4 April, 2020

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On The Origins Of The Executive Presidency

By Rajesh Venugopal

Dr. Rajesh Venugopal

Sri Lanka’s executive presidency is rightly criticised for its authoritarianism, and there have been widespread movements across the political spectrum to abolish or moderate it. But why as it implemented in the first place? Why did JR Jayewardene break with three decades of experience with the Westminster-style parliamentary system and enact the executive presidency in the 1978 constitution? I draw here from a longer article I wrote on this subject, which is included as a chapter in Asanga Welikala’s excellent 2015 collection Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism: Provenance, Problems, Prospects.

Many have identified the rationale of the executive presidency within JR’s own personal political ambitions and strategy. Indeed, this was largely a project of his own making. But there are deeper structural reasons that go beyond JR, and the origins of the executive presidency lie in the response of Sri Lanka’s ruling elites to the tumultuous transformations of 1956.

As with many other features of contemporary Sri Lankan politics, the point of departure for understanding the executive presidency lies in the Donoughmore constitution and the way in which the relationship between elites and masses were forged. Ceylon’s nascent native elite had been drawn into politics through the expansion in the quantity and quality of native representation permitted in the colonial administration. But all this would change in 1930 with the new Donoughmore constitution. Voting, which had hitherto been restricted to men of education and property, was now extended to all men and women aged 21 and over. The Ceylonese political elite, composed entirely of wealthy, educated, westernised native men, were aghast at the idea of extending political equality to those that they considered to be manifestly their social inferiors. The most senior and respected personality of this elite, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, wrote in outrage that it was ‘an utter stupidity’ to ‘transfer political power to a dangerous mob’.

Nevertheless, universal franchise did happen, and in the decades that followed, populist electoral politics profoundly destabilised the sedate and clubby world of elite-dominated politics. It resulted in the creation of free public health and education schemes which transformed the country, and made Sri Lanka an unusual and precocious textbook example for students of international development. Between 1946 and 1963, while it remained one of the poorest countries in the world, the infant mortality rate dropped from 141 per 1000 to 56 per 1000, and life expectancy rose from 43 to 63 years. The adult literacy rate, which was already comparatively high in 1946 at 58%, rose quickly to 72% by 1963.

But at the same time, populist electoral democracy also had many complicated negative consequences. Universal suffrage, granted abruptly to an impoverished rural population who had never actually asked for it, was quickly exploited and captured – first, by dominant social groups, and later by populist demagogues. Electoral competition fuelled ethno-nationalism and gave rise to a blazing conflict over the national language, bringing the Sinhalese and Tamils into frontal political confrontation that eventually escalated into civil war.

In economic terms, the consequences of electoral democracy led Joan Robinson, the Cambridge economist, to famously remark that ‘Ceylon has tasted the fruit before she has planted the tree’. That is, it led to an unsustainable growth in welfare expenditure, so the productive sectors of the economy were heavily taxed to fund not long-term investments, but unproductive consumption subsidies. Emblematic of the economic and political dysfunctionality of the time was the institution of the rice subsidy and its quick elevation to the status of a political ‘holy cow’. Introduced initially as a war-time measure, the subsidy grew to occupy 20% of all government expenditures and became electorally impossible to withdraw, even when the government was in deep fiscal distress in 1953.

By the early 1950s, universal franchise had created a super-heated political environment that had totally upturned the docile and incestuous elite politics of the colonial era. With the 1953 hartal, the 1956 ’Sinhala-only’ act; island-wide ethnic riots in 1958, and the assassination of the prime minister by a monk in 1959, the democratic dystopia of mob rule feared by Ramanathan and the old elite appeared to have come frighteningly true to life.

Even though many surviving members of that old elite were actually at the helm, and were themselves deeply complicit in presiding over and politically profiting from these tumultuous and violent events, there was also a collective shock and concern of that group at the unfolding political and economic chaos. In distress, many desperately sought to find means to reverse these excesses, and to push the genie of populist nationalism back into the bottle.

One early attempt that demonstrated the desperation that had gripped the ancien regime was the failed ‘colonel’s coup’ of 1962. The main conspirators of this plot to depose the government of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike were a group of senior military and police officers whose educational, social and religious background and family connections linked them closely to the erstwhile colonial-era social and economic elite. It emerged only much later that three of the most senior members of that old elite – former prime minister Sir John Kotelawala, opposition leader Dudley Senanayake, and president, Sir Oliver Goonetileke – were complicit in the plot, and were to have stepped forward to assume control.

Why did they attempt the coup? In the interviews by the American scholar David Horowitz, the coup leaders provided explanations which were common to the way that the members of that old elite felt about new political environment. They described ‘politicians pandering to the mob’, ‘unrest’, ‘strikes’, ‘no discipline’, ‘danger from the left’. Fatefully for the subsequent history of democracy in Sri Lanka, the 1962 coup was uncovered and stopped in time. Moreover, As Kingsley De Silva and Howard Wriggins explain, Dudley Senanayake’s complicity in the plot was not uncovered until after his death in 1973, by which time he had been re-elected and had served another full term as prime minister.

The other, far more historically successful plan, emanating from largely the same impulse, and the brainchild of a leading politician of the same vintage from the same economic and social elite, was the Gaullist semi-presidential system. Conceived, nurtured and executed almost single-handedly by JR Jayewardene himself, the broader unspoken compulsion that guided this project was, as with the failed coup, one of protecting political decision-making from the heat of electoral pressures. The sources of Jayewardene’s inspiration are uncertain (he first broached the idea in a speech in 1966), but in substance, it was evidently modelled on the French Fifth Republic. Jayewardene was also clearly in awe of the impressive economic successes achieved by his more authoritarian Asian contemporaries, and Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was often held up as a paragon to behold and emulate. Finally, Sri Lanka’s embrace of the presidential system also occurred at a time in the 1960s and 1970s, when several former British colonies facing similar crises of governability under the Westminster system – such as Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda – switched to a presidential system.

The problem at hand with the Westminster system is that the executive is formed out of, and remains embedded within, the legislature. It is thus inherently unstable and vulnerable to the daily ebb and flow of political drama. The shifting loyalties of individual legislators place the executive under the constant threat of sudden collapse through a confidence vote. Moreover, elections to the legislature are based on a plurality (first-past-the-post) system, in which relatively small shifts in voting percentages are magnified into exaggerated parliamentary majorities, as happened in Sri Lanka in 1956, 1960 (July), 1970, and 1977.

In contrast to this, executive presidents are directly elected with a fixed term, so that the chief executive stands above and outside parliament with independent, personal authority, and is thus insulated from everyday electoral politics. The motivation behind the executive presidency was thus to hold back the tide of mass electoral politics, and create the institutional means to implement deep state reforms on economic management, (and to a lesser extent), ethnic relations, which were in themselves counter-populist and electorally unfeasible.

Donald Horowitz described that ‘its principal purpose was to create a political executive with a fixed term that would permit the incumbent to make unpopular decisions’. Put plainly, the presidency was an attempt to recalibrate the elite–mass equation in favour of elites.

Did it succeed in this ambition? The answer to this is too long and the subject of a different article, but in brief, it takes the following parameters. The quest to tame electoral populism and establish an elevated, empowered presidency in the service of an unpopular economic strategy was intensely complicated, not least because of its overlap with the ethnic conflict. It worked best in its early years, when the agenda benefited from three overlapping factors. First, it had the strong personal commitment of the president to making his economic strategy succeed. Second, the president had the support of a dependable, loyal legislature and a super-majority inherited as a relic of the old system. Third, the president had to deploy a sophisticated array of countervailing sources of popular legitimacy in order to avoid a backlash against the reforms, including an exaggerated performance of Buddhist religiosity.

In the absence of these factors, opposition to the elite-led projects of economic and ethnic state reform gained strength and coalesced within parliament. Parliament itself was, unlike the president, not protected by a fixed term (until the 19th amendment in 2015), and as such constantly remained much closer to the popular pulse, and vulnerable to defections, confidence votes, by-elections, dissolution, and fresh elections. The new PR voting system improved the representative quality of parliament in several dimensions, making it more democratic and giving smaller parties and dispersed ethnic communities a commensurate share of legislative decision-making power. But in doing so it also served to constrain the powers of subsequent presidents after Jayewardene, requiring them to share power and make special concessions with numerous small coalition partners. As a result, the legislature increasingly became the vehicle through which populist electoral politics found expression, and constrained the power of the presidency.

*Dr. Rajesh Venugopal is Associate Professor at the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was previously at the University of York and the University of Oxford. He is a member of the faculty advisory group of the LSE’s South Asia Centre, a member of the editorial board of Nations and Nationalism, a fellow of the Centre for Poverty Analysis and an Advisor at Verite Research (Sri Lanka). 

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Latest comments

  • 11
    1

    Remember JR famously said “Each Tamil I killed, I will get 100 Sinhala votes. I am a politician, what you expect me to do?” UNP followed exact same path all along. Now UNP says that they lost because TNA supported them. Should it get more Racist than this for Tamils to simply boycott the parliament and use that time to help NE development? Why waste time to create stable state in Colombo? Just get MPs get elected, and gather in some building in NE on a regular basis, use all the MP privileges, use the time to deal with IC. Bring the Tamil plight to IC. Lot of work to be done there. No one focusing on that. Gather 100s of overseas lawyers and experts via technological means, and try to reach ICC, UN, UN agencies, friendly governments, and all helpers overseas. Nothing illegal there. As occupiers, racist Colombo has to maintain state functions on colonized land. Everything would happen as its now. Why waste MPs time to useless talk and educate permanent racist people.
    Instead strengthen NE human structures and lives until the day is ripe.
    Co-habitation with Sinhalese is a pipe dream that would never happen. Sinhalese demand and exercise all right in West, citizenship in 3-5 years but deny the same for, no 1 forex earner up country Tamils for 200+ years. Only right NE Tamils get is Genocide and Death. But country’s backbone is hardworking minorities. Recently a 85+ year old Sinhalese elderly who was an “orphan roaming boy or ice boy” in and around British army camps in Colombo in 1940s, wrote to Queen and started receiving British Military Pension. He was not even enlisted nor gone to school ever. Tamils received only banned chemical BOMBS and genocide in their own land. This shows how Sinhalese from top to bottom, use their entitlement in the world scene. If you hear diplomat Ravinath Ariyasinha speak in UN or Rev Cardinal start talk to media, its obvious.

    • 3
      5

      “Remember JR famously said “Each Tamil I killed, I will get 100 Sinhala votes.”

      Hehe, JR was actually a Tamil. He was a Chetty (Chettiar in Tamil). Here is a quote, ‘The Mudaliyar (Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayawardena) descended from a respectable family of the Chetty and merchant caste. At the early period of the Dutch possession of the country his ancestors migrated from the Coromandal coast (of India) and settled down in Colombo.” Chettiars in Tamil Nadu were merchants and moneylenders. I hope all the Eelamists and their bosses Wigneswaran/Sampanthan call JR a racist Sinhala-Buddhist; it will show just how hollow the skull can be.

      • 3
        0

        Not only JR but most Sinhalese, low or high born , are of Tamil ancestry. This includes the Bandaranaickes. Ratwattes, Wickremasinghes, and all other anti Tamils , now baying for Tamil blood including you.

    • 6
      2

      are u shitting and sitting on your midget of a? endeavoring the mighty Tamils of boycotting the upcoming general election and to make sure that a 2/3rd majority to enable the culling of the 19th amendment to ensure that a new constitution to be enacted which if allowed will allow the criminally cussed rajapuka kith and kin to become the undisputed sole owners of this the saddest sorriest shittiest cursed nation on this glorious wonderful planet where I and you are peacefully living..?
      a cheerless disgust.?
      R. J., the one & only.

    • 1
      1

      Where did JR say that? I looked for this comment but found nothing? Is it another one of Tamil imaginations?

  • 9
    1

    JR forced millions of Tamils out, Gota killed and destroyed half a million, and Sinhalese mostly talk now, why rest are not finished off yet. Does it deserves MPs to be in Sinhala Parliament? Gamini Dissanayake took train load of Sinhalese to destroy Jaffna library. He was Oxford educated. If Tamils see the pattern from 1948 till today, not a single self respectful Tamil would sit in Sinhala parliament. Up country Diga or Thonda won’t issue statements under threat if not for greed for a SEAT. Hard work of Tamils from 1948, would have landed them as a world class society. Fear of a Tamil Singapore next door, makes racists wet their sarongs.

    • 2
      2

      you are nothing but a wonderless shit oozing crocodile shedding better to be culled petty Yakko racist.?
      =
      do you think that we the most intelligent race on the planet will become victims of your crafty plot of a racist plan..?
      =
      keep on doing a wee after a wee in your amude of a soiled panty.
      =
      cheers, R. J.

      • 3
        3

        LMFAO…….I am wonder how this so-called superior race were used by the British and left to fend for themselves, how the Indians used discarded them like used condoms and how the Sinhalese gave them a bloody good thrashing on the banks of Nanthikadal.

        I wonder if this superior race had the wisdom of a little pigeon to realize that despite having over 60 million people scattered around the world, still do not have a country to call their own.

        Despite all the shortcomings, the complacency of the fool riding the high horse must continue. LMFAO.

        • 2
          1

          Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera

          “I am wonder how this so-called superior race were used by the British and left to fend for themselves, how the Indians used discarded them like used condoms and how the Sinhalese gave them a bloody good thrashing on the banks of Nanthikadal.”

          A section of descendants of Tamil Mercenaries (Vellaikkara padei) did very well under retired fugitive Mad Colonel with support from Hindians and Americans, while the other mad man who was headed the other side was determined to win the war for Mad Colonel’s brother equally mad Mahinda.

          It was as simple as that, there is nothing to wonder about. You would not have known these facts simply because you were employed to spit polish Mad Colonels boots and carry his b***s.

          • 1
            2

            Native Veddha,

            First of all, you did not read properly what I wrote. I did not say Tamils are a weak race. When RJ said of the “mighty Tamils” I asked how come such a “mighty race” come on the loosing side in every deal for the past 100 years.

            You have provided nothing factual in your argument above. You have taken men, Karuna and Pillaiyan and used their little political success they had to encompass 60 million other people of that same race.

            And you are saying you provided facts while polishing someone’s boots. LOL!

        • 3
          1

          Retarded ( Rtd) Shamal :

          So knew that Inuvil was to the South of Mallakambut you didnt know many of the other locations I asked you about eventhough Jaffan was your 2nd Home.
          Gemunu knew was was in the South when he said Sea to the South and Tamils to the North.
          You claimed that I said to your Devarajas Friend that he could have takn a Train to Inuvil from Mallakam. I know Mallalkam and Inuvil well so I wouldnt have said it and I never said and you tried to stick up for your Friend who got caught up ( Shankar is not goingto like thisn I am waiting for him to pop up) and his Article was full of lies.
          As for Inuvil it is famous for the big Maternity Hospital Even new borns woud know that there is no Railway Station in Inuvil and the nearest one to Inuvil is Kokkuvil.
          If you friend who got stranded at Fort Staion had asked me I would have told him to get off at Mallakam Station ( if trains are still stopping there) and Mallakam Hindu College is only 200m yards walk. If you come out of the Station and walk straight 200 yards you come to the junction and turn left and just past the filling Station Mallkam Hindu in on the opposite side. LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Even Gemunu wouldnt have know

        • 3
          2

          Retarded

          Where as you had a Coutry but through Greed & Arrogance you lost it never to get it back.

      • 2
        0

        “do you think that we the most intelligent race on the planet”
        I just check list of noble winners you are so right number is staggering. Regrading your knowledge and expertise on shit proves your intelligence beyond intelligent human comprehensions.
        One thing for sure in my opinion you must have had galleons of Kool-Aid so please don’t stop may harm your superior intelligence.

        • 0
          0

          Leonard,

          That was funny.

    • 0
      2

      I didn’t know that Perera was a Tamil name. Or, you don’t have the balls to reveal your non-Sinhala name. ha ha

      • 1
        0

        Neither is it a Sinhalese name it is a Portuguese and Galician Spanish name meaning pear or pear tree . Sinhalese have adopted this and so may have many Catholic Tamil Paravans in the Thootukudi area in Southern Tamil Nadu It also a common name in Kerala and amongst certain Sephardic Jews names. More than half the Sinhalese sur names of f Portuguese Spanish origin , as many people who use these surnames are descended from low caste Tamil slaves and indentured ,labour , who were imported from South Indian during the Portuguese /Dutch ear and are using these names to hide their actually lowly South Indian Tamil origin. Usually their so called Ge name is a dead giveaway of their recent South Indian origin but they are now changing this too.

  • 5
    0

    Surely by now JR is having his time in the bottom realm of the hell, waiting until Rajapakse clan join him. That is the place they deserve for their unspeakable atrocities.

    • 2
      2

      Gurugs, JR destroyed the country and it’s economy, set the Sinhala against the Tamils, destroyed our education system, before JRJ Ananda College had a workshop to teach the students in the use of tools,book binding,carpentry – JRJ got that section closed. Got all the warehouses of the Paddy Marketing Board closed, c losed down many industries, that applied not only to the State Owned but also privately owned, converted Colombo, a beautiful city of yore into a slum,destroyed our morals.Prostitution was there but after him it became a menance, most of all he destroyed once a monolith _ The UNP.

      For more details read Gavin Karunaratne Former G>A>Matara.

      • 1
        0

        Now his nephew RW is destroying what is left in the country by making deals with Rajapakse clan. Hell is way too good for these traitors. There should be another place for them.

  • 3
    0

    If the current President Gota Rajapakse and PM Mahinda Rajapakse obtained 2/3 parliamentary seats immediately the constitution will be amended with an added section “NO ELECTIONS FOR TEN YEARS or it may be more.
    People of S/L will be fooled.

    • 1
      2

      No election for 10 years OK if the recalling of politicians is allowed easily, does not need Judicial process to postpone, lengthen or cancel it.

  • 1
    0

    venu dear boy
    no need to talk about the past
    tell us what will happen 10 years after the election

  • 1
    2

    Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera you are hiding the elephant is saying that Èthe Sinhalese gave them a bloody good thrashing on the banks of Nanthikadal. It was the Indian Malayalees, Pakistanis, British, American., Chinese, Russian, Ukaranian, Israeli and other mercenaries who destroyed the unarmed Tamils in their thousands. If Buddha is an enlightened man, then Dharma will win one day and you will live see that Adharma will be vanquished, otherwise Buddhism will die a natural death.
    – Buddhagosha Mithilash

  • 3
    2

    Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera you are hiding the elephant in saying that “..the Sinhalese gave them a bloody good thrashing on the banks of Nanthikadal….” It was not merely teh Buddhist Sinhalese but also the Indian Malayalees, Pakistanis, British, American., Chinese, Russian, Ukaranian, Israeli and other mercenaries who destroyed the unarmed Tamils in their thousands. If Buddha is an enlightened man, then Dharma will win one day and you will live to see that Adharma will be vanquished, otherwise Buddhism will die a natural death.
    – Buddhagosha Mithilash

  • 0
    0

    I agree with Lakmal Perera. That is the way to go. Much sanity among great mess

  • 3
    1

    Dayan Jeyathillake

    ** If you read this I like to tell you that I read your article on the issue of the 13th Amendments and I found it very interesting and for once it made sense . I can see that there was a message for Gotha and MR not only of its importane but also the consequences of not implementing it . No doubt you want the Government to know that you are till around and you would like to be included but your account is also full of assumptions of your own. Unfortunately it was in the Daily Mirror which doesnt offer a right to reply. So if you care to post it on Colombo Telegraph I will go through it and pick holes and may be make your recomendations to GOSL to get out of this perilous situation..

  • 0
    0

    Dear Rajesh

    Thank you for the article. I think the following elements missing in your writeup/argument/case making is the Geo Political manipulations/man handling the developing nations through regime change via violent means or economic means by the big powers/Cold War and now the new equvalent versions. The systamatic dismantling of the non align movement is the biggest project undertaken by the same has affected the ‘free’ status of all the developing countries to date since colonial times.

    The 1977 elations were a disaster where undemocratic elements such as TULF and UNP came through thuggery and not through case making to the public to get their votes. This undemocratic event yet to be discussed on behalf of all Sri Lankan citizens is the m missing link that led to what your article correctly set out to analyse Executive Presidency. To understand what happened you had to see what happened afterwards POST 1977?? the FP/TULF/TNA killed all their opponents(whoever they did not kill before/missed in the process of killing) led to the bloodbath ever since? the same still around doing business as usual?? The word Traitor redefined.

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