“Mankind will never see an end of trouble until… lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power… become lovers of wisdom.” Plato, The Republic
Many arguments are being made for the legitimization and validity of the Executive Presidency system; amongst many and latest of which is the winning of the war against the LTTE.
The 1978 Constitution with its main feature of the Executive Presidency, was J.R. Jayewardene’s brainchild and his main argument at the time he introduced it, was that it would bring in stability to governance of the country.
Up to 1977, almost each time Sri Lanka went to the polls, the people voted a new Party into power, mainly because the incumbent party had not kept its election promises. J.R. buttressed this argument by bringing in many salient case-studies.
He argued that the many development programmes undertaken by the incumbent were totally discarded by the new government, not because they were bad for the country, but the continuation of such programmes by the new government would only vindicate the out-going one.
This happened, more often than not, due to the stark differences between the political philosophies that were adopted by the respective parties. From 1947 up to 1977 the world was caught up in the whirlpool of the ‘cold war’ and was sharply divided between the America-led West and the Russia-led East, so to speak.
Internationally, the human populace was partitioned and polarized along ideological lines — Capitalism and Socialism. These ideological divisions among countries, when localized, had marked adverse effects on the indigenous populations of each country.
One Sri Lankan who identified this and exploited it to the hilt, was Rohana Wijeweera in the late sixties and early seventies. No Sinhala speaker articulated the differences between the haves and have-nots more eloquently, more vigorously and more fiercely than Wijeweera. He was a product of that era; an era in which Capitalism was a politically vulgar term as much as it was fashionable to be branded a leftist or a socialist.
So when the constituency was so polarized, it was inevitable that the people waited for elections to change their government. This change of government every five years, JR argued, was a destabilizing factor as far as the long-term development of the country was concerned. He came out with the Executive Presidential system of government.
However, there is a remarkable feature of this change, which not many sociology pundits are willing to acknowledge: J.R. received a five-sixth majority at the 1977 polls; furthermore, in the 1977 UNP manifesto JR included among many election promises, a change of constitution and introduction of an Executive Presidency system.
Consequently, when he initiated the process of changing the Sri Lanka Constitution, he was only fulfilling one of his election promises that were enunciated in the manifesto. In other words, he asked for and received a mandate to change the constitution from that of a Westminster system of government to an Executive Presidency system of government.
Along with the Executive Presidency, the 1978 Constitution also brought in the proportional representation (PR) system that replaced the existing first-past-the-post mechanism of electing parliamentarians.
J.R. told his Party supporters that the PR system would make sure that the UNP would remain in power for a very long time, if not for ever.
He based his case on the fact that up to that time, the UNP, as a single political party as opposed to all others, such as the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP, never failed to secure the highest national percentage points on the polls, except on one occasion and that was in 1956. He did not bargain for all other opposition parties getting together to form one single coalition to combat the UNP at the polls and that is what happened.
Powers of Executive Presidency for personal glorification
After its first defeat at a General Election in 1994, ever since the introduction of PR system was introduced, the UNP has been facing elections against a very formidable political coalition in the South of the country.
A polarization along ethnic lines materialized in the electoral behaviour, especially after the formation of the ‘Jathika Hela Urumaya’ (JHU), when that segment of the nationalist-minded middle class, which was hitherto voting with the UNP, shifted its position.
The result was a UPFA coalition in successive Parliaments, except for a very brief UNP Government in 2001 for two years, and the victory of UPFA candidates at Presidential Elections. J.R’s ‘power-for-ever’ formula did not last more than seventeen years.
Following J.R., the UNP managed to secure victory at Presidential Elections only once in 1988 and that was with R. Premadasa. Let us not indulge in idle speculation as to who would have won in 1994 if Gamini Dissanayake were not assassinated.
The Presidential powers that J.R. used with caution and discipline became a very strong device in the hands of those who succeeded him, barring President D.B. Wijetunga who assumed the Presidential mantle after Premadasa was killed by the LTTE.
Every successive President after J.R. Jayewardene, from R. Premadasa up to the present one, has been wielding the powers of Executive Presidency to his or her personal glorification and to the detriment of the electors. Too much power being concentrated in one single person without considerable checks and balances that are found in the Constitutions of the United States or France is a disaster waiting to happen.
When presidential power is exercised with no administrative and political filters, with no checks and balances in relation to the other two branches of the state machinery, the legislature and the judiciary and when the fountain of that power is a ‘Presidential Secretariat’ whose members are not answerable to the voter, it is quite natural that, that power is more abused than used.
What is even more ironical is that the two-thirds majority that the present regime enjoys is not a mandate given to them by the electorate at an election; it was a result of some horse-deals that were contracted and concluded after the General Elections of 2010, when some Cabinet portfolios and other inducements were offered to those who crossed over from other parties and specially the UNP.
Foundations for family dynasty
Another development that enhanced the Presidency was the ‘War’ with the LTTE and its successful conclusion with a resounding victory for the armed forces of Sri Lanka. The euphoria that followed in the wake of the conclusion of the war reached some potentially destructive proportions when the President was referred to as ‘King’ of the country.
The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution that brought in several checks and balances, was done away with and in its place was introduced the Eighteenth Amendment
Through that the term limit on the Presidency which was somewhat a stringent check on potentially-dictatorial propensities, was removed to pave the way for the present President to continue even after two terms, provided he gets elected again. And then steps for the establishment of a family dynasty were laid carefully, aided and abetted by a subservient government group and an impotent opposition.
In fact when the Eighteenth Amendment was introduced in Parliament, the main Opposition party abstained from voting; the sole contribution of noteworthy mention was made by M.A. Sumanthiran, the TNA MP whose oratorical skills and weighty substance and arguments reminded me of those great Parliamentary debaters of the calibre of Dr. N.M. Perera, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene.
To digress a bit, since 1977 and after the demise of Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Anura Bandaranaike and Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sumanthiran is undoubtedly the best Parliamentary debater Sri Lanka has produced. However, to this mix I would also add the JVP MPs, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Handunhetti as the best Sinhala speakers in today’s Parliament.
Abuse of Judiciary and Court system
Aside from the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, what are most dangerous in the long run, is the alleged abuse of the Judiciary and the Court system and the misuse of the Attorney General’s Department.
When the then AG who made submissions to an International Human Rights body regarding the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, he made a mockery of reasoning, quite unbecoming of a chief law officer of the country. Obviously he was carrying out someone else’s bidding.
Thus in an overall assessment, especially in a political and sociological context, Executive Presidency has proved to be a failure for the people and utterly profitable and lucrative to the holder of that office, both politically and personally.
The tragedy of all this is the very negation of the election promises made by successive candidates since 1994 with regard to the abolition of this office. Both Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa were elected to that office on a platform that demanded the abolition of the Executive Presidency. But, both of them used that very mandate that they received to do away with a system, to further entrench themselves in stronger positions.
Instead of discarding that system, they used and abused it to the hilt; in this drama the role played by the main Opposition Party, the UNP, was very negative and anti-people, to say the least. Obviously they must have deduced that they could do one better than what CBK and MR did.
Nevertheless, the abolition of Executive Presidency is a very attractive political slogan. It worked beautifully to catapult both Chandrika and Mahinda into power. But if the candidate limits that slogan to a mere election promise that he or she could very well break once elected, how could one be held accountable? I don’t have the answer to that.
But, as a first step towards establishing a thriving democracy, where each and every individual feels second to none and enjoys the fruits of freedom, it is a pre-requisite that the abolition of Executive Presidency is made the first item of the manifesto of any Opposition candidate. courtesy: Ceylon Today