By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“I hate the goddamn system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.” – Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” Callaghan, in ‘Magnum Force’ (1973)
Those who criticize my continued ‘nonaligned’ approach to the Presidential election and the candidates, as well as my refusal to convert unthinkingly to the cause of the joint opposition, make the cardinal error of confusing governance, government and the State. That is not an error a political scientist is permitted; still less one of Marxian and Leninist provenance such as I am. I agree with all the criticisms made by the Opposition of the present regime and even go beyond them in some aspects. However, those are criticisms about bad governance, and require a solution in precisely that realm. Bad governance must not be confused with the structure and system of the State; the framework of the state.
While I have no problem with the prospect of a Maithripala Sirisena presidency, my problem with the Opposition’s project is that it will not merely displace the regime—which is fine by me—but will weaken the core of the state through the Constitutional ‘shock therapy’ of a 100 day abolition project. JR Jayewardene’s modernizing revolution was located in the domain of the state system; the form of the state – the shift to an elected executive Presidency. I do not think it should be fundamentally reversed or upended.
Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a very diverse four (the US, Russia, China, France) have executive presidential systems. Only the UK does not. Of the members of the emerging/pivotal powers represented in the BRICS, all (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) except India have presidential systems. I am therefore utterly unconvinced that the executive Presidential system needs to be abolished, still less in one hundred days, or that it is intrinsically inferior to the system of parliamentary government. It certainly needs to be reformed.
Reforms are necessary to overcome stagnation and sclerosis. Reforms must not dismantle or destabilize the state system. I supported Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika but I regret doing so with uncritical, over-optimistic enthusiasm. It is a mistake I shall never repeat. Fidel Castro was far more cautious and perspicacious. While being a stringent critic of the stale and stagnant Soviet socialism, he warned as early as 1987 that “we may wake up one day and find that the Soviet Union has disappeared”. Gorbachev was right in his criticism and zeal for reform, but he could not control that reform process, which got of hand and was hijacked by Boris Yeltsin and his ‘ radical reformers’ with their 500 Day plans of “ shock therapy”, who went on to agree to the dissolution of the USSR. Putin rightly called it “the greatest geostrategic tragedy of the twentieth century”. It took Putin and the powerful Presidency to restore some measure of status and self-respect for Russia.
Maithripala Sirisena must not be a Mikhail Gorbachev and Ranil and CBK must not be permitted to play Yeltsin. Mr. Sirisena, a former Maoist, must instead become a Deng Hsiao Peng, who will radically reform the system without damaging, still less dissolving, the core of the state system.
What this country needs is the right combination of change and continuity. While Mahinda represents continuity without change, what the CBK-RW-Mangala–Rajitha bloc represents is change without continuity. Both extremes are equally dangerous.
This is where the JHU comes in, as a balancing factor, helping take Maithripala to his natural zone: the moderate nationalist center rather than the deracinated CBK-Ranil liberal fundamentalism.
I never thought I’d say this, and I am acutely aware of the ironies of the expression when used in relation to a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party, but “thank God for the JHU!” The hundred days MoU just signed between the common opposition candidate and the Jathika Hela Urumaya introduces the possibility of a course correction in the vitally important Sirisena campaign. It is also a useful counterweight to the abolitionist liberal fundamentalism of the earlier MoU between Mr. Sirisena and the array of characters in the joint opposition; a MoU which the JHU rightly stayed out of. The JHU has introduced some semblance of balance and nudged the Sirisena project in the direction of a Middle Path—a path that would be the natural inclination of a traditional SLFPer such as Mr. Sirisena.
The crucial points of the MoU with the JHU are as follows:
Clause1- Constitutional reforms as regards the executive powers, good governance and electoral system.
Clause 2- Abolishing the draconian powers of the executive presidency without jeopardizing national security and territorial integrity. Introducing and electoral system with features of the first-past-post and proportional representative systems to ensure stable government. (My emphasis-DJ)
Clause 6- Action against efforts to arraign the Commander-in-Chief and other military leaders with war crimes at international tribunals.
Of these, the core element is the commitment to “Abolishing the draconian powers of the executive presidency without jeopardizing national security and territorial integrity.”
One notes that the commitment is not to abolishing the executive presidency as such, but to “constitutional reform as regards executive powers”. The pledge is not to the divestiture of the presidency of all its executive powers but to abolish the “draconian powers”, i.e. the dangerous excess. Most commendable in the JHU’s insistence and Mr. Sirisena’s readiness to embrace the principle that even the reform of the executive presidency must fall between certain red lines and that those red lines pertain to security: “Abolishing the draconian powers of the executive presidency without jeopardizing national security and territorial integrity.”
The JHU is far more grounded than the civil society intellectuals around President Kumaratunga who came up with the abolitionist slogan many years ago, in the CBK second term. The motive was clear: to permit her to remain in politics and at the helm of national affairs. They understood that this was not possible by Constitutional means, because she could not obtain a two thirds majority. Thus they sought a leveling solution—a return by an extra constitutional pathway, to the Westminster system under which CBK could have been a PM without term limits, just like her mother. In pursuit of this Constitutional Revolution for which she needed the support of the TNA—at the time a proxy of the LTTE–she even permitted Prabhakaran’s combatants to violate the CFA and make a surprise seaborne landing behind the lines of the rebellious Karuna forces drawn up along the Verugal River.
The JHU is not sullied by such motives. Unlike Ranil and Chandrika, it has been consistently in the anti-LTTE camp; it has been nationalist and security conscious. In the form of Champika Ranawaka and Athureliye Rathana Thero it has far smarter and more responsible political minds than the Sudu Nelum/CFA/ISGA/PTOMS elements around Chandrika and Ranil. Perhaps most significantly, it has a first rate political scientist, Anurudhdha Pradeep, who is a more literate and far better student of politics than the surfeit of lawyers and NGO types around the CBK-Ranil bloc.