Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
It was interesting to note the peculiar reason adduced by former president Mahinda Rajapkasa to his decision to hold the presidential election in January 2015, two years ahead of schedule.
Rajapaksa was talking to the media on Sunday (15) outside the Tangalla Remand Prison where his eldest son and Parliamentarian, Namal Rajapaksa, was being held along with several others for defying a court order and participating in a protest in front of the Indian Consulate in Hambantota. Rajapaksa, who was on a 10-day visit to Japan, allegedly for medical purposes, cut short his visit and returned to Sri Lanka upon hearing about his son’s arrest.
Responding to a question posed by a journalist as to why he did not abolish the executive presidency, as called for by the National Movement for a Just Society, despite having the required two – third majority in Parliament and the people’s mandate, Rajapaksa claimed he did not have sufficient time to abolish the executive presidency and it was in order to expedite the process that he prematurely called for a presidential election. He then went on to criticize the present rulers for their failure to fulfil the promise they made during the last two national elections regarding the abolition of the presidency, though they have held office for over two and a half years.
No one in this part of the world has ever entertained any doubt as to the reason why Rajapaksa held the presidential election prematurely, nor would they be gullible enough to believe the reason he is now coming out with now. In 2010 January Rajapaksa sought the mandate from the people for a second term as president when he was at the zenith of popularity among the Southern populace mainly due to ending the 30-year war and defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seven months before. Parliament elections held two months later in April saw the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) register a big victory securing a near two -third majority in the House. A past-master in engineering defections from other political parties, Rajapaksa enticed enough MPs to easily secure a two – third parliamentary majority for his government and used that position of strength only for regressive purposes.
He brought in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which made all the powerful executive even more powerful and rescinded the two term limit of presidency. The amendment also removed important checks on the exercise of executive powers.
Rajapaksa wanted to rule Sri Lanka as a modern king for a considerable period. But he never would have imagined, even in his wildest dreams, that he would be meeting his Waterloo at the hands of a person who was the general secretary of his party and a senior minister in his administrations.
When Rajapaksa called for the presidential poll prematurely, in order to seek a mandate for a third term, Maithripala Sirisena was fielded against him as the common consensus candidate of the then opposition.
It was evident after the introduction of the Executive Presidency that an unprecedented tendency of authoritarianism had crept in, and gradually increased to abhorrent levels in governance and State administration. It however reached a peak during the Rajapaksa rule. Nepotism,cronyism, abuse of power,disruption of the rule of law and corruption were flourishing in an uncontrolled manner during the 9-year period under Rajapaksa’s watch. This made the government increasingly unpopular even though Rajapaksa projected himself as the only leader who could protect the ‘motherland’.
Rajapaksa had also alienated the minority communities by his soft handling of the Sinhala Buddhist extremist. In such a scenario, it was expected the minority communities would wholeheartedly support Sirisena in the 2015 presidential election. And thus ensure Rajapaksa_sdefeat.
When Maithripala Sirisena addressed the nation immediately after being sworn in as the new president of Sri Lanka on January 9, 2015, he declared he would not contest another presidential election. The declaration was viewed as an honest demonstration of his determination to abolish the executive presidency, a pledge made during the hustings.
However, after more than two and a half years in office, Sirisena is leading a party that has become the ardent advocate of the retention of the presidency.
The SLFP that had been demanding the abolition of executive presidency from the very day it was introduced by United National Party (UNP) government led by late J. R. Jayewardene four decades ago is now vociferously justifying the same, whereas the UNP under the leadership of Jayewardene’s nephew, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghehas taken a stand supporting its abolition. It was earlier said that one of the main purposes of the constitutional reform process spearheaded by the National Unity Government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghewas to abolish the executive presidency. There is no clear cut proposals regarding the future of the presidency in the interim report of the steering committee of the Constitutional Council that was submitted to Parliament last month. The report asserts that though there is general consensus the executive presidency as it exists today should be abolished, most of the political parties want it to continue with reforms. The opinion of the SLFP that has been expressed in an annexure, is that abolition of executive presidency is not prudent. Meanwhile Rajapaksa purposefully avoided commenting on the future of executive presidency in his statement issued early this week, on the interim report of the steering committee.
However, in light of his comment to the media outside the Tangalla Remand Prison (that he did not have sufficient time to abolish the executive presidency during his 9-year rule and it was in order to expedite the process that he prematurely called for a presidential election) one can’t help but ask what stopped him from coming out with an unambiguous stand on the presidency now?
The undeniable fact is that Rajapaksa never wanted to abolish the powerful executive presidency. What he did was make the Presidency more powerful with unlimited powers surpassing the legislature.
Another two-time president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, also came to power in November 1994 promising to abolish the Presidency within one year. But, after 11 years in power she left the office regretting that she couldn’t continue for another year in the all-powerful position.
Even Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in November 2005 promising its abolition after the end of his first term. He signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in this regard and included it in his election manifesto. We all know what happened to the promises of two SLFP leaders. Now another leader of the same party is the executive president. He also made the promise to do away with the presidency and pledged the very first day in office that he would not contest another presidential election, but is now studiously maintaining silence when politicians from his party are continuously talking about the possibility of fielding him as the party’s presidential candidate in 2020.
Senior journalist and political analyst D. B. S. Jeyaraj sums up the whole situation succinctly in his article titled ‘Abolishing J. R. Jayewardene’s Executive Presidency ‘. “The regimes commanding a two-year third majority in Parliament did not want to do away with the presidency. The regimes wanting to eliminate the executive presidency did not have a two third majority. Where there was power there was no will. Where there was will there was no power. Hence a consensus of key political parties on abolishing the executive presidency remains as elusive as ever. Against this backdrop one cannot but help wonder whether JR’s executive presidency will ever be abolished at all”.