Betrayal of a liberal and entrenching family politics via the Constitution

Friday, 1 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga

By Samantha Ratwatte 

In the post-1948 history of our country, President Chandrika Kumaratunga perhaps is the only leader while having inherited a political legacy who opted not to involve her family in politics though endowed with a progeny of her own in addition to a large family circle.

The quintessential liberal democrat she was, she may have believed that in doing so she would encourage others to follow. She also may have believed that this act of hers would have the same irreversible effect similar to her Democratic reforms.

However, President Kumaratunga’s post retirement temperament seemed to display a certain illiberality in contrast to her presidential self. This resulted in the people of this country refusing to value her contribution of standing firm by this conviction of hers just as much as not appreciating her ushering in irreversible democratic reforms such as permitting press freedom of a nature hitherto unknown to the country.

For instance, how many would even remember, leave alone appreciate, the fact that private TV stations were permitted to relay news only after she became the leader of this country and political debate even on State television was a phenomenon at least in the initial stages of her presidency?

President Kumaratunga also realigned the post-’77 SLFP to become a more liberal minded party than its predecessor of the ’70-’77 era by introducing a combination of a market economy along with the State sector which model was used very effectively by her successor to deliver unprecedented economic growth.

Her successor however, revived the tradition of relying on family members started by the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes which President Kumaratunga had refused to follow, to create an effective team to defeat terrorism while sustaining economic progress.

So much so, many believed justifiably , that it was in fact key members of the family being in positions of power that helped defeat terrorism and to achieve rapid economic development which previously eluded the country.

Be that as it may, a key reason given by those who campaigned for regime change in 2015 was the need to end the phenomenon of members of the same family being in politics or holding positions appointed politically.

Ironically this is something that is fashionably detested in others but actively promoted by persons who have any kind of progeny with or without any legacy to handover as can be seen even from the post 2015 political landscape.

Thus, one cannot help but believe those who decry this phenomenon, have made a virtue out of necessity due to the absence of any progeny to speak of, as some who do have a progeny but woefully lack any worthwhile legacy have not hesitated to bring their family members into politics or positions through political patronage.

Examples of those with a legacy would vary from the Senanayakes to the Bandaranaikes, to the Jayawardene-Wickremasinghes to the Premadasas, to the Rajapaksas, while the lesser known ones are too numerous to mention. 

Uncompromising liberal mindedness 

Given this scenario, Kumaratunga’s uncompromising liberal mindedness has to be appreciated despite the more adventurous nature of that thinking made her undertake the unenviable task of accommodating even the most outrageous demands of certain communal minded leaders who claimed to represent the Tamil-speaking people. She bent over backwards to accommodate these unreasonable demands for the sake of peace.

Despite having done all this the so called sole representatives of the Tamils displaying their true ungrateful nature, left her with a permanent injury for the rest of her life and rejected concessions no other leader could have persuaded their parties to concede.

The fact that the terrorist elements out of these communal leaders faced annihilation subsequently under the leadership of her successor putting an end to their holding the State to ransom, should not be a reason to forget the effort she made to achieve the impossible of appeasing the unappeasable while lulling the rest of the country into a deep liberal democratic slumber.

Democratic stand

Though these were some of the pros and cons of President Kumaratunga’s rule in her march towards ensuring the removal of the ‘democratic deficit’ she inherited, her contribution of opting to put a stop to the continuation of the Bandaranaike legacy stands out as her singular principled liberal democratic stand.

What is the value of this private endeavour of hers in today’s context?

Was it appreciated by those of whom she supported to assume powers of Governance on 8 January 2015 by creating the necessary political and legal environment to prevent family politics being brought into the national agenda once again?

Or did they shirk the opportunity of building upon the true liberal values bestowed on the Country by President Kumaratunga by continuing to insult the intelligence of the masses?

It is one thing to state falsehoods for mass consumption assuming some would be stupid enough to believe such in the short term for the purpose of capturing State power.

However, assuming that the masses would continue to be gullible and attempt to suppress the Democratic will of the people by reversing democracy using the mechanism of anti-democratic legislation will be seen through by the people sooner or later.

The continued abuse of the word “democracy “ to hold on to State power depriving the franchise of the people against the will of the masses has up to now been patiently tolerated by the masses probably due to the “democratic overdose” received during the Kumaratunga era.

19th Amendment

Whether or not suitable laws would be placed one day in the future, for the present, the primary law passed by those who were up in arms against family politics and who claimed that the 19th Amendment would take us to the “Good Governance” utopia has to be examined. 

If I were to say the 19th Amendment hyped by the NGO types and the lefties who promoted it as the remedy to a plethora of ailments that this country had, including that of family politics, has created an absolute necessity for family politics and has entrenched the same, making it impossible for anyone other than members of a close knit family to govern this country, will the fathers of the 19th Amendment disagree?

Will they give a rationally argued answer without getting into a diatribe?

Or will they deny paternity and render the 19th Amendment an orphan?

Or, better still, will they argue that an exception to the members of such a family would be close knit friends from the same batch of a particular school?

The truth is no other combination other than a family or such close knit friends would be able to make any progress under the 19th Amendment due to the Executive power being scattered and primarily vested in the president and the prime minister separately. 

The powers so scattered and vested unless combined with purpose would always hinder progress of the country. 

The following provisions of the Constitution would be sufficient to demonstrate this;

  • Article 30 – Makes the President Head of the State, Head of the Executive and of the Government and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He also declares war and peace.
  • Article 42 (3) – The President shall be a member of the Cabinet and the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers. This means that the holding of Cabinet meetings have to be facilitated by the President.
  • Article 43(3) – President can, at any time, change the assignment of subjects and functions and composition of the Cabinet of Ministers.
  • Article 33 (2) (a) – President makes a Statement of Government Policy in Parliament at the commencement of a session and that function is not with the Prime Minister.
  • Article 43(1) – President has the power to determine the number of ministers and their respective subjects and functions. 


  • Article 43(2) – President can only appoint ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister. This means, as the President is not free to appoint anyone he pleases without the Prime Minister’s consent.
  • Article 50(1) – President has the power to appoint secretaries to the ministries.

Thus, we have a situation where, though the Prime Minister may decide who should be a minister, the subjects and the functions of such ministers would be decided by the President. 

The assignment of secretaries to those ministries would also be by the President. 

Therefore, without the absolute cooperation of both the Prime Minister and the President, no ministry would be able to function. 

No promise by any presidential candidate of any ministerial appointment can be kept without the concurrence of the Prime Minister.

If the President and Prime Minister do not agree on the Government Policy the Government will have to function without a declared policy.

The president can keep on appointing secretaries whom he wants and the ministers appointed with the concurrence of the Prime Minister would have to carry out their program of work through these Secretaries whose appointment and removal is at the absolute discretion of the President.

The Cabinet of Ministers can be shifted at the whim and fancy of the President if he does not agree with the Prime Minister similar to the shifting of secretaries. He can also assign many subjects to a few ministers and make many of the other ministers not hold any portfolios!

Executive power scattered all over the place

We find separation of power used as a method to balance each arm of the State, namely, the Executive, Legislative and the Judicial arms of the State to ensure one does not overwhelm the other in order to deliver effective safeguards to the people by preventing the abuse of power.

This feature is found in other Constitutions such as the American Constitution. 

However, nowhere in the world does one find (other than in the present 19th Amendment of Sri Lanka), a situation where Executive power is scattered all over the place in a manner that weakens the State and makes governance impossible.

Under the 19th Amendment each arm exercising Executive power is able to countermand what the other arm does.

In fact, the 19th Amendment as presently drafted makes disruption of governance the easier option than acting in a manner that complements the functions of a President and a Prime Minister when they don’t agree with each other. 

It would be particularly so in a situation where two persons have divergent views on matters of policy or are attempting to overwhelm each other politically such as in a situation where a Prime Minister is ambitious to get into the position of the President. 

Therefore, if not for better governance, even for basic governance under the 19th Amendment, the Prime Minister should ideally be not capable of becoming a President one day. 

That would prevent the Prime Minister trying to undermine what the President does and the President not being threatened by the Prime Minister’s political designs. 

Thus, unless there is absolute understanding between the President and the Prime Minister, it would be impossible to run this country.

Therefore, these two key positions, unless handled by members of the same family, it would be impossible for the country to be governed.

A grave matter such as prosecuting a war to defeat terrorism would never take off ground without the consensus of these two.

‘Constitutional Coup’

The question as to why such an Amendment was brought in such a hurry is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it was brought looking solely at the short-term requirement of depriving certain probable contenders to the topmost posts of the country the ability to get there by the process of rearranging the law to suppress the democratic will of the people.

This may have been the reason why the bigger picture was missed by the lefties and the NGO types who usurped the powers of the UNP to make this country ungovernable without family rule.

Thus those who came to power with the able assistance of a liberal-minded lady who voluntarily gave up a family political legacy have betrayed her ideal and created a Constitution that entrenches family politics.

By incorporating clauses in the Constitution of the Country as well as the Party Constitution that ensures Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Party Leader automatically being able to hold on to the Prime Minister’s post in the event of a victory, the opportunity for the ordinary voter to elect Premadasa as a President leaving out the incumbent Prime Minister has been foreclosed. 

The situation of Premadasa can be summed up as follows: “If you lose you lose alone and I continue to lead the UNP and become the Leader of the Opposition. If you win, it is our victory and I continue to be the Prime Minister and make governance impossible unless you agree to what I say!”

Can anyone perform a better ‘Constitutional Coup’ than this?

Thus, anyone, including those who were genuinely convinced of the need to change the pre-2015 Government for better governance will now be compelled to vote for a workable combination if they do not wish to have a dysfunctional government which would cause further harm to the country.

The traditional classes of the United National Party under President Jayawardena had enough and more capable people to draft Constitutional provisions or laws, if necessary, to deprive opponents of the ability to get into political office without causing detriment to governance itself. 

Unfortunately, the post-’77 new rich classes created by the UNP had to import redundant lefties cheered on by NGOs to achieve the task of keeping the most potent opponent out (which has now been achieved) by emasculating the Constitution and creating a weak and ungovernable State which can only be remedied by appointing close knit family members as a President and a Prime Minister.

The moral of this whole saga is that one must not use a Constitution to achieve immoral political ends depriving citizens of their democratic choice (however bitter their choice may taste to the liberal tongue) but if one is really desperate and must do so, the task must not be left in the hands of the mediocre. 

It is hoped one day in the future this country will create a constitution that does not target individuals but would cater to the future and better governance of the country in the true liberal Democratic spirit of President Kumaratunga.