Editorial/Opinion

Curse of chameleon politics

For a country that has endured many a curse over its 2,500-year history, beginning with the mother of all curses, the curse of Kuveni, we now have a new curse; the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. And who exactly invoked this curse? The very man who is now calling it a curse!
Having boasted at the time that he was the first president to willingly give up the post and also cut short his current term, President Maithripala Sirisena now claims that the 19th Amendment is evil and is the work of NGOs. If by any chance this is in fact the case, then he has a lot of explaining to do.
This is how absurd things can get in this sunny paradise whenever an election draws near. The political proclamations go from the usual attention-seeking noise to the downright ridiculous, but yet, they are treated in much the same way as the sacred texts.
President Maithripala Sirisena knows very well that he owes his current position to the 19th Amendment. His singular promise at the hustings was to abolish the obnoxious 18th Amendment and introduce a 19th Amendment curtailing the draconian powers of the executive president to a manageable level.
In order to do this, the powers of the executive were proposed to be transferred to a constitutional council, a number of independent commissions were to be established covering key areas of governance, and of course Parliament itself would be empowered with additional executive powers.
The country which had seen the good, bad, and ugly sides of the presidency for nearly four decades was desperate to see the back of it or, in the interim, to at least clip its powers, and so, people believed in Sirisena’s promise.
However, much to the surprise of many, Sirisena kept his promise and the 19th Amendment materialised into law less than six months after being sworn into office. An overwhelming majority of the legislators raised their hands in support of the amendment.
Now, four years down the road with another presidential election looming, his Excellency has suddenly discovered the reason for the sorry state of governance in the country – the 19th Amendment.
Having endured the diktats of presidents who ruled the country as their private plaything, who abided by the Constitution according to their whim and fancy, the abolishing of the executive presidency was no longer an option but an absolute necessity. It is thanks to the 19th Amendment – finally introduced in a diluted form from what was originally intended – that some sort of sanity was established in the governance structure.
Given the kind of presidential action Sirisena has engaged in during the recent past such as sacking a democratically-elected government based on a personal vendetta, absolving himself of all responsibility for the security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks including not conducting proper National Security Council meetings for many months while he remained Commander in Chief and Defence Minister, and now reintroducing the death penalty purely for political purposes, one can only shudder at the thought of a non-existent 19th Amendment.
Today, thanks to this piece of legislation, it is the Constitutional Council which also includes the Opposition Leader that makes appointments to independent commissions that have so far fulfilled the primary objective of being independent.
The 19th Amendment also reintroduced presidential term limits after President Mahinda Rajapaksa paved the way for a lifetime in the job through the 18th Amendment which removed the two-term limit for a president.
The 19th Amendment also reduced the presidential term limit from six years to five years. Although the presidency itself may not have been abolished, it has certainly brought about a significant reduction in its autocratic powers. Whatever the critics might say, though it did not go all the way, the 19th Amendment can definitely be considered as constitutional tinkering in the greater interest of the country.
The President’s deduction is that the 19th Amendment created two leaders within the same government, making governance difficult. He went on to say that 6.2 million people elected him as the leader but one who got a much lesser number of votes is now in the driving seat.
As usual the President has conveniently forgotten that his party, the SLFP, nominated Mahinda Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate and 5.8 million of the party faithful voted for him and not Sirisena.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that the 6.2 million votes he obtained did not contain any SLFP votes, the party which he leads now. For all intents and purposes, it seems the UNP nominated and backed Sirisena as the common candidate assuming that he can be shoved aside and the reins of power can be held by the party leadership.
On winning the election, Sirisena turned his back on the UNP. Ever since, it has been a bitter struggle for supremacy between the two leaders.
While the President continues to maintain that the 19th Amendment is the main cause of the current political instability, what he fails to admit is that it is his unwillingness to work with the party that put him in that chair that is causing all the issues. His stubbornness and failure to acknowledge this basic fact is the root cause of the problem.
However, one has to pity the man considering the prospect of working with a prime minister who continues to display, on a daily basis, why he too should not be in that chair. These two individuals owe it to the people to put their egos aside in the larger interest of the nation but it is too late now, for the country has already paid a very heavy price for it. History will certainly not be too kind to them for the simple reason that they collectively squandered the opportunity to unite the two biggest political parties in the country, simply due to personal animosities.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word “chameleon” is described as “a small, slow-moving Old World lizard with a prehensile tail, long extensible tongue, protruding eyes that rotate independently, and a highly developed ability to change colour”.
One cannot help but wonder about the similarity between this species and our politicians who, in reality, are the real curse that is stifling the growth, unity, and prosperity of this nation with their petty politicking. Therefore, the curse of chameleon politics was, is, and will continue to be the bane of this country.