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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2680

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s many legacies: Full Parliamentary democracy to follow ending 30 years of Tamil Tiger terrorism?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

No governance system is perfect and different models suit particular circumstances and particular times. While President J R Jayewardene is roundly criticized for introducing the Executive Presidency, the positive aspects of the governance model embodied in the 1978 constitution is often overlooked.

No doubt the model he introduced provided extensive and unbridled power to one person. It did not provide adequate checks and balances to curb the misuse of the powers provided, and others after him have further eroded the available checks and balances giving the Executive President powers that probably exceeded the powers of the US President, often dubbed the most powerful person in the world.

Although the Sri Lankan Presidency does not wield such power from an international perspective, it certainly wields extensive power within Sri Lanka.

The 1978 constitution of the country separates executive, legislative and judicial responsibilities and powers, although at the same time it also mixes these, at least the executive and legislative powers, by making the Executive President the head of State, the head of the government and the head of the cabinet, and giving the executive the power to assign any subject, therefore any ministry, to himself or herself. In theory therefore, the Executive President could function without any ministers, as he or she could be the minister for everything.

To say the least, the mix of executive and legislative powers is very confusing and is not reflective of good governance. It naturally points to oxymoronic democratic authoritarianism and a Jekyll and Hyde situation where the same person becomes two personas depending on what hall of governance he or she sits in.

The 1978 constitution also introduced the proportional representation system of electing members to the Parliament. One could argue that this was a positive move as it enabled minority (not necessarily ethnic or religious minorities) voices to be represented and heard in the national Parliament, something that would not have been possible under the previous first past the post system.

One however senses a slight of hand move by the Architect of the 1978 constitution, J R Jayewardene, who assumed the very extensive executive powers along with an assembly of Parliamentarians where 5/6th of them were from his own political party, the United National Party (UNP). This gave one man political powers that no other has had in Sri Lanka.

The proportional representation system was to come later in 1989, 11 years after the promulgation of the 1978 constitution, and after another move, at least undemocratic in spirit, by President J R Jayewardene in 1982 where he extended via a national referendum, the life of the existing Parliament for 6 years beyond 1983 when a Parliamentary election was due, negating the positive aspect of the 1978 constitution, the proportional representation system.

The possibility of his ruling UNP losing its massive super majority in parliament if elections were held when due in 1983, prompted President J R Jayewardene to call this referendum.

Consequently, one person ruled the country with extensive executive and legislative powers (as the head of State, head of the government and head of the cabinet) supported by a compliant Parliament where 5/6th of Parliamentarians were from his own party.

To crown the epitome of power in the hands of one individual, President Jayewardene demanded and received letters of resignation from his UNP Parliamentarians, to be used if any errant member dared to cross him.

Machiavelli would have been very proud of President Jayewardene!

The immortality and the fallibility of any human being is often overlooked when individuals think and act in what they consider is in the best interest of others. Human fallibility is assumed to be someone else’s folly, never theirs.

The danger this poses to the country is if the powers of the Executive Presidency ends up with a person who misuses them at the cost of democracy, human rights and equality and creates precedents that would be very hard to reverse once they are in place as constitutional provisions.

Every President likes to be remembered by their legacies. Unfortunately for them, not all their legacies will be successes. President Jayewardene could be remembered for his successful legacies like the liberalization of the economy after years of economic stagnation and the gigantic Mahaveli river diversion scheme that helped to open vast tracks of agricultural land for increased productivity and the introduction of hydroelectric schemes that increased the generation of much needed electricity in the country.

He is also unfortunately remembered for his unsuccessful legacies like leading the country towards the centralization of power and diminishing the role of the Parliament and sowing the seeds of authoritarianism, and glaringly, for not solving the ethnic conflict even with the enormous power he wielded during his tenure in office.

The Executive Presidency as it stands today is a dangerous governance model. Its powers allow it to function almost as a judge, jury, a prosecutor and a defender all combined into one when it comes to the exercise of power.

It has reduced the role of the Parliament and it has impacted negatively on devolution of power to peripheral administrative units appropriate to the country.

Next to winning the war against Tamil Tiger terrorism and the economic renaissance witnessed in the country, the biggest and enduring legacy that President Rajapaksa can leave behind for future generations is the restoration of full Parliamentary democracy so that the country can build on the social and economic foundation he has been instrumental in introducing after the 30 year period of Tamil Tiger terrorism and war that left behind death and destruction and deep chasms in the social fabric of the country.

The one person who could do this without creating divisions within the country and resorting to partisan politics is President Mahinda Rajapaksa as he enjoys substantial goodwill and personal popularity in the country. He owes it to the country and the future generations who will follow him that they will never have an opportunity to misuse the powers of the Executive Presidency. The only way to assure this is by the restoration of a full Parliamentary governance system where the sovereignty of the people is exercised exclusively by the Parliament and not jointly with an Executive Presidency.

Nothing precludes Executive President Mahinda Rajapksa from being the Executive Prime Minister of the country and acting in line with the will of the Parliament that exercises the sovereignty of the people. He could still continue unhampered to progress all the unfinished businesses embodied in the Mahinda Chintanaya.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s many legacies: Full Parliamentary democracy to follow ending 30 years of Tamil Tiger terrorism?
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