By Austin Fernando
(Former Secretary to the President)
Twentieth Amendment (20A) is reviewed by commentators from political, legal, journalistic, and religious angles. Not belonging to any such group, I do not venture to cover the multitude of discussions on 20A. My focus is to view 20A to understand how it affects governance and causes political contradictions.
In democratic good governance, there are essential elements, such as the rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, consensual oriented action, equity and inclusivity, accountability, and participation. Irrespectively, it is surprising to observe public administrators/their associations (except Auditors) in stoic silence on the 20A, though they will implement and experience fallouts of the 20A.
Ministerial Review Committee
The 20A created contradictory opinions even among the government ranks. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Committee of Ministers to review 20A. When this Committee Report was handed over, the public expected a review by the Cabinet. But it did not happen. Responsiveness, inclusivity, and participation have been lost even before 20A is passed, with a presidential directive to discuss the revisions of the Ministerial Committee at the Committee Stage. Such directives are common in Executive Presidency though one may question the applicability of Article 42(2) – “collective responsibility.” Anyway, the revisions will hence lack prior legal or public scrutiny.
Drafting crucial law
Probably, the Minister of Justice, who coordinated abolishing 19A, would have ordered the drafters to revert to 18A. Due to the critical nature, the Legal Draftsman would have officially conveyed the Cabinet of the implications of the amendments. It would have been opportune if that had happened, and their views shared, least as an Annex to the Cabinet Memorandum, especially for the Cabinet to observe the weaknesses/adversities of 20A, independently. Let me view 20A to observe the effects on good governance in this scenario.
Post-conflict issues and President’s duty
One sensitive amendment is the deletion of Article 33(1)(b) “Promote national reconciliation and integration.” It entered the 19A from post-conflict demands and tagged as a presidential ‘duty.’ Not much to exceptionally disturb the President through this ‘duty’ happened during the last five years. Hence, this deletion wrongly orchestrates negativism that he may be averse to ‘reconciliation and integration.’ It is unfair by him and hence deserves review.
Constitutional Council vs Parliamentary Council
Chapter VIIA – The Executive, matters to good governance. The first important issue is the erasure of the Constitutional Council (CC) and replacement by the Parliamentary Council (PC). The membership of the PC is political, and the proposed processes in application are subjected to presidential whim, especially by the power to supersede PC’s observations. These dilute PC’s independence and restricts inclusive participation.
Audit and Procurement Commissions
Under the 19A, nine Commissions were established out of which 20A has deleted the Audit Services Commission and National Procurement Commission (NPC). Erasing the Audit Services Commission does not reflect well for good governance.
Worst is to selectively leave-out audit of the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office by constitutional fiat [Article 154(1)- 20A]. The primary objective of auditing is to examine the accuracy of accounts and express opinions on financial statements. The secondary objective is to detect and prevent frauds, misuses, misappropriations, etc.
Preventing auditing cheekily endorses the reluctance to be transparent and accountable; and could motivate officers to deliberately committing errors, frauds, and corruption. More important is the impact on parliamentary control of state finances (Article 148). The President, PM, and their officials, immune to parliamentary financial control, predict an accountability disaster. This also ridicules the government’s “One Country, One Law” rhetoric because other Ministers and officials have no such immunity.
In the private sector, the shareholders decide who the Auditors are, to audit the Board, Chief Executive (CEO), and all transactions. The 20A wants everyone to be audited, but not Sri Lanka’s CEO and his deputy. If 20A equivalent had happened in the private sector, shareholders would have revolted, but 20A is Amurtha (elixir) for government supporters.
Article 156C directs the National Procurement Commission (NPC) to formulate fair, transparent, competitive, and cost-effective procedures and guidelines for government procurements. These are extremely positive objectives. It is surprising for 20A to push them aside because we hear of wrongdoings, worth millions of rupees, happening even while the 19A is operative, as alleged by government spokespersons. What can we predict without an NPC? If the NPC is slow performing, corrections should be followed, rather than to abolish it.
According to the 19A, members of the Commissions were appointed by the President. (Article 41B and 41C). There had been very few disagreements on appointments between the CC and the Executive, which had been sorted out proving the ability to cohabit.
Special concerns on the CC are projected regarding higher judicial appointments. We sometimes hear the complaint of the President’s inability to get judges appointed at will. These are probably related to the CC’s unanimous rejections of two judicial appointment recommendations. Nevertheless, these decisions were made with the participation of the representatives of the then Opposition and civil society. Thus, 20A will ignore the latter arrangements negating an existing democratic process. Under 20A, a President’s recommendations, though wrong, may stay on, irrespective of negative observations of the PC. Article 41C blocked this happening, post-19A. Therefore, are the 20A provisions democratic and hail good governance?
Proposed Article 111D permits the President to appoint two members of his wish to the Judicial Services Commission. When such open-ended appointments are possible it gives hope to the judiciary that they could manipulate their personal gains.
Therefore, reviewing these appointments by the CC will do justice to the judiciary.
Though the incumbent President, with a strong Parliament, and personality, may not sometimes succumb to such influencing, but a weaker President certainly will, to sustain power. Constitutions must be drafted with appropriate controls applicable to any President, and not person-centric to the incumbent. This mistake has been repeated by us and should end.
Even the Public Service Commission (PSC) is appointed by the President after receiving PC observations. Again, overruling these observations, like in other instances, could make the PSC also toothless.
The effects will be observed in the short, medium, and long terms in recruitment, promotion, discipline, transfers, etc. The future of public administration may effectively face dismal problems.
We hear from the Minister of Justice of the constraints to appointment an IGP. He castigated the “purpose” or “use” of a National Police Commission (NPC) based on this. But such an appointment is prohibited by Article 155G. The increased numbers of criminal incidents were referred to prove the ineffectiveness of the NPoC. He ignored that the NPoC does not have the power to fight criminality. (Article 155G)
Removal of Officers (Procedure) Act No. 5 of 2002 clearly states that IGP’s removal is possible only under specified circumstances, such as insolvency, ill health, ceasing to be a citizen, etc. None of these sins were proved and the incumbent government retired him with all attached perks. Factually, there was no vacancy until he formally retired to appoint a new IGP. But when such irresponsible criticisms happen others hang on to such arguments. Therefore, they also pray for NPoC’s demise!
By deleting Article 91 (d) (xiii), 20A permits dual citizen’s appointment as parliamentarians. The need to use this amendment will be at the next general election, after five years. But the government is in a mighty hurry. Urgent implementation will be required if the National List is to be tampered for special political gain. Some ministers stated that 19A – 91(d)(xii) should be repealed because it was incorporated by person-centric lawmaking and thus wrong. The irony is that the 19A deletion also appears to accommodate person-centricity.
The keen advocates of this amendment are those who argued against Singapore-rooted Arjuna Mahendran. They forget that the difficulties with Mahendran would arise with dual citizen politicians sinning after 20A. Politicians sin whichever the party they belong!
When a clerk, a Grama Sevaka, IGP or a Secretary must be a citizen, but not parliamentarians, Ministers, PMs, or Presidents, it is a joke. Since the President has shown how to solve the dual citizenship problem, individually, why mess with the Constitution without following the Leader?
Another important reason is that this amendment will apply to any other dual citizens while being members of international terror groups (e.g. ISIS) or Tiger remnants. This situation is worsened by repealing the administering of the Official Oath (Article 53) in Schedule 7 of the Constitution. We are assured that the President will not do underhand deals with LTTE remnants or the Islamic terror groups. But this amendment affecting security governance could be used by another President or Minister, supported by extremists, by being inactive, permitting “support, espouse, promote, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate state.”
This freedom to engage in separatist agendas may motivate helpful activities for separatism and it will be the base for another conflict that has to be fought. Such motivators are mentioned of previous regimes and cannot it repeat with the current and future regimes? This country has suffered enough and hence this amendment needs erasure or at least modifying.
Election promises and constitutional amendments
That the incumbent President received nearly seven million votes at the presidential election and a 2/3 majority at the general election is used to validate the 20A. But were the electors told that these questionable changes (e. g. abolition of dual citizenship, Audit and Procurement Commissions, Article 53, immunity, and castrating the independence of the CC/Commissions, etc.) would follow? No!
We must also remember that these amendments cannot be repealed conveniently. A President in power with a lean margin or performing with a weak parliamentary alliance can use these amendments to the detriment of democratic governance/country, even militarily. Canvassers may emerge inviting political leaders to be autocrats using some of these amended powers. In such circumstances, what is the guarantee that an Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe will not emerge from among our politicians?
President must be the Minister of Defence
The 20A corrects a prohibition in the 19A. The incumbent President, while possessing the power to declare war and peace and appoint the three Services Chiefs, is disabled to be the Minister of Defence because he is not a parliamentarian. I reason to differ from 19A, without being person-centric on the incumbent President’s professional suitability to be the Minister of Defence.
To wit, Article 4 (b) of our Constitution stipulates that the “executive power of the people, including the defence of Sri Lanka,” must be exercised by the President. Only “defence” is specially chosen here, not Agriculture, industry, etc. Under Article 33A, (which will be deleted by 20A, included in Article 42), the President is accountable for “his powers” to the Parliament on laws applicable to public security. Public security always combines with defence.
At present, there is no Minister of Defence and there is a Secretary Defence. According to Article 52(1): “There shall be a Secretary for every Ministry of a Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers.” By Article 52(2) the Secretary shall act “subject to the directions and control of his Minister…’’ It is the Cabinet Minister of Defence and not the State Minister. This status is thus challengeable legally.
When these situations are bagged together, the Ministry of Defence/relevant institutions should come under the President. However, 20A permits him to hold even any other Ministry [reintroduced Article 44(2)] and sadly this “residual power” deviates from democratic governance elements.
The 20A has revisited the issue. Taking into consideration the above-mentioned reasons only the Ministry of Defence should be handled by the President.
President the Messiah
There is a school of thought that considers the incumbent President as the Messiah who has proven prowess to accelerate action and therefore wants to “strengthen his hands,” to bring in political stability and economic revival. The successful manner the President managed the COVID-19 issues showed that for him the 19A was not a hindrance to perform efficiently and effectively.
However, considering the challenges ahead, the President requiring concentrated power is not surprising. Evening TV news everyday shows that he is attempting it. Concurrently, it is a fact that pre-2015 when Presidents had these executive powers there was an ongoing 25-year conflict. Equal development outputs were not observed during the tenures of some Presidents. Exceptional performances were based on individualistic strengths. Hence, to tag the Executive Presidency as a panacea for stability and development is a misnomer.
Emerging political contradictions
There seem to be six major political contradictions that affect political governance.
One is how the incumbent PM would bear the amendments reducing his powers substantially. Tisaranee Gunasekara has explained this, as quoted below. Agreement or not is your choice.
“Rendering the post of PM powerless is a measure of protection, in case the family is compelled by circumstances to bestow the premiership on an outsider, as a stop-gap measure. If the 20th Amendment becomes law, such a premier will be a mere cipher and will not have the power or the authority to challenge Rajapaksa primacy in any serious sense. His role will be to warm that seat until the next Rajapaksa is ready to step in.”
If true, brilliant manoeuvrering!
The second contradiction is the stance of the United National Party and break away Samagi Janabalavegaya. For them to oppose the 20A is a cautious ride. It is because the 20A basics evolved from their original Jayewardene Constitution, tinkered with by others later.
The third political contradiction is from the politicians who now venerate 20A – the by-product of the Jayewardene Constitution – the “Bahubootha vyavasthaava” (Mayhem Constitution)
The fourth extremely embarrassing political contradiction is for President Sirisena to vote for 20A, having praised 19A as the apex of democratic governance. He was the major force behind its approval in 2015. He may vote for the 20A, but his conscience will bleed until his last breath.
The fifth contradiction will arise from the expectations of the Tamil political parties who will see 20A to be the majoritarian political steamroller.
The last contradiction emerges with the speculation that the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress may support the 20A, as they did in 2010, and the sufferings Muslims experienced. Maybe, for the SLMC governance is reborn!
A historical opportunity has been given to consider solutions for the contradictions through constitutional amendments with a 2/3 majority in the Parliament. The country wishes the government will give priority to the country’s needs over personal or political group needs. It is a difficult proposition, but the government was given the unusual power to face and overcome even worse difficulties.
A short article cannot discuss the vast array of issues arising out of the abolition of the 19A. Hence, issues such as the presidential immunity, appointment and removal of Ministers and the PM, dissolution of parliament, etc., are not dealt with here though those issues certainly affect good democratic governance extensively.
There are deep ramifications of issues arising from the proposed constitutional amendments. The President must first protect himself, politically. As a democratically elected person he need not camouflage himself with an anti-democratic cloak because he has a massive vantage value unlike anyone else in his government, to take correct steps. Hence, his actions need not be at the expense of democratic governance. Regrettably, the published amendments do not show such. The sacred principles of good governance will safeguard him, us and the country.
Neuro-science that underlies Buddhist philosophy
Dr Channa Ratnatunga
Buddhist philosophy does not mention the Brain, only the mind or citta. It does not mean that the organ i.e. the brain was unknown at the time. Recorded in the Maha-Vagga, ’the book of Discipline’ of the Tripitaka, one Jeevaka Kohombacha a reputed physician was trephining the skull, presumably to drain blood accumulated within the skull. He would have known how it could affect brain/mind function.
In the Western front, it was Galen who was thought to be the 1st to attempt changing the existent opinion, in 200AD; he held that it was the brain and not the heart that was the seat of ‘intelligence’.
We have now moved on far beyond. I thought it appropriate to place Buddhist philosophy on a more scientific footing by correlating it with current Neuro-biology of Neuroscience. The data is both subjective and objective as a science.
‘The Reptilian Brain ’
A portion of the brain of all vertebrates, becoming more prominent in mammals, more than birds and reptiles is the reptilian brain. It is now described as the Limbic system. It deals with a whole lot of reflexes which deals with survival. For a species, the typical instinctual behaviours are involved with it: flight-fight reaction, aggression, dominance, territoriality and ritual displays. In mammals, specially the higher groups, which include Chimpanzees, Gorillas and man, it subscribes to most emotional responses for survival, procreation and other basic needs of fulfillment i.e. of thirst and hunger. Links through the hormones and the autonomic nervous system, permits fulfillment of the different roles it is responsible for.
Structurally they are constituted by the sensorial input through the Thalamus (other than smell), Hippocampus, Amygdala, hypo-thalamus and the Cingulate Gyrus of the Brain (see diagram) below.
All emotional responses, are kept controlled by the pre-frontal cortex often described as ‘the leader of the Orchestra’.
Hence inbuilt into all of us by millennia of selection are reflexes for survival. Social anthropology teaches us that security of survival is enhanced by belonging to a society. After all, we are inbuilt to be, a social animal. Dominance in the society, needs suppression of competition to get the cream of both the spoils for; food and procreation. Both Tribalism and a hierarchy, is born and needs to be sustained. Anger, greed, theft, promiscuity and other ill-gotten traits are hence a part of our inbuilt armamentarium. Most are inherited by being installed on our limbic system (in the human brain). The degree of pre frontal lobe control to keep checked these primitive urges is what Buddhist philosophy is all about.
Current studies of neuroscience, using; functional MRI and other imaging and electrical recording procedures have shown that Mindful Meditation enlarges the prefrontal cortex (i.e. more cells, synapses in this area) of the brain. Mindfulness skills are now recognized in the west, as premium in many areas of human endeavour. In fact, it is hailed as the ‘way to go for evolution for the human kind!
As long as we have the Limbic system installed for survival, we will continue to volitionally (think, speak and act) behave to survive, permitting the karmic energy to be formed. Maybe the survival apparatus was installed to maintain sentient life-forms in the universe, a part of nature (could even be a natural law i.e. like gravitation). The Buddha discovered it and showed a way to avoid it, so securing avoidance of karmic generation.
With this background permit me to speculate on the philosophy we have tried to give a more solid scientific background.
The ultimate truth of human existence, we all seek: the ultimate reality, has to be within Nature, bound by laws, known and; as yet unknown that govern it.
Nature as we know it consists of the physical universe as we know it, the dark matter we are not yet familiar with, energy and dark energy associated with it and the sentient life forms that inhabit, so far in at least on our planet.
Science so far has not made inroads into the nature of sentient life forms, other than to define their detailed physical structure, the nature of their behaviour, their evolution by natural selection (Darwin). It is not known what forces form life forms; why they grow? Why the varied circumstances of their individual existence; what their designated purpose is and where they go after death. Into this vacuum, walks religion!
Having said this, all the tribalistic institutions, ceremonies, incantations, etc. that have since developed around a variety of prophets, are at best, a means of keeping man, a social animal, controlled. Society is competitive and to maintain a semblance organization within, laws have to be promulgated. The unknown, have at various times been deified, i.e. the sun, fire, a creator, a destroyer, etc. The Latin saying by Petronius; ‘Timor primus in Orbe, Deos fecit’ (Fear caused Gods first on Earth) has much to say for itself, as does the pithy advice of the Persian philosopher poet Omar-Khayam, referring to the sky and presumably deities, ‘lift not thy hands to it for help, as it rolls impotently on as thou and I’. Security offered by herd behaviour of a tribe, or as offered by supernatural power or being, in trying circumstances is a human need and faith helps. Religion Modern society needs to be re-thought, as to its place.
Returning to the subject of this essay, Newton (Laws of Motion), Einstein (Laws of Gravity), Maxwell (Laws of Electro-Magnetism), the strong and weak force of atomic structure, and others have propounded physical laws for, that govern matter and the known energy forms that exist in the Universe. Based on the accuracy of the application of such laws, man has set foot on the moon. Science prides itself on accuracy and being evidence-based.
If sentient life-forms too are part of nature, the detailed laws have yet to be postulated by science. Unlike the study of matter, a need to understand the ‘nature of existence of life-forms’ has not yet been undertaken by the scientific community. After all, survival and procreation to live on the harsh environment that exists at the time seems to be their only purpose.
To hypothesise, speculatively, could it be that Siddhartha Gautama, by meditative practice of a high order, enlarging his pre-frontal cortex of the brain, broke into ‘the insightful realization of how life forms are governed: it’s laws in nature’.
As evidence-based data has to be adduced for this possibility, I will now place evidence, as to these conclusions, speculative no doubt.
It is claimed that he realised the truth of reincarnation, i.e. rebirth, samsara and the sorrow. We sow and we reap, and the Karmic law will enact Samsara for eons to come.
Rebirth will account for the protean differences that exist in human form, circumstances, talents, life events (Narada Mahathera’s text reproduced in The Island last Poya Day (01 Oct). Stevenson’s1 detailed scientific enquiry on children who could recollect past lives, birth marks attributed to trauma provides anecdotal evidence.
The scientific value of past life regression (PLR) by psychiatrists using hypnosis on selected subjects, Near Death Experiences (NDE) is difficult to assess. For instance, it has been shown that diminished blood flow to the brain as experienced in certain circumstances can simulate NDE.
This leaves the practising Buddhist to focus on meditation to see the veracity of the truth of rebirth. That rebirth is sorrow, I think can be realized, as death in most life forms be it animal or insect, is painful. According to Buddhism, to be born in a human life-form with pre-frontal decision making ability is a great opportunity to negate rebirth and sorrow. This opportunity is yours.
What’s the Plan?
We have a new government in Aotearoa; we even have a Sri Lankan born MP! The landslide victory of her party was so marked that some said that even an inanimate object put up as a candidate for the labour party, under Jacinda magic, would have won. Not fair methinks on this young lady who apparently worked her electorate very hard. There is a celebratory dinner to be held for her next month. I look forward to attending that and gleaning a few more facts for my readers. On the other hand I may be banned by the cohorts of her countrymen forming barriers (protective or offensive) around her.
So, the new Government has big plans. Improve the availability of houses, especially for first home buyers since the National Party when they governed allowed foreign investors to buy up multiple properties with small deposits and then making the tenants effectively pay the mortgage, creating a massive shortage of houses. There was also a rather grandiose plan named Kiwibuild that was supposed to “create houses” at low cost and in no time for those who desperately needed them. There is also Child poverty in NZ, believe it or not. Ranging from children not having lunches to take to school, to not having shoes to wear to school and older children leaving school early to work and earn money to support their families. This of course almost exclusively among the Maori and Pacific Islander communities.
Unemployment is also rampant Covid19 is being touted as the excuse but to be frank we were heading for an economic slump before Covid in Aotearoa. This level of unemployment is blamed on the work ethic or lack thereof among the Maori and Pacific Island communities but there is a deeper connotation to this. It was recently found out that the big fishing companies in NZ have been flying in crews for their trawlers from Russia for 25 years! These fishermen fly in during the Russian Winter and crew on the massive sea going trawlers. This was only highlighted because a whole lot of these fisher folk got Covid 19 while in quarantine. The official story is that for 25 years they have been unable to train or find people who can work on these ships from among the people in NZ. If you buy that, I’ll throw the harbour bridge in free!
What is pretty obvious is that big business in NZ is allowed to prosper regardless of the economic implications of them doing so. They are allowed to use and employ foreign sources purely on a profitability basis with no concern for the domestic economy or the strengthening of same. There are lots of semi monopolies, supermarkets being a prime example. All the major supermarkets are owned by two parent companies. Is it a wonder that groceries are so ridiculously expensive in NZ when compared to Australia? Are we denizens of Aotearoa really expected to believe that an oligopolistic enterprise is charging fair prices? Let’s hope the Labour Government with its huge majority that we have just appointed, looks into these matters.
The thing about the traditional Kiwi is that they spend money. They do not save everything to be able to give houses to their children or dowries! Now that they are “trapped” in their islands, they are spending the money they would have used for foreign travel for domestic tourism. They are also spending on improving their houses and property and of course retail therapy. The NZ economy is still not floundering. In fact, it is buzzing, how long that will last is of course the multi-billion-dollar question!
The Pearl doesn’t look that good does it? No income from the housemaids, tourism at a standstill and even the garment factories under fire. The big hotels are closed except for those who have
been able to wrangle a contract to house those being quarantined. I know for a fact the tragedy of the boutique hotels and other mid-sized tourism ventures. All forms of spending must be curtailed, so, the “wheeler” drivers must be destitute. I don’t even want to think about those paying off leases and mortgages.
Now I see many articles to the papers these days. Written by people with qualifications that would take up the first 500 words of the articles I write, and designations that would account for the balance, size of my articles I mean. Some write them like scientific dissertations, other dabble in humour and innuendo, however I have read nothing so far that has any content that shows us a pathway out of the economic morass that the Pearl is in.
Borrowing has its limits and it has connotations that scare the living daylights out of me. Printing money can of course go on and be used to pay wages in the grossly overstaffed Government institutions that are currently closed and distribute largesse to the selected few. If there are any younger readers of what I write, do you know that the Sri Lanka Currency was Rs15 = US$1, when I started working. Can you even believe it? The last time I checked I was not a thousand years old!
How are we going to stop chaos and mayhem hitting the streets? When people cannot feed their families what are they going to do? WHAT IS THE PLAN? If we are going to grow our own food in our back gardens, use our hotels as storage facilities for the produce, re-export and sell off all those ludicrously expensive automobiles that our politicians gad around in, sell our elephants to zoos, find oil off the coast of Mannar or whatever the hell we have to do, shouldn’t we START doing it now?!! Waiting until the proverbial s— hits the fan and then ordering the army out into the streets under martial law may not work O, people of the Pearl.
Maybe, the plan is to fall back on the good old tea industry. Rubber and coconut seem to have been totally decimated. For your information the tea industry that used lay the golden egg has been so mismanaged by brain dead proponents of management theory and with plantations largely handed over to our rival India for management, what else can you expect. The export trade is so fragmented and totally without principals or ethics that any buyer worth his salt has only to fish around among the many exporters to get the rock bottom price for what he wants. Others have used political influence and robbed the funds demarcated for that wonderful institution the Tea Promotion Bureau (a concept far ahead of its time) and built their own family dynasties and brands. That horse or goose is well dead and long buried.
My question to the brand-new government of Aotearoa which has a massive majority in parliament and the not so new Government of Sri Lanka which now has the 20th amendment to the constitution passed, is WHAT IS THE PLAN? It better be good and it better be quick, because the people are going to be very desperate real soon. It is solely down to the leadership and there are no excuses!
Executive presidency or premiership?
by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
I have been fascinated by politics all my life though not directly involved in it unlike some others in my family. I have devoted some of the free time COVID-19 pandemic has given me to pondering the merits and demerits of the executive presidency and whether it is less democratic than an executive premiership. For a long time, there has been a clamour for the abolition of the executive presidency, but since the election of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa opinion seems to have reversed. The SLPP sought a mandate to abolish 19A and, using the unexpected two-third’s majority, it enacted 20A ensuring reversal to an executive presidency.
On gaining Independence we opted to be a dominion with a Governor-General representing the British Crown; he had some room for manipulation although the Prime minister held the reins of power. In 1972, we became a republic, and the prime minister became even more powerful and a titular President was appointed! J. R. Jayewardene changed all this. Elected with a massive majority in 1977, JR metamorphosed from Prime Minister into an executive president. JR started well, pulling the country out of the economic hellhole created by the Sirima Bandaranaike government, but intoxication with unbridled power affected him.
JR brought about this radical change of having an elected Executive President for good reasons and opted for the French presidential system rather than the American system. Some may argue that JR should have gone for the American system because his main argument was that a presidential system which could produce results quicker was more suited to a developing country. In the American system, Cabinet positions are held by non-elected technocrats. Perhaps, like in the US, had we allowed the elected representatives to debate issues in Parliament, formulate laws governing the country and sit on committees overseeing the appointments for senior posts and performing the function of oversight of their work, a greater purpose may have been served. It would also have prevented politics from turning into a money-making business. The President could have chosen experts in various fields with proven track records to run various ministries to usher in rapid development. Perhaps, this is the sort of radical change we need that warrants serious consideration by those who are tasked with the onerous duty of formulating a new constitution.
JR opted for the French system where all the ministers including the prime minister are elected representatives. The phrase some commentators use ‘Prime Minister is reduced to the status of a peon’ is ludicrous and may well stem from the unguarded statement made by Ranasinghe Premadasa, the first non-executive prime minister. Instead of being impatient, he should have worked towards defining the role of the prime minister in the new system. Of course, JR’s ill-judged remark that he could do anything other than changing the gender, albeit in jest, also contributed to the growing suspicions about the presidency.
All executive presidents, elected directly by the voter at tremendous expense, vowed to abolish the executive presidency just to please the voters but none even attempted to do so. But Gota was an exception, never making such a promise. Further, during the short period he had been in office he had behaved very differently to his predecessors. He has shown that he is there to work, not for the glamour of office. Therefore, I would argue that what matters more than the office is the person who occupies it. This imparts even a greater responsibility on the voter to elect the right person.
In any country, either the president or the prime minister would have to be powerful. In the UK, the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, Boris Johnson holds power and makes all the important decisions. It is only rarely that Parliament acts to change his decisions. Ranil considered himself to be the executive prime minister and set up various units at Temple Trees, and some of them were not lawful. This too highlights my view that it is not the office that matters but who holds the office.
If not for the powerful presidency, we would still have been fighting terrorism. How the Opposition mocked the war efforts is a long-gone memory. The worst possible scenario is where the power is shared, as happened during the ill-fated yahapalana regime. What is transpiring before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks amply illustrates how security of the country was neglected
The passage of 20A is a turning point in the history of our country. By giving the mandate for this to the SLPP, the voters have opted for a presidential system of government and it is my humble opinion that this was almost entirely due to the statesmanlike behaviour of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During his campaign he never attacked his opponents but proved his ability to perform any responsibility he was tasked with. On being elected, he dispensed with glamorous frivolities and got down to hard work. He has faced many challenges with vigour and has been successful so far.
What makes Gota different from all other ‘chief executives’ of Sri Lanka is that he is the first non-politician to hols this coveted position. Perhaps, that is what we needed. I do hope he would set the example for what a good executive president should be so that the electorate would not regret the momentous decision it made. I do hope that he would introduce a new Constitution, which gives due place to technocrats and usher in true reconciliation by ensuring that we obey one law as one nation as well as getting rid of race and faith based political parties which have been the bane of unity. The only purpose these parties have served is sowing the seeds of division and disunity whilst making some leaders rich and powerful.
I do hope Gota would prove that the executive presidency is the better option.
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20A and dual citizen