Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
The April Fools Election
by Rajan Philips
The almost April Fools election, an election about nothing and one nobody wanted, has suddenly become the moving stage for a political drama that is unfolding as no one could have predicted. The election itself is not the drama, but everything around it is. The latest Act in the unfolding drama is the act of indiscipline inside the LTTE.
Before the LTTE stunner, the biggest surprise was the nomination of over 280 Buddhist Monks as candidates, threatening to take away votes from the new SLFP-JVP alliance (UPFA) representing the so called 'children of 1956.' The leftovers of the Old Left Parties (the once great LSSP and CP), who were the only beacon of sanity in 1956, are now somewhere sandwiched between the SLFP and the JVP. The People's Alliance that propelled Kumaratunga to power has passed away, without so much as an obituary, even though its friendly fellow travellers are still talking about the 'PA component' in the FA.
Fed up with the politics of the two plagued houses - the UNP and the SLFP -, other voices are campaigning to be heard in the nation's parliament. On the right is Swarajya, a new group of candidates drawn from professionals, bankers, farmers and fishermen, and invoking the traditions and symbols of Mahatma Gandhi. On the Left, trying to re-establish the Old Left tradition of providing effective and informed Opposition in Parliament, are the candidates of the New Left Front. In the middle is the National People's Party, gendering the Colombo District with a slate of 23 women candidates. All in all there are over 6000 candidates for 225 seats in what many consider to be a wasteful presidential whim of an election.
The election infection has not spared the LTTE. But like Brahmins using intermediate castes as 'pollution neutralizers', in the old caste society, the LTTE has ordained the Tamil National Association (TNA) candidates to be its mouthpieces in Parliament. In the past, the Tamil Federal Party considered it 'traitorous' for a Tamil MP to join the Sri Lankan cabinet until the four basic demands of the Tamils, as formulated by the Federal Party, were agreed to by the Sri Lankan state. In 1965, the only time the Federalists had a representative in the cabinet, the Party finessed around its rules by sending an unelected Senator (the late M. Tiruchelvam, Q.C.) to the cabinet instead of an elected MP. Until this election the LTTE took matters further and tried to virtually taboo any Tamil from being an MP in Colombo.
The main backdrop to the unfolding drama is, of course, the ceasefire and the political complacency induced by it. It is this complacency that made Chandrika Kumaratunga constitutionally hyperactive and put Ranil Wickremasinghe to sleep. The ceasefire circumstances have also induced the dramatic mutiny in the LTTE. To their credit the President and the Prime Minister have so far taken a principled position of non-interference in regard to the LTTE problems. Apparently, the Prime Minister has indicated that the government should not 'fish in troubled waters.' For Chandrika Kumaratunga, it is a total turnaround from her earlier denunciations of the peace process and the ceasefire agreement. On their campaign trails, they both agree about pursuing peace with the Tigers, but they differ as to who is the better person to lead that process.
The important issue after the elections will not be about who is better in handling the peace process, but how to bring pressure on both Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe to work together in the peace process. It might be uncharitable to say that their limitations surpass their abilities, but it is correct to say that in regard to the peace process their abilities will complement each other. More than any other Sinhalese politicians, past or present, they share the common ground that the Sri Lankan state should be restructured to include the nationalist aspirations of not only the Sinhalese, but also of the Tamils and Muslims. It would be the task of the peace groups outside parliament to act in concert to persuade the two leaders to work together.
Unfortunately, the peace groups are not without political preferences. They all agree on the objectives of the peace process and the concept of a federal solution. But they are politically divided as to whether peace and federalism are better pursued under Chandrika Kumaratunga's leadership or Ranil Wickremasinghe's leadership. The pattern since 1994 has been that NGOs and individuals closer to one camp are active when 'their side' is leading the peace parade, and are sidelined and even turn cynical when the 'other side' takes control. Unless the peace universe closes ranks and mobilises broader support to bring pressure on the two leaders and their parties to work together, there can be little hope of any substantive progress in the peace process. Specifically, it would be necessary to co-ordinate the peace efforts within the current constitutional system, address the growing confusion and insecurity in the Sinhalese Buddhist society, and navigate the peace process with the LTTE.
Constitutional Cohabitation, or Parliamentary Tyranny?
The architects and the apologists of the 1978 Constitution got it backwards in identifying consensus politics as a principal objective of the constitution. Consensus politics, if at all, is a pre-condition for the success of the 1978 constitution and not its assured outcome. The main merit of the 1978 Constitution was in ending the parliamentary tyrannies that were becoming the norm under the first-past-the-post voting system. The massive majorities won by the SLFP, in 1972, and by the UNP, in 1977, were turned into tyrannies that alienated the minorities, especially the Tamils, and produced two partisan constitutions: the overly flexible and short-lived 1972 (SLFP) Constitution, and the overly rigid and long-living 1978 (UNP) Constitution. While the Presidential system that was introduced in 1978 and the proportional representation that came into effect in 1988 have put an end to parliamentary tyrannies, the political class is neither committed to nor knowledgeable about the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system.
President Kumaratunga now seems to be campaigning for a two-thirds majority for the SLFP-JVP alliance to enable her to change the 1978 Constitution and subject it to a referendum, as well as for a mandate to adopt a constitutional bill even with a simple majority and subject it to a referendum. This is like taking the 'heads I win, tails you lose' approach to plebiscites, and is really an insult to people's intelligence. If the alliance does not secure a two-thirds majority, it means the electorate is not giving her the mandate to change the constitution. She cannot then have a fallback position that a simple majority is mandate enough. Furthermore, a two-thirds majority, unlikely as it is, would be a senseless return to the parliamentary tyrannies of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1994, leading the People's Alliance to victory, Chandrika Kumaratunga vowed to change the 1978 constitution. Her position then was that the 1978 constitution was more the result of the personal compulsions of its principal architect, J.R. Jayewardene, than a response to the objective needs of the country. In the aftermath of the PA victory, there were expectations that she would invoke the 'doctrine of necessity' to change the constitution without conforming to its rigid amending procedures, for the greater political good of the people and for bringing about a constitutional resolution to the Tamil question. Even so, it is unthinkable that she would have been able to change the constitution without at least a partial support from the UNP Opposition.
Since winning her second term in 1999, however, Chandrika Kumaratunga has been using the Jayewardene constitution to reinforce her political relevance, with no regard to the objective situation in the country. Her last constitutional act was using the inexplicable and extraordinary power of dissolution that Article 70 (1) (a) confers on a President over Parliament, to dismiss the Wickremasinghe government while it had a majority in parliament and to call the April election four years prematurely. Her obvious intent in asking again for a mandate to change the constitution is to end the presidential system when her presidential term expires in 2006 (not 2005, thanks again to J.R. Jayewardene's self-serving Third Amendment), and sneak into Parliament as Prime Minister. She has lost every moral qualification necessary to ask for this mandate, and she should not be allowed to unilaterally change the constitution.
An SLFP-JVP majority, while it should not lead to constitutional changes, would leave the President enormously powerful. The fact that the SLFP-JVP alliance has not designated a Prime Ministerial candidate shows their lack of understanding or utter contempt for parliamentary traditions. In the event of an SLFP-JVP victory, the President will make the call as to who will be her puppet Prime Minister. The electorate would have had no say in the matter. This is hardly the respect for parliament and for the people that one might expect from a President who wants a mandate to abolish the presidential system in order to restore parliamentary governance. The important question, however, is whether the JVP, as part of the government, will acquiesce with the President's conduct of the peace process, or whether she would be able to use her powers to override the JVP if the latter turns out to be difficult. The question also is whether the UNP, as an opposition party, will either support the continuation of the peace process that is led by Ms. Kumaratunga, or revert to the traditional opposition mode. Whatever the scenario, there has to be public pressure on the two main parties to stay the course in regard to the peace process.
It is a moot point as to what President Kumaratunga should do if the electorate gives the UNP a parliamentary majority in the April election, as it did in the 2001 election. She should resign if she has any respect for propriety, but she won't because she has none. In the circumstances, her resignation will create more confusion than her continuation in office. Will the UNP move to impeach her? After the 2001 election, the UNP's impeachment threat was intended as a counter to the President's power of dissolution. The President's lawyers seized on this and manufactured the spurious argument that her right to arbitrarily dissolve parliament anytime after one year of an election is the constitutional equivalent of the highly restricted power of parliament to impeach a president. Given the unlikelihood of her dissolving parliament yet again before 2006, the UNP would do well to put aside the threat of impeachment and work with the President.
In the event of a widely predicted hung parliament with neither group winning a majority, President Kumaratunga will use every trick to avoid calling Ranil Wickremasinghe to be the new Prime Minister. The latter's position in the UNP may even come under challenge if the UNP fails to obtain the largest number of seats at the election. Even if the President recognizes Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister of a minority government, she would still be bent on dictating terms on the formation of a cabinet and the conduct of the peace process.
The one positive aspect of the April election is that it exhausts all possible avenues of fighting between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe. One would hope that they have learnt their lessons and will not repeat the sordid experience of the last two years. More positively, they should realize the new urgency for working together in light of the developments within the LTTE and the growing disenchantment with the peace process among the Sinhalese.
The Peace Process and Sinhalese Anxieties
The emergence of the Jathika Hela Urmaya and its 280 Buddhist clerical candidates is one indication of the mood of confusion and insecurity among Sinhalese Buddhists. The peace process is not the only cause of this disturbing mood, but it could be the main casualty. The handling of the peace process by the Wickremasinghe government, as well as the criticisms of the peace process by the President and her entourage have contributed to Sinhalese disenchantment with the peace process.
Underlying the political mistakes is the failure of both the PA and the UNP governments to address the uneven sharing of the benefits and disbenefits of the open economy. Sri Lankans, in general, have favoured the open-economy, introduced by the UNP in 1977 after two decades of semi-autarchic and bureaucratic economic controls under SLFP-led governments. But vast numbers of them have been badly bruised by the policy shift and left unprotected by the concomitant dismantling of the country's welfare-state safety net. The Wickremasinghe government revived the economy from its disastrous slump in 2001, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to be Head of State, Head of Government, Commander in Chief, and Minister of Everything. But once again the UNP government failed to address the human consequences of the open economy, even as Prime Minister Wickremasinghe turned a blind eye to exposures and allegations of corruption and power abuses involving senior members of his government.
For some mysterious reason, the Wickremasinghe government never took the message of peace to its ultimate constituents, the Sinhalese Buddhists. Instead, after the initial peace euphoria, the Sinhala people, especially the vast majority of them outside Colombo, were left with a feeling of abandonment in the face of what became an arrogant display of peace triumphalism in Colombo. The government failed to bring the army into confidence and facilitate its transition from the earlier combat mode to the new ceasefire situation. This further alienated the social base of the army, the Sinhalese villages, and adding insult to injury was the perception that the government was bending over backwards to accommodate the LTTE.
The nationalist sentiments of the Sinhalese were hurt by what was seen as supine grovelling on the part of the Prime Minister towards the West, the United States in particular. The government was seen to be more concerned about dealing with the diplomats in Colombo than being open with the country's people and its parliament. The globe trotting peace talks with no evidence of change on the ground eroded the people's support for the process and bred public cynicism instead. Pieter Keuneman's witty adaptation, in the early 1950s, of the old Royal Navy advertisement, "join the UNP (government) and see the world", took on a fancier ring fifty years later: join the (Sri Lankan) peace process and see the world!
The Buddhist community was also angered by the neo-conversion activities of mushrooming Christian fundamentalists, allegedly sustained by American stipends. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister showed leadership in dealing with this issue and their abdication left the door open for senseless roselytization, on the one hand, and fearmongering and bigotry, on the other. The government lawyers apparently slept at the bar while the Supreme Court handed down a rather tendentious ruling on an innocuous bill to statutorily incorporate an organization of Catholic nuns and turned the social problem of religious conversion into a legal and constitutional issue. On the other side of the political divide, the criticisms of the ceasefire agreement and the peace process by the President, her permanent adviser, Lakshman Kadirgamar, her legal luminary, H.L. de Silva, and a host of others, on the grounds of national security, Sri Lankan sovereignty, constitutional propriety, Norwegian partiality etc. etc., became coded signals that sowed the seeds of doubts and confusion among the Sinhalese.
All these developments crystalized to pierce a raw nerve in the Sinhalese social psyche, stirring up old insecurities that many thought had been mostly exorcised, and charismatically seizing the late Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera to provide a new voice to old fears. The tumultuous mourning that followed Soma Thera's untimely death in December was indicative of the disquiet mood of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The disquiet mood of the people encouraged the 'communal trouble makers' to come out of their hibernation, where they had been after 1983, and start attacking Christian churches. Finally, in the wake of the President's election call, over two hundred and eighty Buddhist monks have been nominated as candidates for the April election under the banner of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the new name of the Sinhala Urumaya group.
The electoral inspiration for the emergence of the JHU and the clerical candidates should be traced to the formation of the SLFP-JVP alliance. The latter was an open (all codes abandoned) call to mobilize the Sinhalese Buddhist constituency for a premeditated and premature election. On the eve of the alliance's signing ceremony, the JVP firebrand Wimal Weerawansa proclaimed that the alliance marked the beginning of a new cultural odyssey for the Sinhalese, starting from where their ancestors were before the arrival of the Portuguese and Christianity in the sixteenth century. The alliance also received the god-fatherly endorsement by the Jathika Chinthanaya (JC) ideologues that the new alliance is the political coming of age of "the children of 1956." The latter reference, as is well known, recalls the 1956 enthronement of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, embraces only the Sinhalese Buddhist children, and excludes the 'other' children of 1956, the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese Christian children.
The JC ideologues are not thrilled about the monks coming forward as candidates. Apart from their fear that the monks will divide the Sinhalese Buddhist vote, the JC ideologues do not think that parliament is the place for the Buddhist clergy to play its traditional role of defending the faith and advising the state. The so-called traditional role is nothing more than a rhetorical reference to the triadic relationship of the ruler, the robe and the plough that was the hallmark of the old society, when the population was small, scattered and simply structured. This rhetoric is of little help to discussing the role of the 30,000 strong Buddhist clergy in the modern and complex society of 15 million Sinhalese Buddhists, who are also sharing a small island and an increasingly integrated world with others who are not Sinhalese Buddhists. The Sinhalese political and social leaders who support the peace process should not abdicate their responsibility to discuss the religious and cultural concerns of their people. These issues constitute the political and cultural dimensions of the peace process, and so far they have been neglected in peace discussions and decision making as a result of the somewhat esoteric focus on 'conflict resolution' between the government and the LTTE.
To conclude, the April election has been called primarily for Chandrika Kumaratunga to retake control over Parliament and enable her to succeed herself from the Gaullist presidency to a Westminster premiership. In fairness to her, her actions are not uniquely selfish but are only a pre-emptive counter-checkmate to Ranil Wickremasinghe's plan to run her out of office in 2005 (according to his counting, not hers) and for him to take control of both the presidency and parliament. For the country, their checkmating each other is better than one of them taking control of all state power. This was what the people in their collective wisdom decided in 2001, and this is what they should affirm again. Although unnecessary and unwanted, the April election could have a cathartic effect on Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremasinghe by making them realize that they have exhausted every avenue of confrontation and conflict and that they have no other option but to cohabit and co-operate. They have to do that in order to navigate the country through the constitutional quagmire, address Sinhalese apprehensions about the peace process, and carry forward the peace process to resolve the Tamil and Muslim questions and allow the LTTE and Tamil society to democratise.
Posted March 21, 2004