Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • September 2019
    M T W T F S S

TNA and late attempt to abolish Executive Presidency

Posted by harimpeiris on September 25, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 23rd September 2019)

At the tail end of the term of office of Maithripala Sirisena as President and after the independent Elections Commission had called nominations for election to the office of president, a special cabinet meeting was summoned last week to discuss the issue of Government support for the JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution, which sought to abolish the executive presidency. While late in the president’s term and better late than never, the timing of the initiative in the heat of the nomination battle reduced elite support for the proposal. However, while much debate has ensured whether Cabinet was summoned by the President or the Prime Minister, the timing was an exploration as to whether the three leaders in Sri Lanka, Maithri, Ranil and Mahinda, may well find it in their political interests to abolish the executive presidency and fight it out for the post of Prime Minister next year, an arena in which they are all entitled and well able to. The substantive issue however was the joint effort of the JVP as the initiators of the 20th Amendment and the TNA as the drivers for constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, including the crucial reform or abolition of the executive presidency.

A consensus since 1994

The issue of abolishing the executive presidency, first introduced by J.R. Jayewardena in the second republican constitution of 1978, arose after just three terms when by the 1994 presidential election, then candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, swore to seek the abolition of the executive presidency and reform what she pithily terms in Sinhala, the “bahu butha viyawasthawa” loosely translated as the constitution of many demons, the chief offender being the centralized power in the executive president and the consequent weakening of other institutions of government. President Kumaratunga did her share of the work to keep her word, introducing a draft new constitution to Parliament, in August 2000, and her government with a single seat majority, after UNP crossovers, came just eight votes short of securing the required a two-thirds majority. Back then in 2000, the TNA, due to death threats by the LTTE on TNA leaders, well remembering the supreme price paid by their predecessors from Appaapilai Amirthalingam to Neelan Tiruchelvam, refused to support the measure. If they had, Sri Lanka’s recent history would have been quite different. For the past two decades since the year 2000, both the Mahinda Chinthanaya and the public mandated manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena have pledged to abolish the executive presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa cynically went in the opposite direction to his own pledges and further strengthened the executive presidency by abolishing term limits through the 18th amendment, while on the contrary President Maithripala Sirisena’s crowning glory, which he paradoxically seemingly rues now, is the 19th amendment, which significantly reduced the powers of the presidency, making it a semi-executive presidency.

The TNA support for the 2015 mandate

Nationalist elements in both the Sinhala and Tamil polities have been attacking the TNA and its seeming strategy of working within and defending the mandate of 2015, using terminology such as UNP proxy about the TNA. They aim much of their ire on the TNA’s human rights and constitutional law expert MA Sumanthiran, who stands head and shoulders above the younger Tamil leaders and the only one with a non-militant past. The TNA was decisive in the Rajapaksa defeat, beginning with the defeat of the “Divi Neguma” bill in the Eastern Provincial Council, then staunchly defending the consequently sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, with Sumanthiran as her lead counsel and finally, in January 2015, ensuring that the 750,000 majority for Maithripala Sirisena, erased his deficit in the other provinces to enable him to win the election. Again, in October 2018, when the constitutional coup was launched and Mahinda Rajapaksa made his short-lived return through the political backdoor as it were, the TNA was the kingmaker in parliament and instrumental in swinging the balance of power towards embattled and unconstitutionally sacked Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. For this staunch commitment to the moderate centre, the TNA and Sumanthiran has been labelled pro-UNP. However, the TNA is actually pro, a set of pragmatic political principles, while representing an ethnic minority as a regional political party. The abolition of the executive presidency is one such pragmatic principle. A political position that has much support in the country, irrespective of ethnicity, requiring every successful president since 1994, to pledge a commitment to abolishing or at least radically reforming that office. The TNA has quite wisely and correctly decided that Tamil rights can be ensured within a staunchly democratic (and indeed undivided) Sri Lanka and to that end promote efforts to strengthen and develop Sri Lankan democracy, which even Sinhala politicians would concede require much improvement. Any democratic and free society, requires a constant safeguarding of its citizens democratic, human rights and freedoms.

The JVP and the TNA, as effective left and regional parties

The JVP, with about 6% of the national vote and the TNA with a little less, are both very effective as a moderate and centre force in Sri Lankan national politics. Together, they combine to make a decisive 10% or more of the national electorate and though their voice is not amplified by a mass media prone to highlight nationalist voices, for readership and viewership purposes, they are significant political players in their own right in national life and the two major political blocs have to deal with that reality, which their leaders well understand. The UNP, understands and internalizes this much more than the SLPP / SLFP since the UNP support base is more diverse and less ethno centric. The JVP has come a long way since its two armed insurrections and the passing of the leadership from the old school and discredited past of Somawansa Amarasinghe to the younger generation of Anura Kumara Dissanayake saw the JVP’s best ever national electoral effort in February 2018, giving it the political courage to both introduce the 20th Amendment to the constitution and to run their leader for president.

The TNA’s decade long, post war, political journey has been equally if not more impressive. Led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, the ITAK with its TNA allies mostly in toe, now sans the EPRLF (Suresh faction), adroitly moved into the political vacuum created by the demise of the LTTE and relatively established itself as a player in Sri Lankan national politics. Tamil nationalist voices, ensconced in either Jaffna or in isolated pockets in the Diaspora have disingenuously and have somewhat unkindly questioned as to what the TNA has achieved for the Tamil people, after a decade of democratic politics, from 2009 to 2019. However, these same voices never use the same yardstick to question as what three decades of armed struggle from 1983 to 2009, achieved or did not achieve for the Tamil people, especially an armed struggle that finally rejected power sharing and democracy including dissent and the rights of a child.

With the JVP running its third-party presidential candidacy and hence moving the left vote away from being decisive at the presidential election, the TNA’s command and sway over the Tamil vote in the North and East, like in 2015 may well end up being decisive in the 2019 presidential election. In the parliament to be elected in 2020, again like in 2015, in a close and potentially hung Parliament, the TNA votes may be crucial in deciding who the next Prime Minister of Sri Lanka would be. It was Wimal Weerawansa who in the year 2000, then as JVP spokesman, famously coined the phrase, the political remote control, meaning decision making power, was in their hands. Since 2015, we may well be in a medium-term situation where the remote controlled has moved away, from the JVP to the TNA, or at least at a minimum, it is shared between the two parties. It is a good check and balance on overreach and extremist tendencies by either of the two major political parties in Sri Lanka.


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