Ranil’s term extension and the CJ’s endangered term of office

| by Upul Joseph Fernando
Courtesy: Ceylon Today

 ( December 8, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Immediately after ensuring electoral success in Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave top priority in his political agenda to remove the only obstacle to his well-known ambition to continue in the Presidency for another six years; the two-term limit prescribed by the Constitution. Knowing it would be difficult, particularly in view of the growing dissatisfaction of the electorate and parliamentarians, to get necessary parliamentary support in a few more years time to bring in an amendment to the Constitution, he rushed legislative procedures through Parliament at lightning speed to get rid of the time bar for holding presidential office, ensuring his presidency and the government’s safe survival for not six but 12 years.
By such measures, Rajapaksa was building defences around him to make it impossible for anyone to challenge him politically. When the Supreme Court under Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake gave some judgments harmful to the political designs of the government, he decided to tame the Judiciary in a knee-jerk reaction.
Freeing himself
With no challenge from any imaginable corner to his political fortunes, the President was quite content to sit back and carry on as usual. Lately however, a new problem cropped up, which needed his special attention. He has already ensured the political turf free of any challenge to him. The problem he confronted was how to ensure the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the United National Party (UNP) for many more years to come, at least until the UNP becomes only a hollow shell of its former self.
Under the 2010 amended UNP constitution, the party leader was to be chosen annually by vote. Rajapaksa’s dilemma was how to prevent any change of leadership of the UNP in the foreseeable future. Unexpectedly, with the recent UNP Annual Convention, he got the chance to prop up Wickremesinghe to his coveted position of party leader when a resolution was moved at the Convention to extend the party leader’s term by six years. Rajapaksa backed it to the hilt knowing fully-well that it will hasten fragmentation of the UNP. With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the UNP, which is breaking at the seams with a legacy of unending electoral defeats, Rajapaksa’s stock has risen considerably among his key party members, as none of them would ever consider a revolt within the party even under any adverse conditions. None would want to hitch his wagon to a party hurtling pell-mell towards a precipice of political oblivion.
Mahinda’s support
The fact is Rajapaksa’s support to Wickremesinghe to retain the latter’s leadership was conditional; he wanted Wickremesinghe’s support to get rid of the Chief Justice.
Wickremesinghe attacked the CJ and the Judiciary in Parliament even before an impeachment motion was being lined up against her. He said the Judiciary was responsible for ruining his party by issuing certain adverse Court decisions, especially allowing UNP MPs to cross over to the government without losing their seat. He was blind or acted blind to the fact that his massive electoral losses in metronomic regularity caused the defection of his MPs. Moreover, it was Justice Ranjith Amarasinghe who adjudicated the cases of the party-switching MPs; yet, Wickremesinghe nominated him to a now defunct Constitutional Council as the party’s nominee. When then Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuiya and Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale mooted the idea of impeaching the then CJ, Sarath N. Silva, who gave judgments partial to then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Wickremesinghe wrecked it and antagonized Jayasuriya and Atukorale, who revolted against his decision thus forcing his hand to bring in the motion, which Kumaratunga sabotaged in the end.
Then again, in 2003-2004 the UNP government, acting against the strong advice of G.L. Peris and S.B. Dissanayake, avoided bringing an impeachment against Sarath N. Silva, which according to internal party sources then, was seen as a move to ensure Silva’s help in his leadership struggles with his party men who could pose a legal threat to him. Wickremesinghe’s close camaraderie with Sarath Silva was evident by the fact that he had at one time invited him to Sirikotha and entrusted him with the task of drafting Fonseka’s agreement with the TNA the at 2010 Presidential Election he took the podium to address election rallies with Sarath Silva by his side.
 Coming out against the CJ
It looks to be a strange coincidence that Wickremesinghe comes out strongly against Sarath Silva and the Judiciary at about the same time Rajapaksa took umbrage at the CJ.
Rajapaksa knew he needed the support of the Opposition in the impending clash with the Judiciary. When the Speaker came out strongly against the Judiciary in Parliament, apropos the Divi Neguma Bill, Wickremesinghe slated the CJ and the Judiciary roundly adding more muscle to the government’s case against the CJ. He was insidiously trying to stoke up ill-will towards the CJ among his party supporters, letting the government impose its will on the Judiciary.
Moreover, his choice of party members for the Select Committee is a strong indicator of his backing for the government in the battle between the CJ and the government. To appease party dissidents, who opposed the impeachment, he named hawkish Parliamentarian, Lakshman Kiriella. His preferred nominee John Amaratunga was nominated to maintain the status quo at the Parliamentary Select Committee. He was once thought to be on the fence contemplating joining the government band-wagon, even being nominated by the President in his delegation to UN General Assembly sessions. However, as a result of Wickremesinghe pleading with Rajapaksa not to accommodate his supporters in the government and Rajapaksa granting his wish, Amaratunga remained with UNP.
Even last Thursday, when the Speaker declared the Parliament is supreme to the Judiciary as the sovereignty rests with it, Wickremesinghe endorsed it with much enthusiasm. The Speaker noted with appreciation, the support extended to him by Wickremesinghe and made specific mention of it in his concluding speech.
By last Friday, Wickremesinghe had solicited Rajapaksa’s help to provide protection to Sirikotha from his own party men. Even at times of worse internal party conflicts such as the one during 70-73 between J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake, none sought United Front Government’s help to resolve their internal party problems. Likewise, when the SLFP was in turmoil between 1977 and 94 Sirimovo Bandaranaike neither sought nor obtained any help from the JR and Premadasa Governments.
Rajapaksa extending patronage to Wickremesinghe to sail safely through expected dissent at the recently concluded party convention is nothing less than historic. How Wickremesinghe will repay his debts to Rajapaksa for helping him to retain his leadership for another six years to maintain the opposition’s status quo for the foreseeable future remains to be seen.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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