By Rasika Jayakody –
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the most respected senior statesman in the UNP, announced this afternoon that he was ready to run for the presidency, with the expressed intention of abolishing the Executive Presidency within a limited period.
The abolition of the Executive Presidency has been one of the most notable campaign promises in Sri Lanka since 1998. Most ironically, every candidate that has promised to abolish the Executive Presidency has emerged winner at every Presidential election since 1994.
Despite these repeated promises to abolish the Executive Presidency— an office introduced by JR Jayewardene in 1978— it continues to hold appeal with successive leaders.
And while it is true that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution placed some checks and balances on the Executive Presidency, the amendment fell short of fully neutralizing the negative impact of the office, which has had a catastrophic effect on Sri Lankan politics since 1978. The Executive Presidency created an all-powerful President who operated above the country’s normal law, enjoying unhindered control over every aspect of the government and emasculating the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament.
The Constitutional Crisis, which unfolded late last year, and the President’s recent move to place the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) under the Ministry of Defence are but recent demonstrations of the need for a permanent remedy to the Executive Presidency. Although the 19th Amendment to the Constitution reduced the number of ministries that could be kept under the President, it placed no restrictions on the President’s ability to allocate subjects among them at his sole discretion. As a result, the SLRC, which has no relation to the functions of the Ministry of Defence by any stretch of the imagination, is currently controlled by the President in his capacity as the Defence Minister.
Jayasuriya is the latest in a long list of Presidential aspirants to promise the total abolition of the Executive Presidency. However, his greatest challenge will be to convince the public that he has a genuine intention to keep this promise, unlike the last three Presidents who reneged on their mandates
To his credit, Jayasuriya is considered a man of strong moral character. His name is not tainted by corruption or criminal allegations and his forthright conduct as Speaker in the face of sustained adversity during the Constitutional Crisis was commended by right-thinking people across the world. His proven record, therefore, reignites the hopes of those advocating for the total abolition of the Executive Presidency and other reforms broadening the democratic space.
Jayasuriya is also able to bring together minority parties and civil society groups inclined to support the UNP at the Presidential election. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil political group in the North, does not share a cordial relationship with Premadasa who remains vague and evasive on critical matters relating to reconciliation, post-war accountability and devolution of power.
When asked about his views on the abolition of Executive Presidency, Sajith Premadasa, at a press conference on Tuesday morning, dodged the question by saying there had been no “scientific survey” on the matter. In comparison to Premadasa, Jayasuriya had the gumption to say in no uncertain terms that he will only run for the Presidency, if the party accepts as the central theme of its election campaign the abolition of Executive Presidency.
Civil society groups that operate in sync with the political campaign of the UNP also find a strong ally in Jayasuriya. When a delegation from the Civil Society and Trade Union Collective (CSTUC) met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees on Saturday, they expressed positive sentiments about Jayasuriya. Several members of the group told this writer that they would unequivocally support Jayasuriya’s reformist agenda, as the latter seemed the best choice for candidacy of all the current aspirants.
The support Jayasuriya has with minorities and civil society groups does not come at the expense of his credentials with the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. He is man who is capable of taking the presidential battle to the Rajapaksa bastion by posing a strong competition to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his own strongholds. The Speaker also shares strong relations with leading Buddhist monks who will otherwise throw their weight behind Rajapaksa’s ultra-nationalist campaign.
His moderate views, temperament and credentials as a former military officer, diplomat and a business leader can earn the support of fence-sitters who will decide their vote based on the ‘political mood’ of the country at the time of the election. As I’ve pointed out in one of my previous articles, the number of bloc voters in both camps have dwindled considerably over the past 15-20 years with many people — particularly the educated urban and suburban middle class — gravitating towards the middle. Against this backdrop, the winner of the upcoming Presidential election should cut an appealing figure to the majority of the swing voters.
Most importantly, Jayasuriya is the only candidate within the UNP who can offer a viable alternative to former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been anointed the SLPP Presidential candidate. In the public eye, Rajapaksa’s campaign is associated with the appeal of a ‘strongman leadership’ and deep affiliation with Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalism, which exclude ethnic and religious minorities.
Only a candidate who stands for a more democratic and inclusive leadership with a pluralist value system can counter this. In Jayasuriya, voters will see a strong alternative to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A candidate attempting to ride a wave of cheap populism coupled with a sliver of the Rajapaksa–style ultra nationalism will not provide the same alternative to voters.
This doesn’t mean that the support Sajith Premadasa has gathered at the grassroots level of the UNP should be discounted. But Jayasuriya has greater ability to unify diverse groups within the United National Front-led alliance and other affiliate groups. It is only Jayasuriya’s candidacy that can ensure that both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa share the same stage, with ample support from constituent parties, minority groups and civil society organizations.