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Political Reforms: Vanishing prospects and time warp debates

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe with his wife Maithree in November 2019. Whether Wickremesinghe’s administration has the stomach for the reforms needed to resuscitate a collapsed economy will determine the island nation’s fate.

by Rajan Philips

The two articles on political and presidential reforms that I wrote for the Sunday Island (August 13 & 20), have elicited an interesting response from Dayan Jayatilleka (Sunday Island, August 27). Dr. Jayatilleka disagrees with both my “reform ideas” and my suggestion that now is the time for reforms, and proffers a “counterview” that the reform ideas are “regressive”, and now is “the worst time” for reform. He is, as he has consistently been, opposed to changing the current system of having the country’s President directly elected by the people.

He is also, as he has always been, dead set against expecting anything positive from Ranil Wickremesinghe or allowing him to continue in office even a minute longer than is constitutionally necessary. Dayan’s counter agenda for “engaged intellectuals” is to “focus on … Fighting to secure elections on schedule, most especially the presidential election, and combating the dangerous ideology of ‘economics before elections’.”

On the same Sunday (August 27), the Sunday Times carried Prof. Sirimal Abeyratne’s weekly column, coincidentally entitled, “Economy cornered with elections round the corner.” The contrasting viewpoints of a Political Scientist as a politically ‘engaged intellectual’, and a professional Economist without overt political affiliations, neatly sum up the country’s paradoxical political situation and the false prioritization between elections and economics.

There should be no economic reason for postponing elections beyond their due dates, or advancing them ahead of time. The reasons for election timing are always political, but no election in the current situation in Sri Lanka should be seen in isolation from the country’s current economic crisis. The latter is Prof. Abeyratne’s principal concern and the burden of his Sunday column, a concern that is not similarly shared or articulated by Dr. Jayatilleka.

It is the confluence of the political and the economic crises that I have argued, and still do, has led to – Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming the caretaker president, absence of strong presidential contenders as in the past, and the ‘hung situation’ in parliament. It is also my contention that it is this triple convergence that created a unique situation for implementing political and presidential reforms. The situation is obviously unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated anytime in the future.

The premise for my identification of this situation as opportune, or propitious, for undertaking reforms is that it provides the opportunity for a ‘consociational’ approach (in this case involving principled alliances and voting blocs of political parties in the current parliament) to undertaking reforms, as opposed to a ‘plebiscitarian’ approach (seeking an electoral mandate and hoping for a tyrannical majority). This should not be confused with ‘top down’ elitism, because every item on a potential reform agenda has been thoroughly discussed up and down the political pole for decades on end.

Almost all of them are measures to correct the institutional blunders that political elites have been committing since 1977 and 1978. In any event, any and all reform measures will have to be passed by parliament, requiring a two-thirds majority in some cases, and even a referendum based on the Supreme Court’s basic structure interpretation and not necessarily the constitution’s text itself.

Vanishing Prospects

Regardless of Dayan Jayatilleka’s disagreements with my reform ideas, the reality is that the prospects for any kind of reform even in the current triple-convergent situation are fast vanishing. The main reason is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not interested in using his accidental location at the summit of power for undertaking reform initiatives. All his political initiatives since becoming caretaker President have been to engineer a path to becoming the ‘incumbent’ candidate at the next presidential election. He cannot be both a candidate for election and a catalyst for reform, as I have contended earlier. Additionally, there is no sign of any external pressure (no Aragalaya Version 2) being brought on Mr. Wickremesinghe to play the role of a reform catalyst and scratch away his chronic itch to become an elected president.

The political opposition is not interested in forcing political reforms through the current parliament, but not quite for the same reasons that Dayan is suggesting, although Anura Dissanayake’s slogan “only a year to go”, or “less than 365 days to go”, might be an accurate measure of the opposition mood. But it is not clear which election everyone wants first.

For Dayan, it seems the presidential election, just like Ranil Wickremesinghe but for obviously opposite reasons. The JVP/NPP was all about local elections, and the SJB was earlier calling for parliamentary elections. And the President wants to implement 13A, but all executively with no provincial council elections. A reform agenda is not on anyone’s radar.

And if I am not misunderstanding Dr. Jayatilleke, he is not suggesting any potential reform path after a presidential or parliamentary election, or envisaging how and when such a path might open up. His broad perspective is all about fighting Ranil and supporting “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.”

Make them social-democratic to whatever degree possible, and everything will be looked after by one or the other change-agent. Juxtapose this with Dayan’s intervention last week (Sunday Island, September 3), entitled, “Political Establishment Under Siege: Crisis of the UNP, SLFP, SLPP, SJB,” and you will recognize the difference between the depth of his diagnosis and the meagreness of his medication.

The problem of inadequate remedies is partly due to a national pre-occupation with elections. Heightened enthusiasm before elections and political ‘muddling through’ between them. In his Sunday Times column, Prof. Abeyratne provides an empirical review of the corrosive effects of multiplying elections after 1977 on the decision making apparatuses of governments. Specific to political reforms, especially presidential reforms, there is a 40 year history of election promises and post-election betrayals. That is why I am skeptical about reform initiatives coming to the fore after another round of elections. This is not being against elections but about the futility of expecting serious reforms after elections.

What is inexplicably bizarre is that no one in parliament is making any serious effort to at least have the electoral reforms completed before the next local, provincial or parliamentary elections. All the spade work has been done, bills have been drafted, but no one is bothered to take them over the finish line. Why have elections under existing laws if you are serious about changing them after the elections? Given the situation of a ‘hung parliament,’ a consociational approach is necessary and will work, but the initiative will have to come from the parliamentarians and no one else. Unfortunately, the MPs are as apathetic about taking initiatives as they are truant about attending parliament. Even the two designated change-agents are not showing leadership or demonstrating parliamentary skills to get at least the electoral reforms completed before the elections.

Revamping the administration is another matter, and even though it is not something that can be accomplished in a short time there is nothing to stop the current parliament from forcing the issue with the President. Even if not the whole gamut of administrative reform, why not at least make sure that a proper person is appointed as the new IGP well in time for whatever election that might come first? Two retired senior police officers have been recently writing about the mess that the National Police is in, and how political interference and police subservience have precipitated the mess.

There cannot be a better opportunity for the two change-agents to show what they are capable of by intervening to force positive changes starting with the appointment of a new IGP worthy of that position. They do not have to wait for an election, and proving their mettle in the current parliament will augur well for their role in the next parliament, especially if they were to lead the next government. But unless people see them in purposeful and persistent actions in the current parliament, not much could be expected of them in the next parliament.

Ending Presidential Elections

Dr. Jayatilleke’s strongest disagreement is of course with the suggestion to end the practice of directly electing the Head of State or President. He concedes, however, that “Sri Lanka’s presidency most certainly requires reforming but that … the reforms that are necessary are those that bring our presidency in line with those of the USA and France.” But none of that should or could be before the next presidential election. No reforms before elections, just as no economics before elections!

The idea of reforming the presidency and ending direct presidential elections is not something that I started in my two Sunday Island articles. That idea arose as the antithesis even as JR Jayewardene idiosyncratically imposed the presidential system on an unsuspecting Sri Lankan polity. In fact, the anti-theistic idea has always had greater support among “engaged intellectuals” than the insistence on continuing with direct presidential elections. Winning presidential candidates in every election from 1994 to 2015 ran on the promise of abolishing the executive presidential system. The exception came in 2019, fittingly with Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

For all the bile that is piled on Ranil Wickremesinghe, no one blames the Rajapaksas for picking Ranil outside the 6.2 millions who voted for them to be their saviour and to be the country’s caretaker. And the tradition of running to be president on the promise of ending the elected-executive presidency will likely be restored by Anura Kumara Dissanayake and by Sajith Premadasa at the next presidential election. That will be real change-agency. Whether either one of them will be able to accomplish it after the election is the question.

As for the merits and demerits of the executive presidential system, Dr. Jayatilleka invokes, as he often does but not necessarily accurately, the examples of France, the US and Latin America. He never pauses to mention, let alone honour, the name of JR Jayewardene and his patented product that was bequeathed to the country. But JRJ’s whole project was contemporaneously critiqued by someone called NM Perera, also a Political Scientist. That was the beginning of the anti-thesis to the elected-executive presidency. The introduction of the presidential system by JR Jayewardene and the adoption of the 13th Amendment during JRJ’s only term as elected president, were unrelated developments. They have since been turned into Siamese Twins. They might be inseparable, but they should not be unreformable.

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