MR: Like JR and beyond

A scrutiny of the President’s first term as he gets ready for his second six-year term

On the Seventh day of September, 1978, Sri Lanka's first presidential Constitution, drafted by Junius Richard Jayewardene, was passed by the then National State Assembly at the 'old' Parliament building at Galle Face. Although granting near absolute powers to the Executive, that Constitution imposed a limit of two six-year terms for a President.

Thirty two years and one day later, the eighteenth amendment to that Constitution was passed by Parliament, now located at Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte under the Presidency of Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa. It removed that limit, enabling a person to run for President for as often as he wished.
On that distant day in 1978, there was hardly any fanfare. JR had already become President under an amendment introduced to the 1972 Republican Constitution on October 4, 1977, some ten weeks after he won a landslide at the general elections. By February 4, 1978 he had also taken his oaths as President at Galle Face.

All that happened on September 7, 1978 was a national ceremony at the Sugathadasa Stadium to mark the occasion at which thousands of schoolboys, herded in buses from their Colombo colleges and plied generously with buns and packets of milk, performed a drill display. JR came, saw, concurred and made a characteristically short and witty speech and left.

With that Constitution, JR effectively clipped the wings of his Parliament while gifting his parliamentarians a state-of-the-art, Geoffrey-Bawa-designed Parliament building at Sri Jayewardenepura -- which his critics said, was so named not entirely co-incidentally. But then, there were no protests either.

It is not that the protests launched on the eighth of September this year had a great impact. The opposition was divided, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) staged a show of strength with a public rally but the main opposition United National Party (UNP) opted to stage a sit-in on the lawns of the Parliament building. That only resulted in one MP, Upeksha Swarnamali, sneaking out of the group, visiting Temple Trees and pledging allegiance to President Rajapaksa!

In many ways, President Rajapaksa has been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. He was the Prime Minister when the Supreme Court decided to end Chandrika Kumaratunga's presidency a year earlier than she anticipated; he was around and she was not when the Tsunami disaster struck and he was also the beneficiary of Velupillai Prabhakaran miscalculating big time and enforcing a boycott in the North and East at the 2005 election, to prevent Ranil Wickremesinghe from winning.

That is not to say that he has not been smart as a politician. If he was lucky to get where he is today, he has been extremely savvy to stay there. He inherited an unpopular government characterised by inefficiency, he had a wafer thin majority in Parliament and a war was raging in the North and East where, by 2007, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had become the only terrorist group in the world to achieve air strike capability.

Initial days

Today, his government — despite all its lapses — presents the best option for the majority of people if only because the collective Opposition is intent on self-destruction; he has a resounding two-thirds majority in Parliament, and the war as we all know, is over.

Dealing with the latter sets apart President Rajapaksa from all those who preceded him. Although, in the initial months after his election, he first took the peace option himself sending delegations to Geneva for talks with the Tigers and keeping the Ceasefire Agreement going, when the LTTE kicked the table and triggered the provocative Mavil Aru incident, he astutely chose the war option realising that he had the peoples' overwhelming support for this because they too -- unlike some opposition politicians -- had realised the Tigers were simply not sincere about peace talks.

Aided and abetted by a brother who was an Army officer, he truly believed that the war against the LTTE could be won - and he went on to achieve that, allowing his service commanders a free hand to make decisions on the frontlines. For his part, he kept the pressure-mongers from the West at bay. When they were literally knocking on his door, he didn't blink and told them firmly that the war was Sri Lanka's business and that he would deal with it his way.

In fact, President Rajapaksa has outsmarted not only those within his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who doubted his abilities but also outwitted the opposition UNP time and time again. As a result, the more capable -- and some who are less scrupulous -- from the UNP have joined him in droves and will never dream of re-joining the Grand Old Party. Questions such as whether the UNP will ever govern again in the foreseeable future are being asked ever so seriously.

All this has made the President appear politically impregnable. It would seem that he is living a politician's dream: having achieved what his nation desired for thirty long suffering years, he has the country at his feet to do as he wishes, so to speak. No matter what he does in his second term office -- and indeed in his third, if there is one! -- history will speak of him as the man who defeated the LTTE and brought peace to the nation.

Even though this is a fact already, with the passage of the eighteenth amendment, questions are being asked as to whether there are grand designs to foist an oligarchy on the country although with a democratic facade. Perhaps he realises that democracy doesn't always work (as it hasn't at the Colombo Municipal Council!) and that given the mandate he has received, he shouldn't be hamstrung by democracy.

However, critics of the President will argue that while allowing the President to run for a third term of office could be democratic, the abolition of the Constitutional Council and virtually vesting all its powers with the President -- because the new Parliamentary Council can only provide observations, not recommendations -- clearly indicates a shift away from the democratic ideals that President Rajapaksa once zealously pursued as an opposition parliamentarian.

The fear is that by the end of President Rajapaksa's second term of office, all key institutions -- the Police, the judiciary, the elections commission, and the armed forces --will be servile to the President, thus obliterating any chance of a truly democratic contest when the next elections are due.

These are early days yet -- the President hasn't even begun his second term of office -- and such fears may be unfounded but some aspects of his style of governance does raise a few eyebrows. It is here that the comparison with JR -- who infamously said that all he couldn't do was to turn a man into a woman although that is now medically possible! -- is inevitable.

It was Lanka Sama Samaja Party leader Dr. N.M. Perera who warned that JR should never be allowed to lead the country. If he sits in that chair once, NM said, he will never leave it. That prediction nearly came true and Ranasinghe Premadasa had to exert an enormous amount of pressure to snatch the 1988 UNP nomination for the presidential election from JR, although the political grapevine had it that the first lady, Elina Jayewardene also didn't want her husband to run for a third term and did her bit to convince him. President Rajapaksa's detractors would now argue that he would have made JR blush with some of his political strategies. Certainly, there are some parallels that merit a closer look.

Fonseka factor

Making headlines these days is the incarceration of Sarath Fonseka, once a General, and now Prisoner No. 0/22032 in a cell at Welikada. No doubt there will be a thousand legal arguments explaining why Fonseka is in jail but in this instance even if justice is done it doesn't appear to have been done.
Many believe that the punishment meted out to Fonseka doesn't fit the crime he was charged with and are surprised that the President has endorsed it -- after all, he himself claims he was remanded on a trumped-up charge during the 1985 Mulkirigala by-election and had to attend his mother's funeral escorted by prison guards, so he should know the grief it entails!

Fonseka was an integral cog in the war machine and there is no denying the fact that his ruthless determination to end the conflict was crucial for the final outcome -- which is probably why Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa retained his services over and above others.

Fonseka may be no angel but to treat him now as if he was Prabhakaran-incarnate demeans the Armed Forces and also brings into question the integrity of processes that contribute to his incarceration. And, we add ourselves to a long list of undesirable nations that persecute the political opponents of their leaders.

If parallels are what one is looking for, JR pursued and persecuted his political opponents with glee. A special presidential commission found Sirima Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike guilty and deprived them of their civic rights. Again, JR argued that the process was a perfectly legal exercise. Even if it was, it appeared that Ms. Bandaranaike and her nephew were being singled out for justice of a particular kind.

JR also had Vijaya Kumaratunga imprisoned on charges of being a 'Naxalite' soon after the 1982 presidential election. Vijaya, in the absence of Ms. Bandaranaike and son Anura who was battling her for control of the party, was a rising star and JR probably feared his rise to political stardom, given his good looks, endearing personality and movie-star popularity.

Even if it is argued that these detentions too were justified on legal grounds, the point is that these were also potentially potent opponents of JR. Does Sarath Fonseka present such a threat to President Rajapaksa? Most -- even Fonseka's supporters -- would agree that he does not. Fonseka may be the best Army Commander in the world but the ever smiling, baby-kissing, back-slapping Mahinda Rajapaksa will beat him as a politician any day.

Fonseka won nearly a 100,000 preferences at the general election and it is a fair guess that a significant percentage of those votes were 'protest' votes against the government's handling of the issue. Then, is the President creating a martyr out of a maverick military man? Already sections of the Buddhist and catholic clergy have appealed to the President not to be harsh on Fonseka. Petitions calling for his release are attracting thousands of people who are standing in queues in the rain to place their signatures.

Is the exercise of persecuting Fonseka worth the trouble especially when the military and Attorney General's Department seem to have no other task these days other than to prosecute Fonseka? Isn't the President providing the opposition with an issue to prop up its flagging morale? And, isn't Fonseka emerging a hero, a second time? Doesn't it denigrate the President's own standing as a statesman? Isn't the President flirting dangerously with unpopularity here? These are questions that the President must seriously ponder if he is to retain his widespread appeal among the masses.

Mollycoddling KP

Then, as if to add insult to injury, we have the spectacle of the government mollycoddling Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP, the LTTE point man who is a terrorist wanted by Interpol for a long list of offences. It has been argued that treating KP with kid gloves is a necessity, if the Tamil diaspora is to be tapped and prevented from engineering a comeback of the LTTE, even outside our shores.

It is somewhat akin to JR releasing Rohana Wijeweera because he knew any division in the anti-UNP vote would be beneficial to him. In the latter years of his presidency, JR also used the good offices of the 'Naxalite' Vijaya Kumaratunga to woo Tamil terrorist groups operating in the North. The principle is that there are no permanent friends -- or enemies -- in politics; only permanent interests.

While there is some merit in this argument it doesn't quite look right when KP is enjoying state hospitality, Karuna Amman (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) is in Parliament, Pillayan (Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) is a Chief Minister and Sarath Fonseka is in jail.

There is also a question that is being asked about President Rajapaksa's commitment to good governance. On this issue, a case in point is that of Mervyn Silva, the Kelaniya strongman, who gets away with anything, his latest and most atrocious offence being tying a Samurdhi officer to a tree. It has often been asked as to why the President doesn't crack the whip and send him packing for it is obvious that he is a noxious influence on the political culture of the country. Silva was suspended from the SLFP and was suspended from his duties as party organiser for Kelaniya by the President but then, the general public was saying it was too good to be true. And sure enough, Silva escapes saying 'it was only an act' and the masses are saying 'we told you so'. In the end, this incident only casts the President in a poor light.

The more uncharitable would say that Silva is being retained to do the government's 'dirty work' but whatever the reason, it paints the President as one who will go the extra mile to shield someone loyal to him -- or that he wouldn't want to be seen as yielding even in the face of flagrant violations of the law.
The latter was also a 'JR' trait. He took pride in the fact that he was the monarch of all he surveyed and found it infra dig to bow down to authority, even when it was the proper thing to do. The instance where he insisted that there should be two MPs for the single constituency of Kalawana --Abeyratne Pilapitiya from the UNP and Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist party who won the by election -- was only stymied because the Supreme Court ruled that it needed approval at a referendum. In a sense, with all due respect to Pilapitiya, persisting with Mervyn Silva, is a similar stance.

It indicates an inclination to insist on the abominable because of the chances of getting away with it. It does not necessarily mean that what is being done is right although the political clout at the disposal of the President may make it appear so. Again, the President appears to be quite unnecessarily allowing himself to be at the butt end of criticism, when he could easily get rid of Silva if the latter fails to fall in line.

Another issue, stridently voiced by the international community and communally-oriented political parties is the ethnic question. Since the end of the war, while rehabilitation of the North and East has commendably taken priority, devolution has become a dirty word and no one in the government talks of a 'political solution' anymore; it is as if ethnic-based grievances never existed in the country! This may not rankle now in the afterglow of the war victory, but it could become a crucial factor when the votes are counted six years from now.


Then there are the issues that envelop any government once it has been in office for a period of time: allegations of corruption and inefficiency, abuse of power by assorted ministers, misuse of public funds all of which accrue to the President in an indirect way. These issues have been raised from time to time but the gloss of the war victory meant that they were just swept away in the ensuing euphoria. President Rajapaksa or his United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) may not have that luxury in six years' time.
At the end of his first term of office in 1982, after winning the economic war by ushering in an open economy and kick-starting the accelerated Mahaveli programme, JR would have observed with relish that the Opposition as hopelessly divided and the road ahead for what seemed like a long period of rule as clear. At the end of his first term and after winning the separatist war, we must excuse President Rajapaksa if he feels the same way.

These days, the President is obviously mapping out plans for his second term of office. A new cabinet is being envisaged and we hope performance and integrity will be the key criteria in doling out portfolios. Unlike JR though, he has few critics within.

During the JR era, despite the enormous respect that the man commanded from his colleagues, there were men of stature and integrity who were willing to stand up to him: M.D.H. Jayawardena, Gamani Jayasuriya, Cyril Mathew and Dr. Neville Fernando all crossed swords with JR -- Jayasuriya amicably over the Indo-Lanka accord, the others less so. Even the more politically ambitious Gamini Dissanayake dissented with JR over Mrs. Bandaranaike's civic rights issue and a lesser known fact is that JR in fact tolerated such opinions within his Cabinet to some extent, not harbouring grudges against those who dared to differ.

Unfortunately for President Rajapaksa, he seems to be saddled with a Cabinet of 'yes men' (and women) with an 'ehemai hamuduruwaney' mentality and that can only be to his detriment. Even the likes of G.L. Peiris and Tissa Vitarana, from whom much was expected, seem to suffer from this malady, the former responsible for the continued blunders in our foreign policy that began when Rohitha Bogollagama was a minister and the latter equally weak and vacillating with the All-Party Representative Committee.

Mangala Samaraweera and Arjuna Ranatunga -- whatever their faults -- have dared to dissent and they have quit the ranks of government. It does appear as if everyone else are merely rubber stamp directives without having the courage to be constructive in their criticism.

Is Mahinda Rajapaksa then destined to become like Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular state of Turkey whose brand of government was described as 'enlightened authoritarianism'? At one time Ataturk in fact directed how the opposition in his country should function -- and President Rajapaksa seems to be doing just that right now. However, there is a long way to go before we label Sri Lanka as a proper secular state.

If he is looking for contemporary history instead for inspiration, President Rajapaksa must also ponder as to whether he should emulate Brazilian President Luis Lula Da Silva who is stepping down after two terms of office despite still being enormously popular or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela whose own attempts to abolish term limits for President were tested at a referendum twice-and though defeated at first in 2007, were later approved in 2009.

As he prepares for his second term of office, the President must be surely reflecting in his first -- and the odds that he has overcome. It would be a sobering thought for him to note that none of our elected Presidents was much liked when they departed: every tree, lamppost and wall screamed 'JR go home' in 1988, crackers were lit when President Premadasa's death was announced and although Chandrika Kumaratunga didn't evoke such strong emotions, there was a palpable sense of relief at her exit from the political arena in 2005.

Having already made history President Mahinda Rajapaksa, wouldn't want history to repeat itself: given the comparisons with JR that he is evoking even now, he wouldn't surely want to exit in the same manner.

The irony is that the President is already on such a lofty pedestal that he can only stay there -- or fall. It is up to him to realise that he could easily take the steps that would make him a statesman, but in so doing, he should also remember that it is but a short step from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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