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Kumaratunga is neither down nor out.

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Last week’s announcement that the central committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had unanimously backed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse as its candidate for the next Presidential elections has triggered considerable speculation as to how the turbulent waters of southern politics are really flowing. Long shaped by President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s personal ambitions to continue as Sri Lanka’s head of state, domestic politics seem to have undergone some wide, if complex, changes now. Or have they?

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) declared its party leader, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as its candidate months ago. Since then it has been taunting the ruling party, daring its leadership to pick his opponent. The UNP was well aware the SLFP, riddled with internal contradictions and rattled by the recent exit of the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) from the ruling coalition, was unable to do so. The central issue is – or, has been - the political future of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has led the SLFP and headed the Sri Lankan state for over a decade now (following in the footsteps of both her parents).

Having already served two terms as President, Chandrika is not eligible under Sri Lanka’s constitution to contest again. That she is not ready to wind down her political career has never been in doubt. The question has always been how she is going to be able to continue as Sri Lanka’s leader when her second term expires. Indeed, when this itself happens is a matter of controversy. Kumaratunga insists that the last Presidential elections (in 2000) were held a full year before her first term had completed. This, she argues, entitles her to continue till the end of 2006. Understandably, the UNP disagrees, insisting the President’s term expires in November this year, five years after the last election. But apart from an appeal to reason and moral principle, the UNP does not have a clear-cut legal case to press, as its ongoing public campaign (which seems to rely mainly on street and international pressure) underlines. In any case, this year or next, Kumaratunga still has to confront the same problem.

The force of reason and moral argument is a flimsy rod to wield against the President

The most straightforward solution would be to abolish the extraordinarily powerful office of the President, transferring its powers to the Prime Minister’s. But constitutional rules demand the approval of two-thirds of the 225-seat Parliament and thereafter a referendum. Unfortunately for Kumaratunga, despite toppling the UNP-led coalition in April 2004, the SLFP-JVP combine, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), was only able to secure a slender majority. That effectively ruled out abolishing the Presidency during its term as despite lip service to the notion, the UNP leadership is keen to retain the office (indeed, Wickremsinghe’s uncle, Junius Jayawardene, created the executive Presidency, using his extraordinary Parliamentary majority secured in the 1977 polls) and will not support the move.

The JVP’s exit in June this year, moreover, has left the UPFA government rocking on a knife-edge. The UNP has given its assurance it will not bring down the minority government - the last thing the opposition wants is to precipitate general elections and disrupt the Presidential polls, even though the JVP-SLFP split has bolstered its chances of recapturing Parliament. But it is widely expected that the UPFA’s budget will fail to pass in November, inevitably triggering its collapse. Amid continuing disappointment at the JVP’s exit from the UPFA, the SLFP has been riven by internal acrimony and with an end to Kumaratunga’s Presidency apparently looming the party is anxious to mobilise against the UNP. The latter’s announcement of its own candidate and the JVP’s prompt search for another (it and other rightwing parties want a strident champion of Sinhala nationalist values) have compounded the SLFP’s turmoil.

Meanwhile, there have been increasing reports of acrimony between President Kumaratunga and Rajapakse, whom she appointed as Prime Minister after the UPFA victory in 2004 (to the chagrin of JVP, given its reported endorsement of Lakshman Kadirgamar for the job). Last week’s announcement that the SLFP central committee had unanimously backed Rajapakse as its Presidential candidate has thus resulted in several political column inches arguing Kumaratunga has buckled to party pressure. Indeed, one of Sri Lanka’s leading Buddhist priests, hailing Rajapakse’s selection, last week felt obliged to praise her ‘statesmanship’ in bringing it about. Whether he was clumsy or deliberately patronisingly, it is not clear - the Buddhist clergy’s enthusiastic endorsement of Rajapakse stems not only from his reputation as a devout Buddhist, but recent bitterness towards Kumaratunga for her preparedness to sign the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) with the Liberation Tigers.

Kumaratugna's opponents are severely underestimating her ambitions and her cunning. Again.

An emergent sentiment this week, however, is that, frustrated by circumstances and with time running out, Kumaratunga has resigned herself to her political fate. But such thinking not only ignores the possibilities open to Kumaratunga amidst Sri Lanka’s imprecise constitution and complex political system but, more importantly, severely underestimates both her ambitions and her cunning. It is not the first time this has given her an advantage. In early 2002, for example, in the wake of the UNP’s victory in the general elections, she was derisorily dismissed as a ‘paper President’ by the new cabinet. Her opponents couldn’t have been more wrong. Barely two years later, in a brazen yet carefully orchestrated strategy, she crippled the UNP-led administration seizing three key ministries, united the Sinhala opposition behind her, and – despite its landmark successes in establishing peace in Sri Lanka and priming the economy for recovery - kicked Wickremesinghe’s government out. Indeed, even as they focus on a forthcoming Rajapakse-Wickremesinghe race, the more astute of Sri Lanka’s political analysts can’t help but keep a wary eye on Kumaratunga’s own manoeuvres.

One indication that all is not going to plain sailing are the reports last week that the SLFP’s constitution might be changed to increase the powers of its leader – presently President Kumaratunga. As the Sunday Times’ political columnist noted this week, this would enable her to wield power through Rajapakse much as Sonia Gandhi in neighbouring India had immense clout even though Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister. But the situations are quite different. The Sri Lankan pair do not have the harmony of roles and aspirations as the Indians. Indeed the softly spoken Rajapakse harbours political ambitions of his own and, once ensconced in the powerful office of President, has little reason to heed Kumaratunga – who the more churlish will point out, wrote the book on single-handedly ruling Sri Lanka. Having said that, any strengthening of the SLFP leader’s hand will enable Kumaratunga to impose discipline on the party’s more independent minded members and govern its changes.

The Sunday Times’ columnist thus points to a “bizarre though not altogether impossible” scenario: “What if Kumaratunga resigns from the Presidency?” The argument goes thus: “The House would thus have to elect the Prime Minister to overlook the Presidency. This is until the Parliament picks on the person who enjoys the confidence of the majority to be the acting President for the remaining period. If by chance, Parliament is dissolved before the election of a President, it would mean the Prime Minister would have to continue the remaining term of the President. But at a [subsequent] general election, the Prime Minister will not be eligible to become candidate in terms of the Constitution. Such a scenario in today’s context could see Kumaratunga enter Parliament and Rajapakse enjoying the office of President until 2006. What will follow next? She would still be powerful though not President because amendments to the SLFP constitution would have made up for it.”

But there is a serious risk in such a manoeuvre, that posed by Rajapakse’s own ambitions and the considerable powers vested in the Presidency – exemplified, moreover, by the ‘Constitutional Coup’ Kumaratunga herself executed in November 2003, emasculating Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s cabinet. Would Kumaratunga really be prepared to rely on her own strength of personality and the constraints of party discipline to keep Rajapakse in line?

Moreover, it is not only a title but also the actual powers of state that Kumaratunga covets. A likely solution might therefore be a variant of the original plan, the abolishing of the Presidency. As such, another possible strategy doing the rounds in Colombo’s political circles is that of abolishment by proxy: the gradual dismantling of the Presidency by transference of executive powers to the Prime Minister’s office (and possibly other cabinet seats). Over time, the argument goes, the role of Sri Lanka’s President can be reduced to that of India’s: a largely ceremonial, if high profile, role while the Premier’s office – for which Kumaratunga faces no bars to running - would be conversely empowered.

What arguments can be marshalled against the weakening of the Presidecy and the transfer of its powers to the cabinet?

Resistance, moreover, whilst unavoidable, is likely to be constrained and not too taxing. Firstly, there are constitutional questions as to the legality and legitimacy of such a move. But then again, as the brilliant simplicity with which the P-TOMS was spiked demonstrates, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, the ultimate arbitrator on constitutional matters, is loyal to Kumaratunga. Indeed Kumaratunga’s second swearing in as President was itself a cosy affair reportedly involving herself, her confidante, Kadirgamar, and the Chief Justice only. It is questionable as to whether a less controversial matter as powers shifting from the President to the Prime Minister or Defence Minister are likely to pose as much a problem.

Even so, any other resistance that might be mounted – by Rajapakse, say – would, much like the UNP’s efforts to force a Presidential election this year rather than next, rely on the force of reason and moral argument than anything else. A hopeless proposition. Firstly, history suggests this is a flimsy rod to wield against Kumaratunga’s personal ambitions. Secondly, what exactly are the protesters to argue? As the cards are dealt now, Anura Bandaranaike would be Premier, not Kumaratunga. If Kumaratunga is still President when this happens, what are her opponents to say? That she is deviously planning to later seek re-election by the people? If on the other hand, in the unlikely scenario this process begins after Rajapakse is elected as President, what sort of argument could he put forward without exposing himself to charges of being power-hungry himself? More generally, given the odium apparently inspired by the powerful Presidency today, what arguments can be marshalled against the weakening of that office and the transfer of its power to a democratically elected Parliamentary government?

In this light, Rajapakse’s appointment as the SLFP’s candidate for a future Presidential election is an elegant solution to Kumaratunga’s immediate difficulties. The SLFP has united. Wickremesinghe faces a strong rival (the UNP’s ham fisted efforts to smear Rajapakse with unsubstantiated corruption claims have not worked and may come to backfire on him). Rajapakse himself has his work cut out campaigning and rallying the party rank and file. Kumaratunga meanwhile has eased out of political focus. Meanwhile, an able group of loyalists, led by Kadirgamar, are working to strengthen her hand within the party. Most importantly, the issue of her vice-like grip on Presidential power is no longer a matter of public debate, the process of her successor’s selection having begun. The UNP can sense her shifting her weight. Its frantic effort to precipitate Presidential elections this year is being spurred by an effort to deny her time to unfold the rest of her strategy. The question is if the polls come this year whether Wickremesinghe will win. If he doesn’t, Kumaratunga will still be on track to lead Sri Lanka in the mid-term future.

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