Executive Presidency:Single Issue or Non-Issue?


by Rajan Philips

The law of presidential terms seems to work in funny ways in Sri Lanka. A limited term system usually turns an incumbent into a lame duck in his final term. President Rajapaksa’s unlimited term seems to have turned him into a permanent lame duck, but more in its executive sense than in its political sense. Mahinda Rajapaksa is presiding over a government that is abusing its power even to the extent of trying to change the intent of legislation through extraordinarily surreptitious gazette extraordinaire. That is what the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education is alleged to have done in regard to the University Act of 1978. By substituting the word "may" for "shall" the Secretary tried to remove the mandatory requirement that higher education institutions granting professional degrees must be accredited by the respective professional bodies. Administrative purists would consider this to be a far more heinous white collar crime than what the PM’s office pipsqueak did writing to the customs to clear for his buddy a shipment of heroin from Pakistan.

The FUTA and the GMOA had to ask Prof. Carlo Fonseka to intercede with the President, and the good Professor did and got the President to order "cancellation" of the gazette notification. As has happened on so many other instances, rather than the government and the President being given a tongue lashing, the President is given credit for listening and changing. And the Secretary, who is supposed to have been behind the sneaky tweaking of the gazette, continues in his position without any question or reprimand. Government officials have got used to making mischief knowing there will be no consequences, no accountability, because the interminable presidency has become permanent lame duck – in the executive sense.

In the American system, being a lame duck applies in the political sense - to a President in his second and final term, who is unable to get anything done through Congress. Worse still, he might be unable to get his own party to support his initiatives. But the system of government and administration continues, regardless of political paralysis. If President Obama is not able to help his Party win, or at least hold its current seats, in the mid-term elections to the House and a third of the Senate, in November this year, his presidential effectiveness would be all but dead for the remaining two years of his second term.

President Rajapaksa doesn’t face any such political problem. There is no mandated mid-term election in Sri Lanka, but President Rajapaksa makes up elections (local, provincial, parliamentary, or presidential) as he goes, and wins them handily. Come March, he has two (Western and Southern) Provincial Council election victories to savour, almost the day after tasting a likely third defeat in Geneva. Like two weddings after a funeral. Like, as well, the two faces of the Rajapaksa regime: electorally invincible at home, isolated and exposed abroad.

The creation surpassing the creator

To the extent a lame duck presidency pre-supposes imminent succession, Sri Lanka’s permanent lame duck presidency is inspiring permanently tentative challengers. It is as if everyone wants to be a candidate but nobody wants to contest. The next presidential election has long been touted as the election of the single-issue candidate, the sole issue being the abolishment of the executive presidency, now formally abbreviated as EP. In one sense, every serious candidate will be running on a single-issue: Victory. That at least would be the sole issue for the Rajapaksa clan, if not the President himself, who being human might be getting close to the point of being tired of the presidency. But he will not be allowed to retire by those close to him, because they need him – as President. Otherwise, they are nobodies. Their days under the Sri Lankan sun as somebodies will be permanently over when there is no President Rajapaksa.

It used to be said of President Mugabe that he was willing to step down many times but those close to him would hear none of it. The reality of authoritarianism is that the cabal becomes more powerful than the boss. In Sri Lanka, Colombo’s Tuesday Tea-threesome are more consequential than the President’s Thursday Cabinet. The hangers-on are in charge at every level, the president is a permanent lame duck at the centre. The Chief-Secretary in Jaffna is irremovable, but the elected Northern Provincial Council is dispensable.

In another sense (of the single issue), every potential candidate in the next presidential election is formally committed to abolishing the EP. The list starts with Mahinda Rajapaksa, for he too ran in 2005, if not in 2010, on the promise to abolish the EP. Apparently, according to those who bothered to read it, the Mahinda Chinthanaya enshrines Mahinda’s commitment to abolish the presidency. His predecessor was even more dramatically committed to abolishing the EP, but she ended up becoming the President of dramatically broken promises. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the latest political leader to join the bandwagon of abolishment. It is an indication of the state of his Party that it should decide after 36 years to dump its most signal creation, the Executive Presidency. The funny thing is the UNP has no way of getting rid of the EP. The EP has become much stronger and more durable than the UNP. The creation has surpassed the creator.

Although there is considerable truth in the assertion that the Executive Presidency is the main source of most of our current predicaments, there is no matching groundswell of opinion asking for its abolishment. The reason for the mismatch is the gap between the abstraction of pundits and analysts, on the one hand, and the concrete experiences of the people on the other. I have reminded before that neither the 1972 Constitution nor the 1978 Constitution resulted from popular demands for constitutional change, but were created by governments who used their massive electoral victories based on people’s economic dissatisfactions to create new constitutions. On the other hand, Chandrika Kumaratunga expressly campaigned for the abolishment of EP, but chose to benefit under it rather than abolish it. Mahinda Rajapaksa has turned the UNP’s creation into his personal instrument.

To their eternal discredit, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe, fighting like overgrown infantile delinquents, botched the one opportunity they had in 2000 to constitutionally end the EP in parliament. Is it too late now? As things are, the only person who is capable of abolishing the EP through constitutional means is Mahinda Rajapaksa. But why would he do it when there is no advantage to him, either politically or personally, in abolishing the presidency? He will perforce consider it if there is an unstoppable groundswell of opinion demanding the abolishment of EP. He will definitely abolish EP just to spite Chandrika Kumaratunga, if there is even half a chance that she could become President for the third time, contesting the next election.

Enter Sobitha Thero: Single Issue or Non-Issue?

There has been a stubborn mainstream media silence over the reported announcement of Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thero - of his willingness to come forward as a presidential candidate for the sole and limited purpose of abolishing the Executive Presidency. The seemingly curious silence, to my mind, is partly indicative of the media’s inclination to treat the issue of the Executive Presidency, not as the Single Issue, but a Non-Issue. To make things ‘curiouser’ the Ven. Thero chose a Tamil newspaper to make the announcement. While political pundits are waiting for the ‘reverse translation’ (from the formerly unofficial language to the always official language), the good Monk himself has not approached the broader media to make his intentions clearer, and less ‘curiouser’. However, it is known that Sobitha Thero has since confirmed the accuracy of his interview and his intentions to his group of advisers who see no salvation for Sri Lanka without the good riddance of the bad presidential rubbish.

Political news can bandy itself even without media coverage, and that is why formal or informal censorship never works. While the mainstream media has chosen to ignore Sobitha Thero, there is lively debate over his interview and its implications in the electronic alleyways. But the stubbornness of the media establishment to ignore Sobitha Thero came across eloquently in a national newspaper editorial that chose to refer to his announcement only in passing and that too without mentioning him by name. It does not matter whether the omission was out of religious reverence or political dismissiveness. Or, rather it does.

It does in the sense that political success has become the primary consideration in taking a political stand. In a society whose official ethos is supposedly based on that most chastening Buddhist principle of impermanence, political permanence has taken a stranglehold on people’s minds. If one is not assured of success against Mahinda Rajapaksa, there is no point paying attention. Your candidate cannot muster a million votes, so you are wasting my time making a case for her or him. Because one is not convinced by the worthiness of the alternatives, goes the argument, there is no alternative but to cheer the President and damn everyone around him.

Alternatively, the commonplace advice is to the leaders of the opposition parties to get their act together and get a common candidate, and the considered prediction is that the next presidential election would be more like the 1982 presidential election, that was also the first presidential election. In other words, a full slate of candidates will unsuccessfully run against the incumbent. The comparison to 1982 may not be a subliminal allusion to the horrors of 1983, but rather a conscious acceptance that the Executive Presidency has come to stay.

The more worrisome aspect is a new argument tying the Executive Presidency to the defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. For all its adverse and unintended consequences, the EP was often defended for the opportunity it is said to have given the minority nationalities to have a direct say in the election of the country’s Head of State and Head of Government. That argument has now fallen by the experiential wayside. The new argument, emanating from a source that should know better, unnecessarily implicates the Sinhalese people by venturing that they will not countenance the abolishment of the Executive Presidency because they will instinctively understand that the EP is the principal bulwark in the defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. What we have in the making is a dangerous companion to the insistent ‘unitary state’ argument! It will not be long before the new argument is appropriated by the Rajapaksas and they will have no compunction at all in taking the country’s future back to the 1980s, if not even further back. But the country deserves better.

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