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System change can result in qualitative improvement of Sri Lankan polity

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The economic mismanagement of the post 2019 period raises fundamental questions of governance with regard to the country’s future. Was the country’s bankruptcy caused by poor leadership or as a result of the system of governance that prevailed or both.

Answers to these questions will provide lessons for the future path the country takes to extricate itself from the painful process that it is now compelled to follow to get solvent again. The simplistic diagnosis is to lay the major share on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his poor decision making.

If he was lacking capacity in economic decision making, was it fair to blame him alone for the blunders he made. The signs were all too clear when at a press conference during the election campaign of October 2019 he was asked a question of an economic nature. Lacking the confidence to answer he helplessly turned to then President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a response. 

If this was the case and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was himself aware of his own limitations, would the greater blame not fall on his inner band of promoters who went round the country and conned unsuspecting voters into believing that he had the capabilities of a Mahathir Mohamed and a Lee Kuan Yew or both rolled into one.

But did Sri Lanka’s fall come purely from the failings of an individual and his crew of advisors or did the system of governance too play a critical role in the crash. It is in this context that one has to examine the contribution of the Executive Presidency in the country’s slide to bankruptcy.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution had considerably reduced the powers of the Executive Presidency by introducing several checks and balances to the office and empowering Parliament. Shortly after assuming office, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government abolished the 19th Amendment and enacted the 20th Amendment centralising and vesting enormous powers in the Presidency.

That this adversely affected the inexperienced President’s powers of reasoning was evident when at one of his “Gama Samaga Pilisandara” programmes he told a Government official that there was no need for a circular to be issued and that his word as President should be considered the circular.

It is obvious that even under the Westminster system of Government an incompetent or inexperienced individual can be foisted on the country by interested parties. The difference, and a significant one at that, is that once he is found out and the public has lost confidence in him, he can be voted out by means of a simple vote of no confidence in Parliament.

In contrast the Executive President cannot be removed on the grounds of the public losing confidence in him. The only process available for the removal of the President in the Constitution is a complicated and long drawn out process of impeachment on stated grounds other than failure in governance.

The Constitution does not provide for removal from office for loss of confidence by the people who elected him. The only option was by a peoples uprising which resulted in the Aragalaya of 2022. Hardly something the country can be proud of as it would have suited the national pride to have a more dignified exit for its Head of State, whatever his individual shortcomings in office may have been.

Among the long list of negative features of the Executive Presidency which have been discussed ad nauseum, one aspect has not received the attention it deserves from commentators. That is the debilitating effect that it has had on the polity of the country.

Under the Executive Presidency political parties have not been able to develop second rung leaderships unlike under the Westminster system, thus contributing to a deterioration of the political system in the country. Prior to the introduction of the 1978 Constitution, most political parties had clearly identified number two and even number threes in the hierarchy.

When the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, C. P. de Silva took over and when Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike took over Maithripala Senanayake and T. B. Ilangaratne became number 2 and number 3 respectively in the party hierachy. In the UNP, when Dudley Senanayake was the Leader, J.R. Jayawardene was his Deputy. When J.R. Jayewardene took over, R. Premadasa became number 2 and Gamini Dissanayake number 3.

In the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, when Dr. N. M. Perera was the Leader, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was his deputy with Leslie Gunawardene the number 3.

Today after 45 years of the Executive Presidency, none of the political parties seem to have a clearly identifiable Deputy Leader who can take over when the Leader steps aside. That probably explains the predicament that Gotabaya Rajapaksa found himself in, in the wake of the Aragalaya protests.

After he asked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down, he was left with no one in his party whom he could with confidence appoint to take the latter’s place. Hence his decision to offer the Premiership to Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Sarath Fonseka.

To ensure good governance in Sri Lanka, several changes have to be made to the governance systems. Strengthening the rule of law, introducing strong anti-corruption measures, introducing electoral reforms, strengthening institutions by building strong and independent institutions, protecting and promoting freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, encouraging and facilitating the active participation of civil society organisations and citizens in decision-making processes thereby enhancing accountability and transparency, Empowering local government and ensuring devolution of power to enhance governance and responsiveness as well as ensuring effective management of public finances, promoting and protecting human rights, including the rights of marginalised groups and public service reforms are a few of the areas that have to be addressed.

While all the above areas of reform are important, it is probably the abolition of the Executive Presidency that will pave the way for democratic change and qualitative governance and has to be prioritised as the country struggles with the fall out of the mismanagement of the past few years.

(javidyusuf@gmail.com)

 

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