By Kumar David -
Abolishing the Executive Presidency
The debate on a single-issue challenge to incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse at the next opportunity and identifying the most suitable challenger has picked up steam in recent weeks. I mooted the idea in Colombo Telegraph (“Can Sobitha pull off victory where Fonseka flunked?”) on 26 August.
There has been a plethora of comment and criticism, but unfortunately much that appeared on the web has been personal abuse, however a few are worth consideration. The best response has been from Nimalka Fernando who has made a reasoned and sustained rejection of my proposal. See Response To Kumar David: Can A Buddhist Monk Be Secular And Non Sinhala?
I think Nimalka is quite wrong on all the major points, nevertheless I am grateful she raised so many and provided me with an opportunity for rebuttal. Indeed people are mulling over issues in these early days and it is right to take up and debate every aspect. This is a response to Nimalka and note to a “Loka Vikalavaye” who commented on the web below Nimalka’s piece. Let me first dispose of LV who accepts the single-issue concept but proposes that correcting the foreign policy stance from excessive alignment with China to a friendly orientation to the West should be the issue. Foreign policy course correction is desirable, but it will not mobilise as broad a base as a call to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP). The horrible consequences of the EP and the degeneration it has brought into society are a far more serious concern than foreign policy.
The fundamental issue
I must once again emphasise that the crucial question in the ‘single-issue’ challenge to the Mahinda presidency and his attempt to have himself elected for a third term using the Eighteenth Amendment. Who the candidate should be is a matter and should be given only limited attention until the single-issue strategy is popularised. Let me repeat, for those who may not have been following these exchanges, what is meant by a single-issue strategy which is now finding growing support.
The challenger will come forward with a manifesto which will consist of just one point: “I will abolish the Executive Presidency and amend the constitution to establish a parliamentary system. (I may dissolve parliament and conduct re-elections if the then existing parliament does not respect my mandate). Once this business is concluded, I’m off; I have no ambition to hang around and run the country”.
A genuine single-issue victor can get this all done and be off to the temple, the bridge-club or on a fishing cruise in less than a year. Put in the simplest terms this is the core of my proposal. This is the essential element, finalising the choice of challenger can be done after a broad alliance has been consolidated around the programme.
I do not have an obsession about the Executive Presidency (EP) per se, the point rather is that the EP is the root and cause of the breakdown of public morality; interference with the judiciary, the SEC, the police and education. The political corruption epidemic and the impunity with which white-vans roam and abductions abound, lean on the EP. Every side of the rot in public life is rooted in the executive presidency. The current incumbent is the dregs, but previous presidents have been no saints. EP as a system must go and no thought of a Reformed-EP (Ranil’s swan song) and no proposals for an Executive Prime Ministership should be entertained. We must get back to full-throated parliamentary government; that is a sine qua non if this nation is ever to rise again.
Will Nimalka disagree that abolishing the EP is the critical need of the hour? I do not think she will disagree. So we have agreement that this is the monumentally imposing priority of the day, we are only debating how best to do it? That’s half our disagreements wiped out already. Nimalka’s piece is quite muddled and some who do not know her may be misled into imagining that she does not wish to abolish the EP, or that she favours retaining Mahinda in the presidential suite for another six years! Fortunately I know that this is not the case.
Abolishing the EP is the core issue on which a huge cross section of society, from majorities in the UNP and SLFP to all of the left and JVP, from Sinhalese to Tamils to Muslims, from Buddhists to Catholics, workers, peasants and the Colombo elite, all will unite. The EP is the curse to which 80% of people attribute the putrid state of the country; a referendum would endorse this number.
Hard to believe objections
Now to the items in Nimalka’s rebuttal list, some of which are programmatic and some a rejection of Ven Maduluwewe Sobitha as a candidate. I will give more prominence to programmatic issues. She asks how I, as a Marxist, could support a non-Marxist as a presidential candidate. This is the kind of dogmatism that will put even a political bone-head to shame! If this be the criterion, she and I cannot support the Labour Party in the UK or the Socialists inFrance, we must abhor Mandela in South Africa and Suu Kyie in Burma; and Trotsky was an idiot for advocating a broad alliance under non-Marxist leadership to resist the rise of Hitler. Hilariously, Nimalka, to be faithful to this “Marxist” creed, will also have to stop supporting Ranil.
Let me be cut and dry about it; one can support a non-Marxist, a monk, a bourgeois democrat, or the devil himself, if that is the best thing to do in a given conjuncture to achieve the best possible outcome under prevailing circumstances. This is not Marxism; this is plain, ordinary commonsense – QED! If Nimalka rejects monks as a matter of principle, she must abhor Desmond Tutu, on principle, were he were to run for office, and presumably she would have, on principle, preferred the Greek military dictators to Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus. There is no royal road or rote learnable formula to become a Marxist; expenditure of grey matter, case by case is required.
Nimalka asks “Can a monk be secular and non Sinhala?” Of course he can, in so far as his state functions are concerned. Nearly all US presidents are avowed and a few even devout Christians (a few like Jefferson were known to be atheists) but the Constitution stipulates the strictest separation of state and church, and presidents have invariably abided by this injunction. Neither a monk, nor anybody else, needs to be secular or reject his cultural heritage in a private capacity, but in matters of state a president has to be everybody’s president. What’s the problem? If one goes down Nimalka’s road the next thing will be; can a Tamil or a Muslim be trusted with the presidency of a Sinhala-Buddhist country, can a woman be trusted to use her head more than her heart, and so on; no end of generalised and generic prejudices that skirt around a concrete evaluation of the individual in question.
Who is the best candidate?
The issue that Nimalka completely avoids – assuming she agrees with the single-issue formulation – is indicating any candidate preferences. Sajith and Karu are dead in the tracks non-starters; if any buffoon party nominates either of them it might as well withdraw from the polls and send Mahinda a walkover notification. Ranil will get more votes than either, but defeat after defeat has taken the shine off, and let’s be frank Nimalka, Ranil cannot break open Mahinda’s rural petty-bourgeois vote bank. Outside the UNP the names mentioned are Chandrika and Sarath Silva but both are so utterly discredited that they will fare worse than even Ranil. There is another matter; no one in his right mind will accept any of the six challengers named in this paragraph as a trustable single-issue candidate who will abolish the EP, and thereafter, either go home or stand for the ensuing parliamentary elections as a prime ministerial candidate. A PM bid, once the EP has been abolished, is fine by me.
Nimalka asks whether I support the candidacy of Sobitha Thero as a challenger. Well since Nimalka cannot arrange for Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin come forward with a Marxist nomination, yes at this point in time, in my view, the best available candidates is Sobitha provided he is prepared to declare a single-issue platform. If he promises to abolish the presidency and get out, he can be trusted to keep his word, he can mobilise a broad national coalition around the single-issue manifesto, and thirdly, he can defeat Mahinda. Hence I have no difficulty in backing him for a well defined single-issue presidency. The problem lies elsewhere; I have been given to understand that “hamuthuruwo is not interested”. That’s a pity for the three reasons I just adumbrated. Still, let us keep the candidate issue at the back of our minds and focus on single-issue broad-based national mobilisation.
Is Sobitha a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist?
Like a red thread running through Nimalka’s article is an implied idea that Sobitha is a Sinhala racist and an intolerant Buddhist monk. It’s there in the very title of the piece; Can a monk be secular and non Sinhala? OK Nimalka, I will not rush to the defence of Sobitha Thero on this matter because I do not know enough about him. There is enough time more to be alert, watchful and learn. But dear lady you seem to have substantial grounds for worry; please share them, the background of a putative presidential candidate is a matter of the utmost public concern and no stone should be left unturned. Let others know why you imply (otherwise why this title?) that the answer to the question is an unspoken “No”.
It can be reasonably said that the attitude of a single-issue candidate to the national question, economic policy, foreign relations or anything else is irrelevant. Once the EP is abolished the person will go home and play no further role in running the country; so what does his policy stance on any of these issues matter? This is true and this is the strength of a single-issue candidate and underlines the prospect of drawing upon a wide support base. Nevertheless there are two reasons why public perceptions of the candidate’s stance on the national question will matter.
Capturing minority votes will provide a hefty boost to the chances of victory and to deliver a coup de grace, for this the candidate needs to be trusted by the minorities and capitalise on the 30% minority vote bank; that’s the first reason. The second reason why the stance on the national question matters is that though he may present himself as a single-issue candidate, his outlook and ideology on other issues will influence the subsequent constitutional amendments. The NQ is a constitutional matter unlike socio-economic or foreign policy and the challenger’s views on the NQ, though unrelated to abolishing the EP, will still form an unwritten mandate; so these views do matter.
Can Mahinda be panicked to do it himself?
Nimalka raises the interesting possibility that if Mahinda is panicked by a tide of single-issue mobilisation he may undercut it by abolishing the EP himself before the elections. Great! What’s wrong with that? If we can get it done now itself let’s pump up the mobilisation and dump down the EP. A further benefit of this approach is that the government already has the two-thirds majority and can carry the needed amendments with ease – NOW, not in term-three! If Mahinda then leads a UPFA parliamentary campaign to form the subsequent government, sure no problem; he has every right to try.