1 December, 2020

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Presidential & General Elections On The Same Day

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Sri Lanka’s experiment with hybrid governments failed miserably. By hybrid government, I mean a government that entails the president from one party and the administration or the cabinet of ministers from another party (or a coalition). Under the Second Republican Constitution, the country had three hybrid governments: (1) Wijetunga-Kumaratunga administration, (2) Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe administration, and (3) Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. 

Hybrid Governments  

The first hybrid government was formed when Chandrika Kumaratunga, the rising star of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), won the August 1994 general election. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga of the United National Party (UNP) was the president. This government operated without any significant hiccups. Hence, one can argue that this part of the experiment was smooth and uncontroversial. 

There were two main reasons why this government was unproblematic. One, it lasted only for about five months as Kumaratunga won the presidential election in November 1994. Two, Wijetunga was not an ambitious politician when he was president. It was Wijetunga’s lack of political ambition that influenced President Premadasa to make Wijetunga the Prime Minister. Premadasa did not want to opt for Lalith Athulathmudali or Gamini Dissanayake who were too ambitious and challenged Premadasa from within the party.

Wijetunga was rather unexpectedly forced to accept the presidency when Premadasa was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 1993. Wijetunga did not contest the presidential election in 1994 either. He allowed the nomination of Gamini Dissanayake, who was also killed during the campaign. The final contest was between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sirima Dissanayake. Hence, Wijetunga did not have long-term political ambitions, which facilitated the smooth operation of the first hybrid government. 

When the second hybrid government was formed, Kumaratunga was serving her second term as president. The United National Front headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe won the general election and formed the government in December 2001. The country expected what we then called “cohabitation” between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe. This government which lasted for about two years was a mess. 

The struggle between the President and the Prime Minister started even before the swearing in of the new government. Kumaratunga wanted to retain important portfolios such as the Ministry of Defense and opposed the inclusion of some ministers in the cabinet. For example, she did not want S.B. Dissanayake in the government. The President and the Prime Minister had vastly differing opinions about the peace talks with the LTTE and the ceasefire agreement signed in February 2002. 

Kumaratunga who gradually started to take over government institutions from the control of the UNF, eventually reclaimed the ministries of Defense, Interior, and Mass Communication in November 2003. The Kumaratunga – Wickremesinghe government was terminated when the President prematurely dissolved Parliament in February 2004. Hence, this government represented constant confrontation rather than cohabitation.

The last experimentation was undertaken when Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe formed the government in September 2015. This should have been a relatively positive experience because they won elections with assistance from the same political alliance, although Sirisena was originally from the SLFP (and assumed leadership of the party as soon as he became president). 

Despite the promise to serve only one term as president, Sirisena developed long-term political ambitions. Knowing very well that he cannot regain UNP votes in the next presidential election, he cooked up a political coup in collaboration with Mahinda Rajapaksa and dismissed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from the office. The act pushed the country into a severe crisis. The crisis intensified when Parliament was dissolved in November 2018. 

Eventually, the judiciary intervened to restore the status quo. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the problems between the government and the President have been resolved completely. 

Abolishing the Presidency 

What is evident from the experiment with hybrid governments is that this mode of arrangement cannot work in Sri Lanka when both the president and the prime minister are politically active and ambitious. On the other hand, hardly any politician in Sri Lanka is unambitious. They do not retire too easily. They cling on to power.  

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that Sri Lankans will not produce hybrid governments in the future. People vote based on the day’s problems and expectations. They do not vote on future scenarios. They could be wrong even if they take into account future scenarios. Who would have expected Sirisena to fire Wickremesinghe given the nature of relations that existed between them in August 2015?

So, how do we avoid another hybrid problem? One option is to abolish the executive presidential system and to return to the Westminster model of governance. Abolishing the presidential system has been a long-standing political slogan of almost all major political entities in the South. Many of them have won elections based on this promise. Nevertheless, they were not sincere. They like the “powers” of the president. Hence, there has been an emotional attachment to the presidency among some political actors. Others have resisted the change on the belief that the return to the Westminster system would empower the minority political parties as they, most probably, have to be accommodated in a parliamentary form of government. 

Hence, all major projects and proposals to change the system have already failed. Even attempts to water down the presidential powers through the 19th Amendment in 2015 faced stiff resistance. The JVP’s proposal for the 20th Amendment has no takers. Therefore, it seems that resolving the hybrid issue by abolishing the executive presidential system will not work in the short-term.  

Elections on the Same Day

The other option is to conduct both the presidential and general elections on the same day. In order to implement this option, the voter needs to be given two ballot papers to fill when they go to the polls. Sri Lankan people generally have firm political opinions. Hence, they are unlikely to vote one party for the president and another party for Parliament. In other words, a majority of the Sri Lankan voters will vote for the same party on both ballots, if both elections are held on the same day. This would ensure the same party (or coalition) governments. What we are talking about here are regular elections, not special elections created by unexpected circumstances.  

This option entails several benefits. First, the country could avoid problems, especially instability caused by hybrid governments. Two, national elections are costly affairs in Sri Lanka. Combining the two most significant elections and conducting them on the same day could save an enormous amount of public resources. Three, in the past, presidents have abused general elections to buttress their positions in Parliament. Presidents tend to conduct general elections when they suit their needs. This option could reduce presidential abuse of power at least marginally.

In order to implement this option, the country needs to make some serious decisions and introduce new legislation. Necessary legislation could be introduced with a simple majority in Parliament. In terms of decisions and legislation, the present government and the president need to be involved. The president and the government should understand the damage future hybrid governments could cause and act preemptively. 

If conducting two elections on the same day is not acceptable, they should come up with other alternatives. It is in the best interest of the president and the government to avoid hybrid administrations. 

Moreover, the voter needs to be educated on how to vote on two ballots. This will not be demanding. We had educated voters on new polling systems when the proportional representation system and the provincial council elections were introduced. The Election Commission could play a significant role in educating the voters.                                                                                               

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Latest comments

  • 5
    2

    To make a long story short- This position of “Presidency” in what ever way he/she is elected or selected is a “CURSE” to the country. Since introduction of this megalomaniac position through the Constitution, this country has suffered immense problems in political, economic and social spheres. The recent “26 October 2018” upheaval was a glaring incident of the consequences of the position being held by a person of “Greed” for power who would act in the most “illogical” ; “Illegal” an “Irrational” manner. So it is best to get rid of that; but as I said earlier the chances of achieving that goal was “Scuttled” by the the “Ill -conceived ” “20th Amendment” of JVP. Having done that “BIG BLUNDER” the JVP stalwarts now go on telling us: “We will never allow this “abolition” of Presidency to be made a “Political Promise” by any party”. In simple terms this position must be abolished from the Constitution and vest all those powers and duties assigned to the Cabinet of Ministers, RESPONSIBLE and ACCOUNTABLE to the Legislative Assembly. Period.

    • 1
      0

      Dear Douglas

      From 1970 with the systematic killing of all the ‘opponents’ of the FP/TULF candidates up north, civil servants, police officers,teachers, armed robbery of the banks, Suthenthiran news paper investigative journalism/arming and training of the Northern children by our neighbours. This was all well before the 1977 TULF separatist mandated victory & landslide victory of the UNP and the riots/1981 development government elections and the killings/1981 library burnings/1983 killing of the Soldiers and the ensued riots.

      GOSL was tied to the JVP uprising down south and never recovered enough to deal with the horrors being unleashed on the innocent Tamil people by the Tamil whatever.

      The same neighbours bailed out the GOSL then just as in MALDIVES in recent times.

      The Presidential position may have been a necessity/useful in 1978 for administrative purposes or the advise received from outside??????

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up1UKSn3i10

      Now the both end of our tiny country is under the control of the armed forces we could focus on abolishing the Presidential position as well as the Provincial Council positions could solve/save all the troubles we have in one go??? No more identity politics and a Memorial for all the children who died to date in one place mindfully a tribute to all SL dignity??.

      • 1
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        Further 1981 Development Council Elections were a proposal to take care of all the issues historically for a better future. A ‘monetary’ control/BUDGET for development work by the respective elected Development Councils a home grown solution to the needs of the time through out the country without upsetting the ‘non partisan majority’.

        After the 1977 TULF’s separatism blunder and the ‘reality check’ after being elected for 4 years (1977- 1981) Tamil people were ready to put this ‘National Question Lot’ away for good.

        A Brexit in 1977 and an opportunity to revaluate our mistakes in 1981………a comparison for the scale of blunder /gullible public learning the conmen.

        Once again TULF (now TNA) killed their way to this development scope/spaces too resulted in the carnage for the past 40 years. Once more the JVP participated/complemented the same down South too??

        Last 5 years of a non functional NPC expose the same absurdity even after a miserable end to an inhuman war.

        Now we have the same partners TNA/JVP/UNP except JVP has evolved/progressive to be a National party with National policies when others remain as Identity political entities…Tamil/Muslim/Sinhala etc except UNP/SLFP/SLPP.

        Until Identity politics is removed nothing will change as per an excellent article above.

        Time has come for ‘Green Politics’ will bring the Nation together and any party who can do this will survive and shape our future on the long run. This will remove the unwarrented geo political interest too from our Island naturally.

  • 2
    0

    S.I. Keethaponcalan

    Lets call them crossbred governments rather than hybrid. @ least the present one.

    The MS/RW crossbred is exceptional because it was formed with the primary view of ousting MR who was to become the president for the 3rd term.

    The crossbreeding failed to give the offspring, expected by the people & mainly who contributed for that conspiracy.

    It’s an irony that 2015 crossbreeding resulted a parliament with unreal representation, that’s invisible to ordinary eyes & that’s the exact reason for the present political & economic impasse in the country.

    So what’s the most important thing for the country; to people’s point of view is making the parliament representation real.

    What’s required for that is parliamentary election.

    It’s good to have presidential election as well but it’s difficult to understand the reason that some want to hold both elections simultaneously.

    It must be mentioned that when the 2 things go together the UNP has more chances of RIGGING the election.

    RW became the PM by way of deception & he wants to maintain it by way of deception.

  • 3
    3

    This ‘Keethaponchalam’ showed his true colors when he replied with a bitter racist rant against someone who criticized one of his ‘articles’ a few months back….
    Just a bitter racist pretending to be a “political analyst”.. These jokers are only good for colombo telegraph…. enjoy…..

    • 3
      1

      Who isn’t a racist in Sri Lanka? Look at what has been happening since independence. The money left behind was used in importing cars and luxuries of the elitists whereas the poor gets poorer and poorer.

      The problem is ‘ hardly any politician in Sri Lanka is unambitious. They do not retire too easily. They cling on to power. ‘. A politician who held almost any position of power is the richest man who is prepared to do ‘Putin’ any number of times just to get into power and loot the public wealth and enrich his family members and friends.

    • 0
      6

      Keethaponchalam is indeed a hardcore Tamil nationalist and his writings are inciting racism.

      • 3
        0

        Kia,
        .
        Please show me racism in this article. I feel that Colombo Telegraph ought to reject, without acknowledgement comments such as this which are meaningless.
        .
        This is a comment inciting racism – very ineffectively.

  • 0
    4

    KeerthiGopalan: You did not write about WHY too many elections for a small island. Why don’t you write about an article comparing Sri lanka and the State that you are living.

  • 4
    1

    Very worthy contribution. Every right-thinking person knows by experience, that the Presidential system is the curse for Sri Lanka and it should be ousted. At the same time everybody knows it is not a feasible proposition to do so in a short term. Here the author suggests, with beneficial reasons, a very valuable and feasible solution to mitigate the adverse effects of the present system.

  • 3
    0

    Democracy is the political arm in a capitalist system. Whoever wins, the poor will suffer.

    Our excuse is we have reached the level of success through the efforts of our family and us.

    But we fail to see we have quite a head start and the race is not fair.

    Some might say don’t search for fairness in an unfair world.

    “With great power comes great responsibility”

    Like our national anthem says ‘we share the same mother. Let’s go without delay. Let’s spread love and avoid conflict.’

    • 2
      0

      Democracy is the main entrace to corruption of our country and the like minded countries where not the basic human rights are not fully safeguarded.
      .
      The environment in the coutnry make the leaders easy to continue with corruption and various kind of abuses that no rich country would ever allow
      .
      POLICE and INDEPENDENT COURTs should become even MORE stronger as is the case in Germany, Singapore, South korea, UK and many of the rich countries.
      :
      EU countries where law and order is kept above anything else, their democracies seem to be working thousandtimes better than any developing country where so called democracy has become the system to grab theuniversal franchise of their own citizens.
      :
      Like for example, just imagine, repeteating about being elected by 6.2 mio of voters in the country – the manner incumbent President of the country behaves today :
      .
      I have some commenters have added that 5 grade pupil would see it better than the current leader would do.
      :
      And Pupil’s statement is well endorsed by COURT verdict which stood against the dissolution of parliament unconstitutionally by Prez lately.
      :
      But AS if he has no EYES and EARs, he continues to be the president – not just that, but make even more sillierst statements almost everyday since the verdict came out.
      :
      Are the majority folks in this country are DUMB fools ?

  • 4
    0

    Dear Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan,
    .
    I have little idea who you are, but I see many decent and rational articles written by you. I don’t read them carefully, but skim through most of them. Such skimming is possible because you write well.
    .
    Regarding the subject dealt with here by you, yes, I think that it would be sensible to have both Presidential and Parliamentary Elections on the same day. Or, similar to the U.S. senate, why not elect half the Parliamentarians when electing the President, and the other half 30 months later? That way, there’d be some continuity, and there’d be a system warning the administration that it’s going off the rails. All our governments seem to go off the rails!
    .
    I have the impression that you are an expatriate in some Western Country, with origins in the North of our island. I just want to tell you that it is great for you to be concerned enough about the land of your birth to keep writing these articles. At times it may seem that your views matter little to us; in fact I’ve said that I only skim through them. However, let me state that your contributions are appreciated by me. I haven’t discussed your writings sufficiently with others to state how much impact they have, but the comments seem to come from a wide range of contributors.
    .
    So, please continue to analyse the situation of the country that belongs to all of us.

    • 3
      0

      Sinhala_Man, Keethaponcalan is as certified as DayanJayatilleka is, but gainfully employed in his field of study! (Thanks to Google.)

      • 2
        0

        Thanks, Thappu.
        .
        No harm in telling me more.
        .
        Let’s hope that this year, despite all the omens, turns out to be a good one for us all; one in which Peace and Good Will prevail over the forces of darkness.
        .
        Best wishes for 2019.

    • 1
      0

      Dear Sinhala_Man,

      https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009085749499

      Professor at Salisbury University
      Former Department Chair at Salisbury University
      Former Professor/ Head of Department at University of Colombo
      Studied at George Mason University
      Studied at University of Jaffna
      Went to Vivekananda College Colombo
      Went to St.Anthony’s Boys Maha Vidyalaya, Colombo – 13.
      Lives in Salisbury, Maryland
      From Colombo, Sri Lanka

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