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Notes for a Manifesto: Understanding the executive

2018-08-30 00:00:53
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There was a time when the ‘executive’ in relation to the State consisted of the Cabinet of Ministers led by the Prime Minister. Things were pretty simple back then. And clear. The rest of the Parliament made the laws. The judges did their thing. There was no confusion about the boundaries that separated the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the State.   

Things weren’t all perfect back then of course, but things did go downhill after 1978. That was when the Second Republican Constitution was enacted and J.R. Jayewardene elected by Parliament as the Executive President.   

Let’s use an analogy just to illustrate the powers vested in the office of the President. If the constitution is a tree then the executive presidency is its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruit and in fact everything. We need not elaborate. The consistent call for curtailing the power of the president is testimony enough to the widely held view that this concentration of power is not healthy in a democracy.   

Three factors made things worse. First, after the scare of impeachment in 1991, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, ‘purchased’ dissidents with ministerial portfolios. Immediately, within the overarching executive structure, the percentage of demi-executives (if you will) in Parliament increased.   

Secondly, there was the introduction of the ‘decentralized budget’ which resulted in all MPs being given money which they could essentially use for ‘development’ as per their whims and fancies. They could decide how much to spend and on what. They were given executive functions. Naturally, representatives as well as those aspiring to represent came to think of a parliamentary seat as something which offered executive power.   

Thirdly, we had the Supreme Court decision delivered by Chief Justice Sarath N Silva allowing for those in the Opposition to break ranks and still retain their parliamentary seat provided they were given a Cabinet portfolio. That was a device used by those in power to manage parliamentary arithmetic. What it also did was to further inflate the executive.   

Sure, the Executive President had the sweep and ministers merely toed the line, each minister acquired, naturally, an executive mindset.   

As a result the function of all this, legislative functions were limited to rubber-stamping exercises where the will of the Chief Executive, the President, was routinely endorsed.   

While the yahapalanists sought a mandate to abolish the executive presidency without addressing the dangers of such a move without a simultaneous abolishing of the 13th Amendment, it was tired rhetoric for the most part. We did get the 19th Amendment, but it did not address the executive-branching described above and neither did it abolish the executive presidency

While the yahapalanists sought a mandate to abolish the executive presidency without addressing the dangers of such a move without a simultaneous abolishing of the 13th Amendment, it was tired rhetoric for the most part. We did get the 19th Amendment, but it did not address the executive-branching described above and neither did it abolish the executive presidency. Powers were clipped and the UNP/Ranil-loyalists truly believed (and some still believe) that Maithripala Sirisena was to be just a figurehead while Ranil Wickremesinghe was the principal executive in the government. However, the true quantum of power can easily be obtained by answering a simple question: Who, with the least effort, can effect the greatest change? That’s still the Executive President, folks.   

So what can be done to rectify this glaring democracy-deficit? The answer lies is making the demarcations clear. We have options.   

We can revert to the pre-1978 arrangement along with electoral reform to obtain better representation. This has to go hand in hand with legislation not just limiting the size of the Cabinet but specifying subjects. Technically the number of ministries could be reduced to less than 10. If this were done, those seeking public office will do so with considerably reduced executive aspirations. They would have to reconcile themselves to the (boring? un-remunerative?) task of making laws, i.e. the traditional, true and principal function of Parliament. The notion ‘decentralized budget’ would have to be dropped as well.   

If the executive presidency is to remain (as it should unless the illegal, erroneous and dangerous 13th Amendment is repealed), any truncation should take into account the necessity to remove all confusion between legislature and executive, leaving no room for any representative to harbour executive illusions even as they are empowered to vote according to their conscience and not on party lines nor out of fear of the President’s wrath.   

It is also possible to draw from the US system where Cabinet members are not elected but are chosen by the President and have to be approved by the representatives. If there were to be a robust vetting system, this could technically make for a more professional Cabinet where its members would have to be endowed with proven expertise in the given field. One has to ask the following question in this regard; ‘if applicants to jobs have to possess specified skills, why then is that same requirement not imposed on those aspiring to cabinet posts?’   

Those aspiring to be President and those parties which want to capture political power need to address the confusion and anomalies pertaining to the necessity of obtaining a balance in the separation of powers. Just saying ‘I/we will abolish the executive presidency’ will not do because it does not indicate any idea about obtaining clarity by demarcating the lines between the executive and legislative arms of the state.   

Please take note, Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual who is entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene


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