said let us put up “even a broomstick” to win, abolish the Executive Presidential system. Never did we say put forward a broomstick to carry on with a redecorated Executive Presidency. Mr Sirisena has reneged; he has betrayed. Political intellectuals who supported him are asking for absolutely nothing more than what he himself promised and led people to believe he would do! Why not a simple ‘abolish EP’ correction Sirisena? It’s that simple to renew public confidence. No, Mr Sirisena cannot, as he has fallen under the spell of JHU handlers; that’s why he is unable to change.

A JHU-hijacked Constitutional Proposal

What Sirisena offers reeks of JHU ideology. Observe that the objective is to ensure in every future act “stability, security and sovereignty”, not democracy or power to the people.  Superficially it seems innocuous, but this rhetoric is known JHU-speak for saying devolution to Tamil areas, reduction of military interference in civilian affairs, and giving the Northern Provincial Council breathing space, are out of the question. Democratisation is the elephant missing in this terminology.

The JHU has taken over from Ranil-UNP and the CBK-Cluster as Sirisena’s principal handler. Many Tamils and Muslims may still vote for him but not because they have the slightest confidence in this JHU inspired creed. Lanka is fed up with the corruption and abuses of the regime and the minorities remember what they suffered under Mahinda and Gotabhaya (Defence Secretary and President’s brother) Rajapakse. Tamils will not switch sides and vote for Rajapakse but there will be a large number of abstentions. The poor TNA is in a trap; it wants to back Sirisena but cannot find one single line in the Manifesto why it could tell the Tamils to overlook the JHU inspired formula. It can only say: ‘To reduce corruption and abuse in general, and to avenge past wrongs, reject the incumbent’. With an “essentially Executive” system, how long will these benefits last?

If Sirisena wishes to avoid shooting himself in the foot with minority voters he would be wise to drop JHU inspired formulations under which: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country. Amendments will be only to facilitate the stability, security and sovereignty of the country”. He makes it impossible to devolve power to Tamil areas because who will choose what “facilitates stability, security and sovereignty”? Unless you are visiting from the planet Mars you know that this is familiar jargon for dressing up chauvinism. For Ceylon Tamils this constitutional proposal is a step back from even the present where there are no formally stated obstacles to devolution.

Opinion polls show Sirisena falling short among Sinhala-Buddhists (70% of the population) but winning if support in the minorities remains strong. But he and his arrogant JHU handlers take Tamils (12% Ceylon Tamils and 5% Upcountry Tamils), Muslims (8%) and even Sinhala Catholics (5%) for granted, without offering them any place in the national space. This is the reason why the Tamil version of the Manifesto has not even been published up to now; what do they have to say to these communities – nothing! Tamil and Muslim leaders will be making a great mistake if they allow Sirisena’s handlers to get away with this hubris. They must demand changes in the Manifesto (of course they will be ignored) irrespective of what voting advice they eventually give their communities.

What to do now?

This is the most serious question, especially for those keen to see the back of the incumbent regime. Before we Lankans bow our heads like pussy acts and put up with any old garbage that a putative Sirisena government may dish out, we must declare: “What you have done is wrong, change it! Affirm that you will abolish the executive presidency!” It is being backboneless, not standing up and not demanding accountability that allowed the current regime to run havoc without a mummer of protest. If the public, and especially those of us who support change, behave like docile pussy cats and yes-men, why should a new regime not ride rough shod over the people again?

This brings me to the key strategy to adopt. The people of Lanka must stand on their feet and mobilize independently of either of these candidates. Yes, in the end we may vote for Sirisena, but I recall an incident when Lenin moved a Central Committee resolution somewhat like this: “The Party calls on the people to vote for scoundrel-X against scoundrel-Y, for such and such reasons”. I do not advocate we apply such colourful language to our protagonist, but I am sure you get my point.  

Some radical-democratic and left sections and the JVP have taken the right stand; they have remained independent but on the inside-track of a swelling mass movement. The angry masses are on a ‘Vote down Rajapakse’ swell; this is the inside-track from which they can go further. Defeating Rajapakse is not for the purpose of fostering illusions about others, it is a step in strengthening a confident and independent mass movement which will hold any government to account and exert influence when needed.

The JVP, radical-democrats and the left must form an Alliance on the inside-track of the common opposition but still retain independence. It is only those who are committed to, and work hard within the inside-track, that people will listen to. Only they will have the credibility to win people’s confidence. Conditions for this Alliance have suddenly improved; if Sirisena wins, more opportunities will open up. Even if Rajapakse wins, he is now a frightened and weakened autocrat, openings for mass activity will be favourable. Either way the Alliance has to be formed now before the elections, otherwise the next regime, whichever one, will have time to run out of control.