No need to abolish the Presidential system?



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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana


To argue against the prevailing popular ‘fashion’ is no easy task, but do hope I would be listened to for the simple reason that, sometimes, the solution could be more of a problem than the original problem itself. Though the majority of the ordinary citizens are concerned about mundane issues like the cost of living as pointed out in a number of recent Island editorials, the majority of intellectuals clamour for the abolition of the executive presidency and are ready to jump to the illogical conclusion that all our current ills are due to the delay in achieving this task. They consider the abolition of the executive presidency the panacea. Would replacing a ‘dictatorial’ president with a ‘dictatorial’ prime minister solve problems? Wouldn’t it be better to have two powerful politicians sharing power than one with unfettered powers? The most pertinent question is whether the fault lies in the executive presidency or the holder thereof and if it is the latter, perhaps what is needed is the modification of the institution than total abolition.


When JRJ introduced the presidential system of government, following the unprecedented victory, winning five-sixths of the seats in the parliament at the 1977 general election, it was generally accepted that it would facilitate development. JR was sworn in as the first executive president on 4 February 1978 and six months later he amended the Constitution giving him virtually unlimited power. Most of us were hopeful that JR would not misuse unfettered powers but were still sceptical because we could not foresee what his successors would do. However, to the astonishment and great disappointment of even his ardent supporters, JR started misusing his powers proving correct the old adage, attributed to the nineteenth century British historian Lord Acton; ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’


JR’s misdeeds are often highlighted but what he achieved for the country like saving the economy that was nose-diving owing to the misguided socialist policies and completing the mega Mahaweli scheme in six years instead of the planned thirty years as well as laying the foundations for the tourist industry, to name a few, are hardly spoken of. I am not trying to justify his actions like extending the life of the parliament with a referendum but, again, it was partly our fault as most of us did not have the courage to vote against it maybe because of the high esteem we had for JR.


Anti-presidency feelings have since gathered momentum and several presidents have got elected with the promise that executive presidency would be abolished. In spite of knowing that this is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, we have voted them to power. Even those who did not vote for President Sirisena were moved by the wonderful acceptance speech he made but the irony is that he seems to have forgotten what he said that day!


Much has been written about the disadvantages of the presidential system, which needs no repetition, what has the country achieved because of that institution? Mahinda Rajapaksa used the presidential powers to eradicate terrorism for which we should be eternally grateful to him. He had to fight not only terrorists but the UNP as well, which instead of supporting the government at a time of great peril when the territorial integrity of the country was at stake, was ridiculing not only the government but also, more importantly, our services fighting terrorism.


Unashamedly, now they have formed a grand coalition, not to save the country but themselves.


The second instance is the exposure of the biggest day-light robbery in our history. What would have happened had President Sirisena transferred all the executive powers, the day after the election to the Prime Minister? During the previous presidential election, in an interview recorded for an European Tamil TV channel, when the interviewer asked Ranil how Tamils could be assured that all his undertakings would be met, the reply was: "The day after General Fonseka is elected President, he will transfer all executive powers to the Prime Minister and I will honour the pledges as the executive prime minister. He did not speak about a PM and a cabinet of ministers! This is what prompted my earlier question; "Would replacing a dictatorial president with a dictatorial prime minister help solve our problems?"


As for the bond-scams, President Sirisena can be rightly blamed for not taking prompt action. However, when he realised that inaction would cause irreparable damage to his reputation, which is important as he is now considering the prospect of seeking re-election contrary to his pledges, he appointed the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. No doubt, the UNP will do its damnedest to delay, discredit and distort the report but in the court of public opinion they stand condemned thanks to President Sirisena. I say this with confidence because I have noticed a drastic change in the attitude of my friends and relations who have so far blindly supported the UNP.


Can a change in the presidential system help rebuild our nation? It certainly can if we stop the constitution-making process and look for capable persons to run the country. As elected representatives of both major political parties have failed to deliver and proved to be equally incompetent and corrupt, it is time to give a chance to the unelected technocrats to serve the nation. The elected executive president, in consultation with the Prime Minister elected by the Parliament should appoint ‘technocrats’ as cabinet ministers. No parliamentarian will hold cabinet positions, except the PM, but all will serve on committees focusing on their expertise, if any, to support the cabinet of ministers. Of course, strict criteria for these cabinet appointments as well as vetting and approval procedures need to be established. Instead of patch-work solutions, the situation we find ourselves in demands radical action.


The UNP is fattening itself so that Ranil can contest the next presidential election. If the SLFP is divided Ranil will benefit. In politics, reunion is not impossible even after back-stabbing. Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena should shake hands, retire as ex-presidents and allow a new candidate to emerge from their party. That is the only way to ensure that the voters have a clear choice. May be I am dreaming but, sometimes, dreams come true!


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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