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this is my nation
Ranil’s attempt to abolish the Presidency

During those few years, Wickremesinghe had the opportunity of abolishing the presidency or at least diluting its powers to the extent of becoming answerable to Parliament, but he chose not to. The obvious reason for that was his belief that he could wrest the presidency at the next presidential poll, and therefore wished to derive the maximum advantages conferred on that office by the Constitution

The opposition United National Party (UNP), in a radical shift of policy last week called for the abolition of the executive presidency with Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe himself publicly declaring his party would initiate such a move if it were to come to power.

It is an interesting stand in that the UNP has previously ardently and consistently supported the executive presidency even when it was at the receiving end of the vast powers bestowed on the individual holding that office, especially during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

In the brief explanation that Wickremesinghe gave his audience when he proposed the change, he was to say that past presidents, J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunge had used the executive presidency to develop the nation. However, those powers were being abused today to achieve narrow political gains, to divide political parties and to undermine the parliamentary system, Wickremesinghe claimed.
To place these assertions in perspective, it is worthwhile recalling that the executive presidency was the brainchild of J.R. Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe’s uncle who, coming to power at the relatively old age of 71 and having seen all of post-independent Sri Lanka’s tumultuous political developments, wanted a change.

At the outset, Jayewardene’s motives were benign enough. His argument was that the ‘thattu maaru’ system, where voters kicked out a government after its five years in office - and sometimes earlier - undermined its efforts to develop the nation simply because the next government would unleash a barrage of changes if only to stamp its seal and discredit its predecessors. This argument had its merits and there were plenty of examples of such instances.

Jayewardene was also singularly impressed by the rapid strides made by Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew, who although he was Prime Minister and not President, ensured that he remained in office for 31 long years from 1959. In order to achieve that kind of political continuity Jayewardene conceptualised an executive presidential system for Sri Lanka, of course, with himself firmly at the helm.

Any aspirations Jayewardene had of transforming Sri Lanka into a second Singapore vanished with the outbreak of terrorism in the early eighties and from there on it was a case of the then President using the vast presidential powers at his disposal to quell dissent and dissatisfaction.

With the advent of Ranasinghe Premadasa to the presidency, the executive presidency took on a whole new meaning. It may be argued that it were these powers that helped Premadasa quell the insurrection staged by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), but at the same time Premadasa outdid Jayewardene in using - and abusing - the executive presidency.

That he was not a popular figure at the time of his assassination was due largely to his autocratic style of governance, made possible only because of the executive presidency. In the aftermath of his death, Dingiri Banda Wijetunge’s brief rule was a welcome respite from the kind of authoritarian rule that the country was fast becoming accustomed to.
Yet, if voters at the subsequent presidential election in 1994 thought that they were bidding farewell to the executive presidency by electing Chandrika Kumaratunge with 62.3 percent of the vote, they were sadly mistaken.

One of the main issues on Kumaratunge’s platform was the abolition of the presidency for which she even set a deadline of July 15, 1995. On the basis of this pledge, the JVP was naive enough to withdraw its candidate Nihal Galappathy from the contest, paving the way for Kumaratunge’s massive margin of victory.
On assuming power however, Kumaratunge not only conveniently shelved her promises but also ran for office for a second term and won.

It was during the tenure of this second term of office that her Peoples’ Alliance was booted out of office and the UNP led United National Front (UNF) assumed power. It was an acid test for the presidency because it was confronted with a hostile legislature for the first time since its introduction in 1978.

Kumaratunge may well argue that she had the last laugh for she succeeded in restoring power to her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led alliance, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which commands the majority in Parliament to date. Nevertheless, it is UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stance during the interim period of UNP rule that is significant here.

During those few years, Wickremesinghe had the opportunity of abolishing the presidency or at least diluting its powers to the extent of becoming answerable to Parliament, but he chose not to. The obvious reason for that was his belief that he could wrest the presidency at the next presidential poll, and therefore wished to derive the maximum advantages conferred on that office by the Constitution.

Now that Wickremesinghe and the UNP have done an about turn and disclaimed the presidency, does this signify a genuine disillusionment with the office after thirty years or does it amount to a tacit acceptance by the UNP that it would not be able to win the next presidential election?

The answer is more likely to be the latter for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity ratings are high in the wake of the recent military victories in the North and East. In that sense, it does appear as if the UNP has thrown in the towel for the next presidential election, well before the poll.

Of course, reverting to a purely parliamentary style of governance has its perils and the UNP will do well to recall that it stayed in power for seventeen long years because of the executive presidency. Therefore, would the party’s latest policy change amount to yet another political blunder? These are early days to hazard an answer to that, but at least at first glance, it appears to be so.

 

 

 

 


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