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Personal discipline and institutional sacraments

By Maduranga Rathnayake

(December 01, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)A profound logic. Executive presidency, many say so, is a bad institution, so the holder of the position naturally becomes a bad president, if he was already not bad. Therefore, it is the presidency; not really the president. In other words the gist of this logic, simply, is that the president is an innocent victim, if he was already not innocent, of the presidency. The way out, and the only way, is either to make presidency a good institution through reform or abolish it altogether. This is a logic that appears to be passionately shared not only by a great many voters, or at least they have been made to believe so, but also by some of the very persons who had been closely associated with the introduction of this now so-known evil institution.

Of the two options, reforms or abolition, which one is to propagate usually depends on whether you are in or out of power. If you are in power, obviously you want, not necessarily seriously, to reform the presidency. If you are out of power, or sometimes when you know you will not be voted in as president or if you are historically anti-everything, then out right abolition.

A Tale of Two Systems

The British given Soulbury Constitution was based on the Westminister model; so was the 1972 the so-called 1st Republican Constitution. The Head of Government was the Prime Minister, with a figure-head constitutional Head of State. We had had this system of government from Soulbury times up to 1978. Over those long years, many defects of the Westminister model read with the first-past-the-post electoral system had been highlighted such as weak governments, frequent elections, unrest of minority parties and prime minister dictatorship. So, as opposed to that system, the need for a new system of government with a powerful executive president was canvassed culminating in, the now much hated, the so-called, 1978 2nd Republican Constitution. One would see that we have lived by both systems, each system a little over 30 years. It is an irony that we now cry for the older system.

The older system with its defects, no man-made system is perfect for that matter, still appears, to most, to be much better than what we have gone through over the past 30 years under the presidential system. However, it must be born in mind that there is a marked difference between the politicians of the pre-1978 era and our dear politicians thereafter, that so much water has flown under the bridge of world politics since then and that we are now confronted with a totally different world economy. Therefore, any objective assessment of these two systems of government would not be exhaustive unless the present world circumstances on both the political and economic fronts as well as, and more importantly, the forces behind the sickening decadence of our representative bodies at all levels were not properly read into it. In other words, to be content with a superficial comparison of the two systems without examining the real causes for the failure of the presidential system in the hands of our politicians and without properly appreciating the today’s global political and market dynamics would be to be utterly amateurish.

Sacred Institutions

Unfortunately, we seem to be more, if not only, concerned and content about the sacred character of our institutions and we are wholly clueless, and not serious at all, about making these institutions actually work. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution is THE example. This is one piece of legislation which saw unanimity in parliament in the recent history when it was made law. Sacred by all means; except that it fell into disuse within months. Its non-implementation led to grave consequences including the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court unconstitutionally. Some experts called it a constitutional revolution as the President had only by-passed a legal dead-lock created by the failure to nominate the Constitutional Council members. Whichever way one interprets it, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution to date remains a dead-letter. The 17th Amendment saga is testimony to the fact that it is the persons and not necessarily and always the institutional make-up.

Executive Prime Minister, a cure for all maladies?

If we think that, the now being highly touted, executive prime minister system will be THE answer to our plight as a country today, then we are sadly mistaken. That said, should there be any genuine attempt in constitutional reforms, then, a system wherein the executive arm of the state would be directly responsible to the legislature would certainly be desirable as opposed to a presidential dictatorship. However, if, the now much loved executive prime minister model, if introduced, does not and is unable to; guarantee the rights of the minority communities, ensure freedom of expression and the media freedom, ensure the independence of the judiciary, hold free and fair elections and eliminate public and private sector corruption, then it would be nothing but a source of oppression much similar to what we suffered in the past 3 decades.

Discipline Indispensable

What Erasmus, the Dutch philosopher and Renaissance theologian, in his work “Education of a Christian Prince” in 1516 observed is too critical to be ignored at this point; he observed that “...the Prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression...”

If a system of government is to be successful, much as a more refined system, disciplined persons to steer it are equally indispensable.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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