Back to the future

It is said that the more things change, the more they remain the same. What better way to describe the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka that was gazetted last week than by these immortal words penned by renowned French journalist and editor Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karrway back in 1848 with regard to local politics in France.
For all intents and purposes, the 20th Amendment is a fulfilment of the election promise made by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to repeal the 19th Amendment, which it saw as an impediment to the progress the party envisioned for the country.
To be fair, each party is entitled to its own vision and this is what the SLPP put on the table for the people to decide. Having received a thumping near two-thirds majority, the party galvanised into action in a record time of less than a month since the election to fulfil what it promised. So far, so good.

What is debatable, however, are the contents of the proposed amendment which is now awaiting parliamentary clearance, having already received the green light from the Cabinet as well as the Attorney General who has opined that the proposed amendment does not need approval of the people at a referendum and that two-thirds support in Parliament would suffice for it to be passed into law.

The contents of the proposed 19th Amendment, on closer scrutiny, is a throwback to the contentious 18th Amendment save for two key aspects, namely limitation of the duration of the presidency to five years per term and a maximum of two such terms.

With regard to the rest, the sense of déjà vu is profound to the extent that it creates a sense of continuity from the pre-2015 era as if the five years since then never happened. Every other clause that was repealed or amended by the 19th has been reinstated by the 20th Amendment. It is to the credit of the architects of the SLPP that they have been able to execute this so quickly by utterly and completely outmanoeuvring and outwitting an Opposition whose only claim to fame has been its self-destruction.

Back when President J.R. Jayewardene and the then all powerful United National Party (UNP) Government introduced the 1978 Constitution, little would they have anticipated that 42 years down the road, a two-year-old upstart political party would receive a thumping mandate from 6.8 million people to infuse a new lease of life to its all-powerful executive presidency which has won and lost elections for many a party over the years.

Thanks to the 5 August mandate, the presidency is alive and kicking once again. Yes, kicking, in its all-new avatar vis-à-vis the 20th Amendment which restores all powers enjoyed by the president prior to the 19th Amendment of 2015.

It is said that people deserve the governments they get because after all, they elect them. In the last two decades at least, it is the singular subject of the presidency that has won or lost elections for a political party in this country. The 5 August result proved that the time-tested formula is still potent.

Now, thanks to the 20th Amendment, a new opportunity has been created for the political forces that came together in 2015 to reunite and resurrect their pet project, which means they too will now receive a new lease of life. The circus, it seems, is only beginning.

To put things into perspective, in 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike promised to abolish the “bahubootha” 1978 Constitution and with it the executive presidency. After serving two full terms, she handed over the reins of the very same presidency she inherited without a single clause being amended to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ironically promised to do what Chandrika Bandaranaike failed to do but did not do it either.

However, Maithripala Sirisena, who contested on the premise that he will abolish the presidency, won the day and was elected to office in 2015 along with the Yahapalana Government consisting of both the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). To Sirisena’s credit, he was the only president since 1994 to actually walk the talk on abolishing the presidency, which successive governments and politicians, at election time at least, continuously touted as the bane of the country.

Although he fell far short of actually abolishing the post, he and the then UNP-SLFP Government did manage to salvage some credibility by introducing the 19th Amendment which re-imposed the two-term limit and pruned the executive powers by a considerable margin, including reducing the tenure from six years to five years and removing the blanket immunity provided to the holder of that office.

What the SLPP is doing five years later is to reverse almost every one of those amendments. At the end of the day, both parties could be generally construed as pandering to the will of the people – the former Government to rid the powers of the post, the present to re-enact what was taken away.

However, the mindboggling question now is: How can former President and current Leader of the SLFP, and self-proclaimed architect of the 19th Amendment, Maithripala Sirisena do an about-turn and support the repeal of all he took credit for – in other words, his legacy and single biggest achievement? How will he vindicate the millions who supported him at the time?

What is even more mystifying is the fact that this piece of legislation was passed by 215 of the legislators of the 225-seat Parliament, the majority of who have been re-elected to the current Parliament. Does it mean that it is okay to mislead people just to win an election?

After last month’s general election result, we predicted that Maithripala Sirisena will be the man to watch. What we didn’t anticipate then was that the time to do so will come so quickly. Now with the 20th Amendment already gazetted, Sirisena is already the man of the moment. He and his 14 SLFP members in Parliament must surely be at their wits’ end on how to keep a straight face and support the new amendment. The former President who has gained notoriety as a serial let down case will now have another feather added to his cap.

With the latest development, Sirisena and his SLFP are caught between a rock and a hard place as the compulsory two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment into law depends on their collective support in Parliament. Therefore, the former President, who is known to be a man of many surprises, may decide to barter his newfound importance for something tangible in the form of a powerful post in the administration. The fact that he has not been offered a portfolio as of yet could well be a tactical ploy to garner his support. As to how the former President can redeem himself in the eyes of his supporters then and now is something for them to reconcile with.

The SLPP will not remain unscathed either, as it will have its own share of headaches because the prime minister, as envisaged in the 20th Amendment, will revert to a nominal, non-executive role with little scope beyond the allocated ministerial portfolio. Given the current dynamics, the inevitable power play will be an interesting phenomenon to watch.

With the presidency back to square one, it’s now more or less back to the future and one man who must surely be smiling up yonder is its creator.