Mr. President, be a statesman even at this late hour!

By Ameen Izzadeen
As Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis deepens, whatever ways-out political analysts may propose, only a principled solution is desirable and should be called for. This is because the health of the country’s democracy depends on a rule-based order, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is upheld, especially with regard to the independence of the judiciary.
No longer can we wait to rectify the distortion of democracy. The more we wait, the more damage is caused to democracy. Justice must prevail. A solution short of justice, in the name of a win-win compromise will be an affront to rule-based governance. Not only will the present generation suffer, but also generations to come, if we accept a compromise put forward in terms of the doctrine of necessity to solve the problem at hand while conveniently leaving the core issue – the constitutionality of the President’s executive orders — for another day.
Even if the political crisis drags on for weeks and months, even if the economic growth suffers and the administration grinds to a halt, justice must be the basis to solve the crisis.
In this constitutional crisis, the protagonists need to understand that for the sake of country’s wellbeing and that of the generations to come, what is required of them is a conduct befitting statesmen. The problem with many of Sri Lanka’s executive presidents, President Maithripala Sirisena included, is that they seldom keep the company of right-minded people who can give them advice based on moral values and principles upholding democracy and justice. Rather, their advisors, one of them being a once well-respected law professor, often become self-centred bootlickers and do not give a damn about democracy and rule of law. Instead, they massage the ego of the President, give warped interpretations to constitutional provisions and churn up loads of baloney.
Thus, it is not surprising, when the President, shorn of saner counsel, keeps saying he will not, under any circumstances, appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. One need not be a constitutional expert to discern the unconstitutionality of his statement. After all, the President is not so naïve as not to know that appointing the country’s prime minister cannot be done in the same manner as appointing a maid to housekeep his private residence in Polonnaruwa.
Having allegedly acted arbitrarily, the President probably thinks he may end up with egg on his face if he, recognising that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister he appointed in a questionable manner, does not command a majority in Parliament, lets Wickremesinghe return to the premiership. But if Sirisena is to be remembered as a statesman, even at this late hour when he thinks he has reached a point of no return, he has to set aside power politics, listen to the growing civil society voice and restore the status-quo-ante.
As a way out of the crisis, especially in view of the damage being caused to the economy, some see a general election as a fair solution. Some suggest that Wickremesinghe should step down and allow another United National Party leader to become prime minister. They call them win-win solutions. Far from it, any solution is a travesty of justice if it does not allow Wickremesinghe to show his parliamentary majority once again and become the prime minster. As for Sirisena’s conceited remark that he will not stay in office as president, if Wickremesinghe becomes prime minister again, all what he needs to do is to declare that he is ready to eat his words or sacrifice his self-respect for the greater cause of upholding democracy and ensuring stability. Such statesmanship is the need of the hour.
Apart from that, the solution that calls for any UNPer other than Wickremesinghe to be the prime minister is also loaded with moves to split the UNP. Whether Wickremesinghe should continue to run the party or he should retire from politics is totally an internal party issue and is not relevant to the legalities of the constitutional quagmire.
Meanwhile, some, in an expression of their frustration, call for a retirement age for politicians. If we had set the retirement age of 65 for elected representatives, we would not have fallen into this crisis, they say.
But there is no correlation between age and good governance. Nelson Mandela was 76, when he became South African’s President in 1994 and became an exemplary leader. In Malaysia, people placed their faith once again in 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamed at the general elections held in May this year and brought him from retirement to govern the country with a franchise to clean up the country’s corruption-ridden political system. India’s much-respected Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh was 72, when he first took office in 2004 and 82 when he left in 2014. The United States President Ronald Reagan was 77 when he ended his second term in 1989. These old leaders are not associated with constitutional coups or backdoor political manoeuvres. Yes, there are old leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Cameroon’s Paul Biya who abuse political authority and upend constitutional governance to remain in power until their people get sick and tired of them.
Also young leaders are not necessarily good leaders. Hitler was in his forties when he triggered World War II and unleashed the Holocaust in which millions of Jews perished. Look at Saudi Arabia, where a young crown prince in his mid-thirties is making headlines for the wrong reasons, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On the other hand, Canada’s 46-year-old Justin Trudeau is a shining example of a young leader committed to good governance.
Old or young, age does not matter for leadership ability and commitment to uphold democracy, good governance and justice. Even if a country’s constitution is denounced as lacking in democratic features and promoting dictatorship, its head of state or government could still emerge as a good leader, if he is committed to uphold democracy and good governance. On the other hand, however good the country’s constitution is, a head of state or government can still be bad, if he acts arbitrarily. Such a leader would not hesitate to disregard a court ruling, even if it comes from the Supreme Court. In February this year in neighbouring Maldives, when the then President Abdulla Yameen did not like the Supreme Court’s ruling ordering the release of political prisoners, he declared a state of emergency, got Supreme Court justices arrested and appointed new justices. Whither Sri Lanka?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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