The myth of taming the presidency: A response to Victor Ivan

Monday, 5 July 2021 01:42 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ 

– Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947 –

By Shiral Lakthilaka, AAL

Both of Victor Ivan’s claims place SJB MP Patali Champika Ranawaka at the centre



When I read the Daily FT Guest Column under the heading of the ‘Puzzles of Sri Lanka’s crisis’ by renowned journalist Victor Ivan on 18 June and his sequel to it on 25 June, the above wise words by Churchill came to my mind. 

Victor Ivan’s writings amply show that political system of our country’s social systems, especially, in terms of democracy and stability of the state that is at the brink of a virtual collapse. As a regular reader of his columns, I appreciate his stance and agree with his logic to some extent. 

Having spoken strongly and regularly about the ‘social decay and system failure’, by him and others, these ideas and their cornerstones are somewhat clear to this paper’s readership. However, the two issues that he presented in his 18 June column are quite new to the political discourse, and, I believe they need some scrutiny, due to their freshness and their importance to the politics in the country. 

Claims about Champika Ranawaka

Both of his claims have placed Patali Champika Ranawaka in the centre of them. First, he tries to show that it was Champika Ranawaka, who made the abolition of the executive presidency impossible. Second, he claims that Champika Ranawaka was the culprit, by extension, behind the Government’s ad hoc decision to ban synthetic fertiliser. 

The first of these claims, about the presidency, has been based on a seeming misinterpretation of facts, intentional or not. As a non-JHU campaigner in the presidential race of the common candidate, and later, an advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena, I would like to discuss Victor Ivan’s this claim a little closer. 

His second claim is farcical, if not malicious. Organic agriculture is an accepted and scientific way to grow our food, and the world is fast moving in that direction. According the World Food Organization’s current data, Organic Agriculture is “practised in 187 countries, and 72.3 million hectares of agricultural land were managed organically by at least 3.1 million farmers. The global sales of organic food and drink reached more than 106 billion euros in 2019”. It is one of the most popular trends in agriculture around the world. 

However, none of these statistics justify the Sri Lankan Government’s overnight policy U-Turn to ban fertiliser imports and practically push the country’s total agricultural sector off the cliff. This policy is outright wrong for the wrong implementation than the direction of it. Now what has Champika Ranawaka, who is an Opposition MP, has to do with it? I do not wish to waste the reader’s time by delving any further into this claim by Ivan. 

Yahapalana and executive presidency

Let me return to the first of his claims. Blaming the present folly on the past failures, Victor Ivan argues that it was Yahapalana regime’s failures that midwifed the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. Therefore, he alleges, that the actual culprits are not the present but the previous regime, which failed to close the door for Gotabaya Rajapaksa or any other to become President, by simply abolishing the presidency itself. 

Victor Ivan writes: “Why didn’t the Yahapalana Government abolish the presidential system in line with the aspirations of the people? The response I have received from some leaders of the Yahapalana Government was that at one point all the leaders except Champika Ranawaka were willing to abolish the presidential system and it had to be reversed due to the objection from Champika.”

Patali Champika Ranawaka represented one party that supported the common candidate and was a minster of that government. There are two facts that run against Ivan’s claim, which he bases on unnamed leaders of that Government. 

First, in his column on the 25th, he contradicts his own thesis advanced on the 18th by writing, “…the truth is that the common candidate had already abandoned the idea of abolishing the presidential system at the outset of the Presidential Election.” This is about the President of the country. 

Ivan must have had this knowledge even when he alleged that Champika Ranawaka was the reason behind the not abolishing the presidency in its entirety. So, one may wonder why he is trying to single out a Minister of that government, if Ivan had the knowledge that the leader of the Government was also against it? 

Further proof of Ivan’s knowledge of the lack of a people’s mandate for complete abolition is in the careful choice of words. He suggests that the executive presidency should have been abolished in terms of the ‘aspirations of the society’, and not in terms of a mandate given by the people. Because the election manifesto of the common candidate does not promise to abolish it in full, but to amend the Constitution and bring a contained presidency with checks and balances without having to face a referendum.

Second, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister of the Government, in an interview with the media personality Chamuditha Samarawickrama on 20 June states that, in 2019, the executive presidency was abolished, as per the policy of the UNP. He states clearly, from minutes 40-43 of this interview, responding to cross questioning, that “under 19th Amendment, we abolished the executive presidency, and the Prime Minister had the power”.

This statement of the former Prime Minister shows that the UNP had not wished for anything further than what was available under 19A. Whatever the merits of Wickremesinghe’s position, it clearly shows he was satisfied with the provisions of the 19th Amendment. Now, if both key leaders of the 2015 regime were of the opinion not to go beyond 19th Amendment, what is the relevance of Ivan’s crucifying Champika Ranawaka, for something that his bosses did.

Ivan’s puzzle lacks factual footing

In my opinion Ivan’s puzzle related the abolition of presidency is not placed on real factual footing. Our crisis in State building has manifestations and cannot be attributed to the whims and fancies of an individual. The structural issues related governance model are always linked to the existing constitutional framework, power political structures, ethno-political realities and political economy of the society, etc.

It is easy to blame the previous regime for not making complete overhaul of the state structure, if one chooses to ignore the power equations at the time. While agreeing with Ivan that the presidency introduced under 1978 Constitution represented a form of unethical and uncivilised governance, one should not be hasty to simplistically conclude that all presidential systems are evil and all Westminster systems are good. The discussion on the form of governance should be nuanced to consider the role of proper checks and balances on the powers of each institution of the State.

To look at an international example, France suffered a debilitating decade of instability under a parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic, before adopting a presidential system under the Fifth Republic in 1958, spearheaded by Charles de Gaulle. It is a presidential system that brought political stability to the country, and nobody blames the French presidency as an unethical and undemocratic concentration of power. Therefore, it is vital to that any system of democracy is valued against its functionality in a society.

The seminal book ‘Why Nations Fail: A treatise on how to understand the origins of power, prosperity and poverty in the developing and developed world,’ authored by Darron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, state that the only way of attaining political and economic stability in a country is by establishing and strengthening inclusive political and economic institutions. But the authors admit that this is not an easy task. Ensuring inclusivity involves determining how the government is chosen and which part of government has the right to do what. Political institutions determine who has the power in the society and to what ends that power can be used.

In terms of the above, it is a simplistic to opine that the Yahapalana regime should have abolished the presidency as per the aspirations of the society, when there was none specifically. Besides, to claim that a potential abolition was reversed by Champika Ranawaka, disregards the context, the will of leaders and power equations that prevailed in the Parliament.

When the 19th Amendment was reviewed by the Supreme Court, it opined either to prune proposed provisions which are inimical to the entrenched clauses of the Constitution or subject them to a referendum for direct approval of the people. On the other hand, the reality was that the 19th Amendment had to depend on the votes of UPFA Members of Parliament, who represented a different ideology. Had the Parliament been dissolved, the reformers would not have gotten the required absolute majority required for any reform. This is evident in that in August election the UNFGG got just 106 seats. If we add a generous 20+ seats to them, as a freshness bonus for an early election, in March 2015, no reforms would have been possible.

When Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” but the civilised world embraces it as the best alternative model for decision-making, he must have meant the inclusive space that democracy creates for deliberation for policy making. A Parliament built upon Westminster model represents only one option in that direction. Different options should not be barred for ideological reasons, as long as there is space for inclusive decision-making.

To conclude, the claim that Yahapalana Government is responsible for the Gotabaya presidency is a wishful half-truth at best. Blaming the previous regime for the rise of Gotabaya presidency does not capture the cyclical cause and effect relationship stemming from decades-old structural causes in our society. 

The Sri Lankan constitutional reform process is itself a quagmire. All the processes that brought forward written constitutions to the country were not based on the concept of constitutionalism and inclusiveness. Up to now it is a doubt whether we have a societal consensus on a suitable constitutional vision (quite apart from structures and processes) to share and collectively represent our common destiny, together as communities and citizens. In such a context, to blame an individual under the pretext of failing to perform his duty in forming critical societal intellect in the State building process is nothing but a canard.