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This is my Nation


What of the Executive Presidency?

Even so, the issue of abolishing the presidency merits re-examination. One of the objectives of establishing the presidency - as envisaged by its creator J.R. Jayewardene - was to provide the country with a strong and stable head of State who would be immune from the turbulence of parliamentary politics.

While it is true that JRJ only envisioned himself and his United National Party (UNP) at the helm, in hindsight, the executive presidency appears to have unwittingly served a purpose: it is unthinkable that a purely parliamentary form of government could have provided the kind of executive leadership that led to the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), still regarded widely as the ‘third force’ in politics in this country, despite a string of dismal electoral performances in recent provincial polls, raised eyebrows last week by proclaiming that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had no moral right to seek re-election.

This, the JVP said, was based on an undertaking that then Prime Minister Rajapaksa had given the party to abolish the executive presidency, when he was seeking their cooperation in the run up to the 2005 presidential election campaign.

The JVP is right in claiming the moral high ground here, for President Rajapaksa does say in his ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ manifesto that, “with the consensus of all, I expect to present a Constitution that will propose the abolition of the Executive Presidency, and provide solutions to other issues confronting the country. In the interim, I propose to present a Constitutional amendment through which the Executive President will be made answerable to Parliament by virtue of holding such office”.

At least from a JVP perspective, the party’s consternation at President Rajapaksa seeking a second term is understandable; it is once bitten twice shy. In 1994, when then Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga was running for Presidency, one of the main issues of her campaign 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 Kumaratunga’s massive margin of victory. On assuming power, however, Kumaratunga not only conveniently shelved her promises, but also ran for office for a second term and won!

Nevertheless, one must consider the realpolitik behind the JVP’s sudden announcement, and that would be quite different from scoring brownie points with the electorate by depicting the President as a person who did not honour his election pledges.
An analysis of the current electoral trend indicates that the JVP is headed for virtual political oblivion, on an even larger scale than the fate that awaits the UNP. This is because of a combination of factors: the immense popularity of the President in the aftermath of the war, the coalescence of left-of centre political forces towards the ruling coalition, the break up of the JVP and the exaggerated representation the JVP presently enjoys in Parliament.

The JVP cleverly manipulated the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led alliance at the 2004 general election. They included only two or three names in the district electoral lists submitted by the coalition, and as a result, all the party votes accumulated to these few candidates, while SLFPers had their preferences split among a dozen or more candidates.

The net outcome was that the JVP commanded nearly 40 seats in a Parliament of 225 members. For a party to achieve this under the proportional representation (PR) system, they would have had to obtain about 20% of the vote. The reality is that the JVP’s slice of the popular vote rarely touched the 10% mark. Thus, the exaggerated representation the JVP now has in Parliament is due to an electoral sleight of hand, and this is likely to be unmasked at the next general election.

Faced with this prospect, combined with the near certain victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a presidential election that could be held within the next six months, the JVP has little political recourse other than finding flaws in a manifesto and trotting them out to an unconvinced public.

Even so, the issue of abolishing the presidency merits re-examination. One of the objectives of establishing the presidency - as envisaged by its creator J.R. Jayewardene - was to provide the country with a strong and stable head of State who would be immune from the turbulence of parliamentary politics.

While it is true that JRJ only envisioned himself and his United National Party (UNP) at the helm, in hindsight, the executive presidency appears to have unwittingly served a purpose: it is unthinkable that a purely parliamentary form of government could have provided the kind of executive leadership that led to the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
That would beg the question as to whether the executive presidency was now needed anymore, since the task of crushing the LTTE has been achieved. Proponents of the presidency would argue that it is needed even more now, to push through serious political reforms that would ensure equality among all communities, thus preventing the resurgence of terrorism in the country hereafter.

Indeed, by stating that any political reforms would have to await the conclusion of the presidential election, this is precisely what President Rajapaksa is aiming at: a resounding mandate from the people to implement what he conceives to be a just solution to the ethnic question.

Ironically, that solution may well include the abolition of the executive presidency, which could come into effect after the termination of a potential second term of office for President Rajapaksa. For the President, that would be a doubly astute move: he would have reaped the maximum benefits of the presidency and would have kept his promise of abolishing it as well.
These are of course early days for such conjecture. But the JVP’s call for the abolition of the presidency has brought the issue out into the open, and it is an indication that retaining or abolishing the presidency will continue to make headlines in the months to come.

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