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