Those who wailed for democracy are seeing the real separation of powers | Sunday Observer

Those who wailed for democracy are seeing the real separation of powers

The critics have been quick to stick the Suppressor-in-Chief label on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but they should look around and identify the one thing about his presidency that’s most significant — next to the fact that he is a workaholic.

The GR Presidency has so far been characterised by a whole swathe of enabling behaviour that can be seen as a good example of Live and Let Live.

The General Election is the best exemplar of such instances of coequal-coexistence. The President may not be the most enthusiastic supporter of legislative politics. As is well known, he has his team, and he relies a great deal on men with a military background, and of course that comes from within the territory of his being an ex army officer. He is the workaholic or veda karanaminiha as the campaign ditty regaled the crowds about him in the run up to last November’s poll. To that end, he cloisters himself for long hours with team members, and does the now famous spot inspections, and is famously action-oriented.

But, in this election, the President who is probably not too enthusiastic about the Legislature in comparison to most, has given over the running of the campaign to the Prime Minister, the politician in the classic mould. So for those who say that he is a controlling President, there is the answer that he is not — just look at the SLPP campaign.

He does not want any of that effort to be made in his own image, at all. He in fact does not want any of the campaigning in his own image, quite literally. He has banned the use of his likeness in individual campaign material of prospective SLPP MPs. Obviously, he is not a narcissist in love with his own image, because banning one’s own photograph is the last thing a narcissist would want to do.

He is not Repressor-in-Chief, but an enabler in earnest, who does not want the legislative side of things to be cast from his own mould at all and would rather have all that effort for robust parliamentary politics completely outsourced to his brother, and the political party the latter heads, the SLPP.

Docile

Mahinda Rajapaksa, PM and former President though he is, has also exhibited a remarkable reciprocal enabling behaviour that’s quite antithetical to the image of him as the classic old-school politician. Classic old school politicians want everything — every arm of governance, every political institution they could possibly get their hands on — to be cast in their own image. Take the late R Premadasa for instance. He didn’t want to appoint a proper, reasonably powerful Prime Minister but opted for a docile, retiring figure in the form of DB Wijetunge instead. J R Jayewardene wanted the wily, tested politician Premadasa as his Prime Minister, but wanted him to stay schtum, and be the good boy that’s seen and not heard, and that got so much on the nerves of the then Prime Minister that he blurted out that he has ‘the powers of a peon.’

But today the reality is that the 19th Amendment has changed the then image of the PM’s office from one of ineffectual uselessness, to powerful institution. In spite of that PM Rajapaksa, who is also leader of the SLPP, wants no part of the Presidency (Executive) in his own image either, and lets his brother craft the general outlook for that office in his own way, sans any restriction or diktat that he might impose as party leader and powerful Head of the Legislature.

So it seems the two branches of government are not at loggerheads all the time, or at any time, as they were during that nightmarish tenure of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, and nor are they coalesced into one behemoth as they were during the Presidency of the founder of the institution of Executive President, Junius Richard Jayewardene.

The mutually enabling styles of the two Rajapaksas are in stark contrast to the images that the critics have been trying to paint of them, particularly during the recent failed campaign to resurrect the old parliament — when it was said by the partisan observers that the President was hell bent on governing via the single institution of the Presidency. As the 2020 campaign season gathers momentum, it’s seen that nothing can be further from the truth. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t want that part of the governance equation to take after him at all, and seems to want it (the Legislative branch) to operate entirely on its own and stand on its own merits, as it’s meant to. There is separation of powers from the very get-go, and we would have thought that’s exactly what the liberals in the NGO circuit would have wanted.

May be they are too gobsmacked by it all to even react at this moment, because all their dire warnings have been about a Gotabaya Presidency that’s overweening, and totally control obsessed. None of their own liberal pin up boys Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa included, have ever so much as dreamt of saying that their candidates’ campaign material should not carry their own likenesses. They encouraged the tendency of cultism and idolatry on the contrary, and have been particularly image and turf conscious as is only too well known — as a result of which the current breakaway movement from the UNP was spawned in the first place.

The critics may well turn around and say that it’s pointless talking about separation of powers because the current Prime Minister and the President are siblings and that SLPP policy will be uniform entirely due to this fact, as it will be decided within family, and by two siblings that are perfectly in lockstep with each other.

Duties

While it’s true that an ugly rift of the type witnessed between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena is not possible between two brothers — even under the muddled constitutional provisions of the 19th Amendment — it needs be remembered that brothers or otherwise, the levers of power operate as they are constitutionally mandated, and therefore there are two distinct branches, the Executive and the Legislative branch.

Going by how the President is disengaged from the current campaign, it seems clear that he does not intend interfering with the Legislative branch, once the campaigns are done dusted, and there is a parliamentary majority for the SLPP, assuming that’s what’s going to happen as widely expected.

There is a good deal of delegation of duties, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has been saying in the past few weeks that the ‘President is busy working, and I’m busy carrying out the political tasks’.

That’sa far cry from the image that was promoted by the NGO bandwagon of a President determined to trample on the Legislature to take power into his own hands. That reading was ironical in retrospect, because it now seems very clear in the rear-view mirror that it was these same carping elements accusing the President, that wanted to stifle the Parliament. They wanted to suppress the formation of the new and truly representative Legislature of the future, and keep the old discarded and illegitimate parliament of 2015 going for as long as they wanted. It’s a pity that those who make the biggest noise about democratic norms and good governance, are in fact the biggest violators of these hallowed concepts!

Undo

In the backdrop of all this, a strong mandate and a sturdy but constructive separation of powers is needed to undo the damage done to the country, its economy and its institutions in the five years of UNP/SJB (mis)rule from 2015-2020. (There was no SJB then, but most of its candidates ran the country in that period, so they have to be factored in.)

As an aside, there was a time in the remembered past when people said Chandrika Kumaratunge did nothing during her twelve or so years in power. That may have been true by and large, but neither did she do any lasting damage to the nation to her credit, which is something that cannot be said for the last government.

There is a long list of misdeeds that took place during the UNP-SJB era, and the most toxic of them all was how the politics of jealousy, hatred and deception took over,culminating in a devilish attack on elementary decency and civilised norms, a good example being how our armed forces and the civilian leadership led by ex President Rajapaksa were treated, entirely because certain elements who don’t deserve special mention here, were hell bent on extracting revenge for the 2009 war victory, that ended decades of LTTE terrorism.

That chapter of devilish vengeance has to firmly have a decisive finish line drawn under it, and it can only be done after a representative Parliament that will exercise Legislative responsibility with the national interests at heart, is elected by the people who bore the brunt of the last government’s egregious passage of five-year misrule.

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