Photo by Alexander Nikiforov

Pro-Opposition strategists and ideologues placing their bets on abolishing the Executive Presidency while the Presidential election is less than a year away, is quite as sensible as placing one’s bets in one’s final year at campus, on agitation for the abolition of the university final exams, instead of studiously preparing to face them.

The fissure in the ruling coalition which was evident in parliament during the ‘casino vote’ is a significant new development which must surely be capitalised upon. Despite the personal canvassing by the leadership, over 50-60 coalition members abstained. Sadly it appears as though this dissent is to be squandered by erroneous political assessment and tactics.

In an engaging, scholarly presentation on the National Question at the SJV Chelvanayakam memorial oration, leading lawyer Jayampathy Wickremaratne, PC, makes the following observation and implicit suggestion:

“While President Rajapakse is in no mood to abolish the executive presidency, doing so under pressure cannot be ruled out altogether. Already, there is talk of a ‘single-issue’ common opposition candidate, the single issue that could unite the entire opposition and catalyze dissent within the SLFP to turn into revolt being the abolition of the executive presidency. If there is a serious challenge to his position, Rajapakse may well take the wind off the sails of the opposition by abolishing the executive presidency. However if he maintains his current stand, there is every likelihood that abolition would become a rallying point for the opposition and dissidents within the SLFP.”

This is so wrong in so many ways and for so many reasons, that one cannot help but recall the absurd, abortive ‘Constitutional Revolution’ project of President Kumaratunga and the politically pathetic end of her tenure as President.

If there is a single issue Opposition candidate and that single issue is the abolition of the executive Presidency, the same candidate will find that he or she is totally out of touch with mass sentiment.

In the first place, the Sinhala voters are simply not going to countenance the devolution of power to provinces while abolishing the strong centripetal executive presidency and leaving the control of the provinces— especially the restive North— to a weaker centre as represented by parliament. The 13th amendment barely squeaked past the Supreme Court only because the ultimate control exercised by the Executive Presidency was deemed to guarantee that devolution would remain within the parameters of the unitary state as inscribed in the Constitution.

Thus the goal of political reconciliation would be adversely affected. A parliament cannot countervail the potentially centrifugal dangers of a devolved Northern and Eastern Council, proximate to a hostile Tamil Nadu. Abolish the executive Presidency and the entire deal on devolution— the 13th amendment— would have to go with it, like a domino.

Furthermore, the abolition of the Executive Presidency would weaken, not strengthen the struggle for democracy. The military has grown much stronger in relation to civilian institutions during a Thirty Years War. The elected executive Presidency is the only institution strong and legitimate enough to maintain civilian supremacy and prevent Sri Lanka becoming like the Pakistan of old, where the prime Minister was dictated to by the armed forces.

Contrary to Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne’s prognostication, President Rajapaksa will not abolish the Presidency in order to take the wind out of the sails of either a single issue common candidate or a rebellion in the UPFA ranks which has as its rallying cry the abolition of the Presidency. All he needs to do is to call a referendum on the issue, pitch it as a danger to the Sinhalese in the face of external and irredentist pressures and he will win a crushing victory over the dissidents. He can then go into the Presidential and parliamentary elections with an even stronger hand than he otherwise would. If this is the slogan that Chandrika’s collection of intellectuals from the ridiculously unsuccessful ‘Sudu Nelum/Package/Solheim/constitutional revolution/PTOMS’ experiments can come up with, they will inadvertently but stupidly hand President Rajapaksa three rather than two election victories, each of which will add to the momentum.

If the important first fissure in the UPFA is mistranslated and badly invested, all President Rajapaksa will do is go for elections, dumping the lot and giving nominations instead to the younger family loyalists. What options do the dissidents have? They don’t have a party under the banner of which they can contest (the SLMP remains with Hirunika, who remains with whatever degree of disappointment, understandably loyal to the President). Even if they did, they cannot rally the SLFP voters with the issue of the abolition of the executive presidency.

What the pro-Opposition policy intellectuals fail to comprehend is that as Regis Debray observed in his masterly ‘Critique of Political Reason’, economic structures change fairly fast but political structures change far more slowly. His point was that societies which are historically and culturally accustomed to certain patterns, be they monarchies, caudillos (strongmen), or high regional autonomy tend to remain in or fall back into the same grooves under which ever banner, disguise or label. Thus the quasi-anarchic revolutionary Mao became a (Red) Emperor occupying the same Walled City in Beijing as his predecessors for millennia, Fidel is El Jefe Maximo (the Maximum Leader) —essentially a caudillo, De Gaulle and Mitterrand were essentially neo-Napoleonic.

So it is with Sri Lanka. It was JR Jayewardene who announced while ascending the Pattirippuwa to be sworn in as the country’s first Executive President, that he was the 168th (or whatever) in an unbroken line of monarchs who ruled this island!

The Presidential system corresponds to a structure rooted in the Sinhala consciousness and that need for a strong centre or strong leader, is heightened at times of external and/or ethnic challenge and pressure. There is no way that any candidacy or SLFP rebellion that makes the issue of the abolition of the Presidency its centrepiece can take off, still less succeed. The Sinhala voter will not fault Mahinda Rajapaksa for not playing Sirisangabo.

Does this mean that no dissent is possible on the issue of the Presidency? Certainly not! Valid, politically intelligent slogans would be the return of the 17th amendment, independent commissions, and term limits—the reform rather than the repeal of the Presidency, reducing its quasi-absolutist powers.

There is a far more powerful rallying cry that the UPFA dissidents can adopt for the future. That is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to the people. Avoid a head-on targeting of a popular President to whom the people are grateful, and go instead for the phenomenon of family control of the regime, the SLFP, and economic resources; the huge power of an unelected and therefore unaccountable member of the family; expose the structures of ruling clan control and the nexus with crony capitalism; denounce the project of familial succession; decry the misuse of state resources and facilities; expose the cost to the masses of Mihin air etc. This, and not the lead balloon of the abolition of the executive Presidency, could be the vehicle of a successful and necessary future rebellion within the SLFP and UPFA.

In October 1982, the Opposition should have picked a candidate who could have secured the maximum possible SLFP vote. Instead it picked Hector Kobbekaduwe. In 2015 the Opposition must pick the candidate who can secure the maximum UNP turnout and the maximum possible UNP vote.

If the Opposition rallies around a ‘minoritarian’ candidate, strategy and message (Ranil, Karu, CBK), it will be vulnerable on several counts: (i) a security lockdown of the North in the wake of violence by a resurgent LTTE (a Tonkin Gulf incident or a Reichstag fire scenario) (ii) a Gajan Ponnambalam or Ananthi Sasitharan ‘Tamil candidacy’ or boycott movement (iii) a pan-Sinhala backlash.

An Opposition candidate with a minoritarian profile will not only will he or she lose badly, but worse still, Mahinda Rajapaksa will have no incentive to bid for the centre space and the minority vote, indeed he will have every disincentive to so doing.

On the other hand if the UNP candidate has a patriotic-populist profile, both the President and he will be forced to bid for the minority vote which can compensate for the loss of Sinhala Buddhist votes to the other. Whatever the outcome, it would be easier to engage constructively with the ethnic issue in the aftermath.

If on the contrary, President Rajapaksa were to be convincingly re-elected (even in the run-off) with only the Sinhala vote, then he will not — as the optimists think— be more willing to devolve power, because he will have to think of the effect of any such moves on the electoral future of his son. The only guarantee of post-election progress on the ethnic issue is if he has had to compete for the Sinhala vote with a populist candidate and has therefore had to bid for the votes of the minorities as well.