By Sarath de Alwis –
“A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” ~ C.S. Lewis
This endeavor is to put the sum right. It began with inchoate rage of students. Military Brahminism trespassing free education was the inceptive issue.
Pent up resentment has turned in to apoplectic rage of peasant, pedagogue, and priest. The state is perceived as lazy and leechlike.
The Socialist Democratic Republic has turned in to a monstrous store house of unfulfilled promises – political economic and moral.
These are uncertain times. We are in crisis. Antonio Gramsci, known as the practical Marxist thinker writing in his prison cell in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy defined the kind of crisis that nations encounter when dissent is suppressed, and plurality is repudiated.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”
We look around. We see morbid symptoms. There was a time when political power was not considered hereditary property. Nepotism existed. But not institutionalized.
On independence we adopted a parliamentary system. In 1978 the now extinct UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene imposed on us the world’s most powerful and rigid presidential system.
Parliamentary system evolved through centuries of resistance to the tyranny of an anointed monarch. Presidentialism was devised by American rebels whose immediate purpose was to be rid of mad king George and British nobility who lorded over them. Donald Trump demonstrated the fragility of the system.
Born in early forties, I recall the sixties and seventies as the happiest of times. Norms and values were different.
Of course, there was import substitution. Gillette razors were a luxury. I remember traveling to Tokyo. I did not eat the peanuts served on Cathay Pacific. I put them in my briefcase along with whatever else that will keep for a week or two for my two young children.
I have stood in queue at the cooperative store for Oster milk for my child born in the epochal year 1970 when a party was returned to power with a two thirds majority in parliament.
The new government adopted a constitution that made us a republic. But we retained the parliamentary system. Democracy though dysfunctional at times, retained its core content.
The parliamentary system permitted dissent and protest. Accountability was an imperative dictated by the conscience of those in public life.
Dante Alighieri interpreting purgatory and heaven defines what it’s like to remember happier times. “There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time when miserable.”
In sixties and early seventies, I reported parliament for the Evening Observer. When compared to present day misery, those were happier times. Parliament was a place where serious business was conducted.
Sometime in the late sixties, the opposition moved a vote of no confidence against M.H. Mohamed Minister of Labour in the cabinet of Premier Dudley Senanayake.
The opposition presented a cogent indictment. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, who was a combative debater, did not defend his minister of labour with any degree of gusto. It was obvious that his heart was not in it.
“We must give the minister the benefit of the doubt” was his final plea at which point Dr. Colvin R de Silva offered his memorable riposte.
“In this country people don’t resign. They resign themselves to the new situation”
That was the way parliament functioned then. The opposition exposed an errant minister. The Prime Minister conceded the substance of the opposition case while defending his minister.
The presidential system as practiced since its introduction has systematically eroded the principle of accountability. It has reduced parliament to a mere talk shop.
There is no connection between representatives and the represented. The appointment of a task force on “One Law One Country” concept is a sure signal that after 73 years as a nation state, on the matter of the principle of the rule of law we are totally adrift.
Tom Bigham a great British jurist who has written extensively on the rule of law offers this snippet.
Ask a man on the Strand ‘who rules you?’. If he replies ‘King James II, then he is in a monarchy. If he replies, ‘the law’, he is in a democracy.
I asked the question from one of my grown-up granddaughters now in first year in university. “Don’t be stupid“ was her laconic reply.
The rot set in with the adoption of presidentialism. Since 1978, our nation-state has quietly and surely got conditioned to cohabit with blatant, brutal injustice. In short presidentialism privatized the republic.
Injustice is a serious problem. One must either accept it or fight it. Worrying about injustice is neither here nor there.
Passage of time makes injustice commonplace. With passage of time, you get used to the Injustice. As Hannah Arendt famously said there is an ordinary aspect to evil. When you live with injustice you stop thinking about injustice.
Time has arrived for us to make an honest review of the perils of presidentialism. We must revisit the prospect of a return to a robust parliamentary system.
The presidential system which is more akin to Caesarism enables the wealthy and privileged few to define the rules of the free market behind closed doors. A parliamentary system will enable the majority to regulate the free market.
Our current conundrum with the oligopoly of rice millers is the best example.
Machiavelli was not a wicked man. He was an honest scholar who understood and chronicled human nature. He merely studied how good decent people in public life vacillated between virtue and fortune.
After his stint with the Medici family, he wrote a meticulous history of the City of Florence. Writing on the corruption of the city of Florence under the Medici family, he reiterates his faith in the optimism of the human will.
“.. do not impute past disorders to the nature of the men, but to the times, which, being changed, give reasonable ground to hope that, with better government, our city will have better fortune in the future.”
There is hope if we change the system.
Unless we are totally blind to reality, we must surely recognize that we have a national malignancy – a kind of a cruel cancer that is devouring the moral fiber of our society.
How long must we go about our daily lives acting as though nothing is wrong? How much effort must we exert to close our minds to the images of people suffering injustices?
Complacency is a luxury we can no longer afford. Since 1978, we have watched the abuse of power by successive regimes.
Now we learn that the treasury secretary under the Premadasa presidency had secret bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands.
Will that news help mitigate the alleged sins of the power couple under the current dispensation as exposed in Pandora revelations?
There was a time when the high and mighty were held accountable even if the process had its pitfalls and inconveniences.
Give the devil his due. Felix Dias Bandaranaike as Minister of Justice ensured that Sir Oliver Goonetilleke a former Governor General was brought before a Criminal Justice Commission.
For his trouble, Felix Dias lost his civil rights under the Presidency of J.R. Jayewardene
In our parliamentary democracy we had leaders – Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake who took great pains to convey a visible sense of ethical leadership.
They had their weaknesses. But they were not rotten. They did not permit flagrant rent seeking under their watch.
All that changed when J.R. Jayewardene introduced the executive presidency. To develop the country by adopting market economics he placed our parliamentary system in a straitjacket.
The executive presidency is a straitjacket. It restricts parliament to procedural niceties.
In retrospect, it was a logical move. Free market economics is moral neutral. J R Jayewardene was a modern-day Louis XIV. “It is legal because I wish it.” “I am the state.”
He knew that free market economics was moral neutral. His kind of politics had no relation to morals. The sole intent of the executive presidency was to subject it to the whims of the strong man at the helm.
Monolithic governance that followed bred hitherto unheard – of levels of corruption. Public officials found that loyalty to the regime insulated them from accountability.
The strong executive authority he set up had an inner circle of advisors. A select number of cabinet ministers oversaw pivotal portfolios. Civil servants were handpicked for their demonstrated ability to coalesce with private sector entrepreneurial interests.
The Presidential system blurred the thin line that separated the state and the elected government. It has produced heedless politicians, faceless yet arrogant bureaucrats and scheming greedy oligarchs.
The shift from parliamentarism to presidentialism spawned political personalization, irrevocably undermining ideology, and the political party. Party ideology was replaced with presidential vision. J R Jayewardene was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte who described himself as a dealer of hope.
The direct election of the president made interparty competition a charade.
Lest the present generation forget, JR succeeded in coopting SLFP stalwarts Maithripala Senanayake and P.B.G Kalugalla to support the term extension of parliament by the infamous referendum. Opposition members who voted for the 20th amendment were following a precedent!
Coopting the opposition is not a new phenomenon. JRJ is the first to discover the double swinging saloon door.
The attitudes of the media changed. Once aggressive and inquisitive reporting and comment acquired a new reverence towards the ‘presidency’. The executive presidency was the repository of political will and state sovereignty.
The executive presidency conceived by JRJ was a constitutional dictatorship. Don’t be mistaken. “Viyathmaga” is a new label for an old idea.
J.R. Jayewardene had his ‘Viyathmaga’ around his breakfast table at Ward Place.
Ranasinghe Premadasa strongly believed in his own power and perception. He too believed that he was a creature of destiny. He had his solitary ‘Viyath Civil Servant “who knew all about our island and about British Virgin Islands.
‘Paski’ was Kautilya, Cardinal Richelieu and Potemkin rolled in to one. More than solving problems he fixed them. His civil service cotemporaries dubbed him the ultimate ‘fixer.’
With the help of the fixer, Premadasa perfected presidentialism. He ruled by edict. He was the street fighter who sharpened his craft in Colombo municipal council politics. The country was after all an enlarged version of his municipal ward St Sebastian’s hill.
Chandrika also had her “Viyath”or ‘accomplished’ group of advisors- some brave, some bohemian and some brash as was the case with singer and song writer Alston Koch who had some development assignment in the southern province.
Chandrika’s ‘Viyathmaga’ started off with abundant promise. That was short lived. It gradually debased into great disorder as was evident from the Wayamba provincial council elections.
That said, we must remember that one of her original ‘viyathmaga’ discoveries has survived and looms large even to this day in the Pohottu: firmament – a curious case of a lotus eater turned philistine.
This endeavor is to get the sum right. You have a pretty good idea of the contemporary ‘viyathmaga’. So, we go to the roots of the problem.
JRJ never forgot his defeat at Kelaniya in 1956. The defeat in Kelaniya made him the ultimate cynic. He did not see things as they were. Instead, he saw things as what they ought to be.
J.R. Jayewardene genuinely believed in the executive presidency. He was not a man for governing but for guiding.
In the Dudley Senanayake cabinet, he was more of an observer than a participant. Dudley’s economic wizard Gamani Corea did not subscribe to his free market theory.
In the 1972 Constituent Assembly he proposed the executive presidency. He envisaged an executive presidency directly elected by the people for a period of seven years.
Rejecting the proposal Dr. Colvin R de Silva the Minister of Constitutional Affairs explained
“There is undoubtedly one virtue in this system of Parliament and that is that the chief executive of the day is answerable directly to the representatives of the people continuously by reason of the fact that the Prime Minister can remain Prime Minister only so long as he can command the confidence of that assembly. We do not want either Presidents or Prime Ministers who can ride roughshod over the people and, therefore, first, over the people’s representatives. There is no virtue in having a strong man against the people.”
The presidential system is a one-way road to a privatized parasitic wasteland, hostile to reason, intolerant to dissent, ill-equipped for vibrant debate.
As Colvin warned in 1972 “there is no virtue in having a strong man against the people.”