22 May, 2022


National Schizophrenia Over Executive Presidency & The Next Election 

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

To abolish or not to abolish the executive presidency? That is Sri Lanka’s politically existential question. And who will be the non-Rajapaksa presidential candidate at the next election? That is the UNP’s existentially political question. The country is schizophrenic over abolishing the executive presidency. In the last election, abolishment was the single issue that galvanized the candidacy and ensured the victory of Maithripala Sirisena. After the great Sirisena betrayal, the presidency may not be an issue or a question at the next presidential election. But it will invariably become a haunting issue after the next election. The schizophrenia will continue and whoever who wins the election will have to deal with it. The UNP will have to deal with it even as it struggles to decide on its next presidential candidate. Will the abolishment question be a factor in picking one among the three contenders for the UNP candidacy, even though it is still a long shot from winning the presidency? What comeuppance for the Party that created the presidency? Spare a thought for the country that is now schizophrenic because of it.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa may fancy that he has no abolishment baggage to carry as a presidential candidate. Obviously, he is not going to commit himself to abolishing the executive presidency, because his politics is all about presidential power. Without it there will be no business for him in politics. That’s a litmus test for you to determine the eligibility of a political aspirant. But it will be interesting to see if Mr. Rajapaksa would commit himself to preserving the presidential system and to put the abolishment question to rest once and for all. If he were to do that, he will be the first presidential candidate in 25 years to defend the presidency and to commit to protecting it. That it should come from the SLFP side of the national political divide is symptomatic of the positional upheavals across party lines caused by the presidential system.    

In fairness to Mr. Rajapaksa, we should not burden him with too many questions and too much expose the inherent contradictions in his candidacy even before he has been officially designated as the Rajapaksa candidate for the election. All Sri Lankans can wish him god speed to get well soon in Singapore. But only a handful can help him with whatever legal difficulties he is facing at home and abroad. To add to his anxieties, his older brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is mysteriously reluctant to formally announce his younger brother’s candidacy, even while publicly acknowledging that he (MR) has been given the power by the Joint Opposition to nominate their next presidential candidate. For those in the JO familiar with Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’, this must come across as a form of democratic personalism! Others might see it as a case of the SLFP getting infected by the presidential virus created by the UNP’s JR Jayewardene.      

But as political gains and losses go, the presidential tables are turned, and have been turned over the last 25 years, against the UNP. In another unwitting outcome of the presidential system, the pre-1994 UNP and SLFP political formations have no meaning anymore. Everyone blames Ranil Wickremesinghe for the electoral rut the UNP has got into, because Mr. Wickremesinghe is a convenient whipping post for his detractors. Even the usually misfiring Maithripala Sirisena never misses a hit on Ranil Wickremesinghe. But the real source of the misfortunes of the UNP is not Ranil but the presidential system, and it is the model of the presidential system that has enabled Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain as the permanent leader of the UNP for as long as he has. Looked at it another way, while the UNP has gone off the rails after losing presidential power, the SLFP has all but disappeared after winning and keeping presidential power for 25 years – almost ten years longer than the UNP.

Picking the UNP candidate

I wasn’t planning on a long canter, for a short article, before getting to weigh the relative chances of the three contenders for the UNP candidacy. Blame it on the executive presidential system. It disrupts even political polemics. As the three contenders go, the candidacy is not, by any means, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s to lose. I think the UNPers are being polite and are expecting their leader to gracefully exist and avoid an embarrassing showdown. The voices that used to rush to his defence and to proclaim his candidacy have gone silent. In a rather rueful admission of his own isolation, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has lamented that all his born again UNP Ministers, save for Lakshman Kiriella (an ex-SLFPer), are going behind his back to make deals with the President. Even some of the Muslim ministers, who staged a dramatic mass resignation in consultation with the Prime Minister, went back to the President without telling the PM.  

On the other hand, another ex-SLFP UNPer and a hitherto consistent Ranil-faithful, Managala Samaraweera, seems to be signaling that Sajith Premadasa is the man of the moment to carry the presidential torch for the future. This is more than interesting, because when it comes to scouting for presidential candidates, Mangala Samaraweera has a perfect track record in picking out the right candidate. He is a political weathercock and can turn on the slightest tailwind behind a potential candidate. In 2005, Mangala Samaraweera read the writing on the wall for the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and became an early sponsor for the candidacy for Mahinda Rajapaksa, and successfully packed off President Kumaratunga one year sooner than she was planning on leaving.

Samaraweera did not last long in the Rajapaksa presidential camp and he showed political courage, even principle, in leaving the Rajapaksas for the UNP-opposition when everyone around Ranil Wickremesinghe was moving the other way, and apparently with Ranil’s blessings to keep their finances solvent. Once in the opposition, Mangala became a close confidant and a more resourceful ally of the UNP leader. He played a key role in the 2010 presidential election and the ultimately disastrous candidacy of Sarath Fonseka. In 2014-2015, Samaraweera was the mastermind who coordinated the resignation, the candidacy and the eventual victory of Maithripala Sirisena. Sometime last year there were suggestions that Chandrika Kumaratunga was promoting the presidential candidacy of Mangala Samaraweera. 

I am not suggesting that Mangala Samaraweera’s support is all that Sajith Premadasa needs to become the UNP candidate, let alone win the presidential election. Only, his signals are indicative of the mood within the UNP – to look past Ranil Wickremesinghe and towards Sajith Premadasa. Unquestionably, it is far from a done deal for Mr. Premadasa and he will have formidable opponents within the UNP especially given his studied intimacy towards President Sirisena whom most UNPers simply love to loathe. Interestingly and tellingly, the pushback against Premadasa is not manifesting even as rearguard support for Wickremesinghe but as an alternative possibility in the candidacy of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. 

Speaker Jayasuriya has earlier expressed his willingness to be a UNP presidential candidate only if there was unanimous support within the Party and only for the sole purpose of getting rid of the executive presidency. He said he was fed with the presidency after his experience with Sirisena and he was ready to fulfill Sobitha Thero’s mission in politics that Sirisena has betrayed. But the latest plea for unanimous support on his behalf by the All Ceylon National Bhikshu Forum (ACNBF), makes no mention of any commitment to abolishing the executive presidency. 

It is still early days to say who is going to be the UNP candidate. In the event Sajith Premadasa turns out to be the one, political observers may want to look back at the ceremony last week in Matara to felicitate Mangala Samaraweera’s thirty years in politics on his home ground with only local admirers. The occasion brought together the triumvirate of Samaraweera, Sajith Premadasa and the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan. There was no Samantha Power this time, and it was Mr. Sampanthan who delivered the keynote address. In the current context, the triumvirate appearance is more than a mere coincidence. It was well known in political circles in 2014 that it was Mr. Sampanthan’s plea that persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to support Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate. We do not know who is pleading for whom this time around, but every political gathering in the coming months will be watched with interest by political speculators.    

There was another ceremony in Colombo last week to felicitate DEW Gunasekara’s 60 years in politics, twice as many as Mangala Samaraweera and always in the same political party. The veteran Communist leader chose the occasion to warn that the country is “in such a deep political crisis that the forthcoming 2019 presidential election wouldn’t restore stability.” He did not have any advice for the current President or his successor, but “warned of dire consequences unless political parties represented in parliament took remedial measures urgently.” Therein is the rub. And that will be the country’s schizophrenia even after the current perahera of the UNP and Rajapaksa  presidential candidates is brought to an end at the next presidential election.   

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Wonderful article, Rajan Philips
    The time is ripe to send both political parties packing, and I will do his best to make this come true. However, our problem is that each of us dislikes of one of the parties. Most Sri Lankans will want to vote in such a way as to keep the less liked party out. I know that it is not for parties but for individuals that we vote, but neither side has announced its “common candidate” yet. This is an insult to us. They think that we will mechanically vote for the guy whom they impose on us. As for me, I want to keep the barbarous SLPP fellows out, but the UNP seems able to think only of old men whom we are tired of. Why do so many Sri Lankans dodge the need to say what they mean? I myself am old, and I’d like to leave this world having ushered in a fresh face, even if it is not young. How to do it?
    To most Sri Lankans, this seems to be a very important consideration; despite my handle, not to me. I don’t think that a guy with no political experience can actually govern this country. The problem is finding a decent guy with experience.
    There are such people, and we must fearlessly vote for them. Imtiaz Bakeer Markar is one such. Let me explain.
    Each of us has THREE Preferences, and I normally use them. Sometimes I make a mistake in voting, and , in my enthusiasm, use only one. In 2015, I voted only for Maithripala Sirisena.

  • 1

    The unprincipled, self serving troika that is responsible for the absolute mess this country and her helpless population are in today .

  • 2

    DEW Gunasekara is right. Sri lankan parliament is highly infested wit the International community henchmen. Just consider, Prime minister of a country, became the Defence minister and said to the media. ” I INFORMED SUMANTHIRAN too”. No one question it. Then that same PM appointed his highly tainted PENTHOUSE RAVI and a bunch of National list MPs question every matter related to Intelligence gathering of the Easter attack. What Ranil is doing. He did the same thing when LTTE was alive and said exposed where the Long Rangers are. LTTE came and killed them all. That is the situation of the parliament.
    In brief what I say, none of the Sinhala parliamentarians are good to represent Sri lanka.
    Douglas Devananda says TNA is with UNP because TNA too like commis and they are addicted to that. Some Kilinochchi parliamentarian had earned Rs 45 million from his Car permit sale.

  • 0

    The struggle to hold control of the reign is to get good bargain of the loot. The saffron robes have now joined. It doesnot matter who becomes President, but RW has craftily trying to hold onto his position of executive premier. This situ can cause chaos after the next election for the simple reason that it would be difficult to change the powers of the parliamentarians which will certainly lead to the sale of sovereignty. Only exception is by Nagananda’s challenge where people can get some redress. His challenge is that if he is chosen as President, he will make the 1978 constitution null and void and introduce a democratic constitution where there will not be any chance to corrupt the administration. I would certainly vote him to power than all the garbage RW is offering free to get votes. MR is of course a lost case. People should also not elect businessman to do politics for they will have selfish interests, like RK, RP etc.

  • 0

    Where there is confusion there is profit.

    Muslim Politicians have come together to put forward a Muslim as a Presidential candidate!
    They will sit on the wall as usual,even with their legs raised,and engage in political trade and finally decide to withdraw after getting maximum from either of the sinhala candidates,with the promise of the block Muslim vote bank in the country.

  • 3

    The Abolishing of Excutive President has been the most successful bait to bait the bait.

    I still stand on only one thing and for me the Pilots available are no Concern , all are experienced enough to fly , My3,MR ,RW, Sajith or even Gota may not have political experience but with MR’s guidance as co pilot he can.
    The issue is the plane condemned and with a record of crashes and guaranteed for final doom.

    Until the present Constitution is fully scraped and a new constitution is brought in that takes away Treasury , All government tenders , police powers from the hands of the politicians and handing it over to independent bodies , and also requiring a vote from the people or Independent body elected by people to approve foreign engagements that risks the sovereignty of the Country , also bring a tripart system to resolve all Trade union issues and bring in death penal for terrorism and bring communal violence and hate under sedation that can allow to revoke the civil rights for a period not less than 20 years .
    Then we can see who will dare to be willing to pilot the supersonic .

  • 1

    Exe presidency “to be or not to be”? I as far as I know, almost all parties had come to an agreement on this issue long time ago and finally made it become a reality with 19 A confirming its partial death after the next election. With the issue nearly settled, I don’t understand the reason for so much hoopla on the candidacy. The main reason perhaps is a lack of formal system for selecting party candidates for elections. USA begins the selection process nearly a year ahead. In SL, it has become a “hide & seek” game due mainly to the fact that grass-root is disfranchised totally from the process. The other reason is that it has become a family affair since 2005, at least with one party. This gives an ample opportunity for the media to find enough stuffs to fill space or kill time during news.
    However, it is very strange to see why nobody who are talking about the candidate are not asking the most important question: Which candidate will fit the next Gvt in which PM and the cabinet will have more power in decision making? I think that UNP has the best list if it can win both units (parliament & Prez). If the past experience with GoRa should stand as any lesson, then, he should be the most unsuitable of all other likely candidates, either from a party or independent. With his well exhibited arrogance and the well known anger management problem, he shouldn’t be even near a place where tough compromising has to be negotiated, let alone making him a Prez!
    Like winning wars, any fool can win elections but fools can’t govern a country. It needs educated, experienced team with a visionary leader. As things stand now or for another foreseeable future, I don’t see such a prospect within SLPP, no matter who their team is. That much has been proven since 1994.

  • 1

    Rajan Philips knows that we know that he knows that “To abolish or not to abolish the executive presidency?”} is not a question , certainly not {“That is Sri Lanka’s politically existential question”} whatever that means.
    There is no {“National Schizophrenia Over Executive Presidency & The Next Election”}
    The political leaders may be schizophrenic but layLankans are not. We are worryingly annoyed that, yet again, we have to choose one from the Rogues Gallery.
    We are worried about pretend-schizophrenics among political analysts, journalists, writers who cringe when the word ‘BBS-Buddhism’ is mentioned.
    On 03 July, Vishwamitra, never known to mince words, wrote the real existential threat https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/gnanasara-ratana-seeds-of-a-national-crisis-in-the-making/
    Investigate, if you will Rajan, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/despite-lack-of-incriminating-evidence-dr-shafi-further-remanded/ while Gnanasara Thera with SEVERAL criminally incriminating evidences is laughing all the way to the bank.

  • 0

    I actually do not understand why our well versed writers on political issues and politicians in SL do not have a measure of our so called political leaders who are aspiring to be candidates at the next Presidential Elections. It is crystal clear for any sane and unbiased person that none of the 225+1 or for that matter any other past MP is totally out of the question. All of them directly and indirectly or by aiding and abetting are answerable to the multiple financial and other serious crimes committed against the country and individuals. To this day the Govt. has done sweet nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice and is conveniently sweeping the dust under the carpet. So much for honesty, integrity and Justice of much hyped Yaha palanaya. In this hind-set do we need to look for a trust worthy person within this 225+1. In the name of justice people should show them the door. Our country must look for a National leader who will respect the universal Laws and social dictum and one rule of Law for our country. Unfortunately hither to only Sinhala and Buddhism slogan has carried the cake.

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