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Of those Rip Van Winkles

Suddenly, the executive presidency has become the biggest problem in the country! We have had that institution for about one half of the post Independence period or 31 years. There have been five executive presidents –– JRJ (two-time), Premadasa, Wijetunga, Kumaratunga (two-time) and Rajapaksa. The UNP held that office for 16 years and the SLFP for 15 years so far.

JRJ did not create the executive presidency out of any love for the country or the benefit of future generations. His only goal was self-aggrandisement.

The over-concentration of power in one institution is not salutary but the executive presidency has, in spite of all its flaws, functioned as a stabilising political force at critical times. The PA government formed in 1994 with a razor thin majority would have collapsed within months of its formation but for the executive presidency. (However, it finally collapsed during its second term in 2001 in spite of President Kumaratunga's efforts to shore it up.)

The JVP, which is bitterly critical of the unbridled executive powers, was instrumental in having President Kumaratunga's presidential powers used to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNF government in 2004 on grounds of national security. Now, she regrets having done so!

Interestingly, the JVP demanded the abolition of the executive presidency as a condition for not contesting the presidential race in favour of the PA candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 and in 1999 it fielded a presidential candidate in protest against her refusal to honour her promise during the first term. However, in 2004, the JVP, in spite of its Chandrika bashing and much advertised opposition to the executive presidency, chose to contest a general election on the SLFP-led UPFA ticket and joined President Kumaratunga's Cabinet. The following year it left her government in a huff over a plan to set up a mechanism to share tsunami relief with the LTTE. So much for the JVP's aversion to the executive presidential powers!

It was thanks to the executive presidency that the UPFA government survived the JVP pull-out in 2005 and managed to muster the required numbers in Parliament on President Rajapaksa's watch to wage war against terrorism. The Rajapaksa regime would have fallen at crucial budget votes but for the presidential powers that attracted many Opposition MPs, who propped up the government during the war. A change of government would have led to a situation similar to that between 2001 and 2004, when the LTTE was appeased at the expense of the country's national security.

The UNP, which created the executive presidency, never wanted it scrapped until recently. The ethno-religious parties hailed it as an institution that stood them in good stead because the two main parties were dependent on the minorities to win presidential elections. But, some of them have changed their stand! It looks as if they had risen from a protracted slumber like Rip Van Winkle to realise that the executive presidency is a threat to democracy. Why?

They are trying to achieve a short term political goal––ousting the present government––unable to market any other slogan effectively. They, no doubt, have a right to do so in democratic politics. On the other hand, executive powers have been abused by all Presidents since 1978.

But, could the abolition of the executive presidency at this juncture be considered a national priority?

What about a strategy to counter a possible revival of the LTTE? Even the US has warned, in a recent travel advisory on Sri Lanka, of a potential danger of remnant LTTE cadres resuming attacks. If the executive presidency is done away with, will the country have political stability in the event of a hung Parliament to meet such threats and achieve progress? The first casualty of political uncertainty will be the national economy, which is picking up slowly but surely; and the beneficiary will be the separatist forces looking for an opportunity to make a comeback under a weak political leadership.

The abolition of the executive presidency is no simple task. Although no political institution is sacrosanct, in essaying such a project, its fallout needs to be properly assessed. Constitution making is different from changing footwear and that must not be attempted for political expedience. The 1972 Constitution did not last for more than six years and the one introduced in 1978 in its place has more amendments than the original text! And, worse, those who were instrumental in making it and hailed it as the best ever Constitution, are now all out to repeal it! Let them be forewarned that their inordinate rush to put the basic law of the land on the Procrustean bed of political appositeness may plunge the country into a far worse situation, if not utter chaos. Constitution making requires patience, consensus and a holistic approach devoid of greed for short term benefits. Above all, the rule of thumb is: Festina lente (make haste slowly).

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