It is not every day that you hear some sense being talked by those who wear saffron robe; to the contrary what we are used to hearing from them is absolute nonsense and worse still, verbal material that incense already raging fires. In such a backdrop, it was quite refreshing and reassuring to hear some common sense and good counsel being talked by the Maha Sangha in the form of the appeal by some influential Bhikkus to the Prime Minister (who we readily acknowledge, is in dire need of good advice), to appoint Karu as the UNP candidate for Presidency and then to move for the abolishment of the Executive Presidency. Although who becomes the much hyped UNP candidate is a political decision that has to be taken by that party, the second issue, i.e. abolishment of the Presidency is of national importance and in so far as the most likely person, if elected could be trusted to do the same, is Karu Jayasuriya.
It seems that a considerable percentage of the Buddhist clergy consider Karu to be a trust worthy candidate with credentials that please them, i.e. with a reputation of being a good Sinhala Buddhist. Politically it is a decision that has to be taken by the UNF whether ditching a strong horse as Sajith Premadasa who, at a glance, is their best bet at present; yet from a more holistic and a far reaching perspective, if abolishing of the Executive seat is the main objective, Karu seems to be the best choice. In that sense it would be, yet again, a stint akin to that of January 2015, where anti-Rajapaksa forces united to vote in Maithripala Sirisena, whose first and foremost promise was that he would not contest a second time and would take steps to do away with the Executive Presidency, which, in the eyes of the many the root cause of multiple evils that ail our body politique.
What happened to those promises as well as the yahapalana mandate thus given is now in the public domain; the manner in which Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo betrayed, abused and desecrated that mandate leaves a bitter taste in the plates of all who voted them in. So much so any reference to a common candidate or promises such as abolishing of the hot seat attracts only sneer and ridicule.
Yet abolishing of the Executive Presidency is too urgent and critical an issue to be shunned and delayed, due to unpleasantries and sour sentiments that might be engendered based on past failures. It should be noted that many who came under the yahaplana banner, were persuaded by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera in a context where the Rajapaksa camp were making the hackneyed accusation that all who objected Rajapksa in his third shy for Presidency were traitors , which normally means as going against the Sinhala Buddhist aspirations of the deep south.
It was the presence of Sobhitha Thera in the opposite camp that reassured many Sinhala Buddhists to brazen themselves against Rajapaksa and vote for change.
With the fiasco that ultimately came about from that experiment which include down right betrayal of those policies and utter incompetent of the present government it is not easy to vouch for a sort of ‘trustee’, which is the impression that Karu invokes in the eyes of the Maha Sangha and pit him against a strong adversary like Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet the participation of the saffron robe bearers with their influential ones (although not as convincing or popular as Ven. Sobhitha by any means!) in a campaign for the candidacy of Karu Jayasuriya might give the boost such a campaign needs and also alley any fears of the floating voter, who is, yet again, majority Sinhala Buddhist. Given the repeated utterances by Sajith Premadasa that he would contest hell or high water, there would be no way of holding him back from going solo if Ranil decides to face up to Gota, from the Green party. But there might be a chance of deterring him if the Buddhist clergy were to request from him to stand down this time to allow Karu to make it to the hot seat with the objective of abolishing it.
Saviours of the Nation?
The Maha Sangha generally makes a grandiose claim time and again that they have come to the rescue of the nation historically; personally I have been wondering what was the evil they have delivered this country from and have come up with no satisfactory answer. Yet the ground reality remains that any one contesting for Presidency in this country would have to have the backing of a considerable share of the Sinhala Buddhist vote and towards that end, endorsement by influential Bhikkus is a must.
True, the 19th Amendment has defanged the Executive Presidency by removing some draconian powers it had and by creating constitutional councils and independent commissions; yet as the October 2018 constitutional coup illustrates it still holds persuasive and authoritative power in a society that fails to fully comprehend the importance of the 19A. As that episode highlighted it still has the power to make members of Parliament vacillate and defect with the hope of receiving favours from the President, thus impacting the balance of power in the legislature; it still has the power to stall investigations against state officials including military who have been charged of murder, corruption, human rights violations. For a society that has been patriarchal and used to taking orders from the top to bottom, it is very difficult to get out of such a mindset in a short period of time. A vertical power structure that JR Jayawardene introduced under the pretext of rapid economic development and national security still has a grip on many minds which are politically immature. The evils that issued from that vast repository of unbridled power , still holds a mesmerizing power on many.
It might be possible to persuade the JVP from feeling their own candidate if the promise of abolishing of the Presidency is given credibly which cannot be done by Ranil or Sajith as things stand. Although it is unclear whether the minorities will be buoyed by such a candidate who comes with the aegis of the Buddhist clergy, it might not be as critical as there is a tendency on the part of their majority to harbour fears about Gota in the first place, unless rapid turn of events take place in Tamil and Muslim constituencies.
Each and every Presidential election from 1994, has seen the slogan ‘down with executive presidency’ coming to the fore. Yet it still remains although somewhat subdued due to the 19A. This time also there is no alternative for the democracy loving sections of the society but to raise that banner.
Admittedly this is not a good time for such idealist thinking. Yet with the aegis of the Maha Sangha it can be initiated. It is very rarely that we hear the Maha Singha in sync with modern thinking and talking sense. But when they do, we need to make it count for some worthwhile endeavor. Getting rid of Executive Presidency is one such thing!