Promises, it is said, are like babies easy to make but hard to deliver. As politicians are not bothered about delivery in any form, they go on making promises. Sirima Bandaranaike promised `rice from the moon` or handen haal and won elections. But, under her watch from 1970 to 77, rice became a luxury hardly available even on earth! J. R. Jayewardene promised to give `eight pounds of grain` or eta ata free of charge. His free grain became pie in the sky. Ranasinghe Premadasa vowed to eradicate poverty or dugi duppathkama. That poverty defied his methods of alleviation is only too well known. Chandrika Kumaratunga undertook to eliminate dooshanaya ha beeshanaya (corruption and violence). But, later her security division came to be accused of acting as shock troops against the Opposition. Mega corrupt deals like the Waters Edge that took place under her regime have now been exposed.
Now we have UNP and Opposition leader promising to abolish the executive presidency under a future UNP government. This pledge has the trappings of a lapsus linguae in that it has betrayed his desire to stay put indefinitely regardless of UNP reformists campaign to smoke him out. He has spoken for the party over something that would not happen in the foreseeable future forming a government as well as scrapping the executive presidency. In other words, he has implied he would continue to be in the saddle until the party achieves that feat, never mind when!
Of all Presidents we have had only two were honest about their love for unbridled executive powers JRJ and Premadasa. Never did they say they wanted to scrap the presidency. JRJ advocated the executive presidency even while he was still in the Opposition in the early 1970s. That was why SLFP stalwarts like Felix Dias used to tease him by saying `HELP`, `HELP` whenever they locked horns, HELP standing for `His Excellency Life President`. JRJ evidently aspired to a third term by amending the Constitution. Had he succeeded in securing another term that would have been tantamount to his being life president, but his plan went awry because of his ambitious deputy and the then Prime Minister Premadasa, who would baulk at nothing to realise his presidential dream.
Only President D. B. Wijetunga considered the presidency a nuisance. And he was in a mighty hurry to relieve himself of the crown from the word go. Chandrika, upon being elected President, pretended she would not run for a second term. But, in the end, she tried every trick in the book to cling to power and finally the judiciary had to retire her. Her successor and present incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the abolition of the executive presidency one of his election pledges. But, mum`s the word on his part about his promise at present. He is busy campaigning for the next presidential election! (However, he should be given the credit for defeating the LTTE in keeping with his promise.)
The executive presidency is weighing very heavily on democracy given the dictatorial powers vested in it. All presidents begin their first term as democrats but with the passage of time lay bare their true faces as power hungry politicians ready to stoop to any level to stay in office.
The executive presidency is not without merits though. But for that institution, the country could not have been able to prosecute its war on terror so effectively. What has helped defeat terrorism is the ability of the president to make bold decisions. However, it may be argued that in spite of the all powerful presidency, the country could not win the war for nearly twenty five years. JRJ had not only presidential powers but also a steam roller majority in Parliament. He could and did amend the Constitution at will. Presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunga too had reasonably stable governments but they could not defeat terrorism.
The executive presidency characterised by carte blanche enjoyed by its holder to rule or misrule the country with impunity has had so debilitating an effect on the national legislature and other democratic institutions like the judiciary that one may be justified in arguing that its demerits far outweigh its merits and, therefore, its powers need to be reduced drastically to promote a healthy growth of other organs of the State.
Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe missed an opportunity to have the executive presidency scrapped when President Kumaratunga presented her devolution package to Parliament in 2000. True, she wanted to retain the presidential powers as executive prime minister through some absurd transitional provisions contained in her draft constitution. But, the UNP chose to throw the baby with the bathwater. It joined forces with the JVP to shoot her package down in Parliament.
Why the UNP leader has suddenly woken up to the need for abolishing the executive presidency is intriguing. Is it a case of sour grapes? His critics may claim he is resorting to diversionary tactics to distract his rivals` attention from his devious methods to consolidate his power in the party. They may also want to know how a person who cannot even win a provincial council election could undertake to accomplish something that requires a change of government. His promise reminds us of a campaign some SLFP leaders launched against the executive presidency after 1978 until they became confident of grabbing it after the untimely demise of President Premadasa.
Although those who are desirous of restoring the supremacy of Parliament cannot have any difficulty in subscribing to the UNP leader`s much publicised campaign against the executive presidency, they may have reason to seriously doubt his real intentions. For, politicians struggling to extricate themselves from difficult situations should not be trusted as they act like the proverbial fox which fell into an abandoned well but managed to get out of it by luring a goat into plunging in and jumping on to its back.
Wily political foxes of all hues survive by making goats of the public!