Seeing Stars

In a bid to consolidate his power, an imminent dissolution of parliament seems to be on the horizon for Sri Lanka’s new president. Neville de Silva looks ahead to ‘D’ day

It might seem rather melodramatic. In the coming days Sri Lanka’s newly-elected president will strike down the current parliament that some adherents of democratic orthodoxy see as the bulwark of parliamentary democracy.
Usually politicians turn to tradition and consult astrologers, palmists, interpreters of horoscopes and other alchemists before such crucial political decisions are taken. Business people, too, rely on those who peer at the stars and forecast the future before committing their assets to new ventures.

These are all long-held beliefs and traditional practices passed on down the ages, though more recent generations are gradually shedding their dependence on these dubious means of predicting one’s future.
Before last November’s presidential elections, supporters of Sajith Premadasa – son of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, assassinated by the Tamil-minority separatist LTTE in 1993, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s chief contender – lined up a battery of star-gazers who predicted with great conviction that Premadasa would be victorious.

But he was convincingly defeated and the soothsayers seem to have vanished to wherever discredited prophets go to hibernate.

Even more interesting to some, and hilarious to others, was the story that did the rounds of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s consultation with his favourite astrologer. A close member of the Rajapaksa family cajoled the president into calling an early election,although he had two more years in office. Apparently a hesitant president, reluctant to sacrifice two years of his term, asked his astrologer what the stars said about his chances of returning to office. His astrologer reportedly convinced him he would win.

When Rajapaksa lost, some intrepid newsmen tracked down the astrologer and asked him what had happened to his prediction.The astrologer allegedly said he told the president exactly what he wanted to hear. That seemed a pretty neat way of absolving himself of any responsibility for Rajapaksa’s defeat.

Although Mahinda’s brother and current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, might well be a believer in the old traditions, what will move him to act in the coming days are not astrological predictions but the provisions of the constitution.

But a recent comment by the State Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, leaves some doubt as to what will drive President Rajapaksa to dissolve parliament, and when.
Addressing the media,the State Minister said that parliament would be dissolved between March 2 and 6. He added that the president wanted to go for a general election ‘as soon as possible and therefore parliament would be dissolved at the earliest possible date’.

Anybody who can read the Sri Lankan Constitution without tripping over legal terminology knows that the now highly controversial 19th Amendment approved by MPs (including some who are now trying wash their hands of their own role in passing it) early in the presidential life of Maithripala Sirisena, sets out clearly when parliament can be dissolved.

Passed in late April 2015, just three months after Sirisena was sworn in, the amendment states that the president cannot dissolve parliament until it has completed four-and-a-half years of its five-year term, or two-thirds of MPs request the president to dissolve the legislature.

The first date on which the president could legitimately dissolve the legislature is March 2 2020. The previous president, Maithripala Sirisena, tried to do so during a political coup last October when he tried to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and install his arch rival and the man he defeated, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Either Sirisena could not read or had not read the very amendment he helped steer through parliament. But his political antics led a bench of seven Supreme Court judges to declare his actions unconstitutional and illegal, and order a return to the status quo.

President Rajapaksa surely knows this, especially after the Sirisena shenanigans; he would have been advised by his own lawyers. If, as State Minister Abeywardena stated, the president intends to dissolve parliament at the first opportunity to go for an early parliamentary election, why should he forsake the first constitutionally valid date and wait till March 6?

The State Minister’s assertion does not make sense and is surely illogical. Unless, of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also waiting for what some might see as an astrologically auspicious date and time to issue a proclamation dissolving parliament.

By that reckoning the constitutional provision is superseded by astrological necessity. If I was a betting man I would venture to put a few bucks (though not too many) on President Rajapaksa striking at midnight on March 1, with a Gazette notification dissolving parliament the next day.

The general election to follow will most likely be in the last days of April as the Sinhala and Tamil New Year – an important traditional event that cannot be ignored – is in mid-April. So anytime from April 24 – possibly the 25th – would serve the purpose, depending on what is determined to be an astrologically auspicious date.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is looking to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is looking to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution

April might prove the cruellest month, as poet TS Eliot wrote, if Gotabaya’s burning desire for a two-thirds majority at the upcoming election falls flat. The new president wants to make several critical changes, the most important of which could well be the constitutional ones he appears to have in mind.

One is to restore the primacy of the president and its lost power, which was heavily diluted by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe 19th Amendment. This transferred several key presidential powers to the legislature and the prime minister.

By doing so, Sirisena expected not only to gain plaudits from the people for voluntarily surrendering his rights but also international glory as a leader who willingly relinquished several vital executive powers. Among these was the right to dissolve parliament after just one year of its existence, and setting up several independent institutions to deal with appointments to the police and the public service.

Either Sirisena did not understand the long-term significance of the transfer of power, especially to the prime minister, or he misread the intricacies of cohabitation with an ideologically contrasting partner.
By the time president Sirisena found he was stymied at almost every turn as he tried to break the bonds he had tied himself up in, it was too late.

Now, as he seeks a more powerful presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is looking to repeal the 19th Amendment that is proving an obstacle to the exercise of powers formerly available to the president – as did Sri Lanka’s first executive president and architect of the 1978 constitution, Junius Richard Jayewardene (popularly called ‘JR’, though rarely within earshot).

In a celebrated remark, ‘JR’ once said that the only thing he could not do as president was turn a man into a woman and vice versa. With a five-sixths majority in parliament, he crafted a constitution with his Queen’s Counsel brother H.W Jayewardene that was clearly meant to suit his personality and ideological needs.
Gotabaya Rmust wish he had a parliamentary majority like JR’s, so he too can fashion a constitution that suits his military and non-political background. It would also remove the two-term limitation for a president and make it open season for presidential terms.

However, all this ambition might not satisfy elder brother Mahinda who, as the current prime minister, has inherited all the powers passed on by Sirisena to his premier, which some say Ranil Wickremesinghe enjoyed to the full.

Mahinda is unlikely to welcome a government enjoying a two-thirds majority, which can be used to deprive him of his powers, and also allow for more than two five-year terms for the president. Such a constitutional change could also block his eldest son Namal’s ascendency to the presidency, which Mahinda apparently feels is his dynastic right.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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