Editorial/Opinion

The question of presidency

In order to swiftly tackle the serious economic issues faced by the country at the time, the newly-elected United National Party (UNP) Government introduced the executive presidency through a new constitution in 1978. The idea was to enable swift decision making and turn around the near bankrupt economy.
It served the purpose in the first few years with the all-powerful Executive President J.R. Jayewardene calling the shots. He openly boasted about the enormous powers he wielded even famously stating that the only thing he couldn’t do was change the gender of a man or woman, biologically.
His arch rival, Dr. N.M. Perera recognised the need for such an arrangement in the short term but saw the danger of the high concentration of powers in one individual in the long term. He famously questioned J.R. Jayewardene as to what would happen the day he was no more or if an unsuitable individual were to occupy that seat. Recent history has prover both JR and NM right. JR used the powers to good effect and orchestrated an unprecedented development drive that transformed the nation from near bankruptcy to an economic powerhouse during his first term. However, NM was proven right when subsequent holders of that office abused it for personal gain much to the detriment of the country.
Modern day Sri Lankan politicians have proven beyond doubt that they are incapable of shaking off the shackles of petty partisan politics once they reach high office. The president, just as much as the speaker of parliament, is expected to leave behind their party affiliations once they assume office. However, it must be said to the credit of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya that in the post ‘78 era he went further down the road of non-partisanship than any one of his predecessors, with Anura Bandaranaike probably being the exception.
Such non-partisanship is applicable and expected of the law enforcement authorities, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, judiciary, etc. But over the years, the cancer of politicisation has affected all these branches of the State, making it difficult for parties that have long been in Opposition to govern once elected to office. This is the biggest challenge the United National Front (UNF) faced and continues to face in implementing its course of action.
The result is that though a certain political party may be in government, it is the bureaucracy packed with henchmen of the opposing side that decides what really is carried out at implementation level. As for the UNF, it is the direct outcome of being out of power for two decades, except for a brief three-year period between 2001 and 2004 where too the Head of State was from the opposite camp and hostile to boot. Fifteen years later, things are no different.
This has been the bane of the party on both the occasions it assumed office for brief periods in the last two decades, finding themselves being checkmated at every turn by an all-powerful Executive President. On the other hand, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has had it all to themselves under both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, both of whom completed double terms, effectively accounting for two decades of power.
For all intents and purposes, it is the henchmen of these two leaders that still run the bureaucracy and also the trade unions. The current President continues to remind us of the difficulties of such an arrangement by constantly putting up administrative roadblocks.
A classic example is that while insisting that chairmen appointed to state bodies must be degree holders, he himself violated his own diktat a few days later by appointing three chairmen to state bodies under his purview who are not degree holders.
It therefore appears that the presidential criterion applies only to the ruling party and not to the President’s nominees. The biggest joke is that the pusillanimous UNP leadership rather than challenging the presidential diktat instead issued a directive to strictly follow the President’s order! A comedy of errors if ever there was one.
The only remedy to stop the rot of politicisation of the State is for the highest in the land to set the example. If for some reason the person occupying that position is incapable of being apolitical, then it becomes clear that the existence of such a post is not in the best interest of the country. It therefore becomes necessary to abolish the post which has held the country back from reaching its full potential, at least in the last three years.
It is clear that the two-party governance model has been an absolute failure. It has been tried twice and failed on both occasions. One step forward and two steps back has been the order of the day in the recent past and it is clear that the two-party model can only destroy the country while every other nation in the region is racing forward. The workable alternative is for the president and government to be from the same party.
Every presidential candidate since 1994 has cursed, condemned, and promised to abolish the executive presidency. Once elected, it’s a case of amnesia. Now we see the incumbent gearing himself for another term. Whether it becomes a reality is another matter altogether. However, the supreme irony is that should it come to such a pass, he will be the third consecutive betrayer of public trust.
The country can no longer afford to waste another five years – to borrow the words of Dr. NM – with a “misfit at the top”. The post has to be scrapped or alternatively elected by Parliament as envisaged in the new Constitution. It makes sense for the president to be elected by Parliament and to be directly answerable to Parliament.
The last thing that this country needs is another head of state incapable of being apolitical. There is certainly no harm in serving the electorate for survival purposes, but the entire mindset must undergo tectonic change and petty politics must be left at the door of presidential office. This country deserves such an individual, even a good 30 years later than when it should have first happened. Better late than never.
Therefore, a presidential election may just be the cure the doctor ordered in terms of interim relief to a politically battered nation. This should be seriously considered, given the fact that the Opposition Leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is now stating that the current Government does not have legitimacy to introduce a new constitution, and instead an election should be held.
Since President Sirisena squandered his mandate on 26 October, 2018, a presidential election seems a fair call. With a new constitution in the making, it would also be fair to question as to who really wants a presidency – does Sri Lanka need a president or does the president need Sri Lanka?