Electing a President: Three against one in the US, and three against three in Sri Lanka



Barrack Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton

by Rajan Philips

On Thursday, in New York, President Joe Biden and his two Democratic predecessors, Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton, appeared together in a fund raising event to launch Biden’s reelection campaign against Donald Trump, their common foe and America’s ugly manifestation. The fundraiser reportedly netted in over $25 million boosting Biden’s impressive war chest which is said to be more than $150 million. Trump is handicapped with less than a third of that to spend on elections in addition to his personal financial challenges of having to cough up over half a billion dollars in penalties and damages in civil fraud and personal libel cases. The three amigos and the lone fraudster and felon represent the best and worst of America.

That Trump still has more than a fighting chance of winning in November also speaks to the turmoiled state of American society and politics in spite of its economic strength and superpower resources. He is currently facing 88 criminal charges in two federal and two state level trials. Yet he is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Trump has misappropriated the grand old party and weaponized it to serve his own ends, which primarily are to get elected as president again and pardon himself from the indictments he is facing.

But if he were elected as president for a new term, there will not only be presidential chaos in America and confusion abroad, but also the rolling back of two centuries of incremental advances in American norms and values and processes on everything from – law and order and role of government, minority rights and racial inclusion voting rights and election acceptance, women’s rights and sexual diversity, the environment and natural resources, to education, health and housing.

The effects of his judicial appointments to the Supreme Courts and lower federal courts during his first term have wreaked havoc on the judicial landscape that had been taking shape for over half a century on affirmative action, voting rights, environmental and resource protection, sexual diversity and women’s rights. The high or low point of judicial backtracking came in June 2022 with the overturning of the 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that affirmed women’s constitutionally protected right to have an abortion.

A majority of the American people and a greater majority of women are opposed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the six conservative majority (five of them Catholics) justices of the current Court. And it is hurting the Republicans politically, but the six justices appointed by Republican Presidents (Trump, Bush Jr, and Bush Sr) are pursuing their ideological convictions in other areas. Perhaps to the embarrassment of conservative Supreme Court Justices and national Republican leaders, Republican state legislators and lower courts with Trump appointed judges have started taking the overturning of Roe v. Wade to its ridiculous extensions.

In February this year, the Alabama Supreme Court quite bizarrely ruled that embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be considered children. Earlier in Texas, a Trump appointed conservative federal judge, Mattehew Kacsmaryk, had ordered the removal of mifepristone, a common abortion-inducing drug, from the market in a case filed by anti-abortion activists and doctors. The drug has been in use for decades after approval by the US U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an agency whose decisions are taken as guiding standards throughout the world. The mifepristone case reached the Supreme Court after appeal by the Federal government, and during oral arguments last week a majority of the Justices including conservatives clearly indicated that they are not in favour of upholding the Texas ban of the pill. The Supreme Court ruling that will come in June is expected to overturn the Texas ban by a seven-two majority.

American Anomalies

Trump is certainly keeping the Supreme Court busy, for on April 22 the Court will hear arguments to determine if a former President could be tried for alleged acts of crime during his time as President. The case is all about Trump and his exertions to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election by inciting an insurrection on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, when the US Congress was convening to ratify the election of Joe Biden as President. That he is a candidate in the very next election in 2024 is a uniquely American anomaly.

The anomaly is falsely premised on democracy – to let the people decide if Trump could be elected as president in spite of all that is known about him. He should have been barred from contesting and even incarcerated for violating the constitution and his oath of office to uphold it. Scores of ordinary citizens who participated in the insurrection at the urging of Trump have been and are being tried and punished including with jail terms. Lawyers who unethically worked on his brief are being professionally held accountable and are having their licenses revoked.

But Trump is a candidate, perhaps the only person to be a candidate for a third time after Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Roosevelt, the war time president, won all three elections and died in office during his third term. But his three wins led to the 22nd Amendment in 1951 that brought in the two-term limit for presidential office. Nixon lost the first election to Kennedy, won the next two. He resigned in disgrace before his second term was over, but in abidance with the Constitution. Trump knows no shame and he is flouting the Constitution with impunity, hoping for permanent immunity by winning the election in November.

In a straight election contest, Trump has no chance of winning against anyone. He came up short, in fact very short, in the popular vote count both against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. He eked out a victory against Hillary Clinton thanks to the evanescent mechanism of the Electoral College. Four years later Joe Biden turned the tables on Trump. After four more years, America is literally back to square one for electing a new president – but from the same two candidates as last time. Biden is almost certain to win again the popular vote, but the question is whether he can hold on to the handful of swing states that tilt the balance in Electoral College tally. It is also the concern for Democrats and everyone else who do not want to see another Trump presidency. It is that concern that brought the two former presidents, Clinton and Obama, to join President Biden in Thursday’s gala fundraising event in New York.

Biden, older than his two predecessors, can still pack a good punch in his speech as he showed in his annual State of the Union address to the Congress in January. But he could very much use the two former presidents to enthuse and energize the base to turn out to vote. Clinton and Obama are supremely, but differently, gifted campaigners. While Obama takes flight with his soaring eloquence, Clinton can charm and bring an audience to its feet by offering the folksiest of explanations to the most complex of issues. Obama is expected to be fully engaged in the campaign targeting young audiences, while joining Clinton and drawing on their popularity among the two communities, to canvas the African American and Latin American vote,.

Biden’s four year record as president is not at all a bad record to run on by American standards. It is indeed a good record in the circumstances. In fact, in domestic policy and social welfare programs Biden is easily the most consequential president after Lyndon Johnson, who was so himself after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal regime of policies. American foreign policy has never been non-controversial even in the best of times. But purely from a domestic election standpoint, Biden should be able to weather out the American political effects of the war in Ukraine and the devastation of Gaza. From any standpoint, the alternative to Biden would be dreadful. For the pruriently curious, there is also this year a Kennedy gadfly in the American ointment. That is better left for the social media.

Three against Three

Sri Lanka has a presidential system that has lasted 46 years despite all the efforts to ditch it lock, stock and barrel. Thankfully, Sri Lanka is spared of the Trumpian shenanigans of presidential politics. Perhaps the customary inertia of traditional societies provide a deterrent to upstart upheavals like Trumpism that is tantalizing the forever immigrant society of America. That does not stop quite a few Sri Lankans and others from being fascinated by and even supporting Trump. Hitler too had his admirers beyond what was then wholly non-immigrant Germany, and was recommended as a presidential role model just five years ago in Sri Lanka. That was for Gotabaya Rajapaksa who once said that he had made a study of Trump as a non-career politician. Some study, some politician! All that saga is now reduced to a weird book by a ghost writer blaming others of conspiracies.

It would be wrong to say that the presidential system alone produced a Trump in America and a Gotabaya in Sri Lanka. But it would be mostly correct to say that they would have been vetted out in a parliamentary system. Historically, America stumbled on the presidential system because the only model that was available at the time of the American revolution was the British political system, which then was mostly monarchical and only nascently parliamentary. The presidential system was a negation of the monarchy that the Americans had liberated themselves from. The model was invariably adapted and replicated in the neighbouring new countries to the south.

A much more evolved parliamentary system with only a long distance monarchical link arrived in Sri Lanka and big neighbour India. It evolved under local conditions in Sri Lanka and enabled itself to sever the monarchy and create a new republic. The imposition of the presidential system came shortly after. The question of abolishing it is still an active question and its latest manifestation is in election sequencing.

Advancing the parliamentary election is seen as a precursor to abolishing the presidency. At the same time, the long-titled Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, the loquacious Wijeyedasa Rajapakshe, is musing about constitutional changes including the establishment of a Senate and electoral reforms. He has not mentioned abolition. We have been down this road before, and nothing may come out of it as usual.

As for certainty, it seems almost certain that the presidential election will be held sometime between mid-September and mid-October. What is not clear is if there will be a parliamentary election before that. The SLPP parliamentarians seem agitated to pass a resolution in parliament asking the President to dissolve parliament and have a general election before the presidential election. That is their best route for re-election and hence their anxiety.

But no one knows what the President will do. The joke on the street is that even the President is not sure what he might do. And conveniently so. Seriously, however, it is a Sri Lankan anomaly that the timing of a parliamentary election is entirely the business of the executive even if it is after two and half years of the last election.

The Election Commission, twice bitten by the Executive over local government elections, seems not at all shy about being prepared to conduct both the parliamentary and presidential elections within the current year. The EC Chairman R.M.A.L. Ratnayake is on record as having said that much. Unless a parliamentary election is held first, it now seems likely that there would be three presidential candidates – Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sajith Premadasa, and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Three against Three.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only openly committed candidate so far. Sajith Premadasa, although the presumptive candidate of the SJB, often sends mixed signals saying that he/they are ready for either election. Ranil Wickremesinghe might be feigning a Nasser-like reluctance and hoping to be sponsored by a grand alliance, but the real pressure on him will come from the SLPP and the Rajapaksas.

It would fundamentally be mendicant pressure from Basil and Mahinda to Ranil – to save their bacon, one last time, in spite of, or because of, all the previous transactions between them. Ranil’s calculation will be about the vote catchment that the Rajapaksas can muster. In any event, they would bring him more votes than he or the current UNP could ever garner. The question is if that would be enough in a three way contest to go over the 50% mark in the first count. The question applies to all three candidates, and deadlock is a possibility.

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