Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Presidential Puzzle

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2018

(Published in the Daily News of 24th May 2018)

By Harim Peiris

 

In a unique first in Sri Lanka’s political history, the elections of 2020, still over one and a half years away, has already begun to take center stage in Sri Lanka’s political debate. Never before has it been this way. We were not focused on the 1982 presidential election during mid-1980, nor focused on the 1988 presidential election in mid-1986, nor was there much talk in 1992 about the presidential polls of 1994 but since 2017 political actors seem focused on the presidential polls, still quite some distance away. It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who in 1964 famously coined the phrase, “a week is a long time in politics”. However, we have Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the newly appointed General Secretary of the UNP stating that Prime Minister Wickramasinghe would be the UNP presidential candidate, while the SLFP and UPFA General Secretaries also state that President Sirisena will be the SLFP presidential candidate and very recently former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse has emerged as the standard bearer of the Rajapakse comeback project and essentially launched his public exploration of a presidential bid, if not the bid itself at a corporate fat cat white collar event at that most elitist of elite venues and newest five star hotel, the Shangri-La. No not the one in Hambanthota but in Colombo. However, this article is not about the relative prospects of these possible future candidates but the merits of the elected highest public office itself, to which they are probable candidates.

The JVP introduces the 20th Amendment to the Constitution   

 

The JVP, the fourth largest party in Parliament with six seats, behind the UNP, the UPFA and the TNA have introduced the 20thamendment to the constitution, as a private members bill to abolish the office of executive president. Now abolishing the office of the executive president is not a new debate or idea in Sri Lanka. It was first proposed almost twenty-five years ago in 1994, by then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who famously referred to the 1978 second Republican Constitution as a “bahubootha” constitution. To her credit the draft constitution of August 2000, (which was just eight votes short of the two third majority of the then parliament), abolished the office of executive president. Fast forward to 2014 and the common candidate and now President, Maithripala Sirisena, repeatedly pledged to be a one term president by abolishing the office of executive president. Upon being elected in 2015, an interim measure to curtail its powers, occurred through the 19th amendment to the constitution, was steered through Parliament by the President. So, abolition of the executive presidency has been very much an SLFP driven, Presidents Kumaratunga and Sirisena led effort to abolish the elected dictatorship which is the office of Sri Lanka’s executive head of state. The UNP were late converts to the abolish the presidency school of thought, not least perhaps because the 1978 constitution was the UNP’s baby. However, the political heirs of both UNP presidents, JR Jayawardena and R. Premadasa, namely Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and UNP Deputy Leader and Senior Cabinet Minister Sajith Premadasa have both endorsed the abolishing of the executive presidency on numerous occasions and the UNP specifically as a party did so, during its constitutional reforms public consultations process and proposed reforms in 2013/2014. So, the UNP as a party has also backed the abolition of the executive presidency. Equally importantly during the 2015 presidential election campaign then President Rajapakse, sensing that his opponent Maithripala Sirisena was gaining traction and momentum and attributing at least some of it, to the pledge to abolish the executive presidency, also joined the band wagon by promising to abolish the same. So, all of Sri Lankas major political actors have in recent times, within this current electoral cycle and public mandate wowed to abolish the executive presidency and the people have backed this proposal through their popular mandate.

Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and the constitutional reform process

 

Civil society played a catalytic and large role in the election of President Sirisena and none were more influential or catalytical than the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha There, chief incumbent of the Kotte Naga Viharaya and his national movement for a just society (NMJS).  In fact, the NMJS and other civil society organizations in 2015, were adamant that following the presidential elections of January 2015, the priority was not the dissolution of parliament and the holding of fresh elections was not the priority but that rather the constitutional reforms process was the real priority. The result was the 19th amendment to the constitution which basically overturned the horrendous Rajapakse era 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which sought to solidify Rajapakse rule for life.

Since the General Elections of August 2015, Sri Lanka’s parliament unanimously voted to turn itself into a constitutional council and draft a constitution. While the interim report was presented and debated, the all-party steering committee of the constitutional council has not presented a final report in the form of a draft constitution, like the Peoples Alliance, under President Kumaratunga did in August 2000.

Instead the focus of those working on constitutional reform has now become to explore the commonality and the political spaces for the consensus which does exist and seek to implement the same. Accordingly, it is believed that most if not all political leaders and opinion leaders are in agreement to abolish the said office. For Mahinda Rajapakse, it gets rid of the two-term limit imposed on him for the presidency, while for President Sirisena, it is fulfilment of a solemn election promise, while for Ranil Wickramasinghe it is bringing the political game to the arena in which he excels, that of Parliament and the premiership, in which now in his fourth term in that office, he has passed Sirimavo Banadaranaike, who served three terms as Prime Minister. For the JVP, it demonstrates that they box above their weight class in influencing national policy and contributing to the reform agenda, while for the TNA it kick-starts the seemingly stalled constitutional reform process and makes Sri Lanka more democratic, a conducive environment for every bodies human rights and freedoms and not just only minority rights. Sections, but not all of the Joint Opposition (JO) have sounded their disagreement over the proposal, but there is sufficient consensuses without them and the JO is divided over the issue.

The Yahapalanaya national government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, who were elected on a platform of bold political reforms, should use the reform space, gift wrapped and given on a platter by the JVP to bring about the abolishment of the executive presidency, which has been long promised but slow in coming. Now is the time to deliver.

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