By 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).