Sunday, May 26, 2019

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PR system and executive presidency

The bane of Sri Lankan politics

By Gamini Abeywardane
When JR Jayewardene introduced the executive presidency his main declared reason for it was the much needed stability for the country. His argument was that under the Westminster system the country had had too many elections and since independence no government ran for its full term until 1970. He believed that it was a great obstacle for country’s economic progress.

However,what was not stated in public was the fact that the UNP had the island wide total majority of votes in most elections including when the party was badly defeated. What it meant in other words was, if the country had an executive president elected by the people the UNP could perpetuate its rule
Let’s look at the past and see whether these declared and undeclared objectives were achieved as anticipated. Whether the first expectation --the stability for the country was achieved or not is abundantly clear when one looks at the messy status of the current government we have in power.  

The most stable period under the executive presidency was the eleven year period of J R Jayewardene. However, that stability did not come from the presidency itself, but mostly from the five-sixth majority in Parliament which JRJ obtained under the Westminster system in 1977. He kept the same majority for his second term as well, by extending the life of the Parliament through a referendum.
Then Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency was marked with confusion and uncertainty with a thin parliamentary majority obtained through the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and later the UNP getting the majority through crossovers and so on. It was no better than the so called unstable periods under the previous Westminster system.

Dream of perpetual UNP power
The same way the second and undeclared objective of JRJ, that is to perpetuate the UNP in power did not happen. If you look at the period up to 2015 since introduction of presidential system, out of the 37 years the UNP ruled only for 17 years which means that JRJ erred in his assumption. However, from the country’s point of view which party was in power was immaterial as long as it was the decision of the people. The most important point is that the system never gave the country the kind of stability it was intended to give.

Some seem to believe that it was because of the might of the executive presidency that Sri Lanka managed to end the scourge of LTTE terrorism. However it is also relevant to note that the country successfully faced the 1962 coup attempt as well as the JVP insurrection of 1971 under the Westminster system of government.
There are so many examples in the democratic world where parliamentary system of government has provided sufficient stability and strength for the countries to face any type of grave situation. Neighbouring India is perhaps the most shining example in this regard.

In a parliamentary system it is difficult for an unpopular leader or government to remain in power unlike in a presidential system. Any difficult situation can be overcome through the Parliament itself by changing the old order and putting a new leadership in power without much hassle.
Quite the opposite is happening in our country under the executive presidential system. Instead of the expected stability for the country every person who gets into the hot seat becomes greedy and tries every trick in the book to stay in power and looks at the possibility of extending the tenure even by few months. Resignations are unheard of, and greed is such resigning is akin to death for an incumbent president.

PR system of votes
The proportional representation system of elections was introduced as it goes hand in hand with the executive presidency. The idea was to avoid unwanted landslides and ensure reasonable representation to every political party based on the number of votes received from each district. That way each minority party was expected to receive some representation in the Parliament.

That result would have been achieved and as a result every small party has a member in the Parliament. At the same time it has created a host of new problems pushing the minorities away from the main stream political parties. This has also given birth to a number of ethnicity based political parties further polarizing the society which was already divided.
On the other hand the PR system while preventing landslides has created a worse situation where no party can get a clear majority in the Parliament thereby negating political stability for the country. Today we are suffering the effects of this more than ever before – the country has no stable government and the main political parties are pandering to the wishes of small minority parties for their survival.

It is clear that the executive presidency is the root cause for many of the country’s problems. Creation of power hungry leaders, who cannot be removed during their tenure irrespective of whatever consequences to the country, has caused much damage to the political evolution of the country.

Critical stage
Now the country has reached a critical stage where the majority of the people have got fed up with the existing system and practically lost faith in all 225 Members of the Parliament. This is certainly a sad story for a country which has enjoyed an unbroken democratic tradition of close to nine decades.

Presidential system with its authoritarian tendencies has effectively prevented the emergence of potential new leaders. Instead it has helped the development of a new band of rustic third rated politicians most of whom are henchmen neither keen nor qualified to be future leaders.  This has discouraged good men from entering politics making it easy for the bad lot to survive.
As a result the country is facing a shortage of potential leaders while the people have no faith in the current set of politicians who are fighting for leadership stakes. In such a situation it is naïve to believe that the next presidential election will sort out the current political, economic and social crisis.

The only way out will be for all the political leaders, if not, at least the leaders of three major power blocs, that is the President, Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to discuss this issue and come up with a suitable constitutional solution without delay. Reverting back to a parliamentary system with a modified electoral system and holding parliamentary elections under an interim constitution could be one way of tackling the situation.
This can happen only if the country is blessed with honest and national minded politicians who can place the country above their own self-interest at least at a critical time. The misfortune of our country is the lack of such men and women and it is difficult to believe that there will be any change in the foreseeable future.

1 comment:

  1. The country is obviously placed in a catch-22 situation. The writer has pointed out the way out in the penultimate Para of the article. The question is: Will the three leaders rise to the occasion? It's a pity many of us have to share the writer's pessimism!