Abolishing the executive presidency!

”PM Modi will finish us off within a year or so” Mahinda ”PM Modi will finish us off within a year or so” Mahinda

mahinda 4The Left parties of the government have reportedly written to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, requesting that he summon a meeting of the constituent parties of the government to discuss constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the all powerful executive presidency. The letter, which has been copied to President Mahinda Rajapaksa as well, has been sent to the SLFP General Secretary three days ago.
 
 
The traditional political Left, which includes LSSP, CP and New Left Front, could well have best intentions. However, given the Left’s dwindling clout within the government, whether the government would heed their call is open to question. In fact, the non-inclusion of LSSP stalwart and Chairman of All Party Representative Committee, Tissa Vitarana in the latest Parliamentary Select Committee to explore a political solution is indicative that the government is not prepared to accommodate opposing views. At the same time, the government is extremely receptive towards the ultra-nationalist members within its constituent partners, who have been vociferous against the devolution of powers and reforms that are meant to address political aspirations of ethnic minorities.
 
 
MahindaToHitler_LnWThis uneven status quo within the government leaves the traditional Left in a dilemma. It is equally interesting that the Left parties, which are now calling for the abolition of the executive presidency, earlier voted for the 18th Amendment, which dismantled the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, leading to the concentration of powers at the hands of the all powerful executive presidency, at the expense of independent democratic institutions.
 
 
The regressive 18th Amendment also removed the mandatory term limits of the presidency, paving the way for a potential president for life. Therefore, one would have serious reservations about the sincerity of the latest manoeuvrings of the Left parties. It is natural political parties facing redundancy cling to emotive issues, in order to remain relevant. The JHU and Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF, two ultra nationalist parties, which have found that their rabid nationalist slogans have largely been hijacked by the government, are now harping on the government’s economic policies and a ‘drug menace.’ However, it is political considerations and not principles that are behind such political gimmicks.
 
 
The ideological fellow travellers of the government, JHU and NFF have already voiced opposition to the abolition of the executive presidency, purportedly due to the fact that it would allow ethnic minorities to call the shots in political decision making. Therefore, the Left parties are in an unenviable position, with little support for them within the government ranks.
 
 
The rationale for the executive presidency was and – still is – that developing countries such as Sri Lanka are faced with an ‘urgency’ to address long-neglected development needs, and that the office of the presidency elected by the people should be vested with adequate powers to accomplish those economic goals. However, in Sri Lanka, the framers of the Constitution vested the presidency with too much powers, and predictably enough, it encouraged arbitrariness and abuse of powers by the president. Instead of steering the country towards a Newly Industrialized Country (NIC) status, first executive president J.R. Jayewardene presided over two civil insurgencies – in the South and the North. The two insurgencies were armed responses to State repression, made possible, to a greater extent, by the draconian powers at the disposal of the executive presidency.
Finally, Jayewardene, who famously said that the only thing he could not do is to turn a man into a woman and vice versa, was humiliated by the youthful Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who arm twisted the ageing Jayewardene to sign the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord.
 
 
Jayewardene made a monster out of the executive presidency and none of his successors could give it a human face. The incumbent president went further to remove the last remaining checks and balances of the powers of the presidency and also removed the mandatory term limits.
Now, his government is also facing international scrutiny and a UNHRC mandated war crimes investigation, possible outcome of which would dwarf Jayewardene’s troubles during his last years in power. In the eyes of the constitutional democracies of the free world, the absolute powers at the disposal of the office of the executive presidency mean only one thing: that the government is arbitrary, absolute and unaccountable. It is in the best interest of the government, and especially the president himself, to make his office accountable to the people. Perhaps the best way to do that is by getting rid of it, once and for all.