Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has long felt that the 1978 Constitution has run its course. Quoting the third US President Thomas Jefferson, he wrote in a United National Party (UNP) publication ‘Vision and Reality’ on the 35th anniversary of the 2nd Republican Constitution that all Constitutions must be revised every 19 years. Why 19 years was not clear but the theory that Constitutions are not written in stone was the underlying message.
In that article, the PM referred to how in the early days of the drafting of the 1978 Constitution, known more commonly as the “J.R. Jayewardene Constitution”, when the Presidential-Parliamentarianism system was to be fused, a gentleman by the name of Mr. W.D.V.. Mahatantila had recommended the Prime Minister be responsible to the President and Parliament but be the Head of Government administration. This was the French model.
Some of the UNP lawyers had critiqued this saying that it left a lot of gray areas, and that the President’s role was not clear in such a set-up, but also, the fact that R. Premadasa was the likely choice of PM did not sit well with other rising stars in that party. Therefore, the role of the Head of Government was also vested with the President (Mr. Jayewardene).
If President Jayewardene was later to be called ‘Junius Caesar’ for anointing himself with all the powers of the 1978 Executive Presidency, to President Mahinda Rajapaksa goes the title ‘King Mahinda’ for virtually crowning himself through the notorious 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that diluting the powers of the President and transferring some of them to the PM required a Referendum of the People — one of the progressive provisions in the 1978 Constitution. The decision demonstrates the ‘Born Again’ nature of the Supreme Court that now holds its own, as it should, without fear or favour from the Government.
The fact that the 19th Amendment (19A) was rushed the way it was is unfortunate. It was like a man running to catch a train when the time-table was unnecessary pressure put on themselves by the Government with a fanciful 100-day programme that the electorate did not hold the Government accountable for. The end result is the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena deciding that the provisions relating to the whittling down of his powers should be removed (because they require a Referendum) while other provisions of the 19A should be put to a vote in Parliament.
This, in effect, means that the Executive President as we have it today stays, despite the fact that huge emphasis was placed on abolishing the Executive Presidency – in fact, it was the rallying call of the Opposition to oust President Rajapaksa, and that the pledge to the people who voted for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine is getting short-changed – once again.
For politicians to earn the trust of the people in such circumstances is questionable. Instead, it is the wrath of the people they will inherit by obtaining their votes promising to do one thing, and then doing something quite different.
Parliament is in turmoil today. Not that the situation therein was wholly unexpected. The January 8 Presidential election was meant by the Opposition to derail the otherwise unstoppable Mahinda Rajapaksa juggernaut, but what was to follow was a period of uncertainty. It was a jump into the dark unknown, a desperate dive away from a regime that was not listening to saner counsel.
The UNP Government is a minority Government thrust into office virtually by default in a wild cohabitation coalition. Coalition politics is often troublesome, and the coalition partners could not wait 100 days before tripping up the Government with ‘leg breaks’, deriving vicarious pleasure in seeing the Government fall on its face. Not that the Government is blameless. It covered up the early faux pas when it should not have done so, and did little to win the support of coalition partners. There was bickering from the beginning. Communications were weak and back channels non-existent. The Presidential system that was introduced to stabilise the vagaries of Parliamentary instability has gone with the wind.
Going for early dissolution of Parliament to clear the decks and get a fresh mandate from the people may not necessarily be the answer to the existing fluid situation in the apex of the country’s political canvas. Given the split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and weakness of all political parties at the electorate-level, a hotchpotch result, a hung Parliament, no different to what exists today, is the likely outcome of an early election.
Even with the disarray in Parliament today, not knowing who is the Government and who is the Opposition, it might be still a better option to get some elements of a Common Programme through with greater consultation among the parties and leave elections for a little later. When a Government boasts that it has done so much during its 100 days, with a view to earning votes, it would naturally raise the ire of the Opposition that would ask why they need give their Parliamentary support to one party that is claiming the credit for the passage of all the legislative good work.
Going headlong into a general election is no guarantee of a clear mandate to be won by one party in the next Parliament. When the UNP was preparing to implement the Presidential system in 1978, Mr. Mahatantila had also suggested that a Presidential candidate renounce his party allegiance once elected. That proposal got submerged in the whirlpool of party politics. The UNP felt the party would gain by having the Head of State, and Head of Government as the leader of their party. They were to face the whiplash of that for twenty years between 1994 and 2015 except for a brief interregnum.
Today, we can witness President Sirisena, though elected just three months ago, with his back to the wall, fighting a rearguard battle to win the support of his own party, and at the same time trying to ensure victory for his party (SLFP) over the party that brought him to office (UNP).
There is some merit in the ‘Mahatantila’ recommendation as we have seen how partisan elected Presidents can get, and the crying need for a Head of State to be above the parochial political fray with the nation – not so much the party as his priority; a Head of State who can be a unifying force rather than a divisive office for the nation.