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A Comment on the Campaign to Abolish the Presidential System

| by G. H. Peiris

( October 24, 2014, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) This comment is being written with the objective of highlighting certain considerations that have not received adequate attention in the ongoing campaign for abolishing the Executive Presidency in Sri Lanka. Participants of this campaign including certain writers whose views receive well-deserved respect often tend to overlook the circumstances that culminated in the promulgation of a new constitution in 1978 the main innovative element of which was the introduction of a system of government headed by an executive president elected directly on the basis of an all-island poll.

There was at that time extraordinarily widespread acceptance of the case for an executive presidential system in Sri Lanka – the opposition to the reform being largely confined to the stalwarts of the ‘old left’ who had been routed at the polls in 1977. The most persuasive arguments in support of the reform converged on the theme of rampant abuses under the earlier ‘Prime Minister-Cabinet’ system constitutionally founded on a ‘first past the post’ system of elections to the legislature. People who do not have excessively short memories on such abuses – for example, the establishment of government monopoly over the mainstream media; the two-year extension of the tenure of parliament employing its two-thirds majority; attempted "legalised murder" (this was the phrase used by oft cited Colvin R de Silva whose condemnation, however, had no impact) through retroactive legislation; the sledgehammer retaliation to the insurrection of 1971 which entailed, among other atrocities, innumerable extrajudicial executions; the Criminal Justice Commissions that violated all civilised norms of ‘admissible evidence’; political interferences in judicial appointments; excessive political control of public administration; the proliferation of ‘statutory corporations’ that had a debilitating impact on financial accountability in public affairs; the rejection of the principle of academic autonomy in university governance – are likely to recall that the malpractices were by no means outcomes of the establishment of an executive presidency.

Further, the plain truth which most critics seem to forget is that the strength of the elected executive president in Sri Lanka has tended to depend critically on the parliamentary support he/she could muster. This was made abundantly clear by the power arrangements that prevailed over the brief spell from December 2001 to April 2003 when the Prime Minister Wickramasinghe (despite his slender parliamentary majority) bypassed the impotent President Kumaratunga on matters of vital importance to the country, not averse to adopting "gentlemanly" tactics to make it difficult for the president even to preside over cabinet meetings.

When pontificating on democratic governance for Sri Lanka, whoever does it should not forget that it was under the present system that: (a) the press was liberated from its earlier shackles (even making allowance for the alleged victimisation of journalist accorded excessive publicity be an unfettered press), (b) the near monopolistic government controls over key segments of the economy were relaxed, (c) it is not possible for any person or party aspiring to gain control over the legislative and executive branches of government to depend solely or largely on the electoral support of the majority community, and (d) Sri Lanka acquired sufficient strength to defeat one of the most powerful and ruthless terrorist groups, despite almost insurmountable obstacles that were placed in the way of its military and diplomatic efforts.

Although I am no supporter of any political party (and I have never had a personal stake on the fortunes of any politician or party), I am convinced that it is not the executive presidential system that constitutes the root cause for the prevailing ills – lack of transparency in financial affairs of the government (the irony is that this phenomenon is being highlighted by certain NGOs and segments of the media that are far more secretive of their own affairs than the government); ham-handed decision-making in certain prioritising investment (illustrated by the lavish but under-utilised infrastructure at Mattala, Weerawila and Ranminitenna, ostensibly meant for developing an economically retarded area), and the vestiges of criminalisation of politics (a global phenomenon the exemplifications of which is far more pronounced among our neighbours). Needless to stress, these must be curtailed. But surely, abolishing the presidential system cannot be thought of as an effective remedy except in an amnesic fixation on our collective experiences of the past.

A presidential election that results in the victory of a common opposition candidate with a platform pledge to abolish the presidential system could, in a serious post-election attempt to redeem the pledge, result in a constitutional crisis, except in an improbably scenario of the winner also securing a two-thirds (plus) majority in parliament through either defections of MPs from other parties or fresh parliamentary polls. With a TNA leadership now more or less fully committed to a resumption of the secessionist campaign, there is every probability that the ‘Regime Change’ would lead the country into total chaos, probably featured civil war, which, of course, would pave the way for the NATO to get into its democratisation act in a partitioned island of Sri Lanka.

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