Is govt afraid of voters?
By N Sathiya Moorthy
First, it was former Central Bank Governor Dr Indrajith Kumaraswamy. He was the chosen man of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the then Prime Minister, for the job after his previous choice from Singapore, Arjuna Mahendran, scooted away in the light of the ‘bonds scam’ expose. The man is yet to be traced, for bringing him to justice. It is another matter all those critics of the Rajapaksa era economic failures and allegations of corruption, nepotism, et al, do not link the Arjuna Mahendran saga to it all.
Indrajith Kumaraswamy has since been followed by none other than Ranil’s UNP chairman and the party’s lone parliamentarian, Wajira Abeyawardena – and in the same vein. Both have come up with the specious plea if huge moneys have to be spent on the presidential polls next year, it would be at the cost of importing fuel, from diesel to petrol to kerosene – touching upon all sections of the society. The hidden messaged that the nation needs to put off the presidential poll until the government can stabilise the economy.
If someone thought that Indrajith Kumaraswamy was giving an academic view of the possibilities, Wajira repeating the same has raised multiple questions – beginning with doubts and suspicions about the timing of their statements. Wajira was specific. He told Parliament, yes, if the 2024 budge which Ranil would be presenting in November as his own Finance Minister, were to provide funds for the presidential polls next year that is when the fuel crisis would return.
The doubts are if Indrajith Kumaraswamy was giving his own views early on, and his friends in the UNP either found it a reasonable fear or picked it up because it provided an excuse for putting off the presidential polls, which the incumbent may still be uncomfortable facing. Or, is there more to it the timing of it all, and the two speaking out in tandem?
Call it kite-flying or weather-reading if you want, but the statements by two men identified with Wickremesinghe is possibly a way to feel the pulse of the people to the likelihood of putting off the presidential polls late next year. One is to frighten the people, if they could, if only to make them accept what is being fed as the ‘lesser evil’.
That the nation should not shy away from delaying the constitutionally-mandated democratic process if that is what the best under the circumstances is. Then could follow the equally specious argument that after all democracy and the nation’s Constitution were only tools to serve the people, sub-serve their long-term aspirations and shorter-term benefits, more so under economic circumstances as prevailing since last year.
Rather, the government side has been floating one too many balloons on the presidential polls in recent times. The most noticeable one before the postponement plea was the near-possibility of the UNP and the SLPP forming an alliance to fight the presidential polls together. Then, of course, was the question of holding simultaneous polls to the presidency and Parliament, as the SLPP would not want to give a free-hand to an equally unpredictable incumbent, especially if he were to win the presidency next year.
As a constitutional expert, rebel SLP leader G L Peiris responded to Wajira in Parliament. He said that the UNP chairman was only preparing the people for putting off the presidential polls. Long before the discourse came out in the open, he had said that as a Parliament-nominated President, the incumbent did not have all the constitutional powers accruing to a directly-elected President, as those before him were.
It thus remains to be seen if Peiris or anyone else, noticeably anti-Establishment sections of the Sri Lanka Bar Association, would move the Supreme Court if Wickremesinghe attempted to put off the presidential polls. There are lawyer-politicians like ITAK’s M A Sumanthiran, who is also a parliamentarian, who do not miss out an opportunity to hold the government accountable before Law and Judiciary. Whatever that be, it would only be seen as the government leadership being afraid of facing the people, facing their verdict — that they are afraid of democracy and democratic processes. Surely, Ranil at least would think a thousand times, given his ‘public image’, especially overseas, to protect.
Does it all mean that the government’s efforts would be to club the presidential and parliamentary elections, so as to please the SLPP and the Rajapaksas – and yet, delay it by a year. That would mean that instead of having the parliamentary elections too when the presidential polls are due, the presidential elections will be postponed to coincide with the parliamentary elections, close to a year later, from late 2024 to the same period in 2025.
If the presidential term can be extended by one year why not it be done for a longer term? If it is Parliament that has to extend the term of the President, why can’t it do so to extend its own term? Thankfully, these questions are just in the realm of academic just now. However, it is thus that JRJ obtaining the extension of Parliament’s term began, way back in 1982.
Of course, it does not stop there. Ranil would have to win a two-thirds vote in Parliament. Together with the SLPP under-writer of his government’s majority, he just does not have it. The gap is too wide and massive defections alone would take them there – that is if the current speculation turns out true. If those members are not ready to cross over now, there is lil’ doubt that they won’t do it over such a decision which most of them would paint and propagate as ‘undemocratic’ – or, yet another ‘undemocratic act’ of this government.
Then again, the matter would have to be settled in the Supreme Court, as can only be expected under the circumstances. This time the constitutional question would be about Parliament’s powers to extend the term of the President – or, would it require a referendum. If it has to be a referendum, then a nation-wide presidential poll is as good.
Thereby hangs a tale.
(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)