by Rajan Philips
President has got it all wrong when he said in his May Seventh Day speech that he is not going to retire from politics. No one has asked him to retire from politics. Only, retire the executive presidency. That’s what he promised to do, when he became President in January 2015. And retiring the executive presidency would be to lift the unnecessary term limit on the head of government, as there is now thanks to Sri Lanka’s uncommon marriage of the elected parliament and the elected executive.
In a parliamentary system there is no term limit to being Prime Minister. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad has just demonstrated that and more by his victorious return to politics and from retirement. “I am still alive at 92” he impishly told the reporters who thronged him after his victory. Maithripala Sirisena, the youngest of the three leading political rivals in Sri Lanka, can take much heart and cue from the Malaysian example. But he also needs sterner stuff as well as smarter stuff if he is to be positively different from what he has been so far.
Politicians hardly retire from politics in Sri Lanka. Only death or defeat can part the two. And death to many of them came involuntarily and undeservedly by way of assassination, beginning with the largely isolated killing of Prime Minister Bandaranaike and becoming twenty years later the macabre epidemic unleashed by mostly, but not only, the ruthless LTTE. JR Jayewardene, the creator of the all-powerful presidency, is ironically the only significant exception who voluntarily retired from the presidency and politics, but at the ripe old age of 81 years. After what Dr. Mahathir Mohammad has done at 92, JRJ’s 81 was an early retirement.
More to the point, Sri Lanka has plenty of opportunities for its politicians both before and after retirement. Leaving aside the Head of State, you can be PM or a Minister with no term limit. You can be a Chief Minister or Minister at the provincial level. Even at the local government level, the elected councillors can feel the local proportional weight of national sovereignty on their shoulders, although their importance has been reduced by half after the doubling of their numbers. And in retirement, one can aspire to be a Provincial Governor, although the right combination of caste and ethnicity may be a requirement in the more feudal of the provinces.
The big silence and the bigger swindle
For all the gazette notifications and over the top citations of constitutional provisions, the President’s Policy Statement last Tuesday was a damp squib, a wet firecracker. There was no fire in the speech or in his belly. It was a litany of what the government has done so far, as inspiring as an audit’s post-mortem. To anyone looking for a rousing plan of action for the remainder of the government’s term, there were only bromides and platitudes. There is one assertion that deserves mention, however, not only for what it said but also for what it failed to say:
“If any single political issue was met with so much opposition in the recent history of Sri Lanka, it was the system of Executive Presidency. However, over this period nobody could curtail the excessive powers of Executive Presidency. On the contrary, the powers were further enhanced in an authoritative manner. The true potential of consensual politics is that, on May 15, 2015 the maximum power reduction of Executive Presidency, without going in for a national referendum as ruled by the Supreme Court, was achieved.”
There is no more mention of the executive presidency or what the plans are to do with it in the next 18 months. “The maximum power reduction of Executive Presidency” under the 19th Amendment falls short of the President’s undertaking to abolish executive presidency during his first and only term as President. It is not total abolition that anyone is looking for now, but a serious modification of it as is being suggested by the JVP and its 20th Amendment proposals. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were again silent about it in their May Seventh Day speeches. The two leaders and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa were only asserting that their parties will form the next government in 2020. As if Sri Lankans must brace themselves to having three governments at the same time.
It is one thing if the President and the Prime Minister genuinely try to modify the executive presidential system and end up failing in their efforts either because of the inability to secure two-thirds majority in parliament, or to prevail in a national referendum. That would be perfectly understandable and the two leaders will deserve everyone’s respect at least for trying. But it would be quite a different thing if the two men were to simply ignore their 2015 undertaking and present themselves as presidential candidates in 2019. That would be the biggest electoral swindle ever in Sri Lanka’s political history. And that should invite the biggest political outrage from everyone who supported them and who voted for their victory in 2015.
Also, last week, in a public lecture, Tilak Abeysinghe, Research Director at the Gamini Corea Foundation and Adjunct Professor at the National University of Singapore, made a rare advocacy for terminating presidential term limits in Sri Lanka. I say rare because the 19th Amendment, that rescinded the 18th Amendment and its proviso for extending presidential term limits, was passed almost unanimously by parliament, and there was only support for it in the country.
As we saw earlier, President Sirisena considers 19A to have been the greatest achievement of ‘consensual politics.’ True, close to 100 parliamentarians who voted for 19A had earlier voted for 18A but that only shows their lack of conviction about anything. And keep in mind that all of them belong to the SLFP, the SLPP, or both, or their umbrella UPFA. So it is surprising to see a new John the Baptist preaching the virtues of 15 year terms and single-party rule as non-economic pre-conditions for sustained economic growth.
Dr. Abeysinghe was touting his thesis as a lesson to be learnt from the development experience of Singapore. He is not the first person to inaptly compare Singapore and Sri Lanka. Every such comparison has provoked a timely rebuttal. And no time was lost in rebutting Dr. Abeysinghe’s thesis, and the credit for it goes to Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, Executive Director at the Institute of Policy Studies, who reportedly intervened at the end of Abeysinghe’s lecture and pointed out the basic differences between Sri Lanka and Singapore and the danger of imitating inimitable contexts and processes.
Maithri’s nightmare and Mahathir’s miracle
What used to be a similarity between Singapore and Sri Lanka is that until 1978 both countries had a parliamentary system of government. In 1978, Sri Lanka made a mess of marrying the parliamentary and presidential systems of government. In contrast, Singapore as well as neighboring Malaysia kept faith with the parliamentary system but under dominant party regimes. The parliamentary system gave both countries the flexibility to have Prime Ministers serving multiple terms spread over decades without resorting to the rigidity of executive presidency.
Thus Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, served as Prime Minister for over thirty years from 1959 to 1990, in a virtually one-party polity. The formalities of election and parliamentary representation were honoured in the observance but the premises of the underlying social contract were: the assurance of an efficient and corruption-free government, scrupulous adherence to merit, consistent material advancement and opportunities, and socio-ethnic peace. On the debit side were (and are) suppression of dissent, one-party government, regimental socialization and occasional social engineering. The contract survived because of Singapore’s historical limitations and circumstances and the experience as a whole is inimitable and is not transferable.
In the neighbouring and much larger Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, a medical doctor, was first elected to parliament in 1964, became the country’s fourth Prime Minister in 1981, and was in office for over twenty years till 2003. He was the rebel outsider who usurped power from the traditional feudal elites and transformed the state and the political system to accommodate Malaysia’s ethnic (Malay, Chinese and Indian) differences and propel economic development. Most of all he became totally authoritarian and intolerant of dissent or opposition. In 1998, he expelled from the government and orchestrated the trial and incarceration of Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s chosen protégé, successful Finance Minister as well as Deputy Prime Minister. These actions led to protests and outcries for the release of Anwar and political reforms. The slogan ‘reformasi’ became the galvanising call for ousting Mahathir from power, but he held on till his retirement in 2003, and the transfer of power to another of his protégés, Abdulla Badawi, who was later succeeded by Prime Minister Najb Razak. It is Razak’s governing National Front party (UMNO) that lost the elections last week, for the first time in sixty years, to Mahathir Mohammad’s upstart Malaysian United Indigenous Party, an alliance of opposition parties.
At the centre of the government’s defeat and Mahathir’s triumphant return are the unpopular goods and services tax and the political scandal involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MBD), a government-run strategic development company. The allegation is that the company has, among other questionable actions, transferred USD 700 million to the personal bank accounts of (the outgoing) Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, a transaction that was exposed through the investigations of the US Justice Department. Dr. Mahathir’s second-coming mission is to bring to book everyone involved in the 1MBD scandal, and in a bittersweet irony – to pardon and free from prison Anwar Ibrahim and potentially hand over the government to the younger man and his former protégé.
President Sirisena is free to draw inspiration from the Mahathir miracle, but he cannot re-enact the Malaysian example while being stuck in the executive presidency. The system will not give him flexibility and the electorate will crush him if he were run as a presidential candidate. There is only one path to politically look after his enlightened self-interest – that is to modify the executive presidency. The Joint Opposition (JO) and the SLPP forces are clamouring for an early parliamentary election. But holding a parliamentary election prematurely before its term ends is not going to solve any of the problems that have been there for forty years, that are there now, and that will continue to be there so long as the unwarranted marriage of parliament and the presidency continues to fester below everyone’s radar.
For all its shortcomings, the economic success of Singapore is predicated on the total absence of corruption in government. In Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad’s electoral success at the age of 92 is the result of the public’s revulsion at high level corruption. In Sri Lanka, with the exception of a few state institutions including the judiciary, everything else is mired in corruption. Given these manifest differences in contexts, it will not be prudent to advocate for Sri Lankan adoption the rather tendentious notions of removing presidential term limits, fifteen year terms for government, and a dominant single-party system. On the other hand, what we can advocate for, emulate, or rather revert to, is the old parliamentary system which provides for Heads of Government – multiple terms in office, with no term limits or age limits.