By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The urge to win elections rather than institute reforms
Over three years ago I told the President that he should not have Presidential election early, but should rather hold the Parliamentary elections first. Needless to say he ignored my advice, even though I sent him a detailed paper on the reasons for the view I held. He told me that it was only Gota and myself who thought it unnecessary to have the Presidential election so soon.
He said this jovially, implying I think that Gota and I were not politicians, and others knew much better. But, leaving me aside, he should have realized that the Secretary of Defence is the only one of his close advisors, excepting only the Secretary to the President, who has no personal agenda. And as it turned out, many of the problems we face now spring I think from that early election, though no one could have predicted the divisive effect – in an unexpected fashion – of Sarath Fonseka’s entry into the fray along with his insistence on being a common opposition candidate. As an aside, I should note that only one point in my paper was later addressed, namely the lame duck effect. But the remedy put in place caused worries of another sort, and it does not seem to have helped very much, if current reports as to continuing maneuvers are correct.
I was reminded of all this when I saw that the United National Party has declared that it must get ready for a Presidential election in 2014, because it believes there are plans to amend the Constitution to make this possible. As it stands, the election cannot be held before 2015, because the President has to complete 4 years in office before he can offer himself for re-election, as President Jayewardene quaintly put it when he introduced the 3rd amendment to the Constitution.
That amendment was outrageous, and it is a measure either of the control he exercised, or else of their incapacity to understand the salient features of a Presidential Constitution, that the Supreme Court did not recognize how such an amendment affected the franchise. Usually Executive Presidents have fixed terms. Under the Westminster system the Prime Minister can ask the Head of State to dissolve Parliament early and have an election, a prerogative which is obviously used to have elections when they are convenient to the party in power. I think that is a regrettable advantage that should be done away with, given the more and more obvious ways in which ruling parties offer sops to the electorate that are damaging to the nation.
But the effect of such an advantage is generally less in a Parliamentary system, given the numbers involved, than when an incumbent President can decide entirely in terms of his own interest. Incidentally, in addition to this manifest unfairness which the Supreme Court should have struck down, the 3rd amendment also had the ridiculous provision that, depending on who won such an early election, the next Presidential term commenced on one of two possible alternative dates. This provision, based entirely on greed, so that an incumbent President could go on for a bit longer, was drafted so preposterously that it seemed ambiguous and led to President Kumaratunga losing a year of her second term of office (a precedent the President ignored when he decided his second term would begin when the Constitution said it did, on an obvious reading that the previous Chief Justice had ignored).
Under the 3rd Amendment, the President could exercise only once the option of calling an election early if it suited him. The 18th Amendment makes it possible for him to do this again and again. Unfortunately this results in unpopularity setting in earlier and earlier, which the government seems to have realized might happen, if what the UNP assumes is correct. So it seems necessary to have the third election after three years, and doubtless, if a fourth ever occurs, that will happen after two. This means that the Constitution will need to be amended again and again.
When that happens, though, it will be clear to the electorate that the President is afraid of serving out his full term, or even the slightly truncated term the 3rd amendment permits. Indeed we saw that Jayewardene suffered from heightened unpopularity when he brought forward the election, since he won far less comfortably than he had expected. He had knocked out the principal opposition candidate, Mrs Bandaranaike, and the SLFP had obligingly split, with Anura Bandaranaike and most of his friends in the party (though not Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stayed loyal to the SLFP) in effect supporting Jayewardene. Nevertheless Hector Kobbekaduwa did surprisingly well, and indeed beat Jayewardene in the North.
The UNP effort to dragoon the President then into changing the Constitution again, and having an election next year, should be resisted. They claim that the excuse that will be proferred is that the President has decided the current term of six years is too long, and must be reduced – which is a good idea, though it should be brought down to four, as the Liberal Party has long suggested, rather than five. But it is absurd to suppose that the electorate will believe that it is for this laudable purpose that an amendment is being introduced, and it is only incidentally that the election can now be held after three years rather than four.
Why all this is absurd is that it is based on the belief that the President will necessarily have the election early, and would prefer it after three years rather than four, whether for astrological reasons or worries about electoral unpopularity at a later stage. But the simple fact is that the President does not need to go to the polls until early in 2017, and for him to risk three years of his Presidency – as well as the two thirds majority which it is wholly unlikely he will ever get again – would be foolish.
Rather, what he needs to do is to use that two thirds majority, not to consolidate power, but to introduce the reforms that will ensure the electorate continues to support him. The courage he showed in concluding the war against terrorism in his first term has to be matched by courage in ensuring a durable peace. No one will believe that he will take necessary measures when he has less support in Parliament than he has now, which is why instead of succumbing to the UNP’s desire for a quick election that must necessarily weaken him, he should move now to fulfil the positive measures in his manifesto and his budget that the massive Cabinet he has established have failed signally to promote.