Our experience with the executive presidency has always been bitter except during a brief period when we had President D. B. Wijetunga as a stopgap measure after the untimely demise of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
The father of the executive presidency, J. R. Jayewardene, managed to secure state power only when he was long in the tooth. With a five-sixths majority in Parliament and intoxicated with power, he made no bones about his desire to say, `I am the State` al la Louis XIV. (Some historians argue that Louis, the Sun King, never said that. But our man did!)
JRJ used the presidency to rise above Parliament, which he reduced to the level of a municipality in terms of powers and functions. (He also obtained undated letters of resignation from his MPs so that they would not dare rock the boat.)Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa once, in his inimitable style, succinctly described the position of a prime minister under an executive president from the same party. He said he was no better than a peon.
The executive presidency intended to facilitate a one man show has dwarfed all other democratic institutions and the legal immunity that the executive president enjoys has aggravated the situation. Parliament becomes stronger than the president only when the incumbent president loses a parliamentary majority, as was the case between 2001 and 2004. However, the fact remains that the President can still dissolve Parliament without rhyme or reason after one year of its formation. President Chandrika Kumaratunga did so in 2004 to take the UNF government off her executive back.
The concentration of almost all the state power in the hands of one person is the worst that can happen to democracy. And several attempts have been made to strip the executive presidency of its powers and vest them in Parliament. In 1994, the SLFP-led PA campaigned on an anti-executive presidency platform. It promised to do away with the executive presidency. But that never happened.
President Kumaratunga offered to do so in 2000 through her Regional Council package, which was shot down by the UNP and the JVP. It was obvious that she tried to play a trick on the Opposition in that she wanted to wield the powers of both the President and the Prime Minister in the transitional period as the Executive Prime Minister of the proposed Union of Regions. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, promised to get rid of the executive presidency. But, he has conveniently reneged on his promise and is getting ready for a second term. (The country is likely to have a snap presidential election after the LTTE is routed in Kilinochchi.)
It is only wishful thinking that any president will want to let go of the executive powers of his or her own volition. Politicians eternally thirst for power, which is their raison d` tre. They suddenly realize threats the executive presidency poses to democracy only when they are relegated to the dustbin of politics aka the Opposition. The SLFP, while languishing in the Opposition, campaigned against the presidency for almost 17 years. And the present Opposition is also on a campaign to have the president`s wings clipped something long overdue.
It is against this backdrop that the on-going campaign for the full implementation of the 17th Amendment should be viewed. The objective of this path-breaking legislation ratified almost unanimously in 2001 was to depoliticize the key public institutions through the establishment of independent commissions and a Constitutional Council responsible for making appointments to them. Thus, the political parties tried to subject the all powerful president to a constitutional process in the exercise of his powers as regards those institutions.
But, today, the President has managed to bypass the 17th Amendment and usurp the powers and functions of the Constitutional Council. The present Constitution is so biased for the presidency that the executive president is in a position to ride a coach and six horses through it at will. The debilitation of the Opposition has facilitated the process of the incumbent President`s self-aggrandizement. He keeps on unsettling an already weak Opposition so that it won`t be in a position to pose a challenge to him. Whenever the Opposition is in a position to consolidate its position, he springs defections. (The government has woken up to some defects of the 17th Amendment! Media Minister Anura Yapa has said he will resign, if anyone proves that there are no flaws in it.)
Unable to move Parliament against the President, the Opposition is trying its hand at the formation of a grand coalition to force the government to implement the 17 Amendment. The Opposition may be genuinely desirous of having an Elections Commission set up, as that is the way to put the government in some kind of straitjacket and prevent it from abusing state power. But that is not the only objective that the Opposition is trying to achieve. There seem to be two more: Blaming its failure to win elections on the absence of an Election Commission and keeping itself busy with a mission to prevent its further disintegration. (It is reported in this newspaper today that another group of five UNP rebel MPs are likely to sit separately in Parliament.)
The government is in a position to queer the pitch for the Opposition in this battle as well. It has already claimed that the Opposition is trying to debilitate the presidency, upon which rests the stability of the government, by stripping it of vital powers at a time the country is at war with the LTTE. It has also given the impression to the public that after the war is over the President will let go of those powers. (People will have to wait till kingdom come!)
The biggest challenge before the Opposition in achieving that goal is mobilising the people against a government that has successfully marketed its war effort to them. What has stood in the way of the Opposition in reaching out to the people is its policy towards war on terror. Its history of appeasement of the LTTE and close associations with the forces bent on sabotaging the war are the biggest hurdles that it will have to clear in wooing the public.
It is unfortunate that the much needed Constitutional Council born out of consensual politics has got caught in a political tug-of-war, much to the detriment of the independence of public institutions.
The winner has been the incumbent President and the loser democracy. Did someone hear President Rajapaksa say, `I am the State`?