June 6th marks the Birth Anniversary of Dr. N M Perera. This year is a birth anniversary that should be especially celebrated as the passage of the 19th Amendment last month marks the beginning of a process which we hope would completely dismantle the Executive Presidency. NM, who foresaw the dangers of JR’s Constitution, led a campaign against it which included the publication in 1979 of his book, Critical Analysis of the New Constitution of Sri Lanka which made detailed predictions on what the future would be under JR’s constitution. Most importantly, he predicted the gradual move towards dictatorial rule and the weakening of democratic safeguards and institutions as a natural consequence of the JR Constitution.
NM was a political giant who dominated left politics in Sri Lanka since the 1930s. It was NM and the LSSP that provided the leadership for the struggle to win many of the hard fought rights of the people and the working class that we have been enjoying.
Many of these rights have been gradually eroded by a combination of World Bank/IMF pressures, pressures which NM as Finance Minister resisted but with dire consequences to his and the Party’s popularity, the changing balance of power resulting from the 1978 Constitution and the move towards dictatorial government inspired by it.
NM’s prophesies that the JR Constitution would gradually transform our country into a dictatorship were proved correct. While JR took the first steps to consolidate dictatorial power in his Executive Presidency, it had to be left to Mahinda Rajapakse through his 18th Amendment to complete the process. Although the LSSP following NM’s legacy consistently opposed this move towards dictatorship, its two members of Parliament went against the party decision and shamelessly raised their hands to support the 18th Amendment in September 2010.
Although the LSSP should rejoice that the JR Constitution has been badly weakened by the 19th Amendment promoted by President Maitripala Sirisena, its two members of Parliament inexplicably seem to be yearning for a return to the rule of Mahinda Rajapakse. They justify their positions by claiming that their immediate task is to prevent the resurgence of the Big Bad Wolf, the UNP, the representative of international capitalism. The usurpers to NM’s legacy who control the assets of the LSSP accepted quietly the neo-liberalism, crony capitalism and family rule of Mahinda Rajapakse with hardly a whimper. They were indeed the first to announce their support for Mahinda Rajapakse for a third term long before the election was called or his candidacy announced. So much for their private claims that although they voted for the 18th Amendment because they were unable to withstand pressures from Rajapakse, they were opposed to the removal of the Presidential term limit and Rajapakse’s attempts to strengthen the Presidency. The LSSP of NM would instead have actively supported Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s National Movement for a Just Society in its efforts to find a Common Candidate committed to abolishing the Executive Presidency.
Given a clear-cut alternative of a Mahinda Rajapakse clinging on to the Executive Presidency and a Maitripala Sirisena campaigning on a programme of opposition to the Executive Presidency, one would have expected the LSSP to have jumped at the opportunity to join the bandwagon to abolish the Executive Presidency, but it did not, apparently afraid of the Big Bad Wolf associated with Maitripala. Perhaps we may have a better idea on the background of the stance of the LSSP once investigations are complete on the fate of the Divi Neguma funds alleged to have been robbed by Basil.
The LSSP of NM was a party of independence and courage, unafraid of Big Bad Wolves, even those in sheep’s clothing, and prepared to confront them on their own turf. However, subservience to years of Rajapakse rule has transformed the party into a parasitic unit, unable to survive without playing a submissive role to more powerful political entities.
What other explanation can be there for its present alignment to the Mahinda Rajapakse camp? The main instrument this camp is using to regain power for Mahinda is the hidden but now well-publicized crass communalism of Mahinda Rajapakse, reinforced by even more extremist positions held by those of the likes of Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Gammanpila. When the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was formed in 2004, the LSSP and the CP deliberately decided against joining it as it did not want to be associated with such elements, preferring to continue with the arrangement of coming to an electoral agreement with it through the SLFP. NM who always stood for a fair solution to the national problem and opposed communalism tooth and nail must be turning in his grave seeing the strange bedfellows his party has been forced to keep to try to bring Mahinda back to power. Political memories are short indeed. Would anybody in his right mind who had experienced the dictatorial power, total disregard of human rights, widespread corruption and family rule that marked Mahinda’s last term as President work towards or even yearn for his return to power?
The 19th Amendment which removed powers of the executive presidency was passed last month. However the struggle against JR’s constitution begun by NM cannot end because the 19th Amendment which was passed by Parliament still retains the basic framework of the JR Constitution. It does not provide a guarantee that a scheming future President cannot move the country back on a dictatorial track. While removing much of the bad effects of the 18th Amendment, the present amendment has not gone far enough to remove the powers of the Executive Presidency to the extent required to prevent the growth of a yet another dictatorship. Sobitha Thero’s dream of abolishing the Executive Presidency is still to be achieved. The galaxy of lawyers represented in the SLFP including the infamous Professor of Law who never once questioned the 18th Amendment or the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice found their collective voices to surmount an attack on several clauses of the original draft to effectively dilute the effect of the amendment on the Executive Presidency. Many of its powers still remain, the Right to Information clauses originally planned have been weakened and the independence of the Constitutional Council and thereby those of the other bodies appointed by it have been deeply compromised by insisting that its membership should have a majority of Parliamentarians.
The struggle to achieve the task which NM felt was necessary to safeguard the rights of the people of Sri Lanka – completely abolishing the Executive Presidency and drafting a new people-friendly constitution – remains ahead. An opportunity will be provided at the next election for the people to rid themselves of the parliamentary scum longing for benefits they have derived and hope to continue to derive by prolonging the powers of the Executive Presidency. The greatest honour the people of Sri Lanka can do NM is to ensure that the JR Constitution and its Executive Presidency will remain only in the history books when NM’s next birthday is due to be celebrated in 2016.
(Prof. Vijaya Kumar is Professor Emeritus of the University of Peradeniya and President of the Lanka Estate Workers’ Union)