Re-electing the President is not undemocratic

Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development and key political trouble-shooter in the government headed by his elder brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa is vehement in his assertion that the proposed constitutional reforms that remove the limit of two terms of office for a President and also bring about significant changes to the 17th Amendment are not undemocratic.

In an interview with the SUNDAYTIMES Minister Rajapaksa, widely credited with planning and executing a series of political gambits that led to the ruling United Peoples' Freedom Alliance securing the support of over two-thirds of Members of Parliament, argues that to deprive a leader who is sought by the masses just because he has been President twice would, in fact, be undemocratic.

Basil Rajapaksa

"There are other barriers, for instance, against electing someone who is mentally ill," Rajapaksa argues. "It is not fair to place a similar barrier against a person because he has done the job twice and done it well; if the people want him they should have the right to re-elect him. Not allowing them to do so is to deprive them of their sovereignty, which is guaranteed to them under Section 3 of our Constitution," he says.

The Minister of Economic Development points out that two previous leaders, Sirima Bandaranaike in 1975 and J.R. Jayewardene in 1982 extended the terms of office of their governments without holding elections that were due. "This is not such a provision to extend the term of office; the President will have elections. In fact, he has even sacrificed one year of his first term by calling for an early presidential election," says Rajapaksa.

Explaining the rationale for lifting the restriction on the number of terms of office for a President, Rajapaksa points out that leaders the world over have not performed well in their second term when they were barred from contesting again because there was no incentive for them to do so. "It was so in Sri Lanka with J.R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga as it was in the United States with Presidents Bush and Clinton," he points out.

"When a President can no longer run for office, MPs and Ministers start looking for an alternative. Potential candidates begin to clash with each other making the government unstable," Rajapaksa noted saying that what Sri Lanka needs now is a strong and stable government which will provide President Rajapaksa with an incentive to carry out an unprecedented development programme. Countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have had strong governments and they have produced marvellous results, he observed.

The repealing of the Constitutional Council too is aimed at strengthening democracy, the Minister contends. "The Constitutional Council consisted of 'outsiders' who were not MPs and therefore not accountable to the people. The proposed Parliamentary Council will consist of MPs and therefore, again the principle of sovereignty of the people will be restored," he says.

Rajapaksa noted that the Constitutional Council never functioned satisfactorily because ten members had to be nominated. "The Parliamentary Council will have only five members, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker and two other MPs nominated by the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader in such a manner that all communities are represented. Therefore, it will work" he predicted.

"It is true that right now, the ruling party will have a majority in the Parliamentary Council but we must not forget that Sri Lanka had three Speakers from the Opposition-T.B. Subasinghe, Anura Bandaranaike and W.J.M. Lokubandara. In such a situation, it is the Opposition who will have a majority in the Parliamentary Council, so fears about this Council are baseless," the Minister pointed out.

Rajapaksa refuted claims that the government was reneging on a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency. "Sarath Fonseka and the alliance that he represented went before the people promising to abolish the Presidency and they were defeated by a massive margin of 1.8 million votes. Isn't that a mandate from the people for the continuation of the Executive Presidency?" Rajapaksa asked.
Here are some other candid comments from Minister Rajapaksa on issues raised by the 'Sunday Times':

  • Why the government first discussed the creation of an Executive Prime Minister with the United National Party (UNP) and then abandoned the idea: In all his political life, the President has been a Parliamentarian. He enjoys the give and take of Parliamentary debates and being in touch with his Parliamentary colleagues. Therefore, he seriously wanted to return to Parliament. However, when a seminar was conducted for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentary group in Beruwela, the group unanimously demanded that the President remain as the Executive President. It was in deference to this wish that the President abandoned the idea of returning to Parliament.
  • Whether the UNP was 'taken for a ride' by the government, by inviting them for discussions on constitutional reforms: It was the UNP that took the government for a ride! The UNP indicated to us that they endorsed reforms to the 17th Amendment and we proceeded in the hope that they would support us in that effort. At the eleventh hour, they withdrew their support.
  • Why the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress(SLMC) suddenly decided to support the constitutional reforms:
    It was a very genuine response from SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and his party. He was concerned that he didn't support President Rajapaksa both in 2005 and 2010. He knew that despite him not supporting the President in 2005, he was appointed a Minister in 2007 until he quit the Cabinet later. He would have realised that the amendments were both necessary for the country and that he also had a chance to display his gratitude to the President. It was a very pragmatic decision that will benefit Mr. Hakeem, the SLMC and also the community that he represents, especially those who are in the Eastern Province.
  • Whether the left parties in Parliament will support the amendments: The left parties have their principles but they also look at the bigger picture. The President always respected their views and due consideration has been given to their opinion. At the same time, they have never betrayed the country to the regressive forces which would like to see the nation destabilised. Therefore, we are very confident that they will support us when the need arises.
  • On the prospects for the UNP in the aftermath of these amendments:
    The decision by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe not to contest the presidential election and yielding the candidacy to Sarath Fonseka was a major blunder. In 1989, Sirima Bandaranaike contested against Ranasinghe Premadasa knowing well that her chances were slim, given the violence that prevailed at that time. But by doing that and performing creditably, she kept the hopes of the SLFP alive. It is because of that, we are in power today with possibly the strongest government ever. I understand that even at the last Working Committee meeting of the UNP, there were three different views as to how the UNP should vote on the amendments. The only way the UNP leadership can minimize the damage to the party now is to allow a conscience vote for its MPs when the amendments are presented in Parliament.
  • Whether the reforms pave the way for dynastic rule, thereby being eventually detrimental to the future of the SLFP itself: The SLFP already boasts of a second tier leadership, so talk of dynastic rule is irrelevant. Ratnasiri Wikremanayake, D. M. Jayaratne, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Maithripala Sirisena are loyal SLFPers who have emerged as leaders in their own right. In addition, the recent general elections have thrown up many young and energetic MPs who are sure to carry on the good work done by their more senior colleagues. Therefore, the future of the SLFP is assured.
  • The prospects of President Mahinda Rajapaksa running for a third term of office:
    At the end of J.R. Jayewardene's second term of office as President, every tree, every wall and every lamp post in the country carried the slogan 'JR, go home!'. Although J.R. Jayewardene appointed a committee to look into the possibility of amending the Constitution to run for a third term-which he could have done because he had a five-sixths majority in Parliament-the UNP realised he couldn't win and that the only way to safeguard the UNP was to run with Premadasa as their candidate. Similarly, in seven years, the President would have to deliver on his promises and the SLFP should want him to run for office. And that is why these reforms are such a transparent exercise.
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