Back In the Run

Seek­ing a third con­sec­u­tive term, Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa seems strong. But elec­tions, like cricket, are un­pre­dictable.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and for­mer ed­i­tor of Southasia Mag­a­zine.

Will third time be a charm for Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa?

Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa of Sri Lanka was elected in 2010. His term was to end in 2016. But he is fac­ing mount­ing crit­i­cism of his do­mes­tic poli­cies in­clud­ing al­le­ga­tions of curb­ing press free­dom and ques­tions from the UN re­gard­ing war crimes in the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion against LTTE. His pop­u­lar­ity graph has plum­meted. So he has de­cided to seek a fresh man­date from the peo­ple two years be­fore his term of­fi­cially ex­pires.

Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will there­fore be held on Jan­uary 8, 2015. Ra­japaksa has an­nounced that he is go­ing to seek a third con­sec­u­tive term. Ini­tially there were four other can­di­dates in the field: Rev­erend So­bitha Thero, Gen. Sarath Fon­seka, Ranil Wick­re­mas­inghe and Chan­drika Ban­daranaike Ku­maratunga.

Wick­re­mas­inghe, who has served as prime min­is­ter twice in the past, is cur­rently leader of the op­po­si­tion. Gen. Fon­seka, de­scribed as Sri Lanka's most suc­cess­ful army com­man­der earned pop­u­lar­ity for his suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary ac­tion that wiped out the LTTE, killing its leader Vellupil­lai Prab­hakaran, to end the civil war that had been rag­ing for 26 years since 1983. Hav­ing lost in 2010 he is set to take another chance.

Chan­drika Ban­daranaike Ku­maratunga served as prime min­is­ter as well as pres­i­dent for two con­sec­u­tive terms – first from 1994 to 1999 and the sec­ond from 1999 to 2005. The door for pres­i­dents to seek a third term was opened by an amend­ment in the Sri Lankan con­sti­tu­tion in 2010, so she could take another chance, but the sit­ting pres­i­dent has al­ready taken ad­van­tage of this fa­cil­ity.

As elec­tions drew near sev­eral other can­di­dates en­tered the field such as UNP Lead­er­ship Coun­cil Chair­man Karu Jaya­suriya, for­mer chief jus­tice Shi­rani Ban­daranayake.

Among th­ese can­di­dates Rev. Thero is the odd one out. He is a highly re­spected Bud­dhist monk. Pol­i­tics is not his cup of tea. Many peo­ple there­fore do not fa­vor his decision to run for pres­i­dency. But he has no po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion per se. It is the ne­ces­sity for a just so­ci­ety that forced him to en­ter the fray. The move­ment he spear­heads, there­fore, cuts across po­lit­i­cal party lines.

The con­tentious is­sue of abol­ish­ing the “ex­ec­u­tive” pres­i­dency has driven him to join pol­i­tics. As he de­clared, “The main pur­pose of con­test­ing for the pres­i­dency would be with the in­ten­tion of abol­ish­ing the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency.”

As MP Eran Wick­ra­ma­ratne re­cently ob­served in an in­ter­view, Sri Lanka has a unique pres­i­den­tial sys­tem. “The pres­i­dent is im­mune to the law in both his of­fi­cial and pri­vate ca­pac­ity. The pres­i­dent can make ap­point­ments to the ju­di­ciary at his will with­out ref­er­ence to set cri­te­ria. The pres­i­dent can ap­point, if he so wishes, all MPs in par­lia­ment as min­is­ters giv­ing them a share of ex­ec­u­tive power with all the perks and priv­i­leges, thereby di­lut­ing the in­de­pen­dence of the leg­is­la­ture. The pres­i­dent then uses the sub­servient par­lia­ment to ei­ther act on his di­rec­tions or rub­ber stamp his de­ci­sions.”

Pub­lic clamor, there­fore, is for ei­ther abol­ish­ing the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency or mak­ing the pres­i­dent ac­count­able to the par­lia­ment and the ju­di­ciary.

Nonethe­less, the abo­li­tion of the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency sys­tem is a tick­lish ques­tion. The lure of ab­so­lute power un­der the present sys­tem may be too strong for politi­cians to re­sist, whether it is Ranil Wick­re­mas­inghe,

Fon­seka or any other.

The abo­li­tion of the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency is the core con­cern that has over­shad­owed all other is­sues. This is a one-point agenda call­ing for a con­certed and united ef­fort. On the other hand, a contest with too many can­di­dates in the field could di­vide ad­van­tage of the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent. There­fore, all con­tes­tants have agreed on a sin­gle con­sen­sus can­di­date to fight the elec­tion against Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa.

That can­di­date is for­mer health min­is­ter Maithri­pala Sirisena. He served as health min­is­ter in the cab­i­net of Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa be­fore he quit to be­come the op­po­si­tion’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Sirisena was also the rul­ing party’s gen­eral sec­re­tary un­til he was dis­missed fol­low­ing his de­fec­tion.

At least five other pres­i­den­tial loy­al­ists also aban­doned the rul­ing Sri Lanka Free­dom Party to join the de­fec­tion led by the health min­is­ter. Oth­ers who quit the rul­ing al­liance in­cluded Ra­jitha Se­naratne, Du­minda Dis­sanayake and M.K.D.S. Gunewar­dane. In ad­di­tion Vas­an­tha Se­nanayake and Ra­jiva Wi­jesinha, mem­bers of par­lia­ment from the rul­ing party, also de­fected to the op­po­si­tion.

The contest is con­sid­ered so vi­tal by the op­po­si­tion that even Chan­drika Ku­maratunga who, with her ex­pe­ri­ence, charisma and crowd pulling ca­pac­ity, seemed to be most likely to de­feat Ra­japaksa, has of­fered her full support to Sirisena.

While an­nounc­ing his nom­i­na­tion as the common op­po­si­tion can­di­date, Sirisena pledged to abol­ish the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency and re­turn power to the coun­try’s par­lia­ment within 100 days of be­ing elected, re­peal the con­tro­ver­sial 18th Amend­ment, re­vive the 17th Amend­ment and ap­point UNP leader Ranil Wick­re­mas­inghe as prime min­is­ter.

Mean­while, to re­as­sure the vot­ers on the is­sue of ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency, Ra­japaksa has de­clared that he will abol­ish the ad­di­tional pow­ers but only after the elec­tions. Those who re­mem­ber that he made the same pledge in 2005 and 2010 as well, and then re­neged, are skep­ti­cal. But there are oth­ers who hope that this time he may be sin­cere be­cause after his third term he will have no more in­ter­est in the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency, so he might ab­ro­gate it as a part­ing gift for the next in­cum­bent.

Ra­japaksa’s sup­port­ers are warn­ing that ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency can­not be abol­ished “on a whim.” A two-thirds majority would be re­quired to re­peal the law. For Sirisena, to ob­tain a twothirds majority would be a mir­a­cle. Given the na­ture of the chal­lenge, it seems doubt­ful if Sirisena could de­liver on his prom­ises. But, elec­tions, like cricket are un­pre­dictable. So it would be wiser to wait for the D-day.

Chan­drika Ban­daranaike, Gen­eral the votes, which could work to the

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