The Sunday Times Editorial

14th July 1996

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The broken promise

In July 1994, a month before general elections the People's Alliance manifesto had virtually passed the death sentence on the executive presidential system, describing it as a calamity and curse on the country. It seemed that only the last nail had to be hammered on to the lid of the executive presidency's coffin. Or so the people thought and presumably voted the PA into office. Two full years later the executive presidency is still very much alive and kicking. What is virtually buried is the PA's solemn pledge to abolish that system.

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of that non-event, the biggest of the broken promises or the great betrayal. We are quite aware that election promises are hardly worth the paper they are printed on and are often broken by politicians. But the abolition of the executive presidency was not just an ordinary promise, it was one of the pillars of the PA manifesto and a rallying cry during its campaign. It is too serious a promise to be easily forgotten or easily dismissed.

Fortunately for the PA government the main opposition UNP is not making too much noise about this broken promise because the executive president is very much the UNP's baby. Some UNP optimists or hardliners also feel that the PA is heading for defeat, so it would be prudent for the UNP to just bide its time and wait to again use or abuse the same wide ranging and far reaching powers that come with the executive presidency. The minority parties obviously prefer the executive presidential system because previous election results have shown that anyone vying for that high office cannot win without minority support. While the two majority parties fight, the minority parties benefit. The DUN(L)F, a constituent party in the government, has protested against the failure to abolish the executive presidency but its voice has little impact today. The LSSP and the CP are also saying they still want the executive presidency abolished, but they are saying it much more mutely than they did before. Only the JVP is making a strong protest. It has vowed to launch a protest campaign. If that is not an ominous signal, what is?

The dangerous and destructive effects of the executive presidency were most felt undoubtedly during the Premadasa administration, when his own Ministers and MPs revolted in a bombshell impeachment move. It showed how much the President could be cut off from realities, surrounded by henchmen who stooped to the level of saying they would even drink soup made from his sandals. Mr. Premadasa was forced to abandon the velvet-cushioned golden throne he had made for himself and sit on the concrete steps of the Presidential Secretariat with his MPs to regain their support. Besides that the country knows of the blackmail or the backstage wheeler dealing that took place to put the pieces together.

President Kumaratunga, perhaps due to security reasons, is even more of a prisoner in her high office today. She cannot get around freely to feel the pulse of the people and the country. She has to depend on her advisors and self-seeking admirers or sycophants. She's cut off not only from the people but also from Parliament where the representatives of the people voice their views or air their grievances.

No President so far has lifted the Presidential office to high bipartisan levels by bringing in eminent persons to the Secretariat who would put the country before self or party. Personal or party loyalty gets priority over efficiency and merit. The exercise of presidential powers has politicised areas that were hitherto above party politics. Now the Public Services Commission and other independent bodies, even the judiciary, are feeling the pressures and the fears of excessive presidential powers.

J. R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa were strong advocates of the executive presidential system. D. B. Wijetunga said he was overwhelmed by its powers but gradually got quite accustomed and perhaps even began to like the system. Who wouldn't? Power indeed is heady wine. This President called it an evil system that must be abolished as soon as possible, but now she sits on it and shows little sign of any discomfort or conscience problem. Reason often deceives, conscience never does. Another factor is that President Kumaratunga cannot politically afford to give up the powerful Presidency because of her precarious position in Parliament. Often principles have to be sacrificed in clinging to power. That is a universal malaise. Then again we cannot say that under the fully fledged parliamentary system there cannot be pocket dictators. There were those who pushed for what they called a little bit of totalitarianism in the bad of old days of not all that long ago.

In this big controversy we could perhaps be enlightened by the words of Alexander Pope - "For forms of government let fools contest; that which is best administered is best."

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