Sri Lanka: Propriety, thy name is what?

N Sathiya Moorthy  17 September 2019

Definitely, it is not a sin under the moral code, and even under the law, it is a simple offence, punishable with a fine of Rs 1,000, or a year in prison in the case of default. Yet, for aspiring presidential candidate, and thus president, Sajith Premadasa not to have filed his assets statement is a matter of impropriety, if not outright concern about his sense of accountability if elected to power.

According to Transparency International (Sri Lanka), Sajith’s name is among the eight ministers who have not filed their mandatory assets and liabilities reports with the faceless authorities above them. The organisation has also asked Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to direct other ministers not covered by the requirement at present, to file their wealth returns.

It is the kind of beginning where others before him too had begun, but in his case, there is still a fair chance of ending it here and now. If anything, Preamadasa Jr’s record in the matter of corruption and other unwelcome conduct and behaviour in the case of a public servant of his repute and standing is possibly the least offensive of them all. In his place, others, both from his own ruling United National Party (UNP) and those from the rival SLFP of President Maithripala Sirisena and the latter’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP are abysmal, to say the least.

The question is if electoral politics is by comparison, or should it be treated in absolute terms. Either you are there or not there, no halfway marks and markers…For, the public perception is that the politicos are begin small and discreetly but end up being up there, as they move up the ladder. For Sajith personally, this is only the beginning – of a life-long test, which is just beginning to take…

Who is afraid?

That way, President Sirisena seems to be taking the cake, with the icing and all, with a cherry still at the top, for setting precedents in matters of propriety…This is especially so when it comes to his insatiable urge to interpret the Founding Fathers understanding of the Constitution. That ‘the’ founder in late President J R Jayewardene took the referendum route to extend the term of Parliament, however otherwise improper it be otherwise, should show for incumbent Sirisena the impropriety of seeking judicial interpretations to extend his term.

Even as they are negotiating a poll alliance, SLPP chairman G L Peiris is the one who has now charged Sirisena with such a design all over again. Some way to take forward poll negotiations, but then, it is also some way, if true, for the incumbent, to blackmail an intended ally, after having failed in the case of UNP poll partner from 2015, by forcing an avoidable constitutional crisis in October last.

Already, the Sirisena camp had once mooted the idea of seeking judicial interpretation of 19-A, to get his term extended by four months or so. It is based on the claim that his term began not necessarily on 9 January 2015, when he was sworn in after being elected President, but when 19-A got implemented. A cheap trick, and possible a ‘fraud’ on the Constitution, this route, the Supreme Court had once thankfully exposed in the case of party predecessor in Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK).

In Chandrika’s case, then Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarath N Silva once swore her in near-secrecy for her duly-elected second term. Later, he himself would go on to preside over an SC Bench that curtailed her avarice power, when she sought a similar interpretation sans 19-A, to have her term extended.

The political situation, of course, was slightly different, but not all that. Better or worse still (depending on from whose view you sough to visualise the possibilities), CBK still had the constitutional power to dissolve Parliament at will, anytime after the first year. Incumbent Maithri is constrained by 19-A, which has reduced his ‘at-will-time’ to just six months. That is also the crux of the matter.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, nay, naked, that President Sirisena wants to try and use the restricted provision under 19-A to negotiate a possible second term for him, if he could help it. Clearly, the message is that if he got the power to stay in for four more months, he would have the powers to dissolve Parliament in February, when an incumbent President would have met the six-month window, to sack Parliament.

It is anybody’s guess why the wily Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister under President Sirisena should have agreed to the possibility. That is if he had not hoped to see the latter through the five years in office, or play politics with parliamentary majority in his very own way (as Sirisena has demonstrated since), to force a new Constitution, and fresh polls to the presidency, long before it became due, later this year…

Why is afraid of Sirisena? Or, that is the question his aides and advisors should be asking themselves. If anything, any such tough talking, even in private, would only encourage the limited SLFP cadres, from parliamentarians downwards, to use his ‘undemocratic ways’, to jump the ship. Many of them would prefer the Rajapaksa camp, where again they would feel better at home, given the common SLFP-centric ideological and organisational mechanisms. Yet, if it would benefit them personally, a few would still consider the UNP option.

‘Voice’ control?

If all these are technical in nature just now, the same cannot be said of President Sirisena bringing the Government-run ‘Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation’ TV channels under the Defence Ministry. No marks for guessing, for those who are not as familiar with the Sri Lankan politico-administrative scheme! Yes, Sirisena as President is also his own Defence Minister….

The last time he did it, it was when he swore in one-time party and politico-administrative boss, Mahinda R, as Prime Minister in the place of incumbent Wickremesinghe, on a fateful Friday evening in October last. As with Rajapaksa when he became a first-term President in November 2005, the Interior Ministry was brought under the Defence Ministry. It was war-time still despite the Norwegian-facilitated cease-fire agreement, supposedly in place, and Rajapaksa already had brother Gota R for the Defence Secretary’s job.

When the Sirisena-Mahinda duo brought the police under the Defence Minisstry’s control all over again in October last, when war was far away from anyone’s memory, much of it was muted by the political and constitutional challenges and confusion that the change-over entailed at the time. In comparison, Sirisena’s current ‘takeover’ of the Rupavahini, is even more perceptible and possibly without precedent. Clearly, he wants to control what the Government-run TV is putting out through the long run up to the presidential polls.

Clearly, the courts have nothing much to do in the matter, if approached, but Parliament may still pressure the President to ‘reconsider’ his decision. It is not just about the President’s residual powers under 19-A, too, to distribute and re-distribute ministerial positions and portfolios at will. It is all about taking away the semblance of ‘free speech’ that the Rupavahini dispensation entails.

In the absence of the post-blasts Emergency that he had declared but has not extended when it became due last month, it is clear that no other meaningful explanation or excuse could be offered for brining Rupavahini under Defence Ministry’s control and supervision. It is anybody’s guess who is going to listen to a President on his way out, if that perception still prevails, even if Sirisena changed the top brass, to ‘fall in line’…

Or, is it a message too to prospective allies, starting with the breakaway SLPP that he still intended contending the presidential poll on his own, and he also has the powerful State media on his side, and with its greater and wider reach in rural areas than the private sector TV channels can possibly boast of? It may not still be enough for him to win elections, though he can disrupt the chances of such others….

Saviour still…

Yet, the fact is that but for Sirisena’s belated, and possibly politically-timed awakening, or re-awakening, the nation would not have got to know enough on the Central Bank bonds scam… Nor would it have been saved of the embarrassing draft that the Wickremesinghe Government was ready to palm off to China in the ‘debt-equity’ swap deal on Hambantota.

Of course, on the former, Sirisena closed his eyes when it suited him, but did open it, after all, whenever. On the latter, the credit should go to then Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, and he paid for it with his portfolio. Yet, on both issues, Sirisena as President did act on the same. To Sirisena should also go the credit of standing in the way of the Government yielding to international pressure on the ‘war crimes’ probe, though he had no hesitation in making U-turn, between Geneva, UNGA and Colombo, way back in 2015, only months after becoming President.

Today, when the nation is still at sixes and sevens over the ‘Easter serial-blasts’, at least the Presidential Commission, appointed post haste by Sirisena, has delivered something for munching about, though no one seems to have acted any seriously on the same. Other inquiries, including the one by a Parliament Select Committee (PSC) are way behind. The police investigations, prosecution and appeals are going to take their own time.

Despite all good intentions, if they are any, Sirisena leaves behind an image (unless he gets a second term, miraculously) that is stained by his demonstration of over-smartness, which may make for good politics, not statesmanship. Better or worse for him, both have to derive from a massive popular base, not based on political chicanery, at every step, every turn. The temptation and also the need then would be to survive from one impropriety to another, which leaves a bad precedent, from which a successor can take the nation down the pipeline, even deeper!

The article appeared in the Ceylon Today  on 17 September 2019

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