The presidency and the dilemma of the Presidential Election

Friday, 23 August 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


J.R. Jayewardene created a presidential system not because the parliamentary system of governance that preceded it had failed. He wanted to take over all the powers of the State and assume the status of ancient kings who ruled the country in the past. 

There were instances in which President Jayewardene had described himself as a king. Addressing a meeting at the Biyagama Free Trade Zone on 31 May 1987, he made the following statement comparing himself to a king: “During the 2,500 years of history, our country maintained equal status with other powerful countries in the world. In 1815, we surrendered our kingdom to the British and we came under the rule of the king of Great Britain. I am the successor of that dynasty.” (The Daily News, 2 June 1988)

The President of the USA is considered the most powerful president in the world. Yet he is also governed by the common law of the country. The US Supreme Court has the authority to pronounce invalid the acts committed by the President that contravene the law of the country. But the presidency of Sri Lanka had been designed in a manner that the President stands over and above the law of the country. 

As per  Clause 35 (1) of the Constitution “while any person holds office as President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity.” The Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the president. This blanket immunity conferred on president was not only against the rule of law, but also it enabled the president to defend his own political group in addition to defending himself.  

Authorising the MPs to transact business with the State can be considered the most serious offence committed by President J.R. Jayewardene during his regime. It was as a result of this tendency that the plundering of common property had become a permanent feature in the State rule of Sri Lanka.  

Further, it was J.R. Jayewardene who introduced the tradition of creating business opportunities and granting revenue sources for his close relatives and constructing private museums using public funds. Unfortunately, we have forgotten the corruption that took place during that period. There is no doubt that President Jayewardene did many good things as well. But the damage and destruction he had caused to the country, particularly to the political system, is substantial. 

Clipping the powers of the presidential system 

Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to clip the powers of the presidential system not because he was disappointed about the corrupt nature of the system, but because he felt that he would not be able to contest and win an islandwide election. However, if Wickremesinghe had contested the Presidential Election 2015, despite the fact that there could have been some objections initially, still there was a chance for him to overcome the objections and win the election. But he lacked the self-confidence needed to do that. That is why it became necessary for him to bring a common candidate from outside to win the election. 

Following the election victory, what he did was bring an amendment to the Constitution to clip the powers of the presidential system and get ruling power into his hands. In doing so, he adopted a tactical and disgusting process. According to the Constitution it was not possible to abolish the powers of the presidency only by a two-thirds approval of the Parliament without a referendum. There was also a Court ruling to that effect. 

But, disregarding all these restrictions, and ostensibly deceiving everyone else, he was able to get the executive powers held by the president transferred to the Cabinet of ministers headed by him. Yet, he couldn’t effect this change in an inclusive and orderly manner. There were serious flaws and drawbacks in the 19th Amendment approved deceptively and in a hurry. 

One serious flaw was that despite the powers of the president being clipped and the official status of the president being reduced to a level of a nominal head, the method of selecting him has not been changed to be compatible with the other changes. The system of electing the president by public vote in an election held treating the entire country as a single electorate has not been changed. Usually, it is only the executive presidents who are elected this way through a countrywide election in which the entire country is treated as a single electorate. Nominal presidents without executive powers are usually selected by nomination or by a simple voting committee. 

Perhaps it may not be due to an omission that the system of electing the president had not been changed. Apparently, it can be a deliberate act to hide the true nature of the amendment from the president. Whatever it is, the end result of this process is extremely comical. The president is a nominal figurehead, but he is elected by an election held treating the entire country as one single electorate and also incurring a massive cost. 

Though four years have elapsed since this serious change was made to the system of governance, it is strange that not only the general public but also the intelligentsia are not aware of the gravity of this change. They may have had some knowledge of it. Yet it appears to have been kept as a secret deliberately. It is only after four years of the enactment of the 19th Amendment that the general public and even the intelligentsia have come to know that the next president will be only a nominal head without executive powers. It was only when the heat of the next Presidential Election came to the fore that they have begun to be conscious of it. Yet, even now, the presidential candidates themselves do not seem to have a proper understanding of the actual status of the next president.

Stupidity of ‘Good Governance’

By the time the internal war came to an end, the Sri Lankan State, its institutional system and society in general had reached the maximum level of dilapidation, debilitation and distortion. Both the State and its institutional system were in a state of degeneration replete with extreme corruption. The social system too had reached an extremely distorted level. 

After winning the internal war, the crisis that overwhelmed the country should have been overcome by implementing a well-planned reforms program of structural changes to recreate the State which had been degenerated by rampant corruption and society that had become insensitive and distorted in the face of violent conflicts. 

But, the leader who won the internal war or his Government lacked the imagination required for that. They knew only to suck the benefits of the victory of the war to the maximum level for their advantage. As an inevitable outcome of this situation, the crisis of the country became more intense than it was when the country was faced with the internal war. It was this situation that led to the defeat of the Government that won the war and it being replaced with the Yahapalana Government.

The most unfortunate thing that happened thereafter was that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who can be considered the mastermind of the Yahapalana regime, concentrated his full attention on a spurious program intended for abolishing presidential powers and transferred them onto him in a cryptic and spurious manner instead of focussing his attention on implementing a comprehensive program of structural reformations aimed at overcoming the crisis that the country was facing.

This situation has resulted in the crisis of the country being exacerbated to a level worse than it was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and also aggravated the confused   situation in the State and in society. While assuming the form of an ongoing crisis, it has affected the Presidential Election as well, making it a complex political dilemma that cannot be easily solved.

Podujana Peramuna – People’s Front  

One important impact the growing crisis has made on the society is that the people, to a great extent, have gotten used to looking at things more critically than ever before. This can be considered a positive feature added to society by the growing crisis. It appears to have made a significant impact on society. 

Obviously, a growing dislike against the corrupt political system and corrupt politicians whose survival depends on this system can be seen operative. This situation has eroded the recognition of traditional political parties and their leaders. It has equally affected the United National Party (UNP) and the Podujana Peramuna as well. 

The Podu Jana Peramuna has already named Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate; the UNP is yet to name its candidate. The Jathika Jana Balawegaya, which can be considered a conglomeration of various people’s organisations organised by the JVP, has named Anura Disanayake, the Leader of the JVP, as its candidate. 

Though Gotabaya Rajapaksa can be considered a formidable candidate, his candidacy is not clear yet. While there is a controversy over the new passport he has obtained and the NID used for that, it is not clear whether the question of his American citizenship has been resolved yet. Besides all these issues it is unavoidable to prevent the arising of situations in which he may be subjected to serious questioning on certain crimes being investigated.

Incidents involving the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, disappearance of Pradeep Eknaligoda, abduction of 11 youths demanding ransom and later killing them, abducting and assaulting journalists like Keith Noyahr, Poddala Jayantha and Upali Tennakoon and later leaving them on the road and attacking two TV institutions are among several such incidents. 

It is most likely and unavoidable that he, as the presidential candidate of the Podu Jana Peramuna, will be subjected to intense questioning with regard to these incidents. If he fails to prove that he has no connection directly or indirectly in these crimes, the adverse impact it will have on his political image cannot be avoided.

The biggest disadvantage that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will have to face in an election in which the entire country is treated as one single electorate is his inability to get the votes of the Tamils and Muslims. These two ethnic groups consider him a politician of Sinhalese extremism. There is no strong recognition for Sinhalese extremism even among the Sinhalese population itself at present. It can be considered a continuously weakening trend.

United National Party 

The United National Party is in an unusual crisis. It has failed to enhance its recognition and image after gaining ruling power. Though the UNP made a big noise against the corruption and violence of the Rajapaksa regime, it failed miserably to enforce the law against any person in this regard. Instead, it adopted a policy of defending them directly or indirectly.

It failed to, at the very least, even ensure justice for Lasantha Wickrematunge who can be considered to have sacrificed his life for the sake of the UNP. The most ludicrous thing of the UNP was its failure to keep the Government free of corruption. On the Central Bank bond scam, not only the Government, but also the Leader of the UNP ruined his image to the maximum extent. Despite being able to ensure the victory of the common candidate it brought to the fore for the Presidential Election, it failed to work with him with proper understanding and cooperation.

It ignored the most essential reforms needed for overcoming the crisis that the country is facing. The main focus of Ranil Wickremesinghe was not on the intense crisis the country is facing, but on the transfer of executive powers over to him. Even that could have been made part of a program for introducing necessary reforms for the country; but his main concern was not the country but himself.

Instead of making a beneficial change in the corrupt conduct of the MPs, he adopted a policy that led to promoting their corrupt behaviour. He did not perform an effective role even to solve the ethnic crisis. Instead of taking the unique location of the country into consideration and following a sound foreign policy that would enhance the security and recognition of the country, he adopted a policy that would thrust the country increasingly into the grip of the powerful nations. Further, he followed a wasteful policy which aggravated the indebtedness of the country when it was sunk deep in a serious financial crisis. The damage caused to the Constitution and the system of governance by the UNP Government is immense.

It can be said that selecting a candidate for a Presidential Election without creating a big split in the party has become a difficult problem. Ranil does not like Sajith to become the next president. It is not because of Sajith’s regressive attitude, but his suspicion that if Sajith becomes the president, he will be a nuisance for him like Maithripala Sirisena whilst at the same time posing a challenge to his leadership of the party. This is why he doesn’t want Sajith to be the presidential candidate. Ranil is well versed with the 19th Amendment. It is difficult to understand why he is scared of Sajith becoming the next president, knowing very well that it will be only a nominal post without any executive powers. 

Alternate movements 

There are several other candidates desirous of contesting the Presidential Election and making a change in the corrupt system that prevails in the country. Except for the JVP, all the other independent presidential hopefuls cannot be considered as having a people’s base and a political history. Except for their overconfidence about themselves, they cannot be considered to have a deep understanding about the magnitude of the crisis the country is facing. The most ludicrous aspect here is the apparent ignorance of all candidates that they are contesting for a nominal post which does not have executive powers. 

The JVP announced its presidential candidate at a public rally held by the National People’s Power Movement, attended by a massive crowd which was substantial enough to fill almost the entire ground of the Galle Face Green. It can be considered a good start. But it is unclear whether it would help it to achieve a significant result at the polls. 

The JVP always had the unique organisational ability to bring in a large crowd from among its voters for any special meeting organised by it. There was a big attraction for the meetings held and the propaganda campaign launched by Wijeweera at the 1982 Presidential Election campaign. The JVP supporters attended almost all Wijeweera’s meetings irrespective of the distance they had to travel. Wijeweera, having seen the crowds coming for his meetings, formed an over-assessment of the result of the election. But the ultimate result was not what he expected. 

The JVP’s way of thinking is still traditional. Those who do the same thing as others do cannot be expected to bring about big changes. Had it been able to think creatively, the JVP would have been able to turn this historical moment into a unique opportunity to open new vistas to change the future path Sri Lanka. But it lost the opportunity to change the corrupt system in the country and achieve a better result in a Parliamentary Election. It is still not too late to make a review of this possibility.

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