There should be an age bar for holding an office but not for political leadership
Posted on June 6th, 2022

By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, June 6 ( There have been much commentary in the media about the recent statement in Parliament by former minister Chamal Rajapaksa who opined that his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa should have retired from politics at the end of his second term as executive president.

Mahinda’s second term was to end in 2016. But in order to obtain the people’s mandate for a third term he called an early presidential election in January 2015 and lost. Some political commentators have pointed out that Chamal should have given Mahinda this advice at that time.  Others have raised the question why Chamal did not advise his brothers in such a manner when, in 2010 and 2020, they obtained unlimited power via several arbitrary amendments to the Constitution.

The question whether Chamal, the eldest brother of the Rajapaksa family, would have made this comment about Mahinda in Parliament if the people had not begun protesting in the streets against the mal governance of his bothers, due to which they had to resign from their positions and run away, arises naturally.

Chamal said that in political life one must be always prepared to step down from positions of power. Let us see what he, who is 80 years old, does.  Chamal’s comments have raised questions about the retirement age of those engaged in politics. There is a fundamental difference between retiring from positions of power and retiring from politics.

One can engage in politics even after one steps down from a position of power. Human beings are political animals. It is not the case that one cannot engage in politics if one does not have positions or benefits accruing from those positions. In India, did Mahatma Gandhi and E.V.R Periyar engage in politics while holding positions of power? There are many other similar examples that can be cited. Yet, those in positions of power could not retain the values engendered amongst the public by such leaders.

At this juncture, a comment made by former President Chandrika Kumaratunge at the end of her second term, about the age to retire from politics, comes to mind. During the latter part of 2005 an event was organized in Bibile appreciating the services rendered by Mrs. Kumaratunge. When speaking at the event she said that, public servants and politics should retire at the age of 60. Although I do not insist that everyone should retire at that age I am retiring”. Not only at this event, but even prior to it, Mrs. Kumaratunge has said that politicians should retire at the age of 60. She probably did not imagine that she would be compelled to retire first when she made the comment.

Chandrika Kumaratunge became President at the age of 49 in 1994. After being President for 11 years she had to step down at the age of 60. Everyone knows she stepped down with sadness that she couldn’t hold the position for one more year due to a decision of the Supreme Court.

She stepped down from the position but did not retire from politics. Mrs. Kumaratunge was at the forefront of fielding candidates against Mahinda Rajapaksa during two presidential elections. At present she continues to state her opinions about the current political situation. This is the difference between retiring from a position and retiring from politics.  

The late J.R. Jayawardena came to power in his 69th year in 1977. He approached all issues keeping in mind the boundaries of his political life. If like Mrs. Kumaratunge, Jayawardena too had come to power when he was 49 years it is debatable whether he would have included the two-term presidential term limit in the Constitution.

60 years is not an old age that requires one to retire from public life. To the contrary, it can be an age when persons who have learnt through past experiences, can right wrongs, think clearly and function maturely. If politicians retire at 60 years then many politicians who the world holds as icons would have been lost to us.

We would not have known of many who were examples through the way they lived their lives. We could not have learnt from their teachings. Nelson Mandela who dedicated his life to the liberation of the black South African people and dismantled apartheid in South Africa, contested election but was president for only one term. After that, he gave space to leaders of the next generation and refrained from holding public positions. Who would have prevented him if he wished to remain as President? He announced he would retire from public life due to his deteriorating health but he could not remain silent when it came to issues that affected humankind.

At the time, he functioned as a global conscience and moral voice drawing attention to diverse concerns, from people affected by AIDS to people suffering in poverty, and called on the world to find solutions to these problems.

Politicians who genuinely care about humanity will not be able to retire from public life until their death. Those who are not able to be an example to others through the way they live their lives are ordinary politicians. They are self-serving. They can retire at 60 years or even before. Who cares? It would be a blessing to society if such persons never enter politics.

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