Political leaders term the presidential system corrupt but they secretly love it – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
How possible is it that the current presidential system in Sri Lanka has been able to survive despite the fact that itis rotten to the core?
It is not only because the two major political parties have the potential to secure presidential power alternately, but also the others which fall into the category of small or minority parties believe that the system would provide them with an opportunity to seize the position directly or indirectly; hence all of them have adopted a policy of defending the system. In spite of their public avowal to rid of the corrupt presidential system, on the sly all of them seem to love and adore the system.
Rohana Wijeweera was the first to moot the idea of a common candidate in a Presidential Election. It was at the Presidential Election 1982. His aim was to prevent the candidates of left-wing parties contesting the election and become the sole candidate of all left wing parties. But it did not work as he expected.
The 2010 Presidential Election can be considered as an instance when the concept of common candidate assumed a very special status in electoral politics in Sri Lanka. Sarath Fonseka was the common candidate brought to the fore by the JVP. Later, the UNP and other parties had to accept him as the common candidate. Had Sarath Fonseka won the Presidential Election, there would have been a serious contest between JVP and the UNP as constituent parties over the claim on the prerogative of bringing the common candidate into power.
The Movement for a Just Society led by Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero assumed the main role in fielding a common candidate in the 2015 Presidential Election. The intention of Sobhitha Thero was to make Karu Jayasuriya the Common Candidate by creating a situation where Ranil would not be allowed to contest. But another group of the same movement was able to thwart the objective of Sobhitha Thero and bring Maithripala Sirisena to the forefront. Although Ven. Sobhitha Thero was not pleased with the choice, he lacked the ability to change that decision.
The number one condition of the Memorandum of Understanding reached between Ven. Sobhitha Thero and Maithripala Sirisena, the Common Candidate, on behalf of 49 political parties and civil organisations at the Viharamahadevi Park on 1 December 2014, was to abolish the existing executive presidency within six months and establish a Parliamentary Constitution instead. At the same time, the common candidate, in a Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the next day stated that the presidential system would be continued with necessary reforms being introduced to improve the system.
In the end, it was not the agreement reached with Sobhitha Thero on behalf of 49 organisations that came into effect regarding the presidential system, but the one that was reached with the JHU as a single organisation. It was due to the presence of a powerful group of people among those who opposed it openly, but adored the corrupt system secretly considering the benefits that they could derive from it, that it was possible to implement the agreement reached with the JHU as a single organisation, contrary to the one reached with 49 organisations, and without strong opposition.
Even though the great fraud committed towards the people in regard to the presidential system in 2015 has become a national tragedy, there is no change in the secret love affair that political leaders have been carrying on with the presidential system which they openly claim to be corrupt.
It seems that all the leaders, big or small, who are dreaming of contesting Presidential Elections think that they should first contest the next Presidential Election, get elected to the seat and change the system using the presidential power.
Under the current situation, the cost incurred by a candidate contesting a Presidential Election is enormous. At old prices, it had incurred a cost of approximately Rs. 6 billion for the two leading candidates in the contest. This amounts to Rs. 3 billion for each of the two leading candidates. At current prices, it could be around Rs. 5 billion per person. How would they expect to fund such a huge cost? If they want to have an easy way for that, they might be compelled to resort to the support of drug traffickers. On the other hand, what will happen to the country if the incumbent, after being elected, develops greed to savour the taste of the presidential power?
Is it only after securing power that the reforms could be made? Aren’t there examples in the world where reforms made first and power secured later? In South Africa, first of all, reforms were made to a certain extent. It was only after that the shifting of power occurred. Finally South Africa took seven years to adopt its political system and the Constitution. It was done in two main phases.
The activities in the first phase were carried out under an interim Constitution and an interim caretaker government. Things to be done in the two phases were included in the interim Constitution. The basic structure of the system of governance (bicameral Legislature of the Central Government and nine National Councils of Provinces or NCOP) and the electoral system were developed in the first phase. It was in the second phase that an election was held and an all-party government for a period of five years was formed and the Constitution was drafted in accordance with the 34 principles agreed upon in the first phase.
It will be possible for us also to create a framework that suits Sri Lanka by emulating the example of the South African system. First, it is important to identify the fundamental changes expected to be made and reach a consensus. At the same time, the principles applicable for the changes to be made also must be identified and reach a general consensus. Having established the legislative bodies in accordance with the principles agreed upon in the first phase, and adopting a new electoral system suitable for appointing representatives for them, it could be possible to appoint the representatives needed for the public representative institutions which have been established at the end of the first phase.
At the same time, a new government will be formed, the members of the Constitutional Council who are not the members of Parliament will be excluded and the newly-elected members will be added to the Constitutional Council instead. The responsibility of completing the next steps of the constitution making will be on the newly-elected members of Parliament. Completing the remaining balance of the transformation will be the onus of the same constitution assembly.
Reforms before securing power
The crisis faced by the apartheid state of South Africa in those days is to some extent similar to the crisis Sri Lanka facing today. The South African state remained in a state of disarray where it could not move a single step forward without resorting to a reform program. The apartheid white Government of South Africa did not have an alternative to choose but to agree to the people centred two-phase reform program put forward by the blacks led by Mandela.
Now, the State of Sri Lanka is in a state of complete strangulation. The chaos in the country is yet to intensify and escalate. If the Government of Sri Lanka is compared to an aircraft in flight, it is in a terrible state of being unable to reach its destination safely as scheduled and facing a threat of even crashing mid-air unless it is landed in an interim airport. The pilot is stubborn. He thinks that the aircraft should be navigated and taken to its destination despite the risk involved.
If the passengers and the crew can perceive that the way the pilot thinks is wrong and unreasonable and their lives are in danger, they will be compelled to persuade the pilot to land the aircraft at a suitable intermediate location, regardless of the latter’s wishes.
Now Sri Lanka is in a similar situation. The President does not seem to have a clear understanding of the terrible danger facing the country. Whatever maybe the way the President thinks, if it is essential to have a people-centric structural reform program for the survival of the country and the security of the people, the country should be directed to a program that would force the President and the Government in order that the doors for reform will be opened.
The most important thing that the people should understand is that in a situation where the entire institutional system has collapsed and the country has failed, the people of the country have the full legal and moral authority to plan and direct a reform campaign which is conducive to recreate the socio-political and economic system which is in an equally collapsed state.
According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, sovereignty lies with the people. It is an inalienable power as stated in the Constitution itself. The State of Sri Lanka derives its sovereignty from the people of the country. According to international law, the people have that power. In a crisis of this nature, it is the people, not the President or the Government, who have the power to make a constitution that will help overcome the crisis. According to the interpretation of the textual authority of the UN Human Rights Council on Article 25 of the Civil and Political Covenant the public has the power to initiate and maintain the process of making a new constitution whenever necessary.
Exercising power of sovereignty
If the people decide to exercise their sovereignty to overcome the crisis facing the country and appear steadfastly for a lawful, people-centred structural reform program and make a strong voice for it, it will not be simple or easy to defeat their demands under the socio-political environment prevailing in the country. If their campaign is a lawful and steadfast effort, it will not be easy to refrain from opening the doors for reforms.
As a starting point, the citizens can send petitions to the President individually or collectively. Also, the trade unions, farmers’ unions, fishermen’s unions, professionals’ associations and other public organisations can pass resolutions calling for a reform program, including a people-centred Constitution and submit them to the President. The aim of these initiatives would be to launch a powerful mass agitation movement to make it not easier for the Government to ignore them. All useful actions to achieve this goal must be initiated. If it succeeds in winning a reform program, the elections for securing government power will be held only after the completion of the reform program to some extent, not before that.
The election reform laws that will be enacted as a consequence thereof will completely deprive the black money people of their ability to buy over the rulers and MPs aspiring to come to power. At the same time, the importance attached to wealth and thuggery in elections will be abolished and the importance attached to education and skills will be increased. If the Government is not prepared to welcome such a mass reform program, then it can be made the main public program to defeat the Government in the next election.
As I was putting final touches to this article, I learnt that the Minister of Foreign Affairs Professor G.L. Peiris has stated that the Committee of Experts appointed by the President to draft a new Constitution has already completed the draft of it and it will be presented to Parliament in January next year. Viewed from a political angle this statement reveals how moronic the political thinking is among our national leaders which goes beyond sheer stupidity. The Constitution is not a matter for the rulers to decide but for the people. It should be framed within a democratic process.
On the subject of democracy, the Government has only an ugly history, not a pleasant one. The manner in which the criminal court cases filed and being heard against the leaders of the ruling party were withdrawn is adequate to understand the corrupt and anti-democratic nature of the Government. This approach of the Government is contrary to the Constitution of the country and the international law also. It is also contrary to the interpretation given by the United Nations Textual Authority on Article 25 of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.