By Rajan Philips –
It is fair to say that abolishing the executive presidency was not a high priority for the voters in Uva. If at all the question would have been the farthest from their minds. As was famously said by a Canadian politician in a different context, people do not think about the constitution while waiting in bus queues. In 1970 and in 1977, the voters hardly paid attention to the constitutional changes that were on the agenda when they massively voted in governments that went on to overhaul the constitutional system first in 1972, and again in 1978, in diametrically opposite ways. The winners made and kept their constitutional promises more to themselves than to the people. The 1972 Republican constitution took the route of a ‘legal revolution’ to remove and replace its predecessor (the Soulbury Constitution) that had been in place for 25 years. The First Republic lasted only six years and was removed and replaced, in accordance with its own constitutional provisions, by the 1978 constitution that has now been in force for 36 years. It is the longest survivor in Lanka’s chequered constitutional history, but it has also faced the loudest clamour for its abolition, especially its executive presidential system.
The abolitionists are mostly drawn from sections of the political intelligentsia and they belong to an aging generation. They know that the next presidential election is their best chance not only to validate their claim but also to implement their program for abolishing the executive presidency. If it is not done in their life time it may not get done at all. But their preoccupation, while it is intellectually honest, is politically rather abstract and does not readily resonate with the voting ‘publics’, whose experiences and needs are more mundane and more immediate. Nor has the abolition clamour won the support, let alone the conviction, of the leading contenders in the next presidential election, namely, the incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the elusive Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
For President Rajapaksa, abolishing the presidency was never an option and he stopped pretending otherwise when he updated his Chinthanaya manifesto for his second presidential inning in 2010. He has since amended the constitution to allow himself additional innings at his choosing. Not quite the game of cricket, you might say, that Sri Lankans and other Commonwealth people are socialized to play in life and in politics. His eligibility for a third term is finally being questioned, but there is no credible third umpire in the land to settle the legal question. The claim of some of his progressive supporters, that they can change his mind from within the UPFA and before the next election and persuade him to abolish the presidential system, is a moral illusion they project to justify their continuing immoral support of him.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, would like to ride the abolitionist horse and also keep the presidential system going just in case he wins the race. To abolish, or not to abolish – that is Ranil’s Shakespearian question. But he is more calculating than he is confused, unlike Hamlet. After Uva, Mr. Wickemesinghe is said to have told his party folks at Sri Kotha that as President he would abolish the executive presidential system. Again yesterday, while dismissing Harin Fernando’s rather lame brained suggestion that Sajith Premadasa should be assured of the Prime Minister’s position even before the Presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe has reminded Premadasa’s mouthpieces that the prime ministerial aspiration will not fly because he (Ranil) is running for President to abolish the presidency. Those who have been close to him in his political life insist that Ranil Wickremesinghe is a man of his word. However that might be, insistence by others does not help fill the credibility gap created by Mr. Wickremesinghe’s reluctance to unequivocally and publicly declare that he would, if elected as the next President, abolish the executive presidency within a period of one year or so. True, promises have been made and broken, but a new public promise is still needed if Mr. Wickremesinghe really means what he is reported to have been telling his party faithfuls.
Co-opt Ranil as Common Candidate
There is another way perhaps to tether Ranil Wickremesinghe to a public commitment to abolish the presidential system. That is to co-opt him as the opposition’s common candidate now that it is certain that he would be contesting as the UNP candidate in the next presidential election. Two weeks ago when I criticized the UNP leadership, and Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular, for failing to rise to the occasion in the wake of the Uva provincial election, that did not go down well with some of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s loyalists. My suggestion today to co-opt him as the common candidate may annoy his many detractors. But if the reality after Uva is that it is the UNP that has the best chance of spearheading a successful challenge against Mahinda Rajapaksa, a part of that reality is also that it is Ranil who will have the best shot as the opposition’s common candidate. He may not be the best qualified candidate for the job (and who is?), but he is one candidate who meets the minimum requirements. More importantly, co-opting him as the common candidate will make him commit, even involuntarily, to abolishing the presidency.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s foreclosed option and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s open dilemma in regard to abolishing the presidency are also reflections of the changes in Lanka’s political and voting culture under the presidential system from what it was during the previous parliamentary system. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary experience that began to take root with the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 fostered the development of a robust party system even though it fell short of the expectations of the Soulbury Commission, expressed fifteen years later, that a modern party system based on class and economic considerations would help cement the pre-existing social cleavages of ethnicity and caste. Even as ethnicity became the determining political dynamic after independence and ethnic political parties were electorally more successful than the Left Parties that tried to establish a constituency cutting across ethnic and caste boundaries, political parties became the building blocks of the Sri Lankan polity and the national electorate.
The first-past-the-post voting system reinforced the hold of political parties on the electorate. The independent candidates and MPs who were a significant contingent in the State Council and the first parliament gradually disappeared. Fringe extremist parties were deservedly snuffed out by the parliamentary electoral system, and the working of the parliamentary dialectic facilitated the functioning of parties along democratic lines. The robust party system created robust voting loyalties along party lines. The national parliament mirrored the electoral loyalties and the elected representatives raised issues, spoke and voted for or against motions along party lines. The reality of multiple parties created the need for broad coalitions, but a united front invariably pre-supposed a divided rears.
Rajapaksa’s Achilles Heel
It is easy to contrast these developments with the changes in the political and voting culture and in the functioning of political parties, precipitated by the constitutional and electoral changes after 1978. The presidential system, the introduction of proportional voting and preferential voting, and the appointment of National List MPs have combined to weaken party loyalties and have left voters atomized in the electoral field. In addition, new polarizing loyalties centered on caste and personality, have emerged mainly as a result of preferential voting. There is even violent electoral competition now between candidates of the same party (especially if it is the winning party) rather than between candidates of opposing political parties. Extremist fringe political parties have been created and cultivated by governing alliances to prevent extremist voters migrating to the main opposition alliance. In return they exert political pressure on the government, totally out of proportion to their support among the people. Even minority parties have not been spared the lure of presidential largess. The functioning of political parties has not only become authoritarian, but has also subordinated elected representatives to unelected party hacks. The present parliament portrays the unmoored randomness of the voters in pathetic ways. In a system that is unique to Sri Lanka, elected legislators including many opposition legislators are beholden to the executive in terms of the constitution, and in a way that is also unique to Sri Lanka the judiciary has been totally subordinated to the executive in spite of the constitution.
President Rajapaksa has been adept in manipulating the parliament and the electorate with cynical aplomb. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been equally adept in playing the perfect (Leader of the Parliamentary) Opposition foil to the Executive President. The President poaches MPs from the Opposition, and even created a situation for Ranil Wickremasinghe to be ridiculed as the President’s Minister in charge of the Opposition. By holding staggered provincial elections and premature national elections, President Rajapaksa has placed the opposition on a permanent handicap in every election, and has created the personal aura of invincibility. The mechanics of winning was of course achieved through the atomized voters, by unmooring them from their traditional (mostly UNP) party loyalties and towing them to vote for the government.
He has been successful in every election in the last ten years with the prominent exception of the Northern Provincial Council election. But that exception was due to exceptional reasons and the outcome should have been obvious to everyone but those in the government who had got used to not losing an election. Uva became a different story. The movement of atomized voters that has so for benefited the President’s candidates in every election, suddenly reversed and turned against them in the Uva election. What caused the setback in Uva could become Rajapaksa’s Achilles Heel in the presidential election. For that, Ranil Wickremesinghe must be pushed to make up his mind publicly – to abolish, or not to abolish.