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Bad Idea, Terrible Timing: Critiquing Rajan Philips’ Reform Agenda

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting the leaders of Tamil political parties

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

In a time of national crisis, ideas are an important contribution. Rajan Philips, one of Sri Lanka’s most literate and respected commentators on politics, with whom I have had the privilege of being a founder-member of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in 1978, has made an impassioned plea for political reform, in a two-part essay in the Sunday Island (and the Colombo Telegraph). He also advances the notion that now is the best moment for such reforms.

I regret to say that as a political scientist I disagree both on his ideas for reform as well as his identification of the current moment as most propitious for them. Let me set out his key ideas in his own words.

“Fundamentally, there should be no more presidential elections and the election of future Heads of State, after the current President, should not be directly by the people but through their representatives in parliament, and potentially in the provincial councils.” Good King Ranil and his options: Keep running or end the Executive Presidency – The Island

“Fundamentally, a future president, as Head of State, should not be directly elected by the people at large. Nor should she/he be left to be appointed by a prime minister, as Head of Government. The task of reform would be to find a middle way to have future presidents elected by representatives who are directly elected by the people in their constituencies.”

“The same circumstances have also a created a vacuum of presidential aspirants. There are no strong presidential candidates with formidable political alliances as in the past. That creates the potential and the space for political and presidential reform independent of presidential elections. The situation in parliament is also conducive to building support among both government and opposition MPs to implement a principled reform agenda.”

“It is the convergence of the three developments – Ranil Wickremesinghe as caretaker president, absence of strong presidential contenders, and the ‘hung situation’ in parliament – that has created the current unique situation for implementing political reform. It is unlikely that a similar convergence will occur any time in the near future. It is an ideal opportunity that should not be missed.” (Last Chance for Presidential and Political Reforms – The Island)

My counterview is that the proposed reforms are regressive and in any case, this is the worst time for any such reforms.

Anura & Sajith

At this time, we have the possibility of a generation change of political leadership in the form of the two leading presidential candidates, Anura Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa who were born just a year apart. These two candidates are also the most socially progressive we have seen in decades and offer the chance of substantive change in our development policy in a direction that is different from that of Ranil’s neoliberalism.

Just when we have a chance of progressive change, this is precisely the wrong time to seek the abolition of a directly elected presidential system.

Rajan’s contention that we do not have any viable presidential candidates tells me that he and I inhabit quite different realities. I can see the kind of enthusiastic social mobilization at the NPP-JVP public events that I haven’t seen in decades. I have also seen an impossible pace maintained in Sajith Premadasa’s electoral campaigning, since his presidential bid of 2019, that no one can match.

Popular Sovereignty

The suggestion of abolishing a directly elected presidency flies in the face of popular sovereignty. The president wields power because he/she has the legitimacy of having been elected by a majority of the people who voted, taken as a whole. It is the acme of democratic republicanism, as in France.

Sri Lanka’s presidency most certainly requires reforming but that is not by eliminating the election of the president by the people. The reforms that are necessary are those that bring our presidency in line with those of the USA and France.

Cutting down the directed elected presidency at this point in time, would deprive Anura Kumara or Sajith Premadasa of the power to implement pro-people reforms. All that is needed to prevent the abuse of power is to introduce/strengthen the checks and balances that prevail in the American and French systems.

It is surely no coincidence that almost all the left administrations in the world are presidencies. It is also no coincidence that the reactionary rearguard actions and springboards for counterrevolution in Latin America have been the elected legislatures.

How can one discount the contemporary history of Ceylon, in which every piece of discrimination has been enacted under the Westminster model? The incontrovertible fact that the founding of the Tamil Tigers took place in the year of the 1972 Republican Constitution and the Vadukkodai resolution predated the Presidential system by two years is evidence of the relative superiority of the presidential system qua system. The only reform needed is to shear it of an excessive centralization of power. Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara can undertake that task.

Executive Presidency & 13A

Rajan Philips does not seem to understand the nexus in the Sri Lankan political consciousness between the Presidential system and devolution. This was on full view during the week-long parliamentary debate under Yahapalanaya on the draft constitutional proposals presented by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Let’s forget the usual suspects who are chronically anti-13A. What’s more important is what the pro-13A centrists such as the SLFP said. Pro-devolution MP Dayasiri Jayasekara strongly articulated the view that if 13A were to be enhanced or even fully implemented, the proposals to abolish the executive Presidency were unacceptable to the SLFP and conversely, if the executive presidency was to be done away with, the question of 13A and devolution had to be re-examined and the semi-autonomy of the PCs had to be titrated downwards.

In short, devolution and the executive presidency are inextricably linked in the public mind. There is considerable insecurity about devolution without the lid or cap of a strong presidency representing the island’s people as a whole. The principle involved is that given the axiomatic fact of Tamil Nadu next door as an ethnic kin-state of the North-East periphery of the island, the whole as represented by the directly elected presidency must be present as counterweight to and preeminent power over a semi-autonomous part.

Rajan Philips must know that his proposed reform of radically downsizing the executive presidency would be at the expense of devolution, and would have as a corollary, by its concomitant downsizing.

In a debate during the Yahapalanaya years with MA Sumanthiran MP which arose at a panel discussion (still on YouTube), I argued strenuously against reopening the issue of 13A, arguing that any attempt to push beyond would open a can of worms and result in calls for abolishing or amputating 13A instead. That has now happened.

Worst Time Ever

The most fundamental error of Rajan’s well-intentioned proposals is his insistence that the current conjuncture is most propitious for movement on them. This assessment could not be more inaccurate. There are three major reasons for this.

Firstly, being unelected by the people, President Wickremesinghe suffers from a chronic deficit of public consent and therefore legitimacy. “By what right are you doing this?” is the ubiquitous question today on picket lines and at media conferences. Any attempt by him to move on reforms will lack public trust.

Secondly he is implementing an IMF austerity program which is causing tremendous pain and dislocation. This is exactly the wrong time to move on political reform as well, as Gorbachev found to his cost.

Thirdly, Ranil has made a number of moves in an anti-national and anti-state direction. Any truncation of the executive presidency, cutting its link with the people taken as a whole, will be read together with his Indianization MoUs, the land bridge to Tamil Nadu, the Subaskaran Alirajah deal and his drive to privatize the SOEs, as part of a project to dismantle or dissolve the Sri Lankan state.

Rajan just doesn’t seem to get that at this moment the people see the upcoming Presidential election as the earliest and perhaps only peaceful means of throwing out Ranil, and electing someone who is more socially sensitive and will alleviate their economic agony. Anura Dissanayake’s slogan “only a year to go”, now modified to “less than 365 days to go”, is resonating.

The most dangerous thing about Rajan’s formula is that Ranil may well use the ‘reform the presidency’ slogan as a chance to secure postponement of the presidential election as is his proven propensity. After all, Rajan’s hero Dr Colvin R de Silva’s Constitutional exercise facilitated the extension of the term of office of the parliament by two years. Any extension or attempt to tinker with the Constitution by Ranil in a dilatory manner would cause blood to run in the streets because even Anura Dissanayaka and Sajith Premadasa would not be able to keep the lid on the frustrated rage of the masses which will explode if the horizon of the Presidential election recedes.

Current Situation, Urgent Tasks

The current moment is not one of abolishing or shrinking the presidency but using the fact that it is popularly elected, and there is a countdown to that election, to throw out this unelected, free-market fundamentalist, nationally nihilistic President.

Contrary to Rajan’s proposed agenda, I would urge that as engaged intellectuals, all of us should focus on the following urgent tasks:Fighting to secure elections on schedule, most especially the presidential election, and combating the dangerous ideology of ‘economics before elections’.

Fight against Ranil, the most right-wing reactionary neoliberal leader we’ve had (whom we never elected) and his agenda.Support one or the other change-agent, Sajith or Anura, while fighting for a broad bloc or platform for elections on schedule and a united front of parties around each candidate, so as to ‘social democratize’ them both to whatever degree possible.

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