Abolishing Executive Presidency critical for economic turn around

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While there have been calls for system change to get the country out of the pit it has been led into, there is little or no recognition of the fact that it is the Executive Presidency that has primarily contributed to this mess.

Ever since the Executive Presidency was first mooted, far-sighted politicians have warned of the danger of excessive powers being concentrated in one individual. 

When the 1972 Republican Constitution was being drafted, then United National Party (UNP) Leader J. R. Jayewardene suggested to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike that an Executive Presidency be created as part of the Constitutional architecture.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Bandaranaike would have been the first ‘beneficiary’ of wielding such enormous powers she immediately turned it down on the grounds “it was not suited for a country like Sri Lanka.”

The two heavyweights of the then powerful Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who were both Ministers in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, strongly opposed the proposal. One key reason why they opposed the Executive Presidency was that they saw it as a threat to democracy and a concentration of power in the hands of a single individual.

However, after J. R. Jayewardene took over the reins of government in 1977, the Executive Presidency was introduced to Sri Lanka by his government. It gave the President significant powers to make important decisions without the need for approval from the Parliament.

Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva argued that the Executive Presidency was a departure from the traditional Westminster-style Parliamentary system that had been in place in Sri Lanka since Independence. They believed the concentration of power in the hands of the president would lead to authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic values and institutions.

Furthermore, they also argued that the Executive Presidency would lead to a more centralised and less participatory form of government. They believed decision-making would be dominated by a small group of individuals close to the president, rather than being representative of the wider population.

Among the several arguments against the Executive Presidency of the Sri Lankan Constitution is the lack of checks and balances, which makes it difficult to hold the President accountable for any wrongdoing.

The President is immune from prosecution while in office, which makes it difficult to hold him or her accountable for any wrong decisions, crimes or abuses of power committed during his or her term.

If one looks back at the country’s history it is under the Executive Presidency that a small group of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) members, whose numbers could be counted on one’s fingers, grew into a full-fledged armed group and plunged the country into a costly armed conflict.

As if this was not enough, by abolishing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which reduced the powers of the Executive, the country was once again plunged into a disastrous situation.

The 20th Amendment which replaced the 19th Amendment and restored the excessive powers of the Executive Presidency paved the way for disaster with the country being driven to bankruptcy and a nation in which poverty doubled and people suffered.

The office of the Executive Presidency is premised in the belief that wisdom in governance is the exclusive preserve of an individual rather than in the collective wisdom of a team of individuals. It is a system that places an individual’s capacity over the efficacy of well thought out policies.

Hence the projection of individuals as potential Mahathir Mohameds or Lee Quan Yews during election campaigns.

While the campaign to ensure that local council elections are held without further delay must go on, it is time political parties parallelly pay attention to the urgent need to work towards abolishing the Executive Presidency.

Unless one simply refuses to see the fact that the Executive Presidency has facilitated the predicament the country is faced with, it cannot be denied.

If agreement can be reached on a road map to achieve this objective the country can benefit immensely. Once agreement is reached between the political parties, the Government can present legislation to amend the Constitution to Parliament. In view of the prior agreement the Amendment can be passed with near unanimity.

What will follow will have to be the conduct of a referendum. If necessary, the Parliamentary elections can be combined with the referendum to save time, energy and money in the process.

Such a process will ensure that instead of incurring expenditure for three polls (Referendum, Parliamentary elections and Presidential election) one election will serve the purpose.

Even after the IMF facility is delivered, only a national economic plan backed by a new government with the people’s mandate, can ensure a turnaround in the people’s lives.

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courtesy Sunday Times

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Disclaimer: Abolishing Executive Presidency critical for economic turn around - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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