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Monday, 23 September 2019 12:53

Making Transition Easier Through Change With Continuity - Jehan Perera

The presidential election fixed by the Election Commission for November 16 has the potential to bring about far reaching change to the country both in terms of political parties and the leadership at their helms. It is therefore a double transition that the Sri Lanka faces at the current juncture. Change is generally resisted. Ironically, the last minute attempt to abolish the executive presidential system, which is a radical change, can also be seen as a manifestation of resistance to change. In a meeting with civil society last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cautioned that unless accompanied by electoral reform that permits the establishment of decisive majorities in parliament, the abolishing of the executive presidency by itself could lead to unstable government.

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who are the leading protagonists in the bid to abolish the executive presidency have been contradicting each other as to whose idea it was to summon the emergency cabinet meeting. A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office states that the president made an early morning phone call to the prime minister regarding holding a special cabinet meeting on the day that the meeting took place and this led to the emergency meeting. However, whether initiated by the president or prime minister, the purpose of the meeting was to decide on the ways and means to abolish the executive presidency after the elections had been called.

The emergency cabinet meeting occurred in a context in which the three leaders of three of the main contending political parties have found themselves either unable or unlikely to be able to contest the presidential elections. There was a confluence of interests to abolish the most powerful and prestigious elected office in the country that could have motivated the meeting. However, the attempt failed because the move to abolish the presidency was delayed too long, and particularly ill-timed as the move came from out of the blue as it were after the Election Commission had fixed the date of the elections and called for nominations to be filed. The timing has also caused a doubt about the motivation of the move.

There are four main contending parties at the forthcoming presidential elections. They are the SLFP headed by President Sirisena, the UNP headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the SLPP headed by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JVP headed by Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Three of these four leaders either cannot contest or have no chance of victory if they do contest. President Sirisena heads a party that has split into two leaving him with the smaller part. He has been unable to make himself a contestant with a reasonable chance of winning due to his inability to reach agreement with the larger part led by the opposition leader.

Opposition leader Mahidna Rajapaksa who heads the SLPP, which demonstrated that it had become the most formidable political party in the country at the local government elections held in February this year faces a problem of transition of leadership within his party. This is on account of the 19th Amendment to the constitution that was passed by those who defeated him at the 2015 presidential election, which reintroduced the two term limit on the presidency that existed in the original version of the constitution. The presidential candidate put forward by the SLPP, his younger brother Gotabaya, is today projected as the candidate most likely to win the forthcoming elections. He would thereafter become a natural leader of the party.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has become a popular choice amongst those who want to see value-based change in the country as opposed to change that more narrowly focuses on national security and economic growth, as does the SLPP. But the JVP’s constituency has traditionally been small, and this election is unlikely to yield much of a difference. So the likelihood of victory is remote. Out of the four leaders only Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has a possibility to contest the elections and win. However, he finds himself being challenged for the position of presidential candidate by a substantial section from within his own party who see his deputy leader Sajith Premadasa as being more likely to be a winning candidate. This also corresponds to sentiment in the larger electorate.

Despite the condemnation of the institution of the executive presidency by many, and its being a campaign promise at successive presidential elections, the presidency continues to also have its supporters, not only from amongst those who are self-interested, but also from the perspective of the national interest. It is the one institution for which the entire voting population vote as one electorate. The executive presidency continues to be an institution of power that can dominate the course of government even with the reduction of its powers due to the 19th Amendment. The internal conflict within the ruling party regarding who should be its presidential candidate is due to the recognition of the continuing legal and moral powers of the presidency.

The last minute attempt to abolish the executive presidency prior to the presidential election was a leadership decision. Its failure was largely due to opposition from supporters of Sajith Premadasa. This shows that the problem of transition needs to be faced. It is important that the transition that takes place corresponds to the interests of the country. During the past four years there were many achievements that need to be recognized and appreciated. These include improvements in the legal framework for the protection of human rights, promotion of national reconciliation and the strengthening of practices of good governance. However, the changes on the ground are less visible, as compared to previous periods.

Democracy is about paying heed to the wishes of the people and especially about their choice of leaders. In a liberal democracy, the leaders need to ensure that they operate within the rule of law, which comprises respect for the rights and aspirations of minorities. In the run up to the presidential elections, the overwhelming desire on the part of both ethnic and religious majority and minorities is that there should be change on the ground that directly benefits the people. There is a desire that the policies and plans of those at the leadership level should be translated into visible actions on the ground. The SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa promises one type of change on the ground. The UNP needs to present the electorate with a candidate, or a team, who can match this.