If the consequences for Sri Lanka’s peoples didn’t threaten to be so tragic, the dynamics of the constitutional crisis gripping Colombo would be farcical. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dramatic announcement Tuesday that she intends to remain in office till 2006 – a full year longer than expected – would have come as a body blow to Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strategy to stave off his arch-rival’s accelerating rise to political supremacy. To begin with, the revelations of a secret swearing in ceremony should not have come as a total surprise to observers of Sri Lankan politics. After all, the Sunday Times broke the story several weeks ago. The ruling United National Front (UNF) government’s silence spoke volumes then. But press reports are one thing, official declarations another. As such, Mrs. Kumaratunga’s smug assertions this week underlined both the UNF’s impotence in the face of her constitutional manoeuvres – if such a term is applicable to the President’s hamfisted lunge for power – and the erosion of its political authority.
Above all, the entire matter epitomizes the sham that democracy is in Sri Lanka. The country’s all powerful President holds a private swearing in ceremony that effectively extends her term well beyond the date the public expects her to quit – a not insignificant development given that she is constitutionally precluded from another term in office. Furthermore, this crucial event is attended only by the chief justice – one of the President’s personal appointees – and her loyal confidante and former Foreign Minister, Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar. Incredulously, the matter remains so secret – even the date of this self crowning ceremony are seemingly unknown – that no one in the country is aware (least of all, the UNF government which supposedly took charge in December 2001). One wonders what the often vocal proponents of good governance theories would make of Sri Lanka now. And so much for the ‘vibrant democracy’ that the Tamils are piously exhorted to participate in.
Most importantly for the outcome paralyzing standoff in Colombo, Mrs. Kumaratunga’s unilateral extension of her rule has removed a key plank of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s calculations, namely that she was fast running out of time to engineer a constitutional arrangement that would permit her to remain in power beyond her second term as President. The strain is showing. Having fluttered for so long between unconvincing defiance and platitudes for compromise, the Premier was this week – for the umpteenth time