By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham/Daily Express
It was interesting to read the peculiar reason given by former President Mahinda Rajapkasa for his decision to hold the Presidential election in January 2015, two years ahead of schedule
Talking to the media last Sunday outside the Tangalla Remand Prison where his eldest son and parliamentarian, Namal Rajapaksa, was being held along with several others for defying a court order and participating in a protest in front of the Indian Consulate in Hambantota, Rajapaksa said that he wanted to abolish the Executive Presidency but did not have sufficient time to do that. And that it was to abolish it that he prematurely called for a Presidential election.
He then went on to criticize the present rulers for their failure to fulfil the promise they made during the last two national elections regarding the abolition of the Executive Presidency, though they have been in office for over two and a half years.
No one in this part of the world has ever entertained any doubt about the real reason why Rajapaksa held the Presidential election prematurely, nor would they be gullible enough to believe the reason he is now coming out with.
In January 2010, Rajapaksa had sought a mandate for a second term as President when he was at the zenith of popularity among the Southern population mainly because he had ended the 30-year war and defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seven months before.
Parliament elections ,which were held two months later in April, saw the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) register a big victory securing a near two -third majority in the House. A past-master in engineering defections from other political parties, Rajapaksa enticed enough MPs to easily secure a two- third parliamentary majority for his government. But he used that new found strength for regressive purposes rather than progressive ones.
He brought in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which made the powerful Executive Presidency even more powerful and rescinded the two term limit for the Presidency. The amendment also removed important checks on the exercise of executive powers.
Rajapaksa wanted to rule Sri Lanka as a modern King indefinitely. But he never would have imagined, even in his wildest dreams, that he would be meeting his Waterloo at the hands of a person who was the General Secretary of his party and a senior minister in his cabinet.
When Rajapaksa called for Presidential election two years ahead of schedule, in a quest for a third term, Maithripala Sirisena was fielded against him as the common consensus candidate of the then opposition.
It was evident after the introduction of the Executive Presidency in 1978, that an unprecedented authoritarian tendency had crept in, which gradually increased to abhorrent levels in governance. However it peaked during Rajapaksa’s rule.
Nepotism, cronyism, abuse of power, disruption of the Rule of Law and corruption were flourishing in an uncontrolled manner during the 9-year period under Rajapaksa’s watch. This made the government increasingly unpopular even though Rajapaksa projected himself as the only leader who could protect the ‘motherland’.
Rajapaksa had also alienated the minority communities by his soft approach to the Sinhala Buddhist extremists. In such a scenario, it was only to be expected that the minority communities (Tamils and Muslims) would wholeheartedly support Sirisena in the 2015 Presidential election and ensure Rajapaksas defeat.
When Maithripala Sirisena addressed the nation immediately after being sworn in as the new President of Sri Lanka on January 9, 2015, he declared he would not contest another Presidential election. The declaration was viewed as an honest demonstration of his determination to abolish the Executive Presidency, a pledge made during the hustings.
However, after more than two and a half years in office, Sirisena is leading a party that has become an ardent advocate of the retention of the Exexutive Presidency. The SLFP. that had been demanding the abolition of the Executive Presidency from the very day it was introduced by the United National Party (UNP) government led by the late J. R. Jayewardene (JR) four decades ago, is now vociferously justifying the same, whereas the UNP under the leadership of Jayewardene’s nephew, Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghehas taken a stand supporting its abolition!
It was earlier said that one of the main purposes of the constitutional reform process spearheaded by the National Unity Government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was to abolish the Executive Presidency. There is no clear cut proposal regarding the future of the Presidency in the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Council that was submitted to parliament last month.
The report asserts that though there is a general consensus that the Executive Presidency as it exists today should be abolished, most of the political parties want it to continue with some reforms.
The opinion of the SLFP that has been expressed in an annexure, is that abolition of the Executive Presidency is not prudent. Meanwhile Rajapaksa has purposely avoided commenting on the future of the Executive Presidency in his statement issued early this week, on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee.
However, in light of his comment to the media outside the Tangalla Remand Prison (that he did not have sufficient time to abolish the Executive Presidency during his 9-year rule and it was in order to expedite the process that he prematurely called for a Presidential election) one cant help but ask what is stopping him from coming out with an unambiguous stand on the Executive Presidency now?
The undeniable fact is that Rajapaksa never wanted to abolish the powerful executive presidency. What he did was make the Presidency more powerful with unlimited powers surpassing the legislature.
Chandrika Kumaratunga Also Reneged
Another two-time President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, also came to power in November 1994 promising to abolish the Executive Presidency within one year. But, after 11 years in power she left the office regretting that she couldn’t continue for another year in the all-powerful position.
Even Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in November 2005 promising its abolition after the end of his first term. He signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in this regard and included it in his election manifesto.
Sirisena’s Ominous Silence
Now another leader of the same party is the executive president. He also made the promise to do away with the Executive Presidency and pledged on the very first day in office that he would not contest another Presidential election. But he is now studiously maintaining silence when politicians from his party are continuously talking about the possibility of fielding him as the party’s Presidential candidate in 2020.
Senior journalist and political analyst D. B. S. Jeyaraj sums up the situation succinctly in his article titled ‘Abolishing J. R. Jayewardene’s Executive Presidency ‘. None of the regimes commanding a two-year third majority in Parliament wanted to do away with the Executive Presidency. The regimes wanting to eliminate the Executive Presidency did not have a two third majority.
Where there was power there was no will. Where there was will there was no power.
Hence a consensus of key political parties on abolishing the Executive Presidency remains as elusive as ever. Against this backdrop one cannot but help wonder whether JR’s executive Presidency will ever be abolished at all!
(Author Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd.)