Abolish the presidential system of government: Friday Forum. Why? Is it the mother of all evils? – I
Posted on May 14th, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala


The question in the title is relevant to the current crisis in Sri Lanka. The sudden (actually, it was not sudden, it was years in the making, as it shockingly transpires now) incursion of ISIS terror is the only significant ‘foreign direct investment’ that the Yahapalana government has attracted, that too, at the tail end of its tenure. It could be good for its own unwelcome survival, but it is going to be unimaginably deadly and disastrous for one of the most peaceful and cultured nations of the world, if it is not immediately contained with might and main. To any concerned observer, it is clear that the real or sham tug of war between the two erstwhile foreign backed champions of good governance, the president and the prime minister, is undermining their joint ability to provide the proper unambiguous commanding and coordinating leadership that is indispensable for the national security agencies to deal with the volatile situation with efficiency. My layman’s opinion is that, had the powers of the executive president not been weakened as done by the 19th amendment, this kind of unnecessary rivalry between the executive and the legislative branches of the government would not have arisen. There may be certain shortcomings in the executive presidential system, but it has so far helped the country to overcome a number of crises successfully. Under the 1978 constitution, the president and the parliament were mutually dependent. But the 19th amendment enacted by the Yahapalana government has made it impossible for the president to dissolve a corrupt, malfunctioning parliament and allow the people to elect a new one. Seemingly, the principle that the people are sovereign (sovereignty lies in the people) and that the president exercises that sovereignty on behalf of all is being violated. This, I think, is the worst time for us to be talking about abolishing the presidential system of government or about making a new constitution.

Feeble attempts to deflect attention from the real perpetrators of the terrorist bombings

All Sri Lankans and other nations across the world who are sympathetic to them out of a sense of common humanity were shocked and distressed by the April 21st Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which left more than 250 dead and double that number injured. It didn’t take long for the perpetrators to be identified as some Sri Lankan Islamists with connections to the ISIS. However, initially, it appeared that the knee jerk reaction to the news of the attacks on the part of most ill informed foreign observers, certain NGOs, foreign and some mainstream local media, and others similarly grown antipathetic to the majority community due to false propaganda was to speculate that these attacks could not have been carried out by anyone other than the so-called  ‘Sinhala Buddhist extremists’. Some newspapers continued, for a few days, to illustrate their news stories with photos exclusively  of weeping women with conspicuous dark red ‘pottus’ or bindis on their foreheads, creating the false impression that the victims were Tamil, with the contextual implication that the attackers were Sinhalese Buddhist extremists.  NGOs and media looked askance at Buddhist monks. The BBC Colombo Sinhala language correspondent Azzam Ameen (who probably knew the truth about the identity of the attackers at first hand) initially connected the attacks to alleged Buddhist extremists. In a Twitter message, Eric Solheim, former Norwegian minister, and once long time peace-maker in Sri Lanka, arbitrarily attributed the bombings to ‘Sinhala extremists’.  Jude Lal Fernando, at a service held in Dublin, Ireland, said that it was an underhand operation carried out by Sinhala Buddhists. The revelation that the attacks were actually the work of a local extremist Jihadist group known as the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) sponsored by the ISIS came to those who were looking forward to a confirmation of imagined Sinhalese Buddhist culpability for the mayhem as a secondary shock.

How the members of the majority community responded

While they were being thus misrepresented to the world by separatist sympathizers and irresponsible sensation-mongers in the media, Buddhists accounted for the largest number of volunteer blood donors who queued up near hospitals to give blood for the injured in need of it; monks invited the victimized Christians to hold their services in the Buddhist temples; a few monks were shown in a news video voluntarily participating in cleaning up work in a damaged church. Senior monks joined the Cardinal in consoling the grief and terror stricken Christians. To us Sri Lankans, this sort of compassionate behavior among Sinhalese Buddhists  towards fellow citizens of whatever race or religion is a familiar thing.  But it is in stark contrast to the image of the majority community that is prevalent abroad.

Friday Forum’s exclusive politics

The Friday Forum was formed, apparently, after the defeat of separatist terrorism in 2009. As they claim, it is ‘… an informal and self-financed group dedicated to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law’ that works on a non-partisan basis. The composition of the membership shows that it is an elitist group that excludes representatives of the major Sinhala Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka. Their non-partisan claims are hollow; they are obliged to be partial to the parties that are closer to their class. Though the above stated ideals are laudable, their culturally alienated and isolated situation in the Sri Lankan body politic prevents them from doing anything constructive to influence the politicians that the hapless ordinary citizens have thrust on them by circumstances beyond their control. The negatively distorted image of the majority community outlined above is the one that the members of the FF, wittingly or unwittingly, project to the outside world through their occasional statements.

 In a pre-poll media release dated January 2, 2015, they stated

This election gives us the opportunity to decide whether it is possible that we, our children and future generations will live in a country founded on the norms of participatory democracy, the rule of law and good governance, reinforced by an independent judiciary and public service. We must reflect on which of the choices before us best promises us a government which implements a model of sustainable and people-centred development, ensuring equitable allocation of resources and meeting the needs of all our people, particularly the most disadvantaged.”

They called upon

…..our fellow voters to consider which candidate gives us the best opportunity to achieve democracy, rule of law, peace and harmony in Sri Lanka, for ourselves and future generations”.

Whether the voters heard their call or not, the change of government the FF expected came about. Now the country is where it is. What the people are experiencing today in reality are the exact opposite of those objectives. We may guess how wretched the FF members should feel now as the leaders they implicitly trusted and championed in 2015 have proved themselves to be rogues who are inimical to the realization of the high ideals they hoped they’d achieve after the Yahapalanaya was set up in January 2015.

The government whose ouster was engineered with foreign assistance (probably these old well meaning armchair bound idealists were innocent of any knowledge of this) realized all those democratic goals to the maximum extent  possible in the short five years that followed a devastating thirty-year civil conflict. The Yahapalanaya has undone every one of those achievements. 

Making an importunate demand for a new constitution that no one wants

Less than nine months after the January 9, 2015 ‘revolution’, the voters were fed up with the ill performing Yahapalanaya, and they wanted earlier president back in the saddle as prime minister. Pollsters predicted a decisive victory for the UPFA of which the SLFP headed by the current president is the principal partner and  which offered the former president as the prime ministerial candidate. The incumbent president Maithripala Sirisena’s strategic pre-poll eleventh hour disavowal of Mahinda Rajapaksa (‘I will not make Rajapaksa prime minister even if the UPFA wins the majority of seats’) demoralized the Mahinda loyalists among the voters and they didn’t go for casting their vote, which cost them 31 out of the 117 predicted (the UPFA got 95 to UNP’s 96 seats). Wasn’t this a good start for restoring democracy?

Neither the UNF nor the UPFA promised a new constitution in their manifestos for the presidential or the parliamentary elections. At the latter, neither alliance won the absolute majority of 113 seats needed to form a government by itself. But the UNF for Good Governance comprising the UNP and some minority parties led by UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe and the SLFP faction loyal to Maithripala Sirisena cobbled a so-called national governmnet. The survival of the government depends on the support given by the racist minority parties, who now have begun to call the shots. It is a minoritarianism at its worst. It is a vengeful inversion of the non-existent majoritarianism  that minority politicians attribute to the normal Sri Lankan political power structure, a charge that buttresses the call for federalism. A statement issued by the FF (‘New Constitution A Must’) on August 17, 2017 asserts that

The peoples’ verdict at the Presidential election of January 2015 reflected the mandate of the people for a new constitution to remedy democratic deficits in Sri Lanka’s governance arrangements, nearly 40 years after the enactment of the current constitution.”

On the basis of this dubious ‘reflected …..mandate’ the Yahapalanites began a process for eventually introducing a ‘new constitution’ that no one asked for and no one promised at the elections. The FF repeated this call for a new constitution in a statement they issued two or three days after the recent Easter Sunday bombings carried by alleged NTJ terrorists. The following was composed in response to that statement:

Untimely call for the abolition of the presidential system of government

Professor Carlo Fonseka’s short Opinion piece ‘Abolish the Presidential System of Governance’ (The Island/April 27, 2019) prompted me to take a look at a Friday Forum feature published earlier in the same paper that I had deliberately skipped as something I couldn’t be doing with: ‘Easter Sunday’s suffering: Seeking and Finding Answers’ (The Island/April 26, 2019). This is a response to the latter, made without prejudice to Professor Fonseka.

18th Amendment

However, at the outset, a word must be said to reassure the well meaning Professor Fonseka. He  regrets having supported the 18th amendment (later replaced under Yahapalanaya) ‘against (his) better judgement’, but in accordance with the policy of  his party the LSSP. I am sure that, personally, he has a rational explanation for his disapproval of that amendment. I am without any party affiliation. My own ordinary citizen’s point of view, for what it was worth, of 18A, was positive as I explained in an article in The Island at the time of its being debated in parliament, and my opinion has not changed to date. The 18th amendment was not so harmful as the then opposition wanted us to believe in that particular historical context, though it was impossible for its chief proponent to avoid opposition allegations of excessive power hunger and undue dynastic ambitions, and other more substantive criticisms. But, the fear that the 18th amendment would pave the way for creating a ‘Mahinda Rajapakse-president-for-life’ phenomenon was entirely misplaced. The immediate purpose of the amendment, of course, was to make the most successful executive head of government Sri Lanka had ever had until then eligible to run for election for a third term after completing the constitutionally allowed two terms. As the UPFA that he led had over 140 MPs in the 225 member legislature, the passage of the amendment was not a problem. This made it possible for Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest a third time (at the 2015 January presidential election). But, to his disadvantage, the adoption of the new legislation (18A) was exploited by opposition rivals as a negative development under an alleged authoritarian ruler. No doubt, the charge was among the factors that contributed  towards eroding the general popularity he enjoyed as the most suitable person to continue to lead the resurgent Sri Lanka that emerged under his leadership after the military defeat of separatist terrorism in May 2009. The 18th amendment did nothing more than remove an obstacle in the path of a popular leader who had served for two terms and done well enough in office to be considered for re-election for yet another term. It did not interfere with the people’s democratic right to deny him a third term if a majority of the electorate thought otherwise, as his defeat in 2015 showed. That this result had to be engineered with the involvement of foreign players is a different matter. As opposed to the 18th amendment, the  19th amendment that replaced it under the yahapalanaya administration is a really pernicious piece of legislation, that was fraudulently passed in parliament, as some constitutional experts, ordinary lawyers and other eligible commentators have pointed out. (The clause that says that Parliament can only be dissolved after the completion of four and a half years of its five year term was allegedly smuggled into the bill at the committee stage, because, according to the existing constitution, such a clause had to be passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament and ratified at a public referendum, which was an impossible requirement for the Yahapalanaya to fulfill. This fraud was casually admitted by one of the experts behind the drafting of 19A to the media.) It is due to 19A that Sri Lankans are forced to passively endure a government that they would love to get rid of at the first opportunity available. Their patience, love of peace, humanity, and faith in democratic values have never been so clearly demonstrated as at this present terror-stricken moment.

Friday Forum’s post-Easter Sunday terrorist bombing statement

Turning now to Friday Forum’s statement under the heading ‘Easter Sunday Suffering: Seeking and Finding Answers’ mentioned above which is my focus here, it exhibits the group’s customary lack of empathy with their own people, particularly the majority community. Most of the observations these reputed intellectuals make through this statement about the failures of governance that facilitated the recent attacks on some churches and hotels (in Negambo, Colombo and Baticaloa) are generally correct; but they cannot be counted as the sort of original revelations and unbiased judgements expected of savants like them in a national emergency to an innocent people stunned and immobilized in the wake of an apparently well organized terror strike by an unknown enemy motivated by an unknown objective. Instead, their sagely advice is that the presidential system of ‘governance’ be dismantled immediately, whereas the real priority at present is ensuring the physical security of the people from mindless terror and, as soon as possible, holding elections to elect a new president and a new parliament capable of containing the downward trend that has apparently started.

FF correct about appalling lapses in national security helping the carnage

In their statement, however, the FF correctly identifies the immediate cause of the recent violence as appalling lapses in national security that failed to prevent this carnage”. The criticism embodied in the demand that The President, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of Defence and the Inspector General of Police must explain to the nation why the State intelligence agencies did not pass on the specific and detailed prior warnings and information on the impending violence, so as to take preventive action”  is also valid. Nevertheless, their admonition that the president and the prime minster should cooperate with each other, identify the perpetrators, and introduce a strong effective system of national security, though perhaps well meant, is self-consciously hollow in the circumstances; further, it is accompanied with a reservation that makes a sly, unfair dig at the war-winning pre-yahapalana government which had developed a most successful national security system and a sound economic plan managed by technocrats as even the former US ambassador Robert O Blake admitted during a presentation made at the BMICH on May 7, 2019. No one would question the validity of what the FF members advocate for the government to follow: They (prez and pm) must do so (i.e., mutually cooperate, identify the perpetrators of terror, and introduce a strong system of national security) while respecting the core values of democratic governance and fundamental rights in our constitution”. But the redundant cautionary words allude supportively to the false human rights violations and war crimes charges, the basis of the UNHRC Resolution 30/1, which the alleged local affiliate of the ISIS could be suspected to have exploited as a mitigating circumstance for the crime of visiting terror on Sri Lanka. Of course this could sound a bit too farfetched. Yet the wording of their advice seems to suggest that Sri Lanka has probably committed serious violations of human rights and crimes of war.

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