The Executive Presidency instituted through the 1978 Republican constitution and subsequently amended nineteen times (the 20th was on line) has to be faulted for most of the myriad failures in Sri Lanka’s democracy and governance. The Executive Presidency of Sri Lanka is a badly designed institution within a badly designed and subsequently further distorted constitution. It is probably the strongest office in the world! The constitution of 1978 was designed to bestow unbridled power on one man to do everything but change a man into women and vice versa, and ensure permanent governance by the UNP. It was designed to make the Executive Presidency dictatorial and unprincipled in the hands of the wrong person holding that office.
In the process all other institutions , the parliament, judiciary and public services, were deformed beyond recognition and made subservient to the Executive Presidency. Accountability, rule of law and everything else that define good governance had been comatose by January’1915. The impunity bestowed on the Executive Presidency, had reached and polluted every mound and crevice in Sri Lanka. Democracy had become a sham. Governance was/is no doubt at its poorest
A nation that had universal franchise 85 years (1931) back- much before other British colonies in Asia- and had a vibrant democracy at independence (1948) has since the 1977 constitution, sold the sovereignty of its people to elected tin pot dictators. The 18th amendment dealt a death blow to constitutional norms, principles of governance even as laid down, ethics, political morality and established principles of democracy.
The questions we have to ask are:
1. Is the concept of a Republican Constitution wrong or is OUR republican constitution deliberately designed wrong?
2. Is the concept of an Executive Presidency wrong or is OUR executive presidency deliberately designed wrong?
My answer to both these questions is the same. The constitution and the executive presidency within it have been deliberately designed wrong. They have been designed to elect a monarch, to whom all other institutions and the people are subsidiary and subservient. It also has paved the way to establish a familial monarchy of sorts. It has paved the way for elected Executive Presidents to assume pseudo-democratic legitimacy through various devices that breach moral and ethical principles, rule us with an iron fist, hiding mala-fide intent with smiling faces and what Nilantha Ilangamuwa (Sri Lanka Guardian. August 5, 2014) quoting Walter Lippmann chooses to call ‘Manufactured Consent’ in an article.
The concept of ‘manufacturing consent’ is not an innovation of the last government, but has been practiced by all governments before it, though the last government has made it a very sophisticated exercise. Money power, hired muscle power, mob squads led by yellow clad thugs, white vanning, murder, media manipulations , the police and armed forces, the parliament and the judicial system were used as never before to manufacture this ‘manufactured consent’. The manner in which Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was removed from office will forever stand as an example of this ‘manufactured consent’! The manner in which the two thirds majority was constructed and the 18th amendment to the constitution passed is another. There is a multitude, more. What was ‘manufactured consent’ steadily morphed into ‘consent by the quiet and silence of a morgue’ enforced by blatant use of pressures of various types. We were made into the four monkeys that do not see, hear, speak or show!
The parliament we had elected was controlled by a majority that owes personal allegiance to the Executive President. The first Executive had pre-signed resignation letters of the members of parliament who supported him! It was/ is also mediocre and is designed to make even the most qualified, mediocre. They bear no allegiance to the people who elected them. The higher judiciary had become a kept institution and dared not stand up to the Executive President. The lower judiciary of course had lost its backbone and independence, and is yet quite mediocre. The public service and police service were under the total control of politicians and their mafia. Political patronage extending from recruitment, promotions up to retirement and beyond has rendered our public service mediocre, inefficient and corrupt. Public servants have become self- servers, time servers and bootlickers of politicians. The police service has been corrupted beyond imagination and is a handmaiden and doormat of politicians. Every other institution including the education sector, have suffered a similar fate.
However, the larger question that concerns me is whether the Soulbury constitution of 1948- the Westminster style constitution under which we attained independence- and the first Republican Constitution of 1972 instituted by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike headed leftist coalition were ideal and provided us better quality governance. The Soulbury constitution was stripped of its soul and vision on many an occasion. Towards the end of its life, it was rendered an empty shell for all intents and purposes. It’s institutions were also politicized or paralyzed. The 1972 constitution legitimized and institutionalized the damage done to the Soulbury constitution. It was a document designed to satisfy the objectives of the coalition government of the day to have its way, come what may. This was despite retaining the Westminster model at its core. The checks and balances that were on paper to strengthen democracy, were also degraded under this constitution. The 1978 constitution was the natural outcome of a process that empowered politicians at the expense of other institutions and further advanced to the extent that one politician was made a constitutional dictator- an elected monarch, who had the choice to be a benign dictator or a malignant one. What we had until January 2015 is one who became with time the most malignant, but with the immense ability to pretend otherwise.
What our politicians have demonstrated is a singular inability to function within what have been illustrated to be the empty but illusory words enshrined in our constitutions. Those who we elect to govern us do not want to be constrained by the boundaries set by any constitution. We have tolerated this and have permitted constitution making the job of our narrow minded and self-seeking politicians, who had no exalted vision for this country. Constitutions are mere pieces of paper for them. It is a fig leaf to hide their hideousness. The current government has made many improvements in practice and through the moth-eaten 19th amendment. It has shown what is possible and this has made an undeniable positive impact on this country.
We have lived with the Executive Presidency and a full-fledged Republican Constitution for 38 years- for little longer than half the period we have been independent. A whole generation has grown under it and knows no other. We have got used to how it functions and know how it has been abused. If permitted, the informed sections of our citizens have the knowledge and background to contribute to reforming the Executive Presidency and the constitution that it is part of.
There is no doubt; we have to substantially reform our constitutional framework. It should be a brief, visionary and principled document that can withstand the test of time and be capable of being interpreted according to evolving societal values, the future that is unfolding in myriad ways quite fast and a population that has very high expectations. It should be the guiding light as we go forward and capable of having its batteries recharged time to time by interpretations that suit the times by enlightened persons who man our Supreme Court. This process should have no place for nibbling rats and poaching mongooses. It should be a process to evolve persons to lead and serve us, according to a vision formulated in our constitution.
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