31 May 2018

The truth and dare of presidents, presidencies and the presidential

If anyone has carefully read the Second Republican Constitution 1978, also known as the JRJ Constitution, he or she would conclude that it’s all about the Executive Presidency. If powers described in the Constitution is likened to a tree, the Executive Presidency is the root, the trunk, the branches, leaves, flowers, fruit and bark.  It was about centralizing power. It was dictatorial or put another way it was a constitution that was made to make dictators.  

So, since 1978 people have ranted and raved about the anti-democratic nature of the JRJ Constitution. ‘Draconian’ was a frequently used descriptive. The call was for its abolition. The promise of the various Oppositions was abolition. It was a promise that was made and forgotten.  

The 17th Amendment sought to prune presidential powers. The 18th effectively restored those ‘draconian’ powers. The 19th was tabled by a political coalition, the yahapalanists, that promised to abolish the Executive Presidency; it made some cosmetic changes, nothing more. Even today, as power vested in offices go, the presidency is where power is resident. It is the president, more than anyone else, who can cause the most amount of change with the least amount of effort. 

The preponderance of power in that office means that the President is directly or indirectly responsible for all wrongdoing. This is why J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa (D.B. Wijetunga’s tenure was an accident and short) are blamed for all the bad things that happened during their respective presidencies. By the same token, they deserve credit for whatever positives of the relevant periods.  

As such, President Premadasa is applauded for building houses, planting trees and the Janasaviya even as he is blamed for the worst two-year period of terror that Sri Lanka has suffered since Independence, the bheeshanaya of 1988-89. He is blamed even though it was his predecessor who planted its seeds through many undemocratic acts including the scandalous referendum of 1982, the rigging of the 1982 presidential election, attacks on workers and students, abuse of parliamentary majority to pass partisan legislation and so on.  

Kumaratunga’s reign was marked by ‘nothing-done’ and marred by the murder of a newspaper editor, shameless election malpractice and intimidation including the stripping of a woman.  

Rajapaksa’s case is more interesting. He did not have the ‘baggage’ that Premadasa had to contend with, in no small part because his predecessor did not disguise her absolute antipathy.  He started with a clean slate, then.  All wrongdoing during his tenure get credited to him and him alone, either on account of indulgence or else complicity or incompetence.  

His detractors called him a hawk. The ‘hawk’ was accused of purchasing LTTE support to win the election by stopping Tamils in LTTE-controlled areas from voting. The ‘hawk’ chose to ‘talk’ with the LTTE. The ‘hawk’ opted for a military offensive only after the LTTE attempted to assassinate the Army Commander.  During the tenure of the ‘hawk’ what his predecessors promised but could not deliver was achieved. The LTTE was militarily defeated. The war came to an end. 

The ‘hawk’ was by constitutional edict a dictator and he chose to exercise the dictatorial powers vested in his office, for good and bad.  Regardless, the ‘hawk’ by very dint of constitutional reality, deserves credit for defeating the LTTE. Those who vilify him for his excesses and wrongdoing under his watch, and of course benefit from the wiping out of terrorism, do not dare whisper ‘thank you’ even if they add ‘but, you also did this that and the other and therefore we think you are a terrible, terrible person and were a bad President’.  In Sinhala, we call it ‘kuhakakama’, roughly translatable as ‘hypocrisy’.

In other words, you can’t confer the karumaya while denying the urumaya. You can’t vilify and withhold the praise.  That’s hypocritical.  Hypocrisy, however, is one of the most prominent features of our political culture, so we need not be surprised or alarmed. It’s how things are, simply.

Now we have Maithripala Sirisena, who regardless of powers vested in his office decided that he would ‘share power’ with Ranil Wickremesinghe.  The one is politically tied, for better or worse, to the other. Crimes of omission and commission are therefore attributable to both; both the karumaya and the urumaya, although one would be strained to find things that could come under the latter.  

All this is history. Now, we are looking to 2020 or 2019 as the case could be. It’s the season for vilification. It’s hypocrisy season in full bloom.  Amusingly, it is those who ardently called for legislation to combat hate speech (a measure that would outlaw more than one book that certain religious communities swear by, by the way) who are indulging in all this.  

Out: innocent until proven guilty. In: vilification. Out: acknowledgment of accomplishment. In: praising non-performers. Out: brand-building of preferred choice (perhaps on account of there being certain things that are not in the realm of the possible). In: inadvertently raising the profile of the feared opponent through vilification, giving the ‘enemy’ a visibility free of charge. Out: all the ethics associated with Yahapalanaya. In: same old, same old.  Out: looking for a winnable candidate. In: silly attempts to do away with the office since victory is a hopeless proposition.  

Welcome to Sri Lanka, land of liberal double-speak, nation of uncivilized charlatans who are loathe to look at the mirror.  At the end of the day, we still have a made-to-make-dictators constitution.  Let’s just enjoy the spectacle of pots and kettles trying to convince they are white-as-snow spotless.      

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.