The battle ahead for what Gota and Mahinda want

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna juggernaut is readying for what the brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa want next.  

Within hours of his brother Gotabaya being confirmed as the new President, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in a public statement laid out his future government’s priorities and right on top were changes to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

That means they want a two-thirds majority in the House or 150 seats or more, enough to change the Constitution when Parliamentary General elections are held towards the end of April.

Mahinda said that the Presidential Election was “different from other Presidential Elections” because of the “complications of the system of governance” brought about by the 19th Amendment. “After the President takes the oaths, we will be immediately studying the provisions of the 19th Amendment and planning our future course of action accordingly,” he added.

These Amendments, which Mahinda’s Parliamentary group voted for in 2015, reduced the powers of the Executive Presidency and empowered the Judiciary and independent commissions. The checks and balances thus introduced, which exist in most of the better-developed democracies in the world, were tested during the abortive October Constitutional Coup.

And the Rule of Law held.

But now Mahinda and Gotabaya see these safeguards as shackles. President Gotabaya was quoted in The Hindu newspaper where he said that the 19th is a “failure and if we get a two-thirds majority we will drop it from the Constitution”.

In other conversations, he has said that the 19th Amendment is the work of International Non-Governmental Organizations and promised his biggest backers, the Buddhist Monks of the country, that it will be changed.

He also told the Hindu, sardonically, that the 19th Amendment can work only if two brothers occupy the seats of the President and Prime Minister. He said the former government was ineffective because “they (Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena) were fighting each other.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivering his inaugural address at Anuradhapura/PMD

We could argue literally until the cows come home about what the “Good Governance” government did or did not do during its shambolic, rickety rule. But the plus point in their tenure were safeguards built in the 19th Amendment. This single wide-ranging act rolled back much of the serious damage inflicted on our democracy through the Constitutional changes that were brought about by former PM Sirima Bandaranaike, former President J R Jayewardene and the Rajapaksa’s during their periods of governance respectively.

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Mahinda and Gotabaya, can now see that this time around, they do not wield the untrammelled power they had when the former was President. At that time Mahinda was hailed as a King by a nation, grateful for winning the war and which elected him for a second term. In the eyes of the nation, MR could do wrong.

Today the situation is different. As the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala Fr. Keerthisiri Fernando told RepublicNext  “in order to win elections, politicians create a fearful devil in the minds of the people and say come to me, I will keep you safe from the devil.”

That is what happened at the recently concluded Presidential poll. A Sinhala, predominantly Buddhist community, fearful of a new enemy in the form of Islamic terror voted for the strongman who they believe would keep them safe.  

But it needs to be asked whether they were also voting for constitutional changes, as the electorate did in 2015?   Is it the desire of the people to allow a government to enjoy unbridled power?

In his post-poll analysis political Scientist, Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda points out correctly that the Rajapaksa administration will be able to carry out its work effectively, but that it must work within the framework of the 19th Amendment.

However, working within that framework does not seem what the Rajapaksa’s fancy.

The important issue ahead of the country is to harness whatever residual political will the people have, to keep the good governance framework in place. In their last term, the Rajapaksa rule became hugely unpopular because of the behaviour of many of its family members, rampant nepotism and crony capitalism.

The 2015 defeat of the Rajapaksa rule came about owing to a wide coalition that worked together towards a democratization agenda, and that was the sole reason Sirisena won.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has, in these early days, attempted to address some of the issues. He has opted not to be identified by the Rajapaksa symbol, the Maroon shawl, which Mahinda, Chamal and Namal sport. In fact, several eyewitnesses said that just before his swearing-in at the Ruvanveliseya, in Anuradhapura when the President-elect was handed a shawl by his brother Chamal, Gotabaya had put it aside.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sworn in with his wife, son and daughter-in-law in the background/PMD

The open-necked white shirt teamed with the Grey or Black pants, has cut out a new style and branding for our new President which was very visible even during his state visit to New Delhi.  Only at Indian President Kamal Nath Kovind’s formal dinner did the Sri Lankan leader sport a buttoned-up tunic in the party colour of the SLPP.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in New Delhi/PMD

The bigger move so far has been the setting up of a committee which includes some well-known business leaders who support the President to select the heads of the numerous state-run institutions, ranging from Sri Lankan Airlines which is bleeding billions of Rupees of public money to Salusala which the government plans to shut down.  Only time will tell whether these plum positions will not be allotted to the Rajapaksa family tree or their hangers-on as was the case during their former tenure.

The SLPP troops are now readying for the General Elections. In the forefront will be the legions of Buddhist Monks armed with the slogan trumpeted by Galagodatte Gnanasara Thero who says the country should “clean the Parliament of minority community members.” Marshalled behind them are the numerous Local Government Councilors elected in February last year, who will be led by 53 Ministers. Although only 16 Ministers and the President will sit around the Cabinet table, 37 others, appointed this week as State Ministers too enjoy the same perks. 

UNP MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara pointed out at a press conference this past week that all of these ministers would have at their disposal State vehicles and staff for electioneering.  Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised things would be different under his administration, and the forthcoming parliamentary election will be a test of whether or not State resources will be used for campaigning.

What’s more, apart from all the State media institutions, two of the biggest privately owned electronic media houses, Hiru and Derana, which campaigned relentlessly for Gotabaya, will do the same for the SLPP at the forthcoming election.

Ranged against them, for the moment, is an opposition that has no advantage in the forthcoming election; a beaten and deeply divided United National Party, a JVP which seems to have lost most of its electorate, smaller political parties that are looking for leadership and a dispirited Civil Society group.

An unequal battle, but one that still needs to be fought.

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