Definitely Not Sorbonne
“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient” — Romans. 1 Corinthians
By Ravi Perera
When the required majority was mustered in parliament, the constitutional changes that followed became a certainty. That the amendments to the constitution were principally to do with the strengthening of the office of the presidency, an office many independent thinkers have concluded to be unsuitable for our clime and culture, did not raise many eye brows.
Neither did it matter that the issues were not particularly canvassed before the people at any preceding election. If at all it was the undesirability of this office that was highlighted by all parties hitherto. The supreme court too held that no direct consultation of the voter was necessary. All that was needed was to gather the required numbers in the legislature.
In any event, as portentous as it sounds in the newspapers, it is unlikely that our general public would be too concerned about the ramifications of constitutional amendments. Laws matter only if there is an independent and objective arbiter, either in the form of sturdy institutions or an inspired public culture.
President Richard Nixon, only just elected for a second term had to leave that incredibly powerful office at the insistence of the American public, because of his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, surely a trivial misdemeanor in the context of our public mores. It did not matter that he was the most powerful man in the world and head of the executive branch of the US government. The media, the police, the judiciary, the general public and finally even Nixon, by resigning, did what was necessary to keep their country great.
On the Watergate issue which was principally concerning the ‘standards’ applicable to public life, the otherwise partisan American political institutions took a united attitude. Several senior Republicans told their president in effect, “This is not acceptable”. The American people did not allow President Nixon to devalue the office of the presidency.
But in Sri Lanka where the general public seems to have no ethical expectations from the elected and the application of the law depends on who is in power, what laws are brought in by the wielders thereof can surely be of only academic interest. We have gone too far down the road of cynical abuse of all laws and norms to worry about amendments thereto.
For the sake of discussion, it seems that most republican constitutions in the world today have restrictions on a prolonged incumbency of the highest office in the country. Extended periods in office smack of a monarchy and inevitably become an opening to the corrupting influence of prolonged power. By the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution brought in 1951, the United States has restricted the presidency to only two life time terms. In Russia more than two consecutive terms are disallowed, but a person can be re-elected, after a break in the tenure.
In the case of the United States, even prior the 22nd Amendment which made it law, no president, save for Franklin D. Roosevelt, served more than two terms. Roosevelt justified his third term on the grounds of the Second World War, which disrupted the normal running of the country. George Washington rejected the idea of a third term. Several other subsequent presidents also refused to go beyond a second term, thus giving the two term restriction the strength of a constitutional convention, until Roosevelt broke it.
One of the arguments of constitutional experts against a term restriction on the incumbency is that the president becomes a lame duck in his second term. Particularly in a culture where personal loyalty is valued more than fidelity to principles or policy, the certainty that the president is on the way out would loosen those loyalties. For a master to retain the servant’s craven obedience, his position must be secure indefinitely. It is also relevant that in the parliamentary system which we learnt from the British, there are no restrictions on the tenure of the prime minister. But of course in a parliamentary system there are many checks and balances against prime ministerial abuse of power.
The British culture itself provides a bulwark against excesses on the part of the elected. Even today many ministers take the train to work. In Sri Lanka, if a president were to win a third term, he would hold office for something like 18 years. Given the socio-economic realities of the country, getting a third term seems improbable. The deep rooted causes that made us a poor country in the first place, remain fundamentally unchanged. Even today our growth rate is below many countries far less endowed. Some argue that the governing party will invariably abuse the state machinery to their advantage to ensure a continued stay in office. If this argument is accepted, we must believe that it is impossible for an opposition party to defeat the incumbent. But this has not been the case historically. Although election malpractices, sometimes on a large scale have occurred, by and large the will of the voter has prevailed at our elections.
For someone like Ranil Wickremesinghe to argue that he will not win at an election, because and only because of abuse of the state machinery by the government, is to be totally oblivious to his patent lack of appeal to the voter. In fact, a UNP led by Wickremesinghe is morally unable to argue for restricting the presidential terms of a currently popular leader like Mahinda Rajapaksa, while doing nothing about the stranglehold on its leadership by a person who is anything but popular.
On the issue of the presidency, Ranil Wickremesinghe was always ambivalent. As far as he was concerned the only fault with that office was that he was not holding it. Had Ranil been in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shoes today, there is no doubt he would have done the same, making the identical claim perhaps even more personalised, that for the good of the country he needs to be at the top. Unfortunately most Sri Lankans seem to suffer from an inability to leave office gracefully. They never take their bow to a cheering audience. Invariably, the exit from the public stage of a majority of our so-called leaders happens to the angry boos of a long suffering public. And that too, only long past the retirement age, when he can hardly stand up.
The other day I was in a three-wheeler whose driver, according to a sticker pasted to the vehicle, belonged to the Kotahena Three Wheel Drivers Welfare Association. We can assume that this association has a committee of management of which there is a president. Can we ever expect the president of the Kotahena Three Wheel Drivers Welfare Association to vacate his worthy office unless dead, incapacitated (doubtful) or removed by court order? Even if removed, it is most likely that the president of the Kotahena Three Wheel Drivers Welfare Association would maneuver to promote a relative who has taken to the formidable profession, to his post. For further proof of the office hogging attitude of the Sri Lankans just look at the goings on in any sporting body. It is anything but sporting. How then do we expect our leaders traveling in those maniacally driven convoys to vacate their offices just because of some trivial legal requirement? Like so aptly put by the president recently, we are not ‘Sorbonne’ but Lanka born!