By Laksiri Fernando –
According to the Daily News today (21 November 2014), it is an ‘Election by Proclamation.’ The announcement itself signifies something odd with the procedure. It goes like the following.
“KNOW YE that by virtue of the powers vested in me by paragraph (3A) of Article 31 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I, Mahinda Rajapaksa, President, do by this Proclamation, hereby declare my intention of appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term.” (My emphasis).
The intention of the President, but not the people has come to the forefront. Otherwise, there are two more years to go for the President who was elected in 2010. In all democratic presidential systems, elections are pre-scheduled. No arbitrary elections by proclamation could be held.
The original sin was something committed by JR Jayewardene when he introduced the 3rd Amendment. It is now enlarged by the 18th Amendment (multiplied by six!), completely eliminating the term limit which is a fundamental cornerstone of any democratic presidential system. This is one reason why the presidential system should go lock, stock and barrel replacing it with a parliamentary model suitable to the 21st century.
There are democratic presidential systems and there are undemocratic presidential systems. It is clear as crystal to what category Sri Lanka now belongs. Even in a democratic presidential system (i.e. US), there are structural impediments. The present gridlock in the US as a result of the executive and the legislature belonging to two opposing political parties is not good particularly for a developing country. Obama has to continue even without the confidence of the Congress for two more years. It is questionable whether this is democratic.
The undemocratic nature of the presidential system in Sri Lanka is much more profound. Instead of ‘checks and balances,’ the President has checked all the ‘balances.’ The Chief Justice is a complete acolyte checking all the other Supreme Court judges in turn. A cardinal requirement for democracy is ‘Independence of the Judiciary’ which is fundamentally lacking now in Sri Lanka when it comes to constitutional or political decisions.
The distortion in the governing system is not limited to the presidential superstructure. There are flaws underneath at the base. The electoral system is also flawed given the unhealthy preferential voting and the large ‘district-constituencies.’ It is difficult for the voters or the people to influence the MPs, let alone controlling them. A democratic governing system should depend not on one person, elected as the President, but on a broad based representative Parliament, responsive to people’s needs and aspirations.
In a multicultural and a plural society, and to enhance the devolved system of governance, a Second Chamber is also an essential requirement. This is something that the opposition has so far forgotten in their common platform. Devolution also should be meaningful and enhanced. Abolition of the presidential system and the introduction of the 17th Amendment with necessary refinements might be possible within six months. But the new design for a proper system should at least take one year with necessary consultations. I would modestly recommend one year even for the abolition of the presidential system without disillusioning the people like in the past.
Mahinda Rajapaksa could have retired gracefully in two years’ time if not for this hurriedly called election. It is a lost opportunity. There is no people’s mandate or a moral right for him to contest for a third term. Even in China, political office bearers should retire after the age of 68. There are rules governing smooth leadership succession. As a general rule, people should give way to others and pass the baton. It is an archaic tradition in Sri Lanka for many people to hang on to ‘power and position.’ This I have seen in very many places including in universities. Lack of democratic ethos or culture, or insecurity, perhaps is the reason.
Even the legality of a third term for the incumbent was controversial although the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. After that ruling, it is best for the opposition to accept that ruling whatever the criticisms that we have of that decision or the Supreme Court in general. I am particularly unhappy about the recent JVP position on this matter. I wish they would change. A boycott of election, claiming it to be illegal is not good for the democratic process. It also will help the regime to consolidate its power in the face of the growing opposition which creates considerable opportunities to defeat the third term. What should be exposed is its immorality and undemocratic nature.
Defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa will not be an easy task but it is possible. He is generally credited for defeating the LTTE or terrorism. This will be one of the main election cards. For that matter, Sarath Fonseka also should be credited. If the President is planning to campaign for the third term based on scaremongering of a ‘new Tiger threat’ that would be largely neutralized after the defection of the JHU. The defection of the JHU places both prospects and problems for the opposition. It is however largely positive.
There are unprecedented infrastructure developments in the country under Rajapaksa administration. This cannot be denied. However the economic development in general has been quite uneven both horizontally and vertically. Not only economic deprivation but also rising expectations might go against the government. There are new middle classes not only in the cities but also in the villages that aspire for more opportunities and dislike corruption and nepotism. They also seek more freedom and justice.
Family rule might be the main liability of the President facing this election.
The crystallization of the opposition so far is not enough for a clear victory. It is however still possible. I have been advocating the consolidation of the UNP and a split within the SLFP/UPFA for some time. Of course many others were saying the same. I was saying it for the sake of democracy and a change of government and not for personal reasons. The JHU’s departure from the government is a healthy sign which should be welcomed by everyone. The desertion of the government by individual members also will slowly start with the departure of Gampaha MP, Vasantha Senanayake.
There are speculation that the SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, also will leave the government with some others. I will only be surprised if he doesn’t do that. The SLFP has been virtually hijacked by the Rajapaksa family which might not be tolerated by the faithful sections of the party. Sirisena has been marginalized throughout. What the Prime Minister, D. M. Jayaratne, has stated in Parliament on the 19th cannot be a mistake. Whatever the mistakes, he is a faithful member/leader of the SLFP and a founder member of the party. At least it represents his inner wish. He has said
“We are at present in a hoary situation. An election will be held. When the situation becomes renewed, the Pope will meet a new government and a New President. Not the old President.” (My translation).
In these columns, many have been discussing who would be the best common opposition candidate. The discussions started with four credible names: Ven. Sobitha, CBK, Karu Jayasuriya and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Finally the attention focused on the last two, KJ and RW. I was of the opinion that KJ might be the best option for the presidency not because RW is less credible but because the effort is to abolish the presidential system. Added advantage was/is to attract non-UNP voters and political formations.
The main task of RW, as I perceived, might be to contest the parliamentary elections, immediately as necessary, in order that a viable government is formed to abolish the presidential system. It is the parliament after all which can abolish the EP system. The situation perhaps is changed, if Maithripala Sirisena is defecting to the opposition with others. According to some information, his name has been strongly proposed as the common opposition candidate. This is undoubtedly well and good. Whoever is selected by the joint opposition should have the unhesitant support of those who want to make a change and re-establish democracy in the country.
However, I still believe that since the main effort of the opposition’s democracy movement is to abolish the presidential system, the best candidate might be a person like Karu Jayasuriya, although the other two, MS or RW, may have more energy and charisma for election campaigning. Traditional or faithful UNP sections also might feel dissatisfied if a recent defector from the government is selected as the opposition candidate. Otherwise, I obviously have more personal empathy with MS.
My proposition, even under the new circumstances, would be for KJ to be the common presidential candidate, strongly supported by RW, MS and others, and for the latter two to prepare at the same time to form a new UNP-SLFP government. While KJ’s task is to defeat MR, the other two are more pivotal in abolishing the presidential system and bring about a new democratic constitution where all ethnic and religious communities live in peace and harmony. Priority also should be given to the upliftment of the poor and the marginalized.
In my imagination, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena can even be Co-Prime Ministers in a UNP-SLFP coalition. The focus should be on a Parliamentary Government by abolishing the presidential system.
The prophecy of the present Prime Minister, DMJ, will prove to be correct in that sense. The Pope will meet a new President and a new Government in the New Year!