With about four months at most to go for what would be a crucial presidential election (arguably all Presidential elections are crucial), the guessing game continues on the likely candidates in the fray. In a country where politics is the most talked of subject, election fever is just about hotting up. Unlike prior to the [...]


Executive Presidency needs a fix


With about four months at most to go for what would be a crucial presidential election (arguably all Presidential elections are crucial), the guessing game continues on the likely candidates in the fray. In a country where politics is the most talked of subject, election fever is just about hotting up.

Unlike prior to the previous presidential election in January 2015, it is the Opposition candidate that has been – or is to be – announced first.  Up until the last moment, Opposition leaders kept the nominee’s name under wraps, fuelling speculation as to who it would be, but it was a given that it would be someone from the Medamulana estate.

On the other hand, where one would usually expect the incumbent President or the leader of a major national party to be a candidate, this time there is still uncertainty. All this adds to the excitement of elections in Sri Lanka. Everyone likes an election; they want one in haste only to repent at leisure. Most democracies are like that.

In the United States, there are 22 Congressmen and women vying to be the sole Opposition candidate in 2020. In the UK, the new Prime Minister had to go through several rounds of intra-party voting to climb the greasy pole to the top, and is hanging on there with a majority of one solitary vote in Parliament.

In all this — in what is famously termed ‘the noise and chaos of democracy’ — there is, in Sri Lanka’s case, if one might use another well-known phrase, a tendency to ‘miss the woods for the trees’ — or miss what the real problem is because of the focus on the immediate issue.

The real problem is that of the continuation of the Executive Presidency in Sri Lanka, now onto its 41st year. Despite many solemn promises of the past, probably starting with Presidential candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga even going to the extent of giving a specific date by which it would be abolished  — July 15, 1995 –and up to the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and his government pledging to end the system, nothing has changed.

It is not that the Executive Presidency is any worse than a Parliamentary democracy of the Westminster model. Both can be equally bad. Both can be equally good. It is just that there has been an overwhelming consensus among the people of this country that the Executive Presidency should be abolished given the way it has been misused by the holders of that office; that Sri Lankan politicians just don’t know to handle the obligations of the high office. The famous warning of Lord Acton that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is no truer than with this system in place.

To President Sirisena’s credit, at least his interventions as Executive President have not always been disastrous. He stopped the then Governor of the Central Bank from being reappointed. More recently, he stopped a controversial military pact with the US from being signed, and this week he refused to dole out an additional Rs. 45 million every month to MPs. But the litany of blunders is endless, most of them stemming from the fact that he ditched his pledge to his voters to be a one-term Executive President, remained a party leader and is now contemplating a second term in office.

The biggest deficiency in an Executive Presidency as far as Sri Lanka is concerned is its Kremlin-like secrecy and the incompetence of staffing at the Presidential Secretariat. The Executive Presidency isolates itself from the real world. President J.R. Jayewardene said the Executive President need not be “subject to the whims and fancies of an elected legislature” and was not afraid to take correct (even unpopular) decisions. He provided for the Executive President to sit in Parliament, not just for ceremonial sittings, but as a virtual MP.

It did not happen that way. The Executive President got cocooned in office. The classic example is what happened to President R. Premadasa who suddenly woke up to find his senior party men had revolted and thrust an impeachment motion against him. It was the current leader of the party, then the House Leader who helped organise counter-moves to salvage the Premadasa presidency.

The staffing is the other major drawback. This includes advisers. Since the time of the Jayewardene presidency this has been an issue. Those in the Secretariat were a law unto themselves and resented ‘outsiders’. It was a time when one of the most respected Chief Justices, Neville Samarakoon, had a run-in with the President over what began as an unpleasant issue of the President’s Secretary asking the purpose of the CJ wanting to speak to the President.  A former Secretary of the present President went public after retirement blaming “hangers-on” inside the Secretariat for misleading the President.

Everyone loves an election, but for what is the question. The Elections Commission has now run out of time to hold Provincial Council elections despite its Chairman making a song and dance about holding them, when the bigger question is whether Provincial Councils by themselves are of any good to the country.

The non-holding of elections to Provincial Councils has resulted in a whole host of public institutions that were devolved under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution now in the hands of Governors in each of the provinces, as representatives of the Executive President, the very antithesis for which they were introduced.

If in the past, the country had only two major nation-wide elections, Parliamentary and Local Government, now there are four; Presidential and Provincial added. No one can say that the country has fared any better due to more elections. Some might argue it has only become worse.

The belief that the 19th Amendment has clipped the wings of the Executive President is a myth. No doubt it has prevented the elected Parliament being dissolved at his or her whim and pleasure — the UNP seems to have learnt a lesson after what happened to it in 2004 — and the Constitutional Council had already taken away some powers of appointments of high officials, but it has mostly affected the holder-President only by excluding him (or her) from being also, a Minister. The rest of his or her wide powers remain largely intact.

The citizenry still do not know what the policy of the contesting parties and/or candidates is on the continuation of the Executive Presidency. Elections are good. They are the lifeblood of representative democracy. But fixing the faulty systems however, is even better.



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