By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Here’s the scenario for one year from now: one, possibly two more members of the ruling family will almost certainly be in Cabinet while a bloodless Night of the Long Knives would have seen off the SLFP barons suspected of allegiance to the deposed queen. I ain’t got no dog in this fight, but I would like the political situation to have far greater balance and wouldn’t like the System to be even more top-heavy than it is. Simply put, I wouldn’t like Sri Lanka to function ridiculously like a medieval kingdom in the 21st century. Now if you think appearing as a kingdom or transitioning from a republic to a kingdom is a good thing provided roads get built and real estate gets gentrified, then you won’t have a problem. If however, you think it’s a bad thing, as the Opposition and dissident civil society seem to, then you really should stop playing silly buggers, as the Opposition seems to be doing currently.
The regime’s performance at the parliamentary election will depend, above all else, on its performance at the preceding presidential election– which is why the margin of victory/defeat is crucial and why the opposition is being strategically suicidal. Nobody outside of Colombo and Kandy, and not many in those two towns, give a damn about the executive presidency and its abolition. What they do care about is that they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. They care that the peace dividend hasn’t reached them in the sense of material improvement in their lives. This discontent can be (graphically) linked by an intelligent opposition, to the phenomena of family rule and the chokepoints of resource allocation, as the UNP did in 1977.
In focusing on the abolition of the executive presidency, the Opposition is moving in entirely the wrong direction: away from palpable mass concerns to those whims of a faction of the urban political class; from the socio-economic– the physical quality of life– to the purely political; from the concrete to the abstract.
Elections aren’t won by candidates who promise to abolish institutions. They are won by a positive appeal. They are won by candidates who credibly promise a better tomorrow and level a credible critique about the present. Hence the success of the Clinton (actually James Carville) campaign strategy: “It’s the Economy, Stupid”. Hence the triumph of Obama’s rallying cry, “Yes, We Can”. Hence the victory of Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988.
Certainly the Presidency is overly powerful, but the way to handle that is to reform it by reintroducing the 17th amendment. What kind of brain could think that the mass of people would want Mahinda Rajapaksa to be replaced by a set of bribable, bickering parliamentarians? The voters are going to ask themselves whether they prefer Mahinda or a collective of Cabinet Ministers and MPs. “What a bunch!” they’ll think to themselves.
There’s also the question of the national experience of having Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM and the UNP constituting the cabinet. Does the opposition think that in the minds of the people, that was some kind of Camelot? Is that why the UPFA was voted back in after Chandrika dissolved the parliament and went for election in just two years?
What if we didn’t have an Executive presidency when Ranil signed the CFA and arrested the operatives of the Directorate of Military Intelligence in their Athurugiriya safe house? We would still have had Prabhakaran running the North and killing people in the South whenever he wanted to. It is only the existence of a powerful executive presidency which constitutionally held the portfolio of defense, which saved this country. Ironically it is JR’s Constitution, in the hands of his old foe Sirimavo’s daughter that saved us from his nephew’s Chamberlain-like policies of appeasement. So, do we really want to abolish it rather than reform it?
Does the Opposition really think that the mass of voters are going to opt for a political system in which power in parliament and therefore in the whole country, may one day be determined by the TNA, instead of by a leader elected directly by the country as a whole?
I rather think not. Therefore I was glad to read that ex-CJ Sarath Nanda Silva is working of a reform package that re-balances the system while retaining the executive presidency. At least the man, unlike the monk, knows what he is talking about. So far, the legal ‘intellectuals’ working on the abolitionist package are those who either gave Chandrika the wrong advice about her adventurist ‘union of regions’ packages of 1995-1997 or constituted the chorus for them. By contrast, Sarath Nanda Silva is far more grounded and does not have a profile of a minoritarian sell-out. Furthermore, unlike the immediately preceding CJ, the born again liberal and darling of Colombo’s liberals, and a political non-starter, Sarath Nanda Silva can be a heavy hitter on a platform in support of a decent candidate. If he, General Fonseka, and CBK were to actively support a Karu Jayasuriya-Sajith Premadasa ticket, that electoral option would be decidedly viable.
What I was not glad to read was that reform package contains the abolition of the system of proportional representation. JR Jayewardene’s reforms were the most modernist variant of capitalism that Sri Lanka has seen: the open economy, the directly elected executive presidency, proportional representation and semi-autonomous provincial councils. These must be improved upon; re-balanced, not abolished. It is proportional representation that gives the JVP, the Tamils and the Muslims fair political space. I for one would like to keep the JVP comfortably within the parliamentary system. Shouldn’t everyone?
What the Opposition needs aren’t absurd proposals for beheading or dismembering the Constitution. All that’s a sad waste of the Opposition’s time and energy, months away from utterly decisive, even historic, national elections. What the Opposition needs is a viable program for socioeconomic betterment; for a better tomorrow— and above all, a candidate which has the mass credibility to pitch it. What it really needs right now—all it really needs right now—is a kinder, gentler Narendra Modi. Then it can organize.