President Maithripala Sirisena was reported in the media as saying that millions of rupees spent on constitutional reforms were a waste as nothing fruitful had come out of the spending. Obviously given the extent of his constitutional literacy as was exhibited during the notorious Constitutional Coup last October, he seems more bothered about the millions that were spent rather than on the most frustrating and disappointing failure to push through much-hyped and in many ways needed, constitutional changes which might even have seen the ushering in of a new constitution. Yet the point that this article wishes to address is something else.
The social media was abuzz with a story that suggested that the three leaders at the top, namely Ranil, Mahinda and Maithri were to converge on a plan that would see the abolishing of the Executive Presidency by way of a Constitutional Amendment.
Whether the information thus circulated is true or false is a matter of time; yet given the fact that there is very little chance of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or President Sirisena having the popular muscle needed to win a Presidential Election and the former strong man Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, being barred constitutionally from contesting although he is the most popular politician around by a long stretch, such a scheme would not be far-fetched.
This is especially so as Wickremesinghe does not want to let go of the reins of the UNP and Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to see the rise of Gotabhaya in the long run as he is concerned about the prospects of his son Namal in leadership of the SLPP or whatever political set up they might have in the future.
In the case of President Sirisena, now knowing that he is not going to be the horse fielded by either the SLPP or UNP and therefore very little chance of succeeding at Presidential elections as well as the fact that he does not command the majority of Parliament to aspire for the powerful Premiership after the 19th amendment, abolishing of the Executive Presidency would not certainly be an issue for him as well.
In a context where his fame as the heroic challenger and conqueror of the demigod Mahinda in 2015 largely diminished during the last four and a half years and even being accused of betraying the Yahapalana mandate, it would be great for him if he could exit the political arena with a historic feat of abolishing the very seat that he is occupying: a thing that was promised by both Chandrika and Mahinda repeatedly, yet shamelessly and quite true to their modus operandi, did not fulfil.
On the other hand, there could be yet another perk waiting in sidelines for Maithripala if the country was to see a constitutional change from a top-heavy Executive Presidency system to one more akin to the West Minister type: the nominal or figurehead Presidency as that was held by Mr William Gopallawa under the Independent Constitution. Although bereft of any real political power, it is certainly full of perks and would be a glorious way to throw in the towel for a person such as Maithripala Sirisena.
Securing a 2/3s majority in Parliament might not be as difficult as it looks as the ‘Troika’ that rules the roost politically would be able to garner the support of the main three political configurations, i.e. UNP, SLPP and SLFP.
Although there might be some resistance from the “Hopeful Duo” in the form of Gotabhaya and Sajith, it is very unlikely that they would be able to withstand a process initiated by the three major parties in unison and with the moral high ground, the abolition of the much-hated Executive Presidency inevitably entails.
For many such as Mahinda, Dinesh and Vasu, who have for decades (Of course until Mahinda came to power) have shouted themselves hoarse about the evils of this seat and the necessity to get rid of it to ensure democratic governance, there would be little opportunity to turn 180 degrees now.
Especially coupled with the secret fears they harbour about Gotabhaya being in the hot seat and consequently leading the SLPP-led alliance, this might be a reassuring proposition.
In addition to the support of the main three parties, the JVP would support such abolishment with both their hands raised and it would be difficult for the minority parties such as the TNA and SLMC to resist such a move.
The Muslim Congress as well as other Muslim parties who have traditionally being favourable to a system dominated by the President , on the presumption that a majority driven Parliamentary system of governance would not augur well for them but whoever becomes Executive President would have had to rely on the Muslim constituency for a certain percentage of votes to assure 50% as required to win thus having some control over the President, would realize that such protection is not always forthcoming as they saw during the Aluthgama riots. Moreover given that the political dynamics in the south have changed drastically compared to the times when J.R. Jayewardene introduced the system, a Sinhala Nationalist Populist might be able to secure a majority without relying on the minority vote. Minority protection under the system has proven to be a myth.
As the incumbent President laments, the 19th Amendment (For which he took the credit when it was passed) has created a three-pronged leadership as opposed to single spearhead national leader the 1978 Constitution envisaged.
Despite all the hue and cry created over winning the Presidency, one wonders whether it is the ‘real thing’ after the 19th Amendment, which saw many of the potent teeth that the President had removed.
As some political experts point out the real nucleus of power post 19th amendment is with the Prime Minister. In that sense, many of the “economic development’ mantras which are attributed to the candidacy of individuals such as Gotabhaya might not be the case as the President holds little power when it comes to directing the economy.
Policy and implementation which is done by the cabinet will squarely be under the control of the Prime Minister with the President having little say on as to what goes on in the Cabinet. Even if the PM and President were to come from the same party this could lead to a battle for leadership in the government as well as the party.
At least now
The three top leaders as well as others who call them national leaders have never acted out of love for their country. The executive presidency even after the 19th amendment creates division, disharmony and antagonism not only among parties but even within them. Billions of rupees are spent on maintaining the office with very little of the objectives that JR Jayewardene dangled as reasons for creating this monstrous institution fulfilled. If not selfless love for the nation, then selfish personal agendas, the three top leaders harbour at this point, should be used to see at least one fruitful outcome: the abolition of the Executive Presidency.
Whether the social media story comes true or whether it is wishful thinking is yet to be seen!