Can we the people have a common understanding of what a strong executive and a strong government look like?

Tuesday, 4 August 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

After the experiences of the past, it is unlikely that any parliamentarian in Sri Lanka will give his or her party leader a signed and undated letter of resignation. Why then are voters asked to provide the President and parliamentarians with blank checks? – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


By Sakuntala Kadirgamar

In the run up to the Parliamentary Elections we hear several voices singing different siren songs about the need for a strong government and a strong leader, but the songs have the same tune.

The first such song tells us that a President who has been directly elected by the people with a strong mandate should not be obstructed. It is not clear who or what is obstructing the President: Is it the Constitution? Is it the Judiciary? Is it the Parliament? Is it the people who want to be heard when they believe that their representatives have lost sight of their interests? 

In constitutional democracies, these are referred to as checks and balances and civic activity, including the right to peaceful protest, which is an essential feature of democracies. But is Sri Lanka seeking to be an exceptional state that uses elections only to validate a president and not to hold the president and Parliament accountable?

Sri Lanka’s Presidents and their mandates

The people have directly elected all the presidents of Sri Lanka, with the exception of J.R. Jayewardene who came in as a Prime Minister and morphed into a president in 1978.

To refresh our memories, J.R. Jayewardene’s second terms as President in 1982 was secured with 52.91% of the vote while Ranasinghe Premadasa secured 53.3% of the vote in 1988, and 50.43% of the vote in 1989. In 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga secured 62.28% of the popular vote and in 1999, 51.12%. 

In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa secured 50.29% of the popular vote and in 2010, in the aftermath of the war, he secured 57.88% of the vote. In 2015 Maithripala Sirisena received 51.28% of the popular vote and in 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa received 52.25% of the popular vote. 

Given this history, we can say the resounding mandates were received only by Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she advocated for peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict in 1994, and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mandate in 2010 when he presented himself as the president who won the war and would usher in an era of peace. 

All the presidents received the constitutionally required majority of the popular votes but few can claim that they were transformative mandates. Furthermore, the people have also expressed their displeasure and eroding confidence in presidents, from time to time. Mandates given by the people may also be withdrawn.

JR’s siren song resurrected

Recently, pundits have resurrected the siren song of J.R Jayawardene when he introduced the Constitution, in 1978 – he too declared that the country needs a strong president who can act decisively. Jayawardene enjoyed an overwhelming Parliamentary majority – 4/5th of the Parliament was aligned to his party, he had the signed and undated letters of resignation of his party members at hand and so Parliament rubber-stamped legislation without a whimper. 

He and his Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, came from the same party and they were politically well-aligned. Yet, despite the power of the executive presidency and a supporting Parliament, he could not act “decisively” to prevent the burning of the Jaffna Library or prevent the pogrom in July 1983 although, the riots, in his own words, were the actions of a “few thugs”. 

The Executive President was however, able to act decisively in substituting a referendum for a general election, in eroding the rule of law and presiding over what was to the beginning of an era of robber baron capitalism and mega corruption, that continues unabated. 

The nimble and agile Parliament was deft at protecting its own perks and privileges that include handsome salaries, licenses to import luxury vehicles and pensions for life but it has not provided significant leadership regarding legislative and policy reforms.

Strong and decisive government

Strong and decisive government does not flow from the exercise of brute force and coercion and by trampling all dissent. That is best labelled as autocratic government or dictatorship. Strong and decisive government also stems from the use of intelligence and wise and reflective actions, from the use of ideas and knowledge and decisions are based on negotiations and compromises. 

The pandemic has tested governments all over the world but the ones that came through best are New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and Finland – with governments led by women committed to democracy.  They have provided decisive leadership without compromising on democracy, human rights and human security during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is nothing to indicate that they will not be equally successful in the post-pandemic era. They are empathetic to the needs of their people and that is the test of strong leadership.

Constitutional reforms

Sri Lanka has been talking about constitutional reforms for decades. When in Opposition, parties favour controlling the executive presidency and they support variations of “good governance”. When in Government, they want maximum powers to be nimble and agile.  This is nothing but a euphemistic code for “powers to be unaccountable and to enjoy impunity”.

Some pundits have also favoured scrapping the provincial councils as “they do not work and are ineffective”. That is true, and it is equally true that determined efforts have been made by all governments to make them ineffective. Parliament too, has recently demonstrated that it is riddled with corruption and violence – remember the vote buying and thuggery during the October 2018 coup? It has members who rarely, if ever, attend sessions but will claim benefits and who flip-flop on their voting records. 

A total of 215 members out of the 225-member Parliament voted in favour of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, when it was fashionable to support democracy in 2015, and demonstrate that members of Parliament too supported the winds of change. Surely the focus must be in reforming these institutions and requiring competent and honourable people to be a part of these institutions, rather than scrapping them altogether?

We are told that 42 years have passed since the establishment of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency, and that all those who criticise this form of Government have still not been able to convince Sri Lankans of any ‘better option’. We had a better option in our well-established parliamentary democracy, and rather than rectifying its shortcomings, we threw the baby out with the bath water.

Sri Lanka’s governance record

Sri Lanka’s governance record speaks for itself. What have we achieved during this 42-year period? We have seen the rift between the majority communities and the minorities grow wider. There were high levels of violence that should have been addressed through political solutions. We will grapple with the legacy of the war, including its societal damage for years to come. 

Inequality has increased. Corruption has increased and people’s trust in their leaders is low. The few advantages that Sri Lankans enjoyed by way of good human development indicators were provided, not under the nimble leadership of an omnipotent executive presidency, but under a Parliamentary system of government. I ask again, what has been the positive, enduring legacy of the executive presidency in Sri Lanka?

Alexander Hamilton argued that ‘A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the Government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution, and a Government ill-executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad Government’.

Bad government in its worst form 

But as the world confronts a variety of feeble-minded executives who exercise muscular powers without constitutional or moral restraints, we face the prospects of bad government in its worst form – a tyranny from which there is no swift recovery. 

After the experiences of the past, it is unlikely that any Parliamentarian in Sri Lanka will give his or her party leader a signed and undated letter of resignation. Why then are voters asked to provide the President and Parliamentarians with blank checks?  Sri Lanka needs strong democratic government and leaders strongly committed to democracy. Is that too much for citizens to ask?

(The writer is Executive Director, Law and Society Trust.)

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