By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Sri Lankans have been trying to abolish the executive presidential system for a long time. Ever since the system was introduced in 1977, a segment of the populace and many political parties were in the forefront of the campaign to do away with the system. The promises, proposals, and campaigns failed to produce results partly because many of the attempts were not entirely sincere. Many political leaders love the system obviously due to the unlimited powers it confers on the government of the day.
Given the existing political environment and realities in Sri Lanka, I am inclined to believe that this is the best movement to abolish the presidency. I am also inclined to argue that this perhaps is the last opportunity to do so because failing to abolish it now would indicate how deeply we are entrenched in the system. I won’t make that argument. Sri Lanka has also become considerably unpredictable. However, it is safe to argue that if it is not abolished before the upcoming presidential election, the executive presidential system will stay here for a long time to come.
My belief that this is the best moment to abolish the presidency is founded on the electoral politics involving the presidential election and predicament of most powerful political leaders of the day: President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. All three of them could benefit from a transition to the Westminster system of government.
First, Maithripala Sirisena is keen to secure a second term as president. However, he does not have enough votes to win the next election, which most probably will take place in January 2020. He won the presidency in 2015 with votes of the United National Party (UNP) and minority votes. The UNP certainly is not backing him up again, not necessarily due to the recent hostilities between Sirisena and the UNP, but the changing political realities. In 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s level of confidence was low, and the party was looking for an unconventional candidate who could fetch Sinhala-Buddhist votes. Sirisena brought the additionally needed votes from the Sinhala heartland. Majority of the Tamil and Muslims also voted for him.
This time around, realities are different. Majority of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) votes will go to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the UNP votes will go to the party’s candidate, most probably Wickremesinghe and the Tamil votes will also not be available due to Sirisena’s increasing nationalist actions and language. The point is that Sirisena has no chance of winning the upcoming presidential election.
Can he continue in active politics after losing the presidential election? Doubtful. Without presidential powers, there is no guarantee that the SLFP will keep him as the leader of the party. In the absence of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sirisena, Bandaranaike family could make a comeback and take control of the party. Losing the presidential election will severely dent the possibility of Sirisena continuing in politics as a powerful actor.
On the other hand, if Sri Lanka goes back to the Westminster system now, the SLFP could undoubtedly win a number of seats which will help Sirisena to continue in politics and be part of the political game. He could even form an alliance with the SLPP and become part of the government. Also, anything could happen in 2025.
I understand that there has been a proposal to make him the “nominal” president if the system is changed. It is not clear if Sirisena will be interested in a nominal position. However, the proposal adds another layer of benefit to the President if he comes forward to support the abolition.
Wickremesinghe conceded the candidacy to Sarath Fonseka and Sirisena in 2010 and 2015 respectively due to the belief that he cannot win enough votes to secure the presidency. This time around, it seems, he is the one to represent the UNP in the presidential election. It also appears that he had already kick-started his campaign. However, given the socio-economic condition of the country, the UNP can hardly anticipate a clear margin of victory in the presidential election.
Wickremesinghe could rely on the majority of the Sri Lankan Tamil votes. Indian Tamils traditionally vote with the UNP in presidential elections. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) voted in favor of the budget last week. The CWC’s vote on the budget increased the likelihood of Indian Tamils voting for the UNP candidate. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s challenge is to preserve about 32 percent of the votes the party gained in the local government election. If he can do this, he can reach the fifty percent votes required to win the election.
Wickremesinghe’s fortunes also depend on the SLPP candidate. Now, it is almost clear that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the SLPP candidate. This is good news for the UNP and Wickremesinghe. One, his candidacy will magnify the Tamil votes for the UNP. Two, the UNP could use “democracy” or “possibility of authoritarianism” as a main slogan in the election as socio-economic factors could work against the UNP. In other words, Gotabaya’s candidacy will provide the UNP a useful election mantra. Nevertheless, Gotabaya will be a formidable candidate and cannot be underestimated.
What this indicates is that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chances are dependent on too many complicated factors and a victory cannot be guaranteed. On the other hand, losing the election will also bring immense pressure on him to relinquish leadership of the party. In the past, Wickremesinghe has successfully withstood this type of pressure. This time around it could be different. It seems that Sajith Premadasa is ready to accept the mantle. One could expect added pressure on Wickremesinghe if the party is defeated in the presidential election.
On the other hand, if the system is changed, electoral outcomes are not the responsibility of one person. Under the Westminster system of governance, a general election defeat in 2020, will not help oust Wickremesinghe from the party. Hence, Wickremesinghe also stands to benefit from the abolition of the presidency and transition to the parliamentary system.
What is preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the forthcoming presidential election? It is the presidential system itself. The world has evolved to believe that executive presidents should have limited terms. Hence, when Sri Lanka introduced the executive presidential system, it entailed a term limit. The term limit was removed by President Rajapaksa but was reintroduced without much resistance in 2015. Presidents can serve only two terms, and Rajapaksa has served two terms already. Hence, he cannot contest another presidential election under the current constitution.
Although handicapped by the prevailing system, he is undoubtedly one of the most powerful politicians in Sri Lanka today. His party, the SLPP, won the local government election convincingly. He will decide and announce the SLPP candidate and could also engineer a victory for the SLPP candidate in the presidential election. He can be a kingmaker in January 2020.
After making a Rajapaksa the president, will he allow the new president to govern on his own or will he control the government from behind the scene? If the SLPP candidate wins the presidential election, the SLPP would most likely win the general election, and Mahinda Rajapaksa could become prime minister and “legally” be expected to work under the president. Will he work “under” an SLPP president or dominate the government?
These questions have the capacity to complicate governance if the SLPP wins in 2020. Supporting the abolition now and contesting the general election under the new system will resolve many personal dilemmas of Mahinda Rajapaksa. If his party wins, he can govern as the “legitimate” prime minister.
It is clear that all three powerful political personalities could benefit from abolishing the executive presidential system before the upcoming presidential election. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will have no reservation in amending the constitution to reintroduce the Westminster system. Therefore, an action plan to transform the system will receive the required majority in Parliament if all three of them are behind the move. The people’s approval in a national referendum could also be won when all major parties support the change.
What they need to do is revive the proposal for the 20th Amendment submitted by the JVP and approve it with or without changes. It seems, if Sri Lankans are to achieve the long-standing goal of abolishing the executive presidential system, this is the best moment to do so.