Saturday, June 15, 2019

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Tussle between President and Parliament

Will it be a permanent feature in our political system?

It is doubtful whether elections alone can resolve the major problems in politics today, namely the instability emanating from the inherent faults of the system of government which got further complicated with the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution.

By Gamini Abeywardane

The tussle between the President and the Parliament that has been going on for several years, plunging the country into a deep crisis, has come to a climax again with the on-going parliamentary enquiry into the Easter Sunday terrorist attack.

The key officials of the security and intelligence establishment who have been called upon to testify before the parliamentary select committee are between the Devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, the President reprimands them not to participate in it, while on the other the Speaker reminds them of the possible repercussions, if they do not obey the dictates of the Parliament.

While this drama is going on, President in protest has refused to hold the weekly Cabinet meetings bringing every major government activity and decision making process to a grinding halt. The Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa has called for a parliamentary vote backed by two thirds of the members enabling a snap election to resolve the matter, while the government led by the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed a parliamentary resolution compelling the President to have the Cabinet meetings.

A similar situation arose several months ago when the President tried to dissolve the Parliament and call for a general election which was resisted by the Parliament on the ground the President had no power to do so. Finally the matter had to be resolved with the intervention of the country’s highest courts and the country suffered heavily due to the uncertainty that prevailed for 51 days.

Whatever the consequences for the country, it is unlikely that the UNP will agree to have an early parliamentary election. In all probability what is likely to happen is dragging on the weak government as it happened in the past several years, with no benefit for the country. In between there is a possibility of some of these issues further escalating and ending up in courts.

In the current complex political landscape, a worst scenario would be to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections and then to end up in a similar situation again with the President elected from one party and a different party obtaining the majority in the Parliament. Though remote, these are not impossibilities in view of the fact that people are completely fed up with the current set of parliamentarians as well as the political system.

That way it is doubtful whether elections alone can resolve the major problems in politics today, namely the instability emanating from the inherent faults of the system of government which got further complicated with the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution.

Irony is that the Constitution which JR Jayewardene introduced with the intention of giving political stability to the country has ultimately resulted in destabilizing the country. Unlike in the Westminster system, under the current set up Parliament is incapable of changing the government which includes the presidency as well and any state of instability can get prolonged without a solution. That is exactly what we are experiencing today. 

The solution may be to modify the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution or to go back to the Westminster system. However, none of these changes are likely to take place with all the main players in politics looking at the impending elections with the prime objective of getting into the hot seats of power.
Some academics have argued that with the nineteenth amendment President’s powers are drastically pruned down and the next President will not be able to hold any Cabinet portfolios and will be more or less a ceremonial figurehead. However, such a scenario is unlikely as the President will continue to be elected directly by the people while he will also remain as the head of the Cabinet. 

The executive presidency has not been officially abolished and the Supreme Court in its determination on the nineteenth amendment has specifically stated that certain powers of the presidency cannot be removed without holding a referendum. That way if a President is elected from a different party he will have substantial clout to put a spoke in the Prime Minister’s wheel as is happening now.

The other major issue is that some of the provisions in the hurriedly prepared nineteenth amendment are not clear-cut and could lead to confusion and more legal issues again and again, in case the President and the Prime Minister are elected from two different political parties.

Today we are suffering the disastrous effects of trying to be a constitutional laboratory by drastically changing the system of government the country had been gradually accustomed to since the introduction of universal franchise in 1931. 

The Constitution that J R Jayewardene envisaged for whatever good or bad reasons has also been haphazardly modified by too many amendments within a too short a period distorting the spirit of the document.  Most of these amendments were to suit the whims and fancies of those in power and not introduced in the interest of the country.

In this situation it is difficult to expect any winning party at a future election to modify the system for the greater interest of the country. The tendency we have witnessed in the past is the winner will try to consolidate his or her position during his tenure irrespective of whatever the future consequences for the country.

As it is, the most suitable thing is for all major political parties to get together and do the necessary changes to the political system to bring about some political stability. This can be done by amending the existing post nineteenth amendment presidential system or by reverting back to the time-tested Westminster model adjusted according to the current needs of our country


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