The executive circus

The vexed question of the future of the Executive Presidency has been raised once again - needless to say, by the Opposition. The Government is, however, strenuously defending the system it once equally strenuously opposed when it was introduced back in 1978.

The common factor is that the Executive Presidency is an office no incumbent would wish to relinquish, and no Opposition would wish existed. The one thing that is constant is their changing stances.

President J.R. Jayewardene introduced the hybrid between the old British style parliamentary democracy and the US Presidential system into what was known as the French Gaullist system of government.

The then Opposition Leader A. Amirthalingum and many others critiqued it not so much for the concentration of power in the hands of the one man - J.R. Jayewardene, but for the broader problem of "what after him". That was the question at the time.
President Jayewardene said the system "needed time". Thirty-one years later, one might revisit the question asked back in 1978.

Five Presidents have held this office, the UNP for 16 years and the SLFP for 15, almost equal time. The older generation will recall the days when the President of the Republic was a ceremonial office, with important constitutional duties, but no real political power and the country was run by a 'Prime Ministerial dictatorship' not second to any 'Presidential dictatorship' that was to follow. Which reminds one of the oft quoted lines of the poet Pope;

"For forms of Government, let fools contest;
That which is best administered - is best".

The Executive Presidency was meant to stabilise Government and ensure that the vagaries of political winds and coalition politics did not lead to its frequent collapse. The first Government that ran a full term of office since Independence in 1948 was the Government of 1965-70. But, has that stability been achieved?

The Executive Presidency has not been without its own challenges, and in 1991 the then President R. Premadasa, accused of running a 'one man show', was almost impeached by Parliament. He survived but not without mortally wounding his party. President D.B. Wijetunga was an unwilling stand-in President, saying he was uncomfortable with the awesome powers he wielded, but he too did little to alter course due mainly to the pressure applied by his own party men then in power and place, but now at the receiving end of this system, and therefore clamouring for change.

The 11 years that followed were 'The Lost Years' and best forgotten. Solemn election pledges to revert to the parliamentary system, with dates fixed - July 15, 1995, were easily cast aside and those who reminded that Government of that promise were baton-charged and tear-gassed for their efforts. Every sinew was thereafter exerted to cling to this office by the incumbent only to be unceremoniously flung out by a Supreme Court order.

As Our Political Editor says on this same page, the Opposition has picked this issue because it has run out of options to check-mate the incumbent President who has begun his re-election campaign. The victory over the LTTE has placed him on an almost unassailable pedestal in the southern electorate, and the anticipated downturn of the economy has been somehow thwarted, by hook or by crook.

Whether the President should be entitled to call an election after four years of his six-year term and then add the balance to an extended second term running into eight long years is a moot point of ethical proportions.

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga tried various gerrymandering tactics, even taking her oaths secretively before the Chief Justice with the entire country in the dark. She ended up losing a year but that is the kind of power an Executive President feels he or she has - that they are above the law and can do just about anything behind the back of the people.
In the US, Presidential elections and elections to their Congress (Parliament) are fixed. The next date of the US Presidential elections is already known - November 2012. That is the stability an Executive Presidency brings to Government and a country.

In an Executive Presidency there are two important roles the President must play, and two important roles for Parliament to play. For a President, he must have a strong Secretariat - a think-tank of wise men and women - strategizing policy; both domestic and foreign, and effecting it through the Cabinet and working with Parliament. Secondly, it must give direction to a bi-partisan united nation. For a Parliament, it needs to introduce progressive legislation, and examine the manner in which public finances are spent.

Today, national policy at the apex is largely ad-hoc, a whole host of useless Cabinet Ministries. Legislative initiatives are lethargic if not retarded and fiscal policy run through the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry outside the control of Parliament.

Parliament has been a mere 'rubber stamp' with Parliamentary Oversight Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) completely ignored. The Opposition has also been a 'dead loss' in executing its duties in Parliament. More than half the time, more than half of the MPs on both sides of the House, don't even attend sittings.

The one good thing the old system had where the Prime Minister was the Head of Government was that he or she was accountable directly to Parliament, the representatives of the people. The Executive President is answerable to nobody and is insulated from the people, thus escaping public scrutiny. It will be so for the next eight years, if the incumbent is re-elected. While most of the country will find this on-off-on debate on the continuation of the Executive Presidency amusing and even farcical, with its proponents now opposing and opponents stoutly defending this form of government. The merits and de-merits will depend on which side of the political fence one sits on. Unfortunately, what is best for the country will hardly count.

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