It’s time we realised the executive presidential system has let us down

Thursday, 27 April 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ) published a piece recently for one of the national dailies selecting the caption, ‘Meethotamulla and the Fate of the Executive Presidency’. A very creative act of connection! The writer goes even further by linking the two with the recent Turkish referendum that invested President Erdogan with the complete powers of a dictator, the power to set aside decisions of the elected Parliament and rule by decree and the power to appoint judges.

It is not clear which of the three phenomena provoked Dayan to write this time. I guess it was Erdogan’s triumph that impressed Dayan more than Meethotamulla. With a result that was almost 50-50 despite all the official weight against the Opposition, the detention of thousands of Opposition supporters and the murder of some of them, that victory was certainly pyrrhic, leaving the Opposition in a state of disbelief.Untitled-2

 In this day and age I am astonished that men and women of liberal education would raise their hands for leaders like Erdogan, Pinochet and our own ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ brands.

First, DJ places the blame for the tragedy at Meethotamulla solely on the Yahapalanaya Government. Of course, the Government of the day has first to account for serious incidents of this sort. To put it more precisely, the Colombo Municipality, the Western Provincial Council and the relevant ministry of the central Government must be blamed. That is for not anticipating this collapse and taking immediate action before it occurred. Granted. (Incidentally, the garbage tragedy shows the uselessness of the Provincial Council system on which large sums of public money is being squandered.)

However, what Dayan fails to do is complete a deeper analysis on the issue and hold the previous Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa responsible for letting this unsavoury dumping go on in the middle of the city. 

It was a 100-meter-high dump and so this would not have come up in the last two years of this Government. An editorial in the aforementioned national daily on 19 April 2017 makes this point clearly. The editorial responds to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comment that his Government was about to act on Meethotamulla but was halted by its electoral defeat. ‘How unfortunate that was!’ we might chorus. A few more months for MR and the job would have been done. Acknowledging the proclivity of the previous regime for harsh methods and for impunity regarding procedure, that would have been like selling peanuts at Galle Face.

This is exactly why when DJ makes the jump from Meethotamulla and whines for a ‘strong’ Executive Presidency, his argument is flawed. The catastrophic build-up of the garbage mountain occurred precisely during the period of the pure Executive Presidency!

Despite 10 years of dictatorial executive presidential rule, the Rajapaksa Government had failed to be quick about this growing time bomb. Dayan’s case for the retention of the Executive Presidency flops at its very premise.

DJ states:”It seems imperative to retain the Executive Presidency to put in place the kind of strong leader who has the foresight and ability to save us from yet another such catastrophe by timely and determined action. It would be fortunate if the country had the choice of a person who has proven successful in matters of conceptualising and managing urban development and renewal, to work the same developmental miracle on a national scale, leaving no garbage dump, literal or metaphorical, uncleared. We need a man who strategised, organised, cut through red tape and managed to clear all ‘uncleared’ areas.” 

This is an obvious reference to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. DJ is sure Gota, if in power, will create the “miracle that he created in Colombo” on a national scale. 


‘Cosmetic changes’

One must surely give Gota the credit for some landscape changes in a few parts of Colombo. On the other hand, these achievements were on a small scale and they were superficial cosmetic touches. What on earth is conceptual or strategic about this? If he had strategic vision, Gota should have given priority to fundamental urgent needs like a modern garbage disposal project or a modern sewerage project (the sewerage system in Colombo is also at a bursting point). 

As respected economist Nimal Sanderatne constantly states in his Sunday Times column, what we need on the national scale is a transformation in the very structure of the economy from an import-dependent economy to an export growth-led one. This macro change can only be delivered by domestic and foreign investment and this demands an environment which encourages that process. Such a fundamental structural change alone will deliver better standards of living to the rural and urban masses of the country. Gota’s Colombo development doesn’t give any clue about his knowledge and vision regarding these matters of the national economy.

Besides the above considerations, there is the moot point that Gota must first have his name cleared of current charges of fraud, embezzlement and murder. As long as such serious charges are on the table, no one with any head will support the candidature of Gota.

The assumption behind the demand for the retention of the Executive Presidency is that such a President can act quickly and efficiently in public policy matters. It seems counterintuitive to challenge that and to assert that it is a myth. However, it is true. One can place different forms of public policy decision-making on a spectrum with one end being the practice where decisions are made by one person and the other end being the practice where decisions are made openly after broad consultation. Better decisions are more likely to come under an open system as it is bound to capture the collective wisdom of a large group of people rather than relying on one or a few people. 

In the open process - exemplified by the Westminster system of a Prime Minister working with a Cabinet of Ministers, all responsible to Parliament - the decision-making process tends to be highly inclusive, allowing for a broad consensus to emerge.

Under good leadership it is not a difficult thing to arrive at a decision after an open discussion. On the other hand, everyone is likely to cooperate in implementing a decision made that way rather than arbitrarily by one person. 

The Executive President belongs to the arbitrary category in the spectrum. The very 10-year rule of the Rajapaksas is a good enough illustration to demonstrate how allocative decisions were poor; how projects meant to pander to the ego of the ruler were preferred to more urgently needed ones. This produced appalling White Elephants and reduced the country’s economy to an unsustainable position with mounting foreign debt ($ 57.4 billion) unable to be serviced given the revenue that the economy could yield. If not for the first tranche of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) it would not have been possible for the present Government to go on. That, plainly, had been the final economic and fiscal legacy of the Executive Presidency under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka never had a single year of trade surplus. Economic growth was basically debt-based.


Innate evils of Executive Presidency

DJ’s analyses conspicuously lack economic data. Economics and fiscal policy seem to be a blind spot for DJ. He dwells on Greek intellectuals and on theoreticians like Gramsci to leave his readers in a swirl. On the other hand, any political analysis which does not consider economic consequences is plainly void. Political science is part of political economy and the methodology of economics must be applied to political behaviour and political institutions. Politics is about power but power operates in a society and a society has to be economically operative. Good political power-play is that which enhances society and the economy.

Need I remind DJ and readers that even the 30-year war was a product of the era of an Executive President? Before that the space for consensus decision-making was available. Sri Lanka until 1977, when the Executive Presidency was installed, had made considerable social and economic progress under Westminster-type parliamentary rule. While our freedoms had been intact, we managed to build so many irrigation tanks, colonisation schemes, Madya Maha Vidyalayas, hydroelectric schemes, agricultural and farming projects and so on. Deadly malaria was eradicated and so was tuberculosis. On the other hand, under the previous regime we have not had even a modicum of progress at all in vital areas like education and health. 

Furthermore, governments under open systems are less prone to be corrupt, intolerant and abusive because checks and balances are inherent in open systems. 

Thus, when DJ states: ”A faction of the Government led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and supported by his TNA allies, proposes to weaken the Sri Lankan State by abolition of the Executive Presidency.” He invokes disbelief! At the same time, DJ smuggles in an element of racism by bringing in the TNA. It is not only Ranil Wickremesinghe and the TNA that want the Executive Presidency removed. Sixty-two lakhs of voters opted for it after the corruption and abuse record of the Sri Lankan experience with the Executive Presidency from the time of J.R. Jayawardena unto its logical end of disaster under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The disastrous climax of the rule of the Executive Presidency has not only resulted in a colossal economic black hole. Key Ministers of the previous regime are having to face the serious charges of murder, theft, fraud and embezzlement of public funds. The family of the President is being hauled up in court. The Joint Opposition has been transformed into a political mechanism to try and frustrate the judicial processes now ongoing. Dayan Jayatilleka is its unappointed theoretician but his theories are cracking and falling like flakes, he is hopelessly out of touch with reality to be able to offer any more remedies.

Jayatilleka attacks Yahapalanaya. However, conceptually Yahapalanaya is not something necessarily tagged to the current governing political parties. Yahapalanaya is a movement that transcends political parties (UNP or otherwise). It is a movement for good governance and for the modernisation of our society. Sri Lanka needs it now more than ever if it is to progress. If the current Government fails to achieve it at some reasonable level, the movement will push ahead towards its realisation, maybe by another Government committed to it. There is no going back to the dark ages.

(The writer can be reached via email at

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