Editorial/Opinion

The games the President plays

Just last Sunday, this column contemplated whether President Maithripala Sirisena, the head of government, was representing the Opposition. On Friday, at around 8 p.m. it came to pass that our presumption was correct; when a smiling Sirisena presided at the swearing in of “Joint Opposition” Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister before a stunned country.
Legal experts of various hues have expressed their opinions on the President’s action with some being of the view that the Constitution provided for it while others argue to the contrary. According to Articles 46(2) and 48 of the 19th Amendment enacted in 2015 with a resounding majority of 215 votes, the Prime Minister can cease to hold office in four specific instances: death, resignation, ceasing to be a member of parliament, or if the government loses the confidence of parliament by a defeat of the throne speech, the budget, or a vote of no-confidence. None of these have taken place.
It is noteworthy that the 19th Amendment removed the power bestowed on the president to remove the prime minister at will. With the Constitution being very clear on this, there are no other ways in which a new prime minister can be appointed. Therefore, an intense legal battle is on the cards with Wickremesinghe already indicating he will take the legal route. He owes that much to his party, which stood by him to defeat the No Confidence Motion earlier this year.
President Maithripala Sirisena has been an unpredictable entity from the word go. In a matter of three years, he has managed to go back on pretty much everything he said during the hustings. The ultimate irony is that the man who he claimed would have buried him six feet under, had he lost the election, is now the Prime Minister appointed by him. The deception of an unsuspecting public – especially the UNP vote base on whose shoulders Sirisena rode to office – is of monumental proportions. One has to feel for them, having waited for so long to have their man in office, only to realise they were well and truly duped, again.
We have no qualms about which party should rule or who should be president or prime minister, what matters to us as watchdogs of the public interest is the manner in which such appointments are made and such office is assumed. The secrecy in which Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister, while Wickremesinghe was still holding that office, is nothing short of a constitutional coup, and to think that it was orchestrated by no less a person than the President of the country, is alarming.
No doubt the fallout of the coup will have its consequences, and the country will once again be dragged into the dog house by the international community, which up until now had high praise for the Yahapalana arrangement.
Wickremesinghe, who comfortably survived a motion of no confidence against him earlier this year, is confident of his party’s parliamentary majority and called for the urgent summoning of Parliament. The President responded by proroguing Parliament till 16 November, providing a window to get the numbers in place. One can be assured that MPs will not complain, as the bidding games will now begin.
The manner in which state media institutions were taken over minutes after the swearing in, by organised thugs, points to a well-coordinated plan and the fact that the entire UNP, which for all intents and purposes was in power but yet completely oblivious to the unfolding developments, shows the level of secrecy with which the operation was executed.
The media that enjoyed unbridled freedom for the past three years got a taste of what was in store when thugs took control of state broadcasters Rupavanini and ITN, forcing the stations to go off the air during the melee.
It was the same at Lake House, with thugs chasing away journalists who were on duty. A return to the dark era, where media personnel were the subjects of persecution, is not what this country voted for in January, 2015, and the fact that such a scenario seemed to be unfolding under the leadership of the man who was supposed to be their savior, is one more betrayal that will be placed at Sirisena’s altar.
Meanwhile, an interesting theory has surfaced about the famous hopper supper hosted by Rajapaksa. Consider for a moment the possibility that it was in fact the night an agreement was reached on the modus operandi to craft Rajapaksa’s political future. Rajapaksa, the shrewd politician that he is, knew very well the Presidential election of 2015 would be a close call. It could go either way and he could not afford to lose.
Then he did the unthinkable. Aware that the Opposition was on the lookout for a presidential candidate, he would provide one; and Sirisena fit the bill perfectly. This way, even if Rajapaksa lost, he would still win through his proxy. All he had to do was stay in the shadows for three years and then, just like that, he would be Prime Minister. Although conjecture, it does seem to make sense given the turn of events.
During the past three-year period, if one were to connect the dots with regard to the actions of the President, there has been a consistent pattern that points to a plan to derail his Yahapalana partner. There have been many embarrassing episodes where Cabinet decisions were overturned the next day. Questions have also been raised as to why the long arm of the law never really caught up with the former first family.
The UNP leadership, preoccupied with petty internal squabbling, should have seen this coming. Their trademark complacency has now cost them their jobs. Worst of all, the country will be in crisis mode till at least next August when parliamentary elections can be called. No investor is going to set foot here until such time there is clarity on the political front and the business sector is likely to suffer further. On the other hand, the masses will have to further tighten their belts while the highest in the land barter their mandate to stay in power.