It’s ‘Presidential Election or Dictatorship?’ not ‘Elected Presidency or Parliament?’ Rejoinder to Rajan Philips



by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The sum and substance of Rajan Philips’ counter-critique of my critique is that I seem uninterested in reform, especially political reform, and most especially the abolition of the executive presidency or the same thing deferred, i.e., ensuring that this upcoming election is the last presidential election we shall have. (Political Reforms: Vanishing prospects and time warp debates – The Island)

I admit that as a general methodological principle, I do privilege politics over policy in general and policy reform in particular. In this I find myself in excellent company. But my more urgent point is that at a time such as that we are living through, it would be a political, moral and historical crime to do otherwise.

Politics in Command

I think my political engagement of 50 years would attest that I am in the least interested in parliamentary politics, contesting elections and the like. By politics, I refer to who wields state power and who aspires to it; political leadership; ‘strategic direction’ (Gramsci); and the ‘friend/enemy distinction’ (Schmitt).

“Politics cannot but take precedence over economics. That is the ABC of Marxism” Lenin reminded Bukharin. Mao summed this up pithily as “putting politics in command”, elaborating that “the correctness or incorrectness of the political line decides everything”.

As for policy reform, I give it the same priority as Marx did when he refused to provide “recipes (Comtist?) for the cookshops of the future”.

I agree with Louis Althusser’s summation of Lenin’s contribution to politics as the grasp of the centrality of the “conjuncture”; the concrete situation, the balance of forces and the state of overdetermination of contradictions.

Lenin’s 45 volumes have ‘high politics’—strategy, tactics, positioning, interventions– more than anything else, but only a few scattered pieces of what may be called policy.

Antonio Gramsci founded the Marxist theory of politics, taking off from Machiavelli. His magnificent elaboration under the most anguishing of conditions, had much of theory, analysis and strategy, but little of policy and policy reform.

As a political scientist, and one of a particular intellectual formation, I therefore “put politics in command” and do so unapologetically.However, I go further. I argue that to do otherwise today and put policy reform ahead of politics would be an intellectual crime.

Presidential Election 2024

Policy flows from politics; it does not precede it. Lenin, that genius of politics, urges that one should grasp the key link in the chain. To my mind the key link in the chain of Sri Lanka’s destiny is whether or not the presidential election to decide on the country’s leadership is held on constitutional schedule next year.

Far more fundamental than policy and its reform is the nature of the state and of rulership. The country is currently led by someone who was not elected popularly to the presidency, nor indeed to Parliament (unlike DB Wijetunga). He has de-funded local authorities’ elections and ignores long overdue Provincial Council elections. He makes no reference whatsoever to Presidential elections next year, nor to Parliamentary elections. Instead, he gives exclusivity to the imperative of economic stability, revival and growth.

There is a very real danger of President Wickremesinghe attempting to defer the Presidential election by de-funding or simply ignoring it.

The central political challenge and task today is to secure the holding of Presidential elections which is a primary expression of the principle of popular sovereignty that undergirds the Constitution and the definition of our state as a democratic republic.

If we are ruled by an unelected leader who refuses to hold elections, then the character of how we are governed and indeed the nature of our state would have changed to one of absolutism. Even the Communist Manifesto of 1848 sets out the progress and aims of the struggle of Communists in different parts of Europe, with the struggle to overthrow absolutism and autocracy being the immediate objective.

That is the situation we in Sri Lanka are faced with today. To allow President Wickremesinghe’s polarizing and povertizing economic policies and his drastic project of connectivity and contiguity with India to continue without being subjected to a test of a popular mandate, would make for the end of legitimacy and pave the way for another civil war.

A bloodbath must be prevented. That can only happen by ensuring the Presidential election on schedule. That is the fight we face, not that of policy reform, including the abolition of the executive presidency.

Rajan Philips actually quotes a few lines of mine that give the lie to his charge that I am uninterested in policy reform and/or wish to keep the Presidential system unaltered. He quotes me as writing as follows:

“Sri Lanka’s presidency most certainly requires reforming but … the reforms that are necessary are those that bring our presidency in line with those of the USA and France.”

That alone shows that I am very much for the reform, as sharply distinct from the ending of the executive presidency. What I do insist though is that the cart of desirable reform should not be put before the horse of a presidential election on schedule.

Ours being a rigid Constitution, any reform effort will be a convoluted process, providing President Wickremesinghe with the chance to buy time and postpone the Presidential election on the grounds of ongoing constitutional reform. That escape hatch must be shut by keeping the policy reform agenda till later.

If we succeed in securing the Presidential election on schedule, preceded or quickly followed by the parliamentary election, I am confident that the policy reform process will take care of itself, through ‘the magic of the electoral marketplace’ (to borrow a phrase of Bill Clinton). Stiff competition between the two frontrunners Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa, as between the two frontrunning parties, the SJB and the NPP-JVP, will shift the needle of policy towards the progressive center. The basic and urgent issue is to secure that election.

Is AOC in a Time-Warp?

Finally on the matter of time-warps. Rajan Philips seems to think that my perspective is from another, earlier time. Well, it may have its roots in modernity rather than post-modernity, but my position of ‘politics over policy in times of danger to democracy’ is very contemporary indeed, and finds confirmation in the political stance of the brightest star of the global democratic left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the cover personality of The Guardian Weekly (UK) September 8th 2023.

A box on page 12 reads: ‘My support for President Joe Biden is truly about having a strong front against fascism in the United States’. This is elaborated in the main story. When challenged as to why she was supporting President Joe Biden despite huge asymmetries of policy – she had once said “in any other country we’d be in two parties, not one”—AOC had this to say:

“I know that this is why, to me, support of President Biden has been very important, because this question is larger than any policy differences. This is truly about having a strong front against fascism in the United States.”

If the USA is facing a threat of fascism and needs a strong front against it, which imperative “is larger than any policy differences”, I believe this is true several times over in Sri Lanka, where we have an unelected president who shows little inclination to pause his rule for a Presidential election on constitutional schedule this time next year.

The question before us in Sri Lanka today through 2024 is ‘Fascism or Democracy?’, and not ‘Presidential system or Westminster model?’. We must stay focused like a laser beam on securing the first national election possible—and constitutionally, that is the Presidential election—rather than divert attention to policy reforms before or after that election. Let the candidates, the parties and the voters work that out.

Structure or System?

Rajan criticizes me for not mentioning either JR Jayewardene the architect of our presidential system or Dr NM Perera, its earliest and foremost critic together with Dr Colvin R de Silva. Let me place my views on the record. I agree with renowned Marxist theoretician Antonio Negri that the presidential system, deriving from the Roman republic and resulting in the modern age from considerable cogitation and debate (hence the penname ‘Publius’ in The Federalist Papers), rather than specific national tradition as with the Westminster system, is closer the values of universality and one of the sources of America’s global hegemony.

If Rajan will pardon me the heresy, I consider Tony Negri a far greater Marxist authority on politics than the Trotskyist twins NM and Colvin, and can’t help but recall N. Sanmugathasan’s witticism that the Weimar republic collapsed under the weight of NM’s PhD thesis on it— a thesis hardly recognizable as ‘Marxist’, he added.

That said, I regard the hyper-centralist Jayewardene presidential system, as a distortion, which must be rectified by remodelling—not abolition—on US and French lines, so as to guarantee the separation of powers and resultant checks and balances.

To summarize the debate as objectively as I can, the difference between Rajan and me is that Rajan is focused on the structures i.e., the nature of the presidency, directly elected or not, etc. On the other hand, I am focused on the system, i.e., electoral democracy or dictatorship, and systemic equilibrium and stability through the opening of safety valves, or dis-equilibrium and chaos, through their closure.


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