From an objective viewpoint, it did not take much foresight very early on this year to predict the fracturing of the January 2015 winning coalition even as it hurriedly groups itself anew against upcoming Rajapaksa forces. Losing the democratic edge In that regard, the profound surprise of some at the sight of the former President [...]


Preparing ourselves for a test of the peoples’ will


From an objective viewpoint, it did not take much foresight very early on this year to predict the fracturing of the January 2015 winning coalition even as it hurriedly groups itself anew against upcoming Rajapaksa forces.

Losing the democratic edge
In that regard, the profound surprise of some at the sight of the former President signing nominations for the forthcoming parliamentary elections from the party alliance this week is somewhat amusing. This was exactly in line with the political undercurrents in play so far. It was evident that President Maithripala Sirisena coming to office on a genuine wave of people power had, almost immediately afterwards, allowed himself quite deliberately to become a hostage of his own party.

It also became quickly evident that strategies of conciliation and persuasion by the President towards those grimly opposed to him were not going to work. In the process, ethically compromised characters appointed as Ministers and advisors from within his party used their positions to undermine the very Head of State who appointed them.

And in so vainly attempting to win himself friends from within, the President alienated his own voters who had not expected him to ally himself with the very individuals against whom he had once spoken out so firmly.

Disregarding early warning signals
Early warning signals in regard to the yawning gap which opened up between the great expectations in January 2015 and the actual performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition were many. The continuation of the same officers in the public service and defence apparatus was one such intimation. ‘Cleansing the corridors of power’ had become a political slogan. Instead of methodically taking the first steps to dismantle systems of misrule, a few individuals were moved in and out of office, some quite clearly contrary to law.

Meanwhile, the unseemly posturing of the United National Party in government did not help matters overmuch. But even as things were going askew, a strong public critique was slow to come; as one misguided though well intentioned observer put to me at the time, ‘small issues must not be quibbled over in the interests of the bigger picture.’ Yet in hindsight as we can see, this approach was lamentably shortsighted.

With the Central Bank bond fiasco gravely denting its credibility, the position taken by the UNP leadership thereafter was scarcely reassuring. The Prime Minister’s recent invocation of parliamentary privilege against media publication of the document released by the former chairman of the committee on public enterprises (COPE) on the Central Bank inquiry has stirred up another controversy.

Awakening old fears
As a matter of strict law, the premature publication of reports of parliamentary committees in interim or final form before authorization of the House does indeed constitute a breach of privilege. Yet here, the alleged breach concerning a publication of direct public interest arises at a time that Parliament had been dissolved. Privileges of parliamentarians, of course, lapse with the dissolution of the House as a general rule.

But a greater question becomes relevant. When the threat of privilege is brandished, much like contempt, the public perception is that controversies are being swept under the carpet. Modern precedents are rare in this regard. As Geoffrey Robertson pertinently points out in his seminal work co-authored with Andrew Nicol (Media Law, Penguin Books, 1984), ‘there is little danger that the (UK) Parliament will run the risk of public obloquy by using (privilege) to stifle public criticism.’ Indeed, in 1986, the Parliament rejected a recommendation from the Committee of Privileges that the Times should be reprimanded for publishing the draft of a report leaked from the Environment Committee.

In contrast however, the frequent invocation of parliamentary privilege by the UNP leader remains disturbing. For years, media law reform in Sri Lanka has been focused on democratising privilege, contempt of court and the enacting of a right to information (RTI) law. The RTI law now appears abandoned to all intents and purposes. In addition, the reactivation of the Press Council under the Sirisena Presidency has awakened old atavistic fears. These are not the signs that one wishes to see on the eve of a general election.

Damage to the Presidency
As August approaches therefore, the electorate faces an unenviable contest between old retrogressive forces and a coalition of grandly unwilling partners, banded together by necessity certainly not of choice. It was Maitripala Sirisena alone who brought in that element of hope and enthusiasm in January of this year. Undoubtedly that signal proactive difference will not be evident this time around.

In fact, the damage done to the Sirisena Presidency as a result of recent events is quite severe. As the perception of Presidential weakness increases, so too does the vulnerability of the Office to hostile intra-party pressures. Now, the pro-Rajapaksa elements within his party have adopted a benignly condescending tone towards the President amidst a crowing delight which they hardly bother to hide. As one member of the alliance gushed, ‘Maithripala Sirisena erred in January this year…now he is being brought back to the correct path.’

This is directly in opposition to the peoples’ mandate expressed so unequivocally in the Presidential election. Sri Lankan voters took the power into their own hands and voted a family cabal out of power not with a naïve belief that miraculously, the calibre of Sri Lankan politicians would change overnight.

On the contrary, the vote was given with a clear warning that this would be the fate that meets crooks in power. As the electorate goes to the vote, this powerful reprimand that it administered months ago must be kept sight of.

Living with the consequences
Bereft of its state patronage which it once used to the hilt and even despite the messy mishandling of corruption inquiries against its main ringleaders, the Rajapaksa political force will now be equitably measured for what it is. On the other hand, we have an alternative coalition which has ignominiously lost the yahapalanaya high ground but whose relative ills pale in comparison thereof.

Sri Lanka will surely learn to live with the consequences of whatever decision that its people take.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.