Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has lent her voice to the campaigners for abolishing the executive presidency. In a television interview on Wednesday, she waxed eloquent on the need to do away with that institution. She minced no words when she described it as `dangerous`.
Spicing up her answers with lunu ambul and pithy Sinhala idioms, Chandrika warned that the wrong person securing the executive presidency would be like a monkey getting hold of a razor vandurata delipihiya ahuvuna vage. And, she, true to form, was quick to claim moral high ground! There had been only two presidents who had exercised executive powers with restraint, she declared. One was the late President D. B. Wijetunge. Who was the other? It was Chandrika herself!
President Wijetunge, as is fairly well known, behaved after assuming that high office. (After all, he was well past the retirement age, when he found himself catapulted to that post.) However, the question is whether the same could be said of President Kumaratunga. In our book, the only difference between her and her predecessors was the gender! She matched them almost in every way as regards the abuse of executive powers.
Chandrika was the only President who disparaged, at every turn, the very Constitution that she was sworn to uphold. She infamously called it bahubootha viyavasthava or the nonsensical Constitution. No other President has ever shown such brazen contempt and callous disrespect for the basic law of the country! It was also on her watch that the worst ever election was held in this country. The North Western PC polls (1999) turned out to be a grand robbery of votes rather than an election many UNP supporters, both men and women, were beaten, stripped naked and paraded on streets in the run-up to the polls marred by violence and rigging. She had no qualms about declaring victory and running the council! The Presidential Security Division (PSD) functioned like the dreadful oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, with criminal elements like Beddegana Sanjeewa within its ranks. Journalists were attacked. A newspaper editor, Rohana Kumara, was murdered in cold blood. The Sunday Leader press was sealed.
Above all, President Kumaratunga, egged on by the JVP, exercised the draconian powers vested in the executive presidency to sack the UNF government in 2004. True, the UNF was appeasing the LTTE much to the detriment of national security at that time, as she and her Rathu Sahodarayas claimed, but what really prompted her to do so was the culmination of a running battle between the legislature and the Executive. She now regrets her action too late in the day. The JVP is campaigning against the abuse of presidential powers! So much for Chandrika`s `democratic` presidential innings!
However, the fact remains that Chandrika was not the worst president we have had. She was only as bad as other Presidents, whom the country has managed to survive. Tolerating mainstream politicians in spite of their failings is the price the masses have to pay for keeping democracy alive. That is so, more or less, even in Britain, where it has been revealed that many parliamentarians are in the habit of making false claims and showering public funds on themselves with a generous hand. The Blair government, it may be recalled, stood accused of awarding State honours to certain individuals for cash!
Chandrika really gave us a scare on Wednesday when she said if the wrong person got hold of the executive presidency, there would be disaster. One may agree with her on this score. Although it may be arguable whether the abolition of the executive presidency should receive national priority at this juncture when the country is beset with a plethora of other issues warranting our immediate attention, that some of the executive powers should be reduced goes without saying. Even the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to this need in principle at a meeting with newspaper editors and media heads last Tuesday in Colombo. He said he alone wanted to scrap the executive presidency as he had no way of holding it after the second term. His argument may sound tenable in that it was in her second term that Chandrika, too, considered scrapping the executive presidency allegedly with a view to clearing a Constitutional barrier for her to become the Head of State a third time. But for her retirement at an unexpected time on a Supreme Court order, she may even have gone so far as to abolish the presidency so that no one else would enjoy the powers vested in it. President Rajapaksa must be thinking along similar lines with many more years of politics in him.
Chandrika`s warning that if a person with evil designs happened to secure the executive presidency, there would be a situation akin to a monkey wielding a razor should be taken seriously. It is a scary proposition!