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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

The Rajapaksa Return: Slap On The Face Of Sri Lankan Neoliberalism, Once again?

Colombo Telegraph, 27 October 2018

In a move that left the world shocked, President Maitripala Sirisena ‘appointed’ former President Mahinda Rajapaksa MP as Prime Minister, in the evening of Friday 26th October 2018.

As soon as this appointment was made at Presidential Secretariat, Temple Trees mobilised, with a statement by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, followed by a press conference. Wickremesinghe, although visibly (and understandably) shaken, made an important observation: that under the provisions of the 19th amendment to the Constitution of the 2nd Republic, the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa MP as Prime Minister was unconstitutional.

In terms of constitutionalism, Wickremesinghe’s above statement holds ground.

Letter addressed to Ranil Wickremesinghe by President Sirisena

Wickremesinghe was also correct to maintain that Parliament was the place where this matter could be resolved.

Above: Letter addressed to Ranil Wickremesinghe by President Sirisena

Above: Letter from Ranil Wickremesinghe, addressed to President Sirisena

Indeed, it is in Parliament that the extent of political manoeuvring will eventually play out. In other words, the real implications of the appointment made by President Sirisena will be seen when Parliament is convened. In this sense, the sooner Parliament is convened the better, for this ‘crisis situation’ to be put to rest.

Echoes of the past?

President Sirisena’s surprise appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister is highly reminiscent of a precedent from the 21st century’s first decade.

In February 2004, President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament, calling a snap general election (which was held on 2 April 2004).

Once Parliament was dissolved, Kumaratunga appointed two of her closest colleagues to the Cabinet of Ministers – Lakshman Kadirgamar was appointed minister of information and telecommunication, while D M Jayaratne was made minister of posts and communication.

Prior to this move, Kumaratunga initiated her strategy back in early November 2003, when she declared a state of emergency, sacked Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, Interior Minister John Amaratunga and Information Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, and took control of the three ministries. She then suspended Parliament for two weeks until 19th November 2003, and deployed the armed forces at the state-owned TV and radio stations and at the Sapugaskanda Power Station. This put the following year’s budget on hold, until Parliament was reconvened. Kumaratunga made sure that all this was done while Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was away in Washington DC on a state visit, which included a one-to-one meeting with President George W. Bush.

Kumaratunga 2003 and Sirisena 2018?

There are some similarities between Kumaratunga’s November 2003 manoeuvre and Sirisena’s October 2018 manoeuvre. Both occurred very close to the date on which the following year’s budget was to be presented in Parliament. Both came from the office of the presidency. Both targeted one person – Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister when both November 2003 and October 2018 happened.

The most important similarity, however, lies in the ideological motivations behind the two cases of manoeuvring. In November 2003, Kumaratunga made the case that Wickremesinghe and his government were conceding too much to the Tigers and jeopardising national security. The Kumaratunga intervention of November 2003 was interpreted as ‘necessary’ in the name of national security. To cite the official press release issued by the Office of the President “This step has been taken after careful consideration, in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country”. \

In other words, both manoeuvres were slaps in the face of neoliberal politics.

In 2003, the ‘neoconservative’ polity took issue with the Norwegian-facilitated peace process and its latest developments. In 2018, the same neocon polity takes issue with proposed constitutional reforms, a somewhat clement approach in relation to a truth and reconciliation mechanism, statecraft intended at addressing Tamil political grievances, and a rather conducive approach for civil liberties and fundamental rights.

A problem of the Wickremesinghe camp’s own making?

Concerning both 2003 and 2018, the discerning analyst can make yet another important observation – that the accusations levelled against the neoliberal camp are, by and large, a spectre of that camp’s own making.

The defence minister that Kumaratunga sacked in 2003 is, in 2018, the [most-likely-soon-to-be-sacked] Foreign Affairs minister. The Interior Minister sacked in November 2003 is, in 2018, the [most-likely-soon-to-be-sacked] Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs. The former has never stood for election and is not a politician. He is a retired legal professional and a personal confidante of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He gets a top Cabinet portfolio whenever Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister.

To provide a tiny cue as to why I maintain that the mess of November 2003 and the mess of October 2018 are Wickremesinghe’s [if not neoliberalism à la Wickremesinghe’s] own making, suffice to check the age of these two individuals. The 2003 defence/2018 foreign affairs guy is 76 years old. The 2003 Interior/2018 Tourism guy is some 78 years old!

If you engage in [neo]liberal politics, it cannot be done with one foot in the suburbia of social conservatisms and bro clubs. It needs to be strategized and executed as a well and truly liberal political agenda, and not as a half-baked cake. The problem with Sri Lankan liberals is that they want to have the cake and eat it – their way, with a socially conservative, wishy-washy fork.

There is a clear need for structural changes in Sri Lankan liberal politics to ensure that power is transferred to a younger generation of leaders and concrete work to ensure 50-50 parity – and no carrots such as 25% in local government (If there is a need to look at precedents for progressive liberal politics that stand ground in a global south context, suffice to look at present-day Ethiopia and Rwanda). Most importantly, a clear, concise and succinct articulation of policy is essential for this prized political camp to thrive in a place like Sri Lanka. This policy lacunae is the primary reason behind the fact that the neocon camp can easily portray Wickremesinghe as someone trying to divide the country. I would not even start with economic management. The Central Bank bond scam is one revealing example of how twisted the neoliberal camp is when it comes to economic policy.

When observing how neoliberalism à la Wickremesinghe functions [or has functioned, in 2001-2003 and 2015-2018], one is left confused, and questioning as to what exactly they stand for.

More than a consistent policy outlook, what one can see is a series of policy ‘drifts’ – with a progressive drift today [e.g. the RTI reform], and a negative drift tomorrow [e.g. Central Bank bonds, politicising anticorruption mechanisms of the state, providing key responsibilities to clueless individuals who are personal confidantes]. Neoliberalism à la Wickremesinghe is an effort to run a political persuasion and a political ideology like a privileged men’s club.

If this kind of politicking did not backfire, that would be the surprise. In this sense, Wickremesinghe’s 2004 abrupt ousting from office and the 2018 attempted ousting, are understandable and one could also say inevitable.

What’s next for urban, [neo]liberal politics is a serious question that needs to be raised, with all due seriousness and commitment to progressive change.

Differences between 2003/4 and 2018?

To conclude, it is worth looking at the main differences between Ranil’s send-off in 2003/4 and in 2018. In November 2003 and February 2004, all the decisions President Kumaratunga took were constitutional. Her position was extremely powerful, with all the sweeping executive powers centred around the Gaullist presidency. Thanks to the late J.R. Jayewardene’s constitution-making, not a single argument could be made that Kumaratunga had violated constitutional provisions.

In 2018, however, the ballgame is different. The 19th Amendment is now in force. It curtails presidential powers. As Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as many other citizens have already noted, the President has no constitutionally sanctioned prerogative to sack a sitting Prime Minister and appoint new Prime Minister.

Article 46 (2) states that:

The Prime Minister shall continue to hold office throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution unless he –

(a) resigns his office by a writing under his hand addressed to the President; or

(b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament.

A case on the contravention of constitutional provisions can therefore be raised against President Sirisena.

Thinking beyond constitutionalism?

However, a crucial aspect of Sri Lanka’s political realities requires reiteration. If this development is to be assessed exclusively from the perspective of constitutionalism, one risks losing the plot.

Political manoeuvres are not always guided by constitutionalism. Unless it has a tangible resonance upon the society it caters to, a constitution is reduced to a mere piece of paper. Instead of exclusively focusing on the technicalities of constitutionalism, in countries like Sri Lanka, we need other determinants to assess political developments. How is political strategizing carried out in Sri Lanka? Why is majoritarian nationalism so popular? Why is the Rajapaksa brand so easily marketable? Focusing on a ‘Western’ approach to constitutionalism is unhelpful in taking stock of these issues. Is this a democratic decision, as in, does it tally with the political views of the majority of the people of Sri Lanka?

Above: ©N. Devasiri & Translation: 'The constitution is only a piece of paper.'

A commentator once noted that Ranil Wickremesinghe is a politician who stands a better chance of being elected mayor of Oslo than succeeding in national-level Sri Lankan politics. Many UNP politicians focus on constitutional intricacies when making their case. However, they might be in need of a gentle reminder that we are talking about Sri Lankan politics here. Pausing the focus on Western concepts, it is time for the [neo]liberal political class to think of a local, if not ‘localised’, well and truly Sri Lankan (neo)liberal agenda.

A story of numbers: Parliament will decide?

Aside the constitutional particularities and local political realities beyond constitutionalism, the elephant in the room is indeed, the parliamentary majority.

In terms of numbers, Wickremesinghe commands a majority in Parliament. However, the UFPA/SLPP seniors have expressed confidence that they can secure a parliamentary majority. It is also important to note that this manoeuvre was executed by seasoned political gameplayers such as S.B. Dissanayake and Basil Rajapaksa. The question of who commands the parliamentary majority will determine who gets to stay on at, or move into, Temple Trees.

In sum, the neocons have prevailed against the neoliberals. Once again. This is a common Sri Lankan phenomenon. The neocons have proved to be strong, in 2003 as well as in 2018. The neoliberals have shown in 2018 that they have not learnt much of a lesson from their 2003/4 experience.

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