04 March 2016

To claim or not claim the legacy of reform

Let me begin by assuming something that defies all logic.  Let’s assume that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to be remembered as the man who democratized the nation through relevant and robust constitutional amendments that ensure transparency and accountability, re-establishes Rule of Law, gives coherence to the ideal of ‘Separation of Powers’, give meaning to representational democracy (electoral reform a la the 20th Amendment) and complementary measures such as overseeing the passage of the Right to Information Act and inking a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians.

All of this has been uttered on numerous occasion and some of it has been uttered by people who had the opportunity and the power but lacked political will or else were mostly high on rhetoric and pretty low on action.  Maithripala Sirisena’s immediate predecessors come to mind.  Ranil Wickremesinghe may not be too different, but then again he is excellently positioned to walk the talk.  One cannot be faulted for hoping.  

There have been two people who had the opportunity to get the job done.  Mahinda Rajapaksa used the ‘Sarath Silva Determination’ (also used by his predecessors) to secure a two-thirds majority.  Maithripala Sirisena, given the political twist that saw him becoming President, can cobble together the numbers (as was seen in the passage of the 19th Amendment).  

Mahinda Rajapaksa used the numbers to further his political interests (the 18th Amendment).  If he was interested in legacy and not about political longevity he might have been remembered as the man who rid the country of the terrorist menace and thereafter instituted institutional reform that truly democratized and modernized the nation.  Political longevity (who knows) could have been a happy byproduct.  

Maithripala Sirisena’s situation is different.  He is beholden to the UNP for his sudden and unexpected political ascendency.  He is struggling to maneuver the numbers in his favor, being the leader of a party that backed his opponent and one which came second best to the UNP at the General Election. 

 If he abandoned his ‘party project’ and focused on being the statesman the likes of Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero expected him to be, he runs the risk of conceding party control to Mahinda Rajapaksa and with it the numbers he would need to institute constitutional reform.  

On the other hand, in trying to consolidate himself within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) he is looking more like a politician and less like a statesman.  The 19th Amendment did not exactly leave the presidency impoverished.  That fact should have raised doubts about Sirisena’s democratizing pledges.  That’s is his blatant abuse of presidential powers as well as powers vested in the office of Party Leader had not raised eyebrows already.  

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not without his own problems.  He must know that Sirisena is the boss, even after the 19th Amendment was enacted.  He knows what a President can and cannot do, courtesy Chandrika Kumaratunga’s moves to scuttle his government in late 2003 and early 2004.  He knows that the 19th while doing away with the ‘CBK Option’ has not exactly left Sirisena option-less.  Wickremesinghe is seasoned enough to know how fickle political unions are.  If an RW-CBK was thought impossible in 1999 and again in 2003-2004, it was a ‘possible’ in 2005, pretty much evident in 2010 and out in the open in 2015, just to give one example.  A Maithri-Mahinda patch-up of some kind that stumps Wickremesinghe and bowls out the UNP cannot be ruled out.  Things change and they can change fast. 

Read also, Prime Ministerial Headaches, written in that 'in limbo' period between the General Election and the appointment of the cabinet

It is clear therefore that Wickremesinghe has to watch his back.  He also has to be mindful of numbers.  Anything is possible in a Parliament where a flaw in the 19th Amendment facilitates crossovers that don’t appear to be crossovers.  One bad move by one party or a slick move by another can quickly change the arithmetic.  

The challenge is stiff therefore.  Wickremesinghe has to walk on eggshells.  For now.  This is why he can ill-afford distractions.  If he goes the Sirisena way, i.e. fixated with parliamentary numbers, he is doomed.  One cannot blame him for thinking ‘I need to find a way to get the two-thirds so I can get the reform project back on track’.  On the other hand going overboard with that project will most likely derail reform and whatever democratizing legacy he may want for himself.  Getting embroiled in petty squabbles of the everyday kind cannot help either.  

Ranil Wickremesinghe might be better off thinking ‘focus on reform and the numbers will look after themselves’ because even if the numbers didn’t ‘play ball’ he would have corrected a huge disservice done to the nation by J R Jayewardene and the UNP and put the country on a strong democratic footing.  Focusing on numbers, moreover, will focus him to look away when the corrupt and incompetent in his party trip over themselves and/or embarrasses themselves, their leader and their party.  

‘Looking away’ is what Mahinda Rajapaksa did and that was not even an option embraced with lofty ideals in mind and calculating possible fallout that will derail the journey.  Such thinking on Wickremesinghe’s party will make reform even tougher simply because it will cost him general public support, so necessary in a context where everyone is fighting for numbers and no one seems strong enough to secure them.  Ownership of the cry for ‘change’ can quickly change hands and even if ‘change’ of the kind we got on January 8, 2016 is not obtained, the need-for-change will cripple the report project.  Mahinda Rajapaksa was clearly not interested in that kind of reform, so he needed distractions.  Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot afford them.  

As always he could go with ‘home for the best, prepare for the worst’ and as always he has to keep knocking on the reform door.    Knocking on that door consists of doing his best to keep the relevant issues alive, rapping the knuckles of party members who by word and deed contradict the reform rhetoric, and moving all forces movable to get it done.  Even if it costs him.  And that’s the key.  He has to get to the point where he tells himself ‘I don’t mind if this takes me to a place called ‘Nothing Left to Lost’ because I have decided to give it my best shot whether or not I fail and whether or not I get shot somewhere down the line’.  Politically ‘shot’, that is.  

And if we’ve assumed wrong then it only means that Wickremesinghe is all about power.  If that’s the case, history has shown that he’s not that great an attacker nor defender.  He may make some moves but he won’t score many goals and cannot be counted on to win the match.

So let’s assume that we are right.  In other words, Ranil Wickremesinghe wants reform.  He will fight the good fight, the ‘good’ meaning doing all the things he should do (as outlined above) and desisting from doing all the no-no things (again outlined above).  He will be backed by a critical mass to prevail in spite of all the obstacles along the way including constitutional bars, a political culture dominated by power-lust and little else, and a citizenry waiting for democratic goodies to fall from the sky.   

There’s legacy awaiting Ranil Wickremesinghe.  He has to walk the hard path to claim it.  

 A version of this article was published in the Daily Mirror (March 4, 2016).  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com. 


Prometheus said...

After a long time a praiseworthy article - yeah i think the same