Maithripala inextricably entangled himself in a Machiavellian political project
Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo wants at least 120 MPs on or before the 16th
Both sides engaged in intensive campaigning
“Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends – its end being the aggrandizement of one’s country or fatherland – but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s party.”
- Leo Strauss
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli known as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian diplomat, writer, historian and political philosopher who is regarded by some as the father of modern political science. His most famous work was the political treatise “The Prince” which gained notoriety because it supposedly justified duplicity and a cynical disregard for morality as acceptable means to achieve the ends of gaining or maintaining power. Machiavellianism derived from the name Machiavelli is a word used to describe “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or general conduct.” The term Machiavellian is often associated positively with pragmatic politics and negatively with political deception and deviousness.
Very few nations have been immune from the Machiavellian effect. The politics of almost every country would have experienced Machiavellianism in different degrees at different stages. Sri Lanka is no exception. The ongoing attempt by President Maithripala Sirisena to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and replace him with ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa can arguably be described as an exercise in Machiavellian manipulation. Some have referred to President Sirisena’s coup d’etat as Constitutional. This has been disputed by others who say descriptions like extra- Constitutional coup, unconstitutional coup or anti-Constitutional coup is more appropriate. Another school of thought supportive of Sirisena argues that the President’s actions were Constitutionally valid.
This writer too opines that a bloodless (so far) coup d’etat has been effected to remove and replace the lawfully-elected Prime Minister. The unconstitutional action is totally anti-democratic and deserves to be condemned strongly. It must be emphasised that the objection is to the mode and manner in which this attempt to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe from the post of Prime Minister and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa has been made. Had Wickremesinghe been defeated at a no-confidence vote or if Mahinda Rajapaksa had been appointed after proving he commanded the confidence of the House through a floor test, there would have been no grounds to protest. Compounding the complicated situation further is the prorogation of Parliament to pave the way for high powered horse deals. The legislature is being turned into an auction house where the souls of the people’s representatives are being sold to the side putting forward attractive bids.
SRI LANKAN STUDENTS IN OVERSEAS UNIVERSITIES
A refreshing silver lining in the prevailing dark cloud is the spontaneous denouncing of President Sirisena’s actions by a wide section of the nation’s democracy-loving people. Much of the criticism and condemnation amounted to sound, well-informed, non-partisan commentary. Among the various statements issued by different persons, groups and organisations, I would like to excerpt a few paragraphs from an open petition signed by a group of Sri Lankan students in overseas universities. These paragraphs sum up the situation succinctly. Here are the relevant excerpts - “Since 1931, Sri Lanka has had an imperfect and fragile, yet electorally and legally mandated, democracy. On Friday the 26th of October, for the first time since Sri Lanka’s independence, an unconstitutional and illegal transfer of power occurred. President Maithripala Sirisena, violating his oath of office and the mandate given to him on January 8th 2015, attempted to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa, Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala District, as Prime Minister.”
“This was unconstitutional. The 19th Amendment deleted the President’s power to remove the Prime Minister at will. While the President still appoints the Prime Minister, he has no implied power of removal since this is now governed by explicit provisions in the Constitution. Moreover, the withdrawal of the UPFA from the national government makes no difference: the Constitution does not provide that Cabinet ceases to function, and therefore that the Prime Minister loses his position, when one party in a national government withdraws its support.”
“In any event, there is a democratic means of settling this question – a test of confidence on the floor of Parliament. Yet President Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa did not propose a motion of no-confidence or engineer a defeat of the Budget to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Indeed even after Mr. Rajapaksa’s illegal appointment, President Sirisena decided to prorogue Parliament, demonstrating what was clear from the beginning: Mr. Rajapaksa did not have the confidence of a majority of the representatives of the people. His covert appointment, the illegal attempt to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the suspension of Parliament without consulting the Speaker, and the mob-led take-over of State media institutions make it clear that this is a coup d’etat.”
TELEVISED ADDRESS TO THE NATION
President Maithripala Sirisena in his televised address to the nation on October 28 outlined his reasons for the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The address was not very convincing. If the intention was to win over the Sri Lankan people to his point of view, the speech-making turned out to be an exercise in futility. In a sense it was even counter-productive.
Although President Sirisena defended his actions by saying he had not acted unconstitutionally, he did not back up his assertion with solid supportive facts. He never even mentioned that Wickremesinghe was dismissed because the Prime Minister did not have a majority in the House. The President could not say that because it has not happened as yet. Instead he came out with a tirade of complaints against Ranil Wickremesinghe. The lengthy litany of woes demonstrated the personal level of animus held by Maithripala against Ranil. At the end of it, all the overall impression was that President Sirisena was prejudiced against Wickremesinghe and got rid of his Prime Minister because he could not get along with him and not for anything else.
Another huge howler was Maithripala Sirisena’s failure to realise or grasp the irony of the situation while evoking memories about how he courageously contested the January 8, 2015 Presidential election amidst danger and hardship. The President said, “I believe that you remember the circumstances under which I became the common candidate in 2014 and the dangers I had to face in consequence. It was a risk and a challenge that no politician in the history of the country wanted to accept. I faced this challenge despite the dangers to me and my family.”
When Maithripala Sirisena revived memories about the dangers he faced while contesting the Presidency, the question that arises is - what were those dangers and from whom? Who was his main electoral rival? It was the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The dangers Maithripala faced then came from that quarter. When he hid with his family at a Dodangaslanda plantation or when he said tearfully that he may have been six feet under had he lost the polls, whom did he fear then? Was it not Mahinda Rajapaksa? And when he contested as common candidate was it not the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe who supported him strongly? Today the very same Sirisena was castigating Wickremesinghe and replacing him with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. It was indeed pathetic to see that Sirisena was totally oblivious to this irony!
MAHINDA BACK TO POWER THROUGH BACKDOOR
President Maithripala Sirisena after commencing his address to the nation stated as follows – “On January 8, 2015, it was with so many expectations that nearly six million and two hundred thousand people of my country chose me as their first servant and the leader of this nation. I wish to pledge that I will always fulfil the expectations and honour the trust and faith you have placed in me, even at the cost of my life.” What the President seemed to have conveniently ignored, overlooked or glossed over was the fact that more than six million people had voted for him so that Mahinda Rajapaksa could be defeated electorally. After receiving such a mandate then, Maithripala Sirisena had flagrantly flouted it and shocked those who voted for him by bringing in the same Mahinda Rajapaksa back to the seat of power through the back door!
This does not mean that President Sirisena was entirely wrong in apportioning blame on Ranil Wickremesinghe for certain acts of omission and commission. One does sympathise with President Sirisena when he refers to Ranil’s decadent cronyism by saying “Mr. Wickremesinghe and his group of closest friends, who belonged to a privileged class did not understand the pulse of the people and conducted themselves as if shaping the future of the country was a fun game they played.” One elsoempathises with the “common man from Polonnaruwa” when he pinpoints the differences between himself and the “Royal Ranil” by saying “I noted that there were also differences of culture between Mr. Wickremesinghe and me. I believe that all those differences in policy, culture, personality and conduct aggravated this political and economic crisis.” However, much one understands the rationale behind Sirisena’s conduct against Ranil, he cannot be condoned for what he did and more importantly, how he did it.
What he did in a nutshell is this. President Sirisena removed Ranil Wickremesinghe from Prime Ministerial office while the UNP leader continued to retain the confidence of the majority of parliamentarians. President Sirisena has also appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister even though he did not have the required majority in Parliament. Having done this, President Sirisena is now collaborating with the Rajapaksas to cobble together a majority by coaxing, cajoling or coercing MPs of all party hues. In order to gain enough time to facilitate this process of acquiring MPs, President Sirisena has arbitrarily prorogued Parliament until November 16. It is very likely that he may reconvene Parliament earlier than the specified date if the necessary number of MPs is garnered. Likewise, the President may also extend the prorogation further if the set target is not reached by November 16.
“MY ENEMY’S ENEMY IS MY FRIEND”
It is blatantly clear that Maithripala Sirisena has inextricably entangled himself with this Machiavellian political project. Otherwise he would not have stated he would quit within an hour or two if Ranil Wickremesinghe returns as Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa too is intertwined with Maithripala Sirisena in this exercise to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” or two enemies sinking their differences temporarily and getting together in a tactical alliance to destroy a common enemy. Both Maithripala and Mahinda seem to have forgotten how Sirisena defected after a meal of egg hoppers, teamed up with archrival UNP and defeated “Medamulana” Mahinda. There is a convergence of interests but there is no identity of interests. Thus, old wounds are likely to be reopened or new issues created after the common goal of ousting Ranil and consolidating power is realised.
A not-so-exact parallel that comes to mind is the brief “honeymoon” between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Sri Lankan Government and State headed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1989-90. The Indo-Lanka accord had been inked and the Indian Army was in Northeastern Sri Lanka fighting the tigers. The nationalistic Premadasa feared Indian expansionism and had contested the 1988 Presidential poll on a platform of making the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) quit Lanka. Besides, the JVP was on a killing spree claiming to oppose India. On the war front, the LTTE was hard-pressed with India saturating the N-E region with a large number of troops. So Prabhakaran too needed a respite.
Both parties wanted the Indians out. Hence, both Premadasa and Prabhakaran arrived at an astounding agreement and ceasefire. This enabled Premadasa to demand the withdrawal of the Indian Army. The Indian Army left Lanka. At the same time, the armed forces were able to crush the JVP militarily. There was however only a temporary convergence of interests between the Premadasa Government and the Prabhakaran-led LTTE. There was no identity of interests. So, after the Indians left fully in March 1990, the old enmity surfaced and there was war again between the armed forces and LTTE in June 1990. Such a scenario is likely to be replicated again in the case of Maithripala and Mahinda too in a post-Ranil environment.
MINIMUM MAGIC NUMBER OF 113
There is however a lot of ground to be covered before this prognosis proves to be correct or incorrect. What matters is the here and now. The immediate objective of both the Maithripala-Mahinda camp as well as the Ranil Wickremesinghe camp is to win the numbers game. Both sides need the minimum magic number of 113 to gain a majority of at least in a legislature of 225. When the crisis began, the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Front consisting of the UNP and other Tamil and Muslim parties had 107 seats, The SLFP’s combined strength of the Sirisena-led UPFA and SLFP factions, the joint opposition – Podujana Peramuna MPs led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and the group of 16 SLFP/UPFA “orphaned” MPs numbered 95. After the splintering and defections began both sides now have over a 100 each. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo however wants at least 120 MPs in hand before a vote count is taken on or before the 16th.
The new Sirisena-Rajapaksa Government has 15 Ministers, 7 State Ministers and 7 Deputy Ministers. Almost all the ministers are from the SLFP factions and other parties like the EPDP, CWC and also UNP renegades. The core group of joint opposition MPs is not taking any posts so that those crossing over from other parties could be accommodated. Intensive campaigning is going on by both sides. On one side the focus is to entice as many MPs as possible from other parties. The other side is trying hard to prevent its membership from crossing over. It is also trying to woo a few MPs from the other side.
President Sirisena, his newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother Basil Rajapaksa and son Namal Rajapaksa are spearheading the hunt for MPs on one side. They are being aided by stalwarts such as Dulles Alahapperuma, S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha and so forth. Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a statement supporting the new government but has not engaged in fishing for MPs. A large number of UNP Parliamentarians along with influential UNP working committee members are canvassing on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s behalf. Chief among them are Mangala Samaraweera, Harin Fernando, Mujibur Rahman and Sagala Ratnayake. Also in the fray is Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who has managed to prevent some MPs with an SLFP background from crossing over to Mahinda’s side.
WASANTHA SENANAYAKE AND VADIVEL SURESH
The situation is fluid and fickle. Loyalties and affiliations fluctuate rapidly. Two examples being that of Parliamentarians Wasantha Senanayake and Vadivel Suresh. Senanayake the great grandson of the “Father of the Nation” D.S. Senanayake, announces he is crossing over to Mahinda’s side from abroad. He returns to Lanka and meets Ranil Wickremesinghe assuring him of his loyalty. Wasantha then surfaces as a Cabinet Minister in charge of Tourism and Wildlife -- being sworn in by Sirisena. Vadivel Suresh is photographed wrapping a “Ponnaadai” (golden shawl) around Mahinda’s shoulders amidst speculation that he has gone over to the Rajapaksas. He is next seen sitting meekly with folded hands in front of Ranil explaining that he merely paid a courtesy call on Mahinda and blamed the media for distorting news. Then in another somersault Suresh is at the swearing in ceremony being sworn in as a State Minister of Plantation Industries by Sirisena.
Five UNPers including Senanayake and Suresh have defected to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa administration so far. The others are Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the new Minister of Education and Higher Education, Deputy Minister of Tourism and Wildlife Ananda Aluthgamage and State Minister of Environment Dunesh Gankanda. More UNP MPs are expected to follow this famous five in the near future.
The prize catch for which Basil Rajapaksa is angling is a group of UNP Parliamentarians led by Ravi Karunanayake. The former Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister is supposedly cheesed off with Ranil Wickremesinghe for not reappointing him minister as promised earlier. According to Ravi’s friends, Karunanayake feels Ranil is prevented from doing so by erstwhile ministerial colleagues Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim. Apparently, Ravi Karunanayake has earned the support of a “Ginger Group” of UNP backbenchers by dispensing financial favours during his stint as Finance Minister. At least seven of these MPs could follow Ravi into the Sirisena-Rajapaksa camp if Karunanayake opts to change sides. But the hitch is that Ravi Karunanayake wants the Finance or Foreign Affairs Ministry both of which cannot be given. He has been offered an alternative “Economic” Ministry which Ravi is reluctant to accept. However, Ravi Karunanayake was seen at the people’s protest in support of Ranil. He has also had a “heart-to-heart” chat with Wickremesinghe. Only time will tell whether Ravi remains loyal to Ranil or not.
EFFORTS ON TO WIN OVER UNP STALWARTS
Since talks with Ravi Karunanayake are yet to bear fruit, efforts are also underway to woo members of the UNP ginger group individually like Gampaha District MP Dr. Kavinda Jayawardana and Kandy District MP Mayantha Dissanayake. Intensive efforts are also on to win over other UNP stalwarts who are not so favourably inclined towards Ranil like Palitha Range Bandara, Lucky Jayawardena and Palitha Kumara Thewarapperuma. It is learnt that Thewarapperuma has rejected all offers but talks with the others are proceeding.
While the UNP was being targeted for crossovers, a segment of the SLFP too was in the throes of a crisis. A group of SLFP Parliamentarians led by SLFP General-Secretary and Cabinet Minister Duminda Dissanayake was reluctant to join with the Rajapaksa-led Government because they were not sure of their future under a Rajapaksa-led regime. Fundamentally they feared re-nomination at the next hustings. Dissanayake informed Maithripala that they would remain as an “independent” group in Parliament and abstain from voting. However, after several rounds of talks with Mahinda, Maithripala and Basil, an agreement was reached and guarantees were given. A group of 13 SLFP Parliamentarians including Duminda Dissanayake have now taken oaths as Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. However, some others with SLFP antecedents like Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Hirunika Premachandra still remain within the Ranil camp mainly due to the restraining influence of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Initiatives have also been taken to woo Muslim parties. A very friendly equation exists between All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen and Basil Rajapaksa. According to ACMC sources senior MP Ameer Ali Shihabdeen conducted negotiations with Basil Rajapaksa because Rishad was out of the country. The Rajapaksas expect Rishad and Ameer Ali along with other ACMC Parliamentarians to cross over by November 5. The Industries and Commerce Ministry is being kept in readiness for Bathiudeen.
Since Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem is regarded as being close to the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLMC is perceived as being hard to get. However, Basil Rajapaksa is said to have made a breakthrough with Ampara District SLMC Parliamentarian M.H.M. Harees. He is apparently ready to jump ship and is also trying to bring along a few other fellow MPs from the SLMC along with him. At the same time some representatives of a Muslim religious organisation are trying to talk to Hakeem on behalf of Mahinda Rajapaksa and get the SLMC on board if possible.
MANO GANESAN ISSUED STATEMENT
As for the Tamil parties the solitary MP from the EPDP Douglas Devananda was one of the first to team up with Mahinda and has been given the same portfolio held by D.M. Swaminathan of the UNP earlier. The CWC with two MPs is also in with Mahinda. CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman has been entrusted with the same ministries that came under TPA leader P. Digambaram earlier. In an interesting move two MPs from the Up-Country People’s Front V. Radhakrishnan and A. Aravindh Kumar have engaged in discussions with the Rajapaksas. The final outcome of the talks remains unknown. While Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan has issued a statement to the effect that the Tamil and Muslim parties will be supportive of Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is learnt that at least one TPA MP from Kandy M. Velu Kumar is all set to cross over.
Finally we come to the two main opposition parties the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP has been critical of both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. While there is no love lost between the JVP and UNP, the crimson comrades hate and perhaps fear the return of the Rajapaksas more. However it is too early to predict what the JVP will do.
The TNA with 16 MPs may very well be the decisive factor in determining who commands majority support in Parliament. It may be recalled that the TNA played a crucial role in helping to defeat the no-confidence motion against Ranil Wickremesinghe some months ago. The TNA however has not revealed its future course of action so far. TNA leader Sampanthan, deputy leader Senathirajah and spokesperson Sumanthiran have been supportive of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the past and are likely to be so in the future too. When TNA leader Sampanthan met with Mahinda Rajapaksa at the latter’s invitation, the veteran Tamil leader remained non committal when asked for support. The TNA is expected to play its cards close to its chest and is likely to take a decision only in the penultimate stages. However, talks are being held on behalf of Maithripala and Mahinda with some TNA MPs on an individual basis. It is learnt that discussions have taken place with Dharmalingam Siddharthan, Dr. S. Sivamohan, Charles Nirmalanathan and Sivasakthy Anandan so far. The aim seems to be to get some TNA Parliamentarians to abstain from voting even if they won’t vote in support.
“COUNT YOUR MPS, NAME THEM ONE BY ONE”
This then is the current state of affairs was all bets are off and everything is up for sale. Frantic efforts are being made by both sides to form the majority or obtain majority support in Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the Machiavellian machinations of the Maithripala-Mahinda duo will succeed or not. There is a Christian hymn in which the chorus is “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” In the Sri Lankan Parliament, the chorus will be “Count your MPs, name them one by one!”
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org