A visionary presidency would help elevate the nation – Dr. Jehan Perera

The unexpectedly forthright critique of the 20th Amendment (20A) to the constitution by high-ranking religious clergy and the likes of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) created a momentary doubt about the prospects of the government obtaining a two-thirds majority.

A statement was issued by the joint Amarapura-Ramanna Samagri Maha Sangha Sabha making clear its opposition to 20A, noting that “the proposed amendment was regressive and paves the way for an undeveloped tribal society that will seriously impede progressive characteristics of human society such as freedom of thought and action – and therefore, the Sangha Sabha decided to make a strong emphasis to the government that they should not pass the proposed 20A.”

That this powerful collection of Buddhist monks issued this statement is indicative of the concerns in the larger community that can surface in opposition to abuse of power in the future.

The passage of 20A has almost completely rolled back the power sharing arrangements of the 19th Amendment, and will ensure a decisive government that is unfettered by checks and balances. This amendment will restore to the presidency almost all powers vested in it by the 1978 constitution in its original formulation.

Former president J. R. Jayewardene, the architect of that constitution, once described it as offering the head of state the power to be free from the “whims and fancies of parliament.”

He sought cohesive and strong powers to take decisions for the long-term gain of the country. However, it would be prudent to remember that the super powers that he assumed weren’t able to stop – and indeed, contributed – to the events of 1983, the armed conflict and the resurgence of Janatha Vimukthi Pera-muna (JVP) violence.

Armed with the powers that the 1978 constitution originally envisaged, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to directly implement development and problem solving activities in the country. He has appointed retired military personnel to senior positions in public administration. But there will be dangers to be guarded against.

Mixing civilians systems of administration with the military is unlikely to work effectively. Military systems are essentially top-down with orders expected to be followed without question. In contrast, civilian systems are consultative as issues need to accommodate a diversity of perspectives and multiple interests. The system of checks and balances has evolved out of the experience of power being utilised to satisfy narrow rather than broader interests.

There are many challenges for the government to address including the spread of COVID-19, and its impact on the poor and marginalised, economic hardships that affect the majority of people, mounting foreign debt and repatriation
of migrant workers.

In a plural society, there is a need for dialogue before decisions are made and those with proven competence from professional fields are made part of this. There’s also the question of problem solving vision.

With the passage of 20A, the presidency will wield enormous power. Unless presidential leadership is utilised to resolve longstanding issues made unresolvable by partisan politics, this will be another lost opportunity.

A modern state, which incorporates a nationally designed reconciliation process where equal citizenship and inclusive development leaves out no section or part of the country, must be the goal.

Numerous parliamentarians representing ethnic and minority parties voted in favour of 20A. If not for the backing of ethnic minority parliamentarians who broke ranks with party leadership to offer support to the government, a two-thirds majority required for constitutional change may not have been a reality.

Especially in a plural society such as Sri Lanka’s, dialogue and inclusion are more likely to lead to sustainable solutions than imposed solutions. Although such a process can take more time, it is essential for democratic problem solving with all stakeholders being made part of the solution.

It is useful to recall Rajapaksa’s pledge shortly after taking oaths that he was the president of all Sri Lankans and not only those who voted for him. Additionally, former president Ranasinghe Premadasa embraced a motto of the three ‘Cs’: consultation, compromise and consensus.

To the extent that these two visionary statements become a reality, there would be assurance that the country will overcome challenges and reach its potential – as seen at the time of independence when Sri Lanka was referred to as the ‘Switzerland of the East.’