Long-term costs of long-term Presidency

The Government is on the verge of introducing some amendments to the Constitution, having seemingly opted to drop the idea of rooting for an entirely new Constitution. This may be a better option but it also revives the old joke about the Sri Lanka Constitution being available in a British bookstore under the 'periodicals' section due to the frequency of its amendments.

That the Constitution has had to undergo regular changes is in itself not a bad thing. Should there be a need to change it, it is better to do so than have a flawed Constitution. What is wrong is that many of these changes are made due to political expediency and little else. The Constitution of any country is its Fundamental Law. All other laws flow from this fountain.

The 1972 Republican Constitution, unveiled with great fanfare, rejoicing as we did in the complete disengagement from the British monarchy, is but a faint memory now. We celebrated the event as the winning of 'true Independence' just to overshadow the 1947 Constitution because the UNP took credit for it. Today, Republic Day (May 22) is a forgotten chapter and we are told that from now on, May 18, the day we defeated the LTTE is to be treated as the day we obtained 'true Independence'. The incumbent Government is drafting provisions, as we know it, on three fronts, i.e. (i) to enable the President to extend his term of office beyond two consecutive terms and to have it open-ended, (ii) to establish a bi-cameral (two tier) Parliamentary system by creating a Senate, and (iii) to do away with the 17th Amendment and have the powers vested now in the independent Constitutional Council back with the President.

Insofar as the extension of the President's term is concerned, the important factor is not the personality but the principle. Recently, a strong advocate of this change, Minister Champika Ranawaka drew the example of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was US President for four consecutive terms. That was in the 1930s and 1940s when it was felt unwise to 'change horses in mid-stream' as the US was going through the economic depression of the 30s followed by World War II. However, it was after this experience that the US decided to limit a President to a maximum of two consecutive terms because the Americans did not want any single person vested with that amount of powers for too long. This principle has now been accepted as the norm in most democracies that have a Presidential system.

When the Executive Presidency was introduced in Sri Lanka with the 1978 Constitution, the thrust of the opposition to the soon-to-be Executive President J.R. Jayewardene was on the basis "It's ok as long as you are there, what thereafter". Nowadays it is a fashion to blame that Executive President and that Constitution for all the country's ills.

Such are the vagaries of public opinion that when the 17th Amendment was being introduced, the then Opposition MPs like Wimal Weerawansa spoke of the "dictatorial Constitution which revolved around one person elected as the President" (Hansard, Sept., 24, 2001). He spoke of 'family bandyism' and the need to introduce a 'new political culture' through the 17th Amendment which effectively clipped the President's powers and vested it largely in what was to be an independent Constitutional Council that would appoint members to the higher judiciary, and independent elections, public service, police and anti-corruption commissions. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then Minister of Labour, voted for this 'new political culture' through the 17th Amendment, as did the current Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister and many others in the present Cabinet. It was a historic piece of legislation for all political parties voted unanimously for its passage into law.

There was, therefore, recognition by Parliament that the country deserved an apolitical mechanism (with all its shortcomings) to rebuild the nation's confidence in public institutions that were slowly, but surely falling apart due to political meddling. The very 'dictatorial' Constitution revolving around one person elected as the President is what Minister Wimal Weerawansa is seeking to promote now by arguing that a President should be permitted unlimited reign - and rule - provided he is elected by the people. So much for the 'new political culture'. All the other Ministers are accompanying singers as the caravan moves on.

No Government or individual can rule perpetually. Hitler thought his Third Reich would go on for a thousand years. President Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years. He sought to transform his country into a strong, united, economically prosperous nation only to be remembered in history for his human rights record and corruption. Such are the lessons from history. Libya's Muammar Gadaffi and North Korea's Kim family are the exceptions. Incumbent Presidents have always toyed with extending their terms with the singular exception of President D.B. Wijetunga. President Jayewardene was saddled with two parallel insurgencies and at the end, was too old to want to continue while President Chandrika Kumaratunga wanted to convert the Executive Presidency to what the Russian President Vladimir Putin did eventually -- an executive Prime Minister.

The fact that Kumaratunga Government gave a firm date, July 15, 1995 to abolish the Executive Presidency and kept promising to do so was a clear indicator of the public mood. But the argument trotted out now is that the LTTE could not have been defeated if not for the Executive Presidency. True, Parliament was shaky, but to say that Opposition MPs joined the Government to swell its ranks because of the Presidency is stretching it. It is just another instance of flogging the LTTE dead-horse for political advantage.

With its steam-roller majority, Ministers prepared to 'sing for their portfolios' and an Opposition in disarray, these amendments, whatever they may be will surely see their way into law. Even a referendum will be no hurdle given the experience of 1982 and an Elections Commissioner who will issue a certificate of a valid poll despite admitting he hasn't the stomach to withstand political interference.

Yet it is the long-term effects on this country that are at stake and with that the long-term well-being of its citizens. Are the judiciary, the police, the elections and anti-corruption commissions to revolve around 'one person elected as the president' or around a 'new political culture'? That is the crux of the matter.

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